The Defense Department did not identify the fourth soldier, who was a mechanic, according to two military officials. Before the announcement of that soldier’s death, the Pentagon identified three of the men who died in Wednesday’s ambush: Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright.
Sergeant Black, 35, was from a city near Seattle; Sergeant Johnson, 39, listed his hometown as a suburb of Cincinnati; and Sergeant Wright, 29, was a native of rural Georgia.
Now, they are knitted together as the first American troops to die in combat as part of the United States’ broadening counterterrorism mission in Niger, a largely desert nation in northwestern Africa almost three times the size of California.
After years of missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 3rd Special Forces Group, the unit to which the men were assigned, announced that it was returning its focus to Africa in 2015. The decision came as the United States is relying increasingly on small groups of Special Forces soldiers who, in turn, have borne a disproportionate brunt of casualties. This year, the elite forces have accounted for nearly half of all Army combat deaths.
Pentagon officials expressed shock at the deaths in Niger during what commanders had initially said was a routine reconnaissance mission. The American team leaders told their superiors in seeking approval for the mission that there was a “low risk” of hostile activity in the region close to the border between Niger and Mali.
That assessment has come under close scrutiny because that border region has been recently destabilized by cross-border jihadist attacks on the Nigerien Army and refugee camps by fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Qaeda branch in North Africa. In mid-June, the Nigerien Army mounted an operation in this same northern Tillaberi region to take on the jihadists.
The mission brought together soldiers from across the country. Sergeant Black was a native of Puyallup, Wash., and graduated from Puyallup High School in 2000. He enlisted in the Army in October 2009 and served as a Special Forces medical sergeant.
Sergeant Johnson, who listed his hometown as Springboro, Ohio, and enlisted in the Army in 2007, was a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist.
The family of Sergeant Black could not be reached on Friday, and Sergeant Johnson’s declined to comment. But in Lyons, Ga., the rural town where Sergeant Wright had once been a tight end and defensive end on the high school football team, relatives were trying to process their grief after an ambush so far away.
Sergeant Wright, one of four sons, had enlisted in the Army in 2012, following his parents and his older brother, who were also in the military.
“Dustin had a very strong desire to serve his country and to serve others,” an aunt, Ginger Russell, said. “I think he would have joined the military regardless of whether he had a family connection or not.”
He had a reputation as a fun-loving jokester who was close to his family, quick to make friends and, Ms. Russell noted, thought he could dance better than he did. Smitten by a young woman he had met at a country music festival in South Carolina, Sergeant Wright had begun to imagine life after his deployment, his family said.
Before he left for Africa this summer, his grandmother recalled, he had slid onto a couch beside her, took her hand and told her he loved her. Then, as the two huddled at a going-away party, he said he had met the woman he wanted to marry once he returned home.
“‘This is the girl for me, Granny,’” Sergeant Wright’s grandmother, Elaine Trull, remembered him saying. “‘You’ll like her.’”
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