PERU — The wife of a Maine soldier killed by an Afghan police officer earlier this week said he had misgivings about training and arming Afghans.
Chelsea McLain of Peru, Maine, said Pvt. Buddy McLain expressed his concern a week before his death. She said he told her he was going on a dangerous mission. She told the Lewiston Sun Journal, “He didn’t think it was right to train these people and give them guns.”
Buddy McLain was a cavalry scout with the 101st Airborne Division. He deployed from Fort Campbell, Ky., on Aug. 24, 2010, which was his son Owen’s first birthday.
A lone gunman from the Afghan Border Police shot and killed five members of the 101st Airborne Division, then turned and killed a sixth before being felled by American soldiers, the division’s commanding general said Thursday.
The soldiers were working with several Afghan units at an observation post in Nangahar province in Afghanistan on Sunday when the policeman fired on them, Maj. Gen. John Campbell said during a video teleconference with reporters at Fort Campbell, Ky.
The cause of the shooting remains under investigation by American and Afghan authorities and has prompted a review by both countries of how units are partnered and candidates for duty screened, Campbell said.
“The whole thing was maybe 5 or 10 seconds in duration,” Campbell said. “Ten or 15 seconds, the whole thing was over.”
In light of Chelsea McLain’s comments, U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe sent a letter to Army Secretary John McHugh on Thursday urging a full investigation of the circumstances surrounding McLain’s death.
“I am deeply troubled by these reports and urge the Army to conduct a full, thorough and prompt investigation and provide the McLain family with any and all information they request regarding the circumstances of their loved one’s death,” said Snowe, R-Maine. “My thoughts and prayers are with the McLain family during this difficult time and I will be closely monitoring this situation to ensure their concerns are addressed without delay,” Snowe said.
Snowe also requested the Army specify how NATO partners have acted to eliminate the likelihood of future attacks by Afghan soldiers on U.S. troops and immediately review all programs used to train Afghan soldiers and police officers, including the processes used to select, vet, train and arm such personnel and take steps to substantially increase the protection of U.S. service members against such threats.
The attack, the deadliest of its kind in at least two years, rocked the sprawling military post on the Kentucky-Tennessee border as soldiers from the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade prepared to deploy from the post Thursday to Afghanistan.
Maj. Gen. Francis Wiercinski, the senior commander at Fort Campbell, said the soldiers were aware of the deaths, but were prepared to deploy anyway. Wiercinski was scheduled to speak to soldiers from the 159th before they left.
“That is a humbling experience with a tragedy like this,” Wiercinski said.
The bodies of the soldiers were returned Wednesday night to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
The Pentagon has identified them as Sgt. Barry E. Jarvis, 36, of Tell City, Ind.; Pfc. Jacob A. Gassen, 21, of Beaver Dam, Wis.; Spec. Matthew W. Ramsey, 20, of Quartz Hill, Calif.; Pvt. Austin G. Staggs, 19, of Senoia, Ga., and Staff Sgt. Curtis A. Oakes, 29, of Athens, Ohio; and McLain, 24.
Wiercinski said the post will do what it can to comfort the families, including five surviving wives and eight children left behind.
“It’s emotional, but it’s critical,” Wiercinski said. “We’re an all-volunteer force. Like I said before, you’ve got to be humbled by that.”
The six soldiers killed were working with the Afghan National Army and border police south of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. Campbell said the soldiers were observing artillery fire at an observation post manned by the Afghan army and making adjustments to outgoing artillery fire when the shooting happened.
The American soldiers had gone a few yards down a ridge from the Afghan Border Police officer before the shooting.
“This particular gunman was behind them,” Campbell said.
The border policeman opened fire, “immediately” killing five U.S. soldiers, then turning and killing another soldier, Campbell said. Two U.S. soldiers then shot the Afghan gunman, killing him, Campbell said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying the officer had enlisted as a sleeper agent to have an opportunity to kill foreigners.
“I don’t know how much truth that there is to that,” Campbell said.
The gunman had been with the border police for about three years and accompanying Americans for three or four months, Campbell said. The gunman, whose identity was not given, had been sponsored by village elders and screened before being allowed to join, Campbell said.
The shooting underscored one of the risks in a U.S.-led program to train enough recruits to turn over the lead for security to Afghan forces by 2014.
Attacks on NATO troops by Afghan policemen or soldiers, although still rare, have increased as the coalition has accelerated the program. Other problems with the rapidly growing security forces include drug use, widespread illiteracy and high rates of attrition.
Campbell said for the U.S. mission to work, American soldiers must continue to partner with Afghans. Without the partnership and accompanying training, the Afghans will not improve enough to allow American forces to leave, Campbell said.
“What we can’t do is have guys looking behind their backs, wondering if someone is going to shoot them,” Campbell said. “At the tactical level, this is going to be very, very tough for our young soldiers.”
This is the deadliest year of the 9-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, with more than 450 U.S. troops killed. More than 1,300 U.S. forces have died there since the war began in 2001, a majority of them in the past two years as fighting has intensified and President Barack Obama ordered more than 30,000 reinforcements, bringing the troop commitment to a high of 100,000 soldiers.
Obama plans to begin withdrawing soldiers in July, with an eventual transfer of security control to the Afghan forces now being recruited and trained under U.S. and NATO supervision.