Army Lt. Col. Steve Boesen, left, and Air Force Lt. Col. Marchal Magee, right, greet Navy Vice Adm. Robert S. Harward, upon Harward's arrival in Paktia province, Afghanistan, Jan. 12, 2011. An Osprey Harward was riding in was targeted by escaped detainees in Helmand province in August. (Sgt. John P Sklaney III, U.S. Army)
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Two detainees escaped from a detention facility on a Marine base in Afghanistan, then used a grenade launcher to target an MV-22 Osprey about to take off with a three-star Navy SEAL on board, Marine Corps Times has learned.
Vice Adm. Robert Harward was in the Osprey on base Aug. 7 after visiting the headquarters of 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province. He heads Joint Task Force 435, which oversees detainee operations in Afghanistan, and has been nominated to replace Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen as the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command. Allen is expected to become the top commander in Afghanistan this fall.
The details are outlined in an investigation report obtained by Marine Corps Times through the Freedom of Information Act. Marine officials in Afghanistan said last summer that two Marines and a contractor were shot to death by a detainee who escaped from an Afghan-run detention center. However, it was not disclosed that a detainee had taken aim at the landing zone with a grenade launcher, or that Harward was on base when the detainees escaped.
As the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Mike Manning, and other Marine officers were seeing Harward and his staff off, the detainees escaped from their jail cell, which was guarded by Afghan National Police within 100 yards of the base's LZ.
The detainees stole an AK47 assault rifle and an RPG launcher from the five-cell jail, and were aiming the launcher at the LZ while the Osprey prepared to take off, the Corps' investigation found. It was close enough for its engines to be easily heard from the detention facility.
"The persons leaving the DETFAC and heading in the direction of the LZ were within range to target the MV-22 Osprey preparing to depart the LZ," said the report, compiled by 1st Marine Division (Forward), which oversaw Marine ground forces in Afghanistan at the time. "It is unlikely they knew of the VIP cargo, but likely they knew the helicopter was in the LZ."
The details mean an already tragic day could have been even worse. The Osprey left without further incident, but Lance Cpl. Kevin Cornelius, 20; Pfc. Vincent Gammone, 19; and contractor Ken McGonigle, 51, were killed while engaging one of the detainees in a subsequent firefight. Three detainees also were killed, and four Marines were injured in the melee.
McGonigle was a retired Irish police officer serving as a consultant with New Century, a private security firm based in London that advises Afghan forces. He and another unidentified British contractor are credited with opening fire on the escaped detainees after seeing one of them aiming the RPG launcher, forcing them to take cover and abandon targeting the Osprey.
"The initial actions of [name redacted] and Ken McGonigle diverted a potential disaster by engaging the armed individuals leaving the DETFAC," the report said. "The individual carrying the RPG was in a launch posture aiming in the direction of the LZ."
Officials with the battalion, which returned earlier this year to Camp Lejeune, N.C., and the International Security Assistance Force based in Kabul could not be reached for comment.
Brig. Gen. Joseph Osterman, then commander of 1st MARDIV (Fwd.), agreed with the findings of the investigation. In a written endorsement, he said the Afghan police were "derelict in their supervision of detainees and in accounting for weapons in their facility." They left the detainees' jail cell and the nearby armory unlocked, the report said.
"This incident is a tragic and unfortunate example of the risk inherent in partnered operations," said Osterman's endorsement. "In an effort to support, strengthen and sustain Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), Marines must allow our Afghan partners a certain degree of autonomy in their operations. However, knowing that ANSF are often inexperienced, it is the responsibility of Marine units to ensure their own safety."