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General reverses his decision about deadly Wanat battle

By Mike Mount and Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producers
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • One of officers reprimanded had won Silver Star for actions in battle
  • Sen. Jim Webb criticized general's reversal
  • General was brought in to review how 200 Taliban nearly overran post

Washington (CNN) -- An Army general has changed his mind about punishment for three officers in connection to one of the deadliest Taliban attacks in the Afghan war.

The initial decision to reprimand had been a controversial one because one of the officers punished had also been been awarded a Silver Star for his actions at the same battle which killed 9 US soldiers and left 27 others wounded.

Earlier this year, after several investigations of the July 2008 battle at Wanat, Afghanistan, Gen. Charles Campbell issued letters of reprimand to the top U.S. officer on the scene of the attack and his two superior officers. The letters would effectively end their Army careers.

But late Wednesday, the Army announced that after the officers appealed, Campbell considered their arguments, reversed his decision and withdrew the letters of reprimand.

"My review led me to believe that (the officers) were neither negligent nor derelict in their performance of their duties, exercising a degree of care that a reasonable prudent person would have exercised under the same or similar circumstances," Campbell wrote in his letter to Army Secretary John McHugh. "To criminalize command decisions in a theater of complex combat operations is a grave step indeed."

At least one senator -- Vietnam veteran Jim Webb, D-Virginia -- criticized the reversal of the recommendations.

"This development raises concerns regarding the principle of command accountability in the Army," Webb said.

The battle of Wanat was one of the deadliest firefights of the Afghan war for U.S. troops. A group of about 200 Taliban attacked the outpost near the village in Eastern Afghanistan in July 2008. The U.S. soldiers at the small outpost were outnumbered. But 100 Taliban, half of the attacking force, were killed by US forces.

Capt. Matthew Myer, the highest-ranking U.S. officer at the base at the time of the attack, called in close-air support just ten yards form his position to push back Taliban fighters who had breached the outpost's outer defenses. The official citation for his Silver Star award reads in part. "Captain Myer's gallant direction of the defense of his position and men was decisive to the defeat of the numerically superior attacking force."

But earlier this year, Campbell, who was brought in to review the U.S. Central Command investigation of why the Taliban was able to nearly overrun a U.S. outpost, issued Myer a letter of reprimand for "failing to properly prepare defenses" at Wanat. Two of Myer's senior commanders, Col. Charles Preysler and Lt. Col. William Ostlund, who were not at the base during the attack, received similar letters of reprimand.

Army officials acknowledge the base, built to protect the people in Wanat, was at the bottom of a valley surrounded by high hills, an almost impossible location to defend. All three officers were allowed to appeal Campbell's decision and Wednesday it was announced he changed his mind after meeting the officers face-to-face and reading letters and other materials that had not been included in the earlier reports.

Among the materials reviewed were letters from senior officers in Afghanistan, including Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the second in command in Afghanistan, and Gen. David McKiernan (ret.) McChrystal's predecessor.

The Army, in 2008, released the names of the nine soldiers killed in the Wanat attack:

-- 1st Lt. Jonathan P. Brostrom, 24, of Hawaii

-- Sgt. Israel Garcia, 24, of Long Beach, California

-- Cpl. Jonathan R. Ayers, 24, of Snellville, Georgia

-- Cpl. Jason M. Bogar, 25, of Seattle, Washington

-- Cpl. Jason D. Hovater, 24, of Clinton, Tennessee

-- Cpl. Matthew B. Phillips, 27, of Jasper, Georgia

-- Cpl. Pruitt A. Rainey, 22, of Haw River, North Carolina

-- Cpl. Gunnar W. Zwilling, 20, of Florissant, Missouri

-- Spc. Sergio S. Abad, 21, of Morganfield, Kentucky

In Wednesday's announcement about the Wanat review, the Army chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, said "the courage, valor, and discipline of the soldiers who fought at Wanat have been universally praised.

"These soldiers were well-trained, well-led, and fought bravely to defeat a determined and intense enemy action to overrun their base in Wanat. They persevered in a fashion that deserves broad recognition of their bravery and tenacity," said Casey. "Our hearts go out to the families of the fallen soldiers."