A weekend of violence and betrayal in Afghanistan hit home in South Sound with Wednesday’s announcement by the Pentagon that three Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers died at the hands of an Afghan ally at a remote outpost near the Pakistan border.
Sunday’s deaths were the first reported fatal casualties involving Afghan service members turning their weapons on Lewis-McChord soldiers this year. As of Wednesday, 51 Western service members had been reported killed in Afghanistan in 2012 by men wearing the uniforms of the Afghan army or Afghan police, according to an Associated Press tally.
The three victims from the base were among four American soldiers killed at a joint American-Afghan checkpoint in the rural Mizan district of Zabul province. Six Western solders were killed in insider attacks over the weekend, and U.S. forces have since suspended most joint patrols with Afghan security forces.
The three Lewis-McChord soldiers were assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. They are:
• Sgt. Sapuro B. Nena, 25, of Honolulu, from the brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment. Nena joined the Army in 2008 and deployed to Iraq in 2009-10. He arrived at Lewis-McChord in August 2010 and deployed to Afghanistan in December.
The Pacific News Center on Wednesday said Nena’s wife left her home in Guam to meet his remains at Dover Air Force Base. Guam’s governor issued a news release praising Nena’s service.
• Pfc. Genaro Bedoy, 20, of Amarillo, Texas, from the 52nd Infantry Regiment. Bedoy’s regiment has one company attached to 3rd Brigade and other small units stationed at different bases.
He joined the Army in November 2010 and arrived at Lewis-McChord the following March.
The Amarillo Globe-News reported that Bedoy is survived by his wife and infant child.
“He died as a hero,” his cousin, David Gonzalez, told the newspaper. “We’re all going to miss him. We loved him.”
• Pfc. Jon R. Townsend, 19, of Claremore, Okla., from the brigade’s 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. Townsend joined the Army in May 2011 and arrived at Lewis-McChord last October. He is survived by his wife, Brittany Taylor Carden.
His high school principal said Townsend was determined to join the Army.
“Jon made up his mind that he was going to go to the service, so he spent all year getting ready,” Steve Johnson told the Tulsa World. “He really believed in the cause and wanted to be a soldier.”
• The fourth soldier was Spc. Joshua N. Nelson, 22, of Greenville, N.C., from the 513th Military Intelligence Brigade out of Fort Gordon, Ga.
The Defense Department said the soldiers were killed by enemy small arms fire during an attack. A NATO spokesman last weekend said the soldiers were killed in an insider attack, but the circumstances were not clear.
Zabul’s deputy police chief, Ghulam Jilani Farahi, told reporters the attacker was an Afghan police officer who was shot to death by American soldiers after he opened fire.
Another report from Stars and Stripes said the shooting took place at an observation tower near Combat Outpost Mizan. The military newspaper said a team of American soldiers responded to a shooting in the tower and found four dead U.S. service members, one dead Afghan policeman and two wounded American soldiers.
Stars and Stripes said five other Afghan policemen fled the tower. U.S. sources in Zabul province on Sunday could not tell Stars and Stripes whether the fleeing policemen had participated in the attack.
Insider attacks strike at the heart of NATO’s strategy to improve Afghan security forces before withdrawing most Western troops by 2014. Pentagon studies provided to congressional lawmakers show that the majority of the attacks result from personal and cultural disputes. Others rely on Taliban infiltrators among Afghan security forces.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey on Wednesday defended the Pentagon’s decision to halt most joint operations, saying NATO and Afghan leaders need time to assess what’s happening on the ground. He linked the recent attacks to unrest in many Muslim nations following the release of a short movie by a California filmmaker mocking the Prophet Mohammed.
“They’re tactical changes in response to a changing threat,” Dempsey said, but added that “they’re in no way an indication that we’ve changed our campaign objectives.”
The part of southern Afghanistan where three Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers were killed Sunday is the same area that two News Tribune journalists visited last March during the week soldiers from a local Stryker brigade were taking control.
At the time, about 40 Lewis-McChord soldiers in Mizan district of Zabul province were preparing for a summer assignment: to provide security for high-ranking U.S. security advisers who would work in close quarters with Afghan service members.
In the spring, soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division generally spoke warmly about the Afghan army unit in Mizan. But they had concerns about the Afghan local police, which the Americans regarded as less professional than the Afghan army.
All of the Americans’ missions were joint patrols with Afghan soldiers or police. By then, U.S. soldiers were already taking steps to protect themselves from insider attacks by making sure they had loaded weapons in all interactions with Afghans.
If courtesy prevented an American officer or senior noncommissioned officer from carrying a loaded weapon in conversation with Afghan counterparts, an American “guardian angel” with a rifle would keep an eye on the meeting.
American officers last spring considered Mizan a ripe district to hand over to full Afghan control. Its local Afghan army unit had been successful in carrying out independent missions.
“The (Afghan army) will stay and fight, “Maj. Dave Polizzotti, the executive officer of a Lewis-McChord cavalry squadron, told a News Tribune reporter in March. “These guys have a sense of duty, a sense of purpose.”
U.S. soldiers mostly lived in Combat Outpost Mizan, which housed about 60 soldiers. The outpost was connected to an Afghan army compound on one side and an Afghan police headquarters on the other.
Lewis-McChord has a heavy footprint in Afghanistan this year. It had about 10,000 soldiers there at the peak this summer. Twenty-seven Lewis-McChord soldiers have died there in 2012, with the 3rd Brigade accounting for 14 of those.
The Stryker brigade deployed in two waves, with one group hitting the ground in December and a second in March.
Lewis-McChord remembers earlier fatalities. Page A3adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com 253-597-8646 blog.thenewstribune.com/military