The Pentagon said last week that an inquiry into the four soldiers’ deaths would not be completed until January at the earliest.
No one has been charged in Sergeant Melgar’s death, which a military medical examiner ruled “a homicide by asphyxiation,” or strangulation.
According to a preliminary report by the Army Criminal Investigation Command dated Sept. 15, the two Navy commandos said they were wrestling with Sergeant Melgar and found him “unresponsive” after getting off him. One of the commandos later told a witness that he had “choked” Sergeant Melgar “out,” and that he and the other Navy commando were out “to get back” at the sergeant for a perceived slight, according to the document, which was first reported by NBC News.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service took over the case in late September from Army criminal authorities after the status of the two Navy commandos was changed from “witnesses” to “persons of interest,” meaning officials were trying to determine what the commandos knew about the death and whether they were involved.
The Navy SEALs’ potential role threatens to tarnish SEAL Team 6, the famed counterterrorism unit that carried out the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Until now, the biggest unanswered question in the case has been why Sergeant Melgar was killed. But new clues are emerging on that front.
An American service member who knew Sergeant Melgar said he was under the impression that the sergeant had stumbled on some sort of money-skimming scheme involving the Navy commandos. A retired senior enlisted sailor who served in SEAL Team 6 said Sergeant Melgar discovered the scheme and threatened to report the Navy commandos to the authorities. Sergeant Melgar’s suspicions were first reported in the Daily Beast.
Both people spoke on the condition of anonymity because the sergeant’s death remains under investigation. A spokesman for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Ed Buice, declined to comment on the homicide investigation.
Special Operations troops from a range of units can earn qualifications that let them recruit sources for intelligence and pay them. These individuals may handle payments from small cash bags up to storage lockers filled with currency.
Cash from funds to pay informants has a way of going missing, military officials said. Skimming money from funds, which in Mali could be as much as $20,000 at any given time, is relatively easy because the service members are often dealing with sources who are illiterate and cannot sign their names to a receipt. This allows an unscrupulous person to create a bogus receipt with the equivalent of an “X” for a signature, military officials said.
One of the first missions to draw broad public attention to the secretive Navy SEAL Team 6 unit was its dramatic rescue in April 2009 of Capt. Richard Phillips after Somali pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama cargo ship. Snipers from the unit’s Red Squadron shot and killed three of the pirates in a small rescue boat.
The criminal complaint against the surviving pirate, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, describes how Captain Phillips gave roughly $30,000 in cash from the safe aboard the Maersk to the pirates, money that soon disappeared. Captain Phillips later recalled leaning against a sack with the money inside on the lifeboat. When Navy personnel searched the lifeboat, all they found were guns, ammunition, cellphones and radios. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service gave the SEALs polygraph tests about the missing money but could never prove where the $30,000 had gone, and the case was closed. No SEAL from that mission is involved in the Mali case.
Much is unknown about what happened around 5 a.m. on June 4 in the house that Sergeant Melgar shared with another Army Green Beret and the two Navy commandos.
The SEALs were in the country on a clandestine mission to support French and Malian counterterrorism forces battling Al Qaeda’s branch in North and West Africa, known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as smaller cells aligned with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. The Americans helped provide intelligence for missions, and had participated in at least two such operations in Mali this year before Sergeant Melgar’s death. Over all, about two dozen American troops operate in Mali at any given time, mostly to help on training and counterterrorism missions.
SEAL Team 6, formally known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, has over the past decade carried out kill-or-capture missions in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, as well as the one that killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.
According to the preliminary Army report, one of the SEALs put Sergeant Melgar in a chokehold. When the sergeant passed out, the commandos frantically tried to revive him — going so far as to perform CPR and a field-expedient emergency tracheotomy on Sergeant Melgar. Failing that, they rushed him to an emergency clinic, where he was pronounced dead.
The service member who knew Sergeant Melgar said that the sergeant’s chain of command immediately grew suspicious when the initial incident reports said the death was the result of a drunken accident. His friends and superiors knew Sergeant Melgar did not drink.
The SEAL commando who said he put Sergeant Melgar in a chokehold is Petty Officer First Class Tony E. DeDolph, a former professional mixed martial arts fighter, according to the Army document. His identity was reported by The Intercept.
Petty Officer DeDolph and the second Navy commando, Chief Petty Officer Adam C. Matthews, were flown out of Mali shortly after Sergeant Melgar’s death and were placed on administrative leave at the unit’s headquarters in Dam Neck, Va.
According to the Army report, a witness told investigators that Petty Officer DeDolph and Chief Matthews were upset with Sergeant Melgar “after they felt he intentionally tried to evade them while he was driving to a party.” The witness said Petty Officer DeDolph indicated that the two commandos had used duct tape on Sergeant Melgar but deliberately did not tell investigators that detail for fear it would be considered hazing.
Sergeant Melgar, a graduate of Texas Tech University who joined the Army in 2012, was assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., the same unit whose soldiers were attacked by a much larger and heavily armed group of Islamic State fighters near the border between Niger and Mali on Oct. 4.
Sergeant Melgar, a native of Lubbock, Tex., was about four months into what military officials said was a six-month tour in Mali. He was part of a small crisis-response team in Bamako assigned to help provide intelligence about Islamic militants in Mali to the United States Embassy to help protect its personnel against attacks. The sergeant also helped assess which Malian Army troops might be trained and equipped to build a counterterrorism force.
“The distinguished accomplishments of Staff Sergeant Logan Melgar’s are in keeping with the highest honors and traditions of military service,” read the citation with a Defense Meritorious Service Medal awarded to him posthumously.
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