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Video showing deaths of U.S. soldiers in Niger divides commando community

TAMPA — The Islamic State has posted a propaganda video featuring the gruesome scene of an American soldier in the African nation of Niger as he is riddled with bullets during an ambush.

Now, a website run by former commandos is showing excerpts from the video, sparking debate throughout the special operations community in Tampa and nationwide on whether showcasing the ambush — and the deaths of four American soldiers — serves a legitimate purpose.

"We honor these men by watching their last stand, not by turning away; they were true warriors to the end," reads the text that accompanies the video, stripped of ISIS propaganda audio, that appears on the website SOFREP.

But Scott Mann, a retired Green Beret lieutenant colonel living in Riverview, objected to SOFREP’s posting of the video Sunday.

"There is no excuse for this," Mann said. "It was a bad call. I see no value in releasing this."

The 5?½ minute video is taken from a longer version distributed by the Sunni jihadi group. It includes helmet-camera video taken during the Oct. 4, 2017, ambush of a 3rd Special Forces Group patrol in Niger, a landlocked nation in Western Africa.

The video shows the chaos of the ambush as well as the deaths of two of the four soldiers. It ends as one of the soldiers is shot repeatedly at close range.

The identities of the two are not clear. Killed in the ambush were Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Wash.; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; Sgt. La David Johnson of Miami Gardens; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Ga.

"The footage illustrates some hard facts and dispels many myths about the ambush that had not previously been brought to light," SOFREP wrote in its video text. "The attack happened extremely fast, as most ambushes do, and created a chaotic scenario for the men caught in it.

"The video is very hard to watch but serves to educate anyone who does not fully grasp the reality of war, violence and combat."

RELATED CONTENT: Investigation finds deadly Niger mission lacked proper approval

Like Mann, Toni Gross of Oldsmar disagrees with the decision to post the video.

"As a parent of a fallen soldier killed in combat theater, I know that graphic depictions of our fallen abound," said Gross, whose son, Army Cpl. Frank Gross, 25, was killed in Afghanistan July 16, 2011.

Gross said she will not look at the video and did not view her son’s body or photos from his autopsy after he was killed by an improvised explosive device.

"I still do and will forever struggle with images in my mind of my own son’s final moments after the IED blast," she said. "I wanted to remember him as I knew him — a strong, handsome young man proudly serving his nation and who died while doing that."

Another parent of a slain soldier said he hopes some good comes from showcasing the video.

"As a father it would upset me if my son’s video was out there," said Carlos del Castillo, whose son, Army Ranger 1st Lt. Dimitri del Castillo, was 24 when he killed in Afghanistan on June 25, 2011.

"That said, if my son’s video inspired action by our nation to throw more support behind the military then it would okay," said Castillo, a communications executive. "Especially if it helped other sons and daughters to live."

Tim Nye, a retired Army colonel who served as spokesman for MacDill Air Force Base headquartered U.S. Special Operations Command, has a son who serves with the 3rd Special Forces Group and expressed divided sentiments over the video.

"As an American, a former soldier and the father and father-in-law of three service members, I find this video to be disturbing and gut wrenching," said Nye, who lives in Virginia but still works with the Tampa-based Global SOF Foundation. "Generally, I favor transparency as much as possible while protecting sensitive information and people. I think it strengthens bonds between the military and the public when the mission and the sacrifices are understood by all."

Most Americans, Nye said, did not know the U.S. had troops in Niger.

Still, he has some concerns about spreading ISIS propaganda.

"This video, especially the footage of dead Americans, is designed to show ISIS power in the region and gain local support and weaken American resolve. It will fail."

A fan of the SOFREP website, Nye doesn’t fault the operators for their decision.

"I don’t question their patriotism or loyalty to the American warriors they represent," he said. "They made a decision and articulated their position well."

Karla Mastracchio takes issue with the decision. A former analyst for U.S. Central Command and now a strategic communication consultant, Mastracchio, of Tampa, sees harm coming from showcasing the video.

"There is a valid argument that says that the atrocities of war and conflict should be made available to the public," she said. "But circulating videos and images like this one are not only hurtful to the family but it allows extremist groups like ISIS to tell the story on their terms."

The Pentagon, which has concluded its investigation into the ambush, doesn’t want to see the video circulated, either, refusing to confirm its authenticity and asking that news organizations refrain from bringing attention to it.

To do so, the Defense Department said in a news release, "re-victimizes the affected families, amplifies IS atrocities and aids in their recruiting."

"The release of these materials," the release says, "demonstrates the depravity of the enemy we are fighting."

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

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