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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Report details ‘friendly fire’ incident that claimed Sprague, Wash., soldier

Poor communications and misunderstandings about equipment led to the death of a soldier from Sprague, Washington, and five others in Afghanistan this summer, when an Air Force jet that was supposed to protect the group instead bombed the ridge where they were trying to fight off insurgents.

Cpl. Justin Clouse, 22, was among the casualties in the friendly fire incident.

The soldiers came under attack after being sent to a remote area to improve security at polling stations for the upcoming Afghan elections. An Air Force report released this week said the crew of the B-1B Lancer thought the muzzle flashes from those soldiers, who had moved to the ridge to defend other members of their unit, were from the attacking insurgents.

The plane dropped two bombs that exploded close to the five Americans and one Afghan soldier on the ridge. None survived.

“While this complex combat situation presented a challenging set of circumstances … this tragic incident was avoidable,” the report signed by Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian concludes.

The soldiers were part of a larger contingent sent to a valley in Zabul province on June 8 to disrupt the insurgents and improve security for the presidential runoff election scheduled for June 14. At dawn on June 9 they began searching for enemy forces and equipment in the valley. Throughout the day, they came under “harassing small arms fire” that stopped when they returned fire, the report says. When the operation concluded that evening, the soldiers were in three different locations waiting to be removed from the valley, and the bomber was orbiting the area on a 5-mile radius to provide air support.

About 7:45 p.m., a group of soldiers at one of the locations came under enemy fire from the west. Commanders in the field notified the bomber’s aircrew, who said they could see what they assumed were the muzzle flashes, pointing west, from the coalition forces. The enemy was about 500 meters away, ground commanders told the bomber crew.

Clouse and five other soldiers climbed from the location under fire to higher ground to outmaneuver the insurgents. The aircrew told commanders on the ground they saw muzzle flashes pointed in a different direction from a ridge about 150 meters from the position they had identified as coalition forces. The ground commander asked if the aircrew detected any of the devices coalition troops use to mark themselves as friendly forces. The aircrew said it didn’t, and a short time later was authorized to bomb the target.

But the ground commanders, who were at a location away from the attack, didn’t know the six soldiers had climbed the ridge to outmaneuver the insurgents. They assumed the bomber had equipment to identify the infrared devices the soldiers were using to mark themselves as friendly forces, the report says, but “the aircraft’s targeting pod was not capable of detecting the marking devices.”

The soldiers on the ridge were much closer to the rest of the main coalition force than ground commanders previously reported to the aircraft, but the aircrew didn’t question that change. At about 8:21 p.m., the bomber dropped two bombs on the ridgeline, killing Clouse, Staff Sgt. Jason McDonald, Staff Sgt. Scott Studenmund, Spec. Justin Helton, Pvt. Aaron Toppen and Afghan Sgt. Gulbuddin Ghulam Sakhi. Their bodies were recovered later that night and the next day, and sent to the United States for identification.

Despite the tragic loss of the six soldiers in the friendly fire incident, the report concluded, the operation did disrupt insurgents and improved security in advance of the runoff elections.

Clouse, described by friends as a “gentle giant” who enlisted in the Army a year after graduating from Sprague High School in 2010, was buried with military honors June 21 after a service at the Life Center Church in Spokane. His parents said at the time of his death that he was to be married next May.