Puyallup is making good on its promise to remember Army Sgt. Bryan Black, the supremely brave, multi-talented and beloved local son who died at the hands of Islamic State militants during an ambush in Niger five months ago.
A pair of sturdy chess tables and benches will be installed in Pioneer Park this summer, a memorial to the 35-year-old Green Beret medic who graduated from Puyallup High in 2000. A self-taught player, Black led the Vikings chess team to a state championship in 1999.
The chess tables — funded with $7,500 pledged by several donors well ahead of a March 1 deadline — are a fitting gesture from a community with a strong tradition of honoring its service members, both living and dead.
The U.S. government has its own promise to fulfill to Black and three Special Forces comrades who were overrun and killed by ISIS fighters on Oct. 4. It owes their families a thorough accounting of the secret mission that went wrong in the Niger desert scrub, a remote patch of West Africa where most Americans (including members of Congress) didn’t even know we were fighting.
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The Defense Department also owes the survivors of these fallen heroes remuneration for serving in a hostile zone — what’s known as imminent-danger pay — which covers countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Kenya but inexplicably excludes Niger. A top military commander told Congress Tuesday the request was made but is stuck at the White House.
The extra pay, while only $225 a month, provides a modicum of recognition for the costly sacrifices rendered in America’s sprawling war on terror.
It’s unacceptable that the checks haven’t been cut, but it’s another sign of how our military’s reach may be exceeding its grasp as it tries to play whack-a-mole with ISIS cells emerging all over the world.
Last month, The New York Times published a harrowing account of the diverted ground patrol and bloody firefight that killed Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson and Sgt. La David T. Johnson. (The News Tribune republished it Feb. 25.) The story underscores how U.S. troops are pulling dangerous duty outside their purported “train, advise and assist” roles, and how counterterrorism operations are quietly expanding into places that seldom make the news.
It’s an impactful story for the South Sound, given the number of JBLM special operators carrying out life-and-death orders on farflung frontiers.
“This is an endless war without boundaries, no limitation on time or geography,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Times reporters. Despite being a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Graham said he didn’t know about the force buildup in Niger, which hosts 800 U.S. personnel now compared to 100 in 2013.
A monthslong military investigation of the ill-fated Niger operation is complete but hasn’t been released. The House Armed Services Committee took testimony Tuesday, but there was little illumination about the strategic reasons for the mission or who ordered it.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, is the ranking member of the committee and has raised concerns about increasingly aggressive military operations in countries where there’s little public knowledge or oversight by elected leaders.
Smith and his colleagues must push vigorously for answers on behalf of families including the Blacks, communities such as Puyallup and taxpayers like us all.
We need a clearer picture not just of this tragic incident, but of the seemingly boundless chess board on which U.S. military policy is playing out.