Michelle Black remembers October 4, 2017, with haunting attention to detail: the peculiar humming of uncertainty, the hours of not knowing, the knock from Army Chaplains at the door, the collapse into a pool of tears and loneliness at being far from family – a reality for many military spouses.
Michelle had wandered around with a blunt tremor in her stomach for days prior, praying that everything would be okay. A family member called to ask if she had heard news reports about an incident involving U.S. soldiers in Niger. She knew right away that her husband and father of their two young sons, Green Beret Staff Sergeant Bryan C. Black, was gone.
But that would not be the last gut-punch Michelle would be dealt in the following minutes, months, and years.
“They (U.S. officials) lied to us throughout everything, from the actions on the ground during the actual ambush of what left the men dead,” Michelle tells me, her voice cracking with emotion. “And they continue just to sweep it under the rug.”
Bryan was one of the four U.S. soldiers – alongside Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, Sergeant La David Johnson, and Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright as well as four Niger soldiers and an interpreter – killed in a terrorist ambush in the West African nation almost five years ago. In the vicinity of Tongo Tongo, a small town in Niger near the Malian border, the soldiers left a community meeting with several Nigerian associates carrying only limited weaponry and driving in standard pickup trucks when a band of rebels affiliated with the regional branch of ISIS called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) started firing.
It was the greatest loss of American military life on the African continent since 1993’s “Black Hawk Down” fiasco in Somalia, in which 18 Americans perished, exactly 24 years earlier.
The Niger tragedy sparked intense political turmoil in the U.S. about endless wars and the American footprint, with prominent lawmakers revealing they were unaware of the U.S.’s 1,000 troops stationed in Niger.
It appears Michelle’s search for answers to what happened in her husband’s last moments and why the men were on such a dangerous mission in hostile terrain was stymied by a meticulous coverup. It was these months that followed the firestorm that continue to cut the Gold Star wife most acutely.
After a six-month probe, the Department of Defense (DoD) concluded in its report (with redacted portions) that the 11 person Army team had made crucial blunders in mission planning and execution, underscoring that “no single failure or deficiency was the sole reason for the events of October 4, 2017” and that the American personnel were “killed by small arms fire while actively engaging the enemy.”
Officials stated that the problems weren’t with AFRICOM nor the chain of command presiding over the operation that saw the soldiers with inadequate support and drastically outnumbered by combatants, but that the missteps were decisions made by the now dead servicemen. Further, the Pentagon briefing to the public emphasized that the soldiers’ actions were “not indicative” of the “fantastic job” of U.S. Special Operations in the region.
Nonetheless, a subsequent ABC News investigation unearthed a markedly different version of events, highlighting that the convoy of U.S. and Niger forces had little choice but to pull off near Tongo Tongo to re-supply and collect water ahead of a long expedition back to base. The stop led to a spontaneous meeting with local villagers. It was determined that an elder seemingly extended the gathering for roughly half an hour as a ruse to give time for enemy fighters to set up the ambush that would later cost the men their lives.
Pentagon officials asserted that the team was outnumbered three to one, although later findings contend that the figure was more likely ten to one. However, this was far from the only significant divide between the proclamations of the top brass and what the public – including the grieving Gold Star families – were told.
“What we were told happened inside the briefing compared to what I was told by (those) on the ground didn’t match up,” Michelle continues. “Once I talked to the men and heard their version, it seemed very different from the (official) account.”
She raised questions over why the danger level was not more conspicuous and why better precautions had not been implemented, getting answers that felt vague at best.
“I was hearing all these things about this team was not indicative of what Special Operators on the continent were doing. But they were not this rogue team that made all the wrong moves,” Michelle underscores. “My husband was a very black-and-white person; he would not have gone against the leadership.”
While still in the throes of mourning – she refused to idle by and allow her husband’s name to be dragged through the dirt without some due process, at least in the court of public opinion. Last year, Michelle released the memoir/investigation “Sacrifice, The Green Berets, A Fateful Ambush, and a Gold Star Widow’s Fight for The Truth” – the result of years of relentless research, interviews with survivors, and a dogged determination to unravel the truth.
The Pentagon had framed the narrative months later that the men on the mission had “gone rogue.” Michelle Black’s goal was to dispel this narrative.
Subsequently, her account is strikingly different from the DoD’s, hinting at a jarring coverup or, at the very least, crossed communication on many levels. She brings to the forefront critical questions about the exact purpose of the deadly mission, why troops belonging to the world’s most sophisticated military were moving in unarmored vehicles, and what went down behind the scenes in the fallout.
“Probably the biggest thing that bothered me was they (investigators) focused on a report stating that the team captain had misled higher authorities,” Michelle laments. “But when I sat with investigators, they basically blew me off. They wouldn’t answer any detailed questions.”
She also casts an uncomfortable flare on the notion that the men were sent out into the dusty tracks unprepared, with no tangible assets other than a drone, which was running out of power – something else she says authorities failed to truthfully acknowledge after the fact.
“They (investigators) were just dishonest the entire time, including outright lie,” Michelle continues calmly and methodically.
Five years later, the softly spoken widow is still left with a sizeable mental file of unanswered answers. It’s the kind of pain that is hard for someone outside to process. Michelle appears to be the absolute pillar of strength – tending to her two sons, now 14 and 16 years old, one of whom is autistic – but it is evident that there is profound loneliness to losing someone you loved so deeply. It’s a void that can never be filled, made all the more searing not only by the gloom of war but a calculated suppression of information.
It is something Michelle never wants another military spouse or relative to ever endure. Thus, she is in the preliminary phases of rolling out a non-profit tailored toward a broader push for military accountability and upending what she sees as a predominantly horizontal investigative process. From her purview, it all comes down to the basic notion that families of the fallen deserve to be respected and not misled nor scapegoated by government authorities holding on to power and career-climbing trajectories.
“We will advocate for changes supporting military personnel and their families,” Michelle says. “We are working on changing how investigations are done so that commands cannot just investigate themselves. AFRICOM basically investigated themselves, so no fault was found on their part.”
Additionally, she hopes to create a space where individuals can speak out with support.
“Because you have enlisted personnel who feel that if they speak up, that punishment could come down on them, and they could lose their jobs,” Michelle notes. “And you have officers connected to extremely high levels, who have this sense that nothing will change no matter what they do.”
Michelle acknowledges that coverups are the exception, not the norm but date back decades.
“I’ve been surprised by people I have met, all the way back from Vietnam to the current wars telling me they have (experienced) this and hope that something will change one day,” she conjectures. “There are good leaders out there, and the military is full of good things. But unfortunately, there are always a few individuals who ruin it, and we need to find better ways to hold those individuals accountable.”
Michelle pauses for a moment, emphasizing that nothing will bring Bryan back – but at the very least, she wants to be a vessel for greater transparency, for a better future for military families.
Nevertheless, the enormity of everything she has lived through comes to bear in the quiet moments when the children have gone to sleep, and the work calls have ended. Michelle finds some semblance of solace in her unwavering Christian faith and in holding on to her husband’s memory. That is always the challenge that comes with grief and the passage of time – the human necessity to both remember and let go simultaneously.
Michelle remembers her last call with Bryan. He was busy pushing papers and insisted the deployment was not dangerous. If only she knew it would be his last night on earth.
“He wanted to know how my day was, so I talked nonstop. And then he had to go,” she recalls, her voice dropping. “He told me he loved me and would call me soon.”
A young college graduate, Michelle met the love of her life on the ski slopes of Mammoth Lakes in 2003. They married two years later. The duo started a family, moved from place to place, and started to plan a more stable life. Bryan was getting ready to hang up his well-dredged combat boots. He was proficient in multiple languages, Michelle tells me whimsically, and had already developed a stock market trading algorithm in its early testing phase when he departed for Africa.
“He never wasted a second of his life,” she continues.
Michelle takes a long, ragged breath.
“Bryan was a Renaissance man. He was extremely intelligent, a chess champion at just eleven years old. He was very disciplined and constantly studying and brushing up on medical techniques, teaching himself a new language, or learning a new skill from carpentry to roasting coffee beans, to you name it,” she adds with a gentle laugh. “I don’t know how the guy ever slept; he put so much into each day. Bryan was incredible.”