WASHINGTON D.C. – Congress has launched an investigation of the helicopter crash that killed 30 Americans in Afghanistan, including members of the Navyâ€™s elite SEAL Team 6 unit.
The victimsâ€™ families say the Pentagon hasnâ€™t provided answers to their many questions about the deadly attack, which took place on Aug. 6, 2011, three months after Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by Team 6 forces.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on National Security, said, â€œWeâ€™re going to dive into this.â€
Chaffetz said he met with the victimsâ€™ families about a month ago in what he described as an â€œemotionalâ€ gathering. He is poised to send questions to the Pentagon and may hold hearings on the matter.
Charlie Strange, whose son Michael was among those killed, said he asked President Obama two years ago at Dover Air Force Base to fully investigate. The death toll in the crash was the largest of any single incident for the U.S. military during the Afghanistan war.
Obama praised Michaelâ€™s service to Strange, who responded, â€œI donâ€™t need to know about my son. I need to know what happened to my son.â€
The president promised he would investigate, Strange said, but he never heard back from the White House. The Pentagon, meanwhile, has provided him and others with incomplete and contradictory information, he said.
Administration leaks that emerged after the bin Laden raid prompted members of Team 6 to worry about their safety.Â
For example, Michael Strange told his father he was working on a will before he returned to Afghanistan in the summer of 2011, his father said.
Documents provided to the families indicate that the Pentagon doesnâ€™t believe the SEALs were targeted in the wake of the bin Laden operation on May 1, 2011.
In a transcript, a Department of Defense official disputed claims that there was an â€œestablished ambush.â€ The official states, â€œit was a lucky shot of a low-level fighter that happened to be living [in the area]. He heard all the activity and he happened to be in the right spot.â€
Â Yet, Strange says insurgents were boasting on the Internet they had taken out Team 6 shortly after the helicopter crashed.
Shortly before the CH-47 Chinook helicopter took off on a rescue mission (operation Extortion 17), seven Afghan commandos who were on the passenger list were replaced by other Afghan military officials.
It remains unclear why the manifest was incorrect, raising red flags among the victimsâ€™ families. They have noted that their sons didnâ€™t trust Afghan soldiers. One was quoted as saying, â€œThey are loyal to the highest bidder.â€
In the transcript related to the Pentagonâ€™s probe, a Defense official confirmed that all seven names of the Afghan soldiers were incorrect.Â
The official said, â€œI cannot talk to the back story of whyâ€¦â€ before being interrupted by another Department of Defence employee.
The Chinook was shot down by Afghan militants, and all 38 on board perished. Â Among the dead were 30 Americans, including 22 Navy SEALS, seven Afghan soldiers and one Afghan translator. Their bodies were later recovered, but the helicopterâ€™s black box was not. Pentagon officials have said that it could not be recovered, citing a flash flood that happened soon after the assault.
All the bodies were cremated. The Pentagon has defended the cremation to the soldiersâ€™ families, saying the bodies were badly burned.
Chaffetz, however, said he has seen a photo of a deceased SEAL that was not.
â€œThe body I saw didnâ€™t need to be cremated,â€ Chaffetz said, adding that the Department of Defenseâ€™s explanation of its failure to find the helicopterâ€™s black box seems â€œawfully odd.â€
The Utah congressman said the families deserve answers: â€œThatâ€™s why you do an investigation. I want to be as factual as I can.â€
Two soldiers from Chaffetzâ€™s district were killed in the attack.
Strange said he has visited Capitol Hill to discuss the issue with several members, including his own congressman, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.).Â
He has also met with Chaffetz and Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
Some of the victimsâ€™ families are being represented by Freedom Watch, which is headed by Larry Klayman.
â€œThis is a scandal even greater than Benghazi,â€ Klayman said. â€œThere we lost four valued American lives; here we sacrificed 30 American soldiers. The big question is â€˜were these brave Americans sold out by the Afghani government as payment to the Taliban for the death of bin Ladenâ€™?â€
Klayman, Strange and others have questioned why so many special ops were on one aircraft that they claim was not equipped for such a dangerous mission. They also want to know why members of Team 6 werenâ€™t looked after just months after the bin Laden operation.
Strange said, â€œThere was no eye in the sky tracking [the Chinook]. Why not?â€
Klayman said, â€œThe tragedy of Extortion 17 is a tragedy for all Americans. When we do not protect our brave fighting men and women, we put their lives in harmâ€™s wayâ€¦â€
It is unclear how many of the 22 SEALS who died that summer were part of the bin Laden operation in Pakistan. One source said there were at least a couple who were involved in both.
Chaffetz says he is looking into how the Pentagon handled the situation post-attack.
During a ceremony at Bagram Air Base for the 38 killed, the deceased Afghan soldiers were loaded onto planes with the bodies of the U.S. forces. An imam spoke an Islamic prayer that included language on U.S. soldiers burning in hell.
The families later used translators to find out what the imam had said.
Chaffetz called those series of events â€œinappropriate.â€
â€œMy son Michael died,â€ Strange said. â€œI want to know, who made these calls?â€
He is confident Chaffetz, Fitzpatrick and Issa will find out: â€œI know they are going to get answers.â€
A Pentagon spokesman declined to answer detailed questions but said â€œthe operational planning and execution of this mission was consistent with previous missionsâ€ and â€œwas thoroughly investigated â€¦ we share in the grief of all of the families who lost their loved ones. The loss of 38 U.S. and Afghan military personnel was a tragic loss during a difficult campaign.â€