Insider Attack in Syria Leaves Wounded Marine, Lingering Questions

Sometimes called insider, or “green on blue” attacks, when U.S. forces are assaulted by their allies, it usually makes the news. That wasn’t the case in Syria when a member of the Syrian Defense Forces shot a Marine sergeant twice in the leg. Instead, there was no mention of it by the military, no press release. Instead, there was contradictory information and a curious reporter who refused to let it lie.

When Paul Szoldra of Task & Purpose first heard of the incident, the only thing that was clear was that more questions needed to be asked. He tells us what he found on this week’s episode.

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If this were a negligent discharge the the response would not be to give down to an award. It would be to court martial

You’re listening to War College, a weekly podcast that brings you the stories from behind the front lines here are your hosts Matthew Gault and Jason fF
Hello and welcome to war college I Matthew Gault and I’m Jason Fields

Operation Inherent Resolve. The US military is ongoing mission to eradicate Islamic State from Iraq and Syria. It’s a complicated mission with many different fighters and groups, each with their own priorities and concerns is

In February last year Marines in a remote outpost in Syria learn just how complicated things can get in the Middle East here to tell the story is the person who broke it. Paul’s soldier who’s been reporting on the story for task and purpose. Paul, thank you so much for joining us. Thanks so much for having me. Alright, so let’s let’s get the basics out of the way first, what happened in Syria last year to these Marines, but so it was earlier this year, February 17, 28,

there was what we typically call a green on blue attack or an insider attack, basically a case where a partner force fires on a member of the US military or in the case of Afghanistan, you know, Taliban infiltrator fires on a Afghan soldiers so an insider attack obviously is something that we we don’t like to see and that was the case in Syria on in February of

Earlier this year, the first case ever have an insider attack in Operation Inherent Resolve. What exactly did that attack look like? Basically what happened is

at this outpost in Syria, it was a special forces camp. It’s called Mission Support site, which is what it’s a euphemism for, basically what a where a special forces team would operate out of there was a team of Special Forces soldiers, their training up the the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. This is the partner force that the US has basically built from the ground up of mostly Kurds. But there’s also some other sort of militia types that have kind of come into the mix. And we have embraced the advise, assist mission to basically give ourselves a background a seat in the fight against ISIS. So instead of using direct using troops directly against ISIS we have partnered with

The SDF in order to fight the battle for us so far, that is worked out fairly well. But on this day, there was a there was an SPF soldier that actually ultimately attacked a US Marine Sergeant.

The Marines that were there, there was second Battalion, seventh Marine Regiment out of 29 palms. So it’s just a basic infantry battalion and they were there to provide security to the support side. So the Special Forces soldiers were there there was an artillery unit other sort of US forces that were directly engaged in the fight against ISIS and the Marines were basically there to you know provide security for the base and the sergeant His name’s Cameron How could which he was a he’s a combat engineer he was attached to to seven and he was the sergeant of the guard and he had a Marine who is with to seven His name’s corporal came down he he was the corporal of the guard and basically the so g co

These are the these are the Marines who are in charge of the guard force. They are the leadership for the men who are on posts. So at this particular site, you had some roof top positions where Marines were, you know, sent up and they were on shifts to watch the perimeter. You also had a position on a m wrap vehicle that was overlooking a entry control point. So the in and out of the camp behind the in the M rap is a 50 caliber machine gun. And so that evening on the 17th of February they were basically going out to check on the posts and they were heading to the rap together at one point how coverage stops just to take a leak down he keeps going he gets to the M rap he goes in and basically reaches out for the door handle upon the M rap as a as another marine and Lance Corporal Jay Smith,

and he reaches for the handle and before he can even open

The door he hears two gunshots and it’s a unmistakable sound, it’s an ak 47, it’s something that if you’ve heard an ak 47, you know exactly what that sounds like. And he turns around and he looks and he sees, he sees that how could which is obscured, he can’t see his face, he just sees his feet

and standing over top of them is an SDF soldier with an ak 47 pointed at them. And at this point,

Downey you know, is basically puts up his weapon and fires too quick shots at the SDF soldier, takes them down, kills him,

and kicks away his weapon and sees that How come he was shot twice in the leg, it went straight through, jumps on his wound starts doing combat life saving steps to save his life and, you know, sort of stabilizes them. He’s yelling back to the marine on post and he’s in, he yells. He says, How can we shot how CO is shot

the radio, the man on the post radios back and sort of puts the word out. Marines start running running towards them and down, he picks up the sergeant and fireman carries him and runs them back to the Ford surgical team, the army medics who were pretty close by like maybe 100 meters away or so, and they end up saving his life. Do we have any idea what why this happened? This was an incident that on first glance seems kind of strange, you know, like why would this, you know, why would this SDF soldier shoot a marine? What’s going on here? And it turns out that there was an incident between the Marines and the SDF, that happened

Prior to this, and there was also some tension that was happening at the time, at least between the Marines and the SDF

before the answer that

how is the incident reported the shooting of how coverage

so it wasn’t it’s it wasn’t really reported by the military that’s for that’s for sure. So how I came upon this story was basically I got a I got a tip from from someone

who basically said, Hey, you know, I see all these reports of insider attacks happening in Afghanistan. And the Pentagon always always talks about them or make some sort of public mention of them, but

I’ve never heard anything any talk of the incident in Syria, which at you know, when I first got this tip, I was like, Whoa, what the heck are you talking?

About what you know there’s there hasn’t been any insider attacks in Syria.

And so the

in the course of my reporting and looking into this thing, it actually turns out that, you know, the Pentagon puts out press releases and statements on insider attacks, sadly, pretty regularly there, they’re kind of at least at some points, they have been a regular occurrence in Afghanistan at times. And they put out a statement that says, you know, so and so was killed in an apparent insider attack. Two people were wounded. These are the kind of statements that they would put out, but they don’t ever put anything out when it comes to somebody wounded, which makes me think that maybe there’s more insider attacks that we don’t really know about, because if you’re attacked, and there’s only people that are wounded they don’t ever publicly announce it. And this was a this was a case

Here you had a you had a Marine who was shot and wounded. Fortunately, he survived. If he had not, they would have made a statement but he he did survive. He subsequently was awarded the Purple Heart

and so and and there was a public photograph put out of the of the Saris in a question or receiving the Purple Heart, but no information around why or what what actually occurred in order to make that happen. It’s it’s kind of it’s kind of interesting that that’s that sort of brings up an interesting thing. So in order to get the Purple Heart the criteria for a Purple Heart Is that your wounds need to be a result of enemy fire. So when they’re going and they’re writing up the award and they’re submitting it up the chain of command. It needs to be clear that it was a case of enemy fire that actually gave you those wounds. However, when there was an investigation into this

conducted by Central Command, they never they never conclusively determine what what the motive was for the shooting, which To be frank is is I find ludicrous. They offered it a number of possibilities for how it might have occurred. One thing that they’ve been they had tried to put out there as far as the causes that maybe it was a negligent discharge, like the SDF guard. Basically, his weapon went off unknowingly, or just, you know, he pulled the trigger on accident and it ended up shooting the the Marine Sergeant in the in the investigation that came out later, the leadership at the Mission Support site tried to say that the SCF guard had been had had probably had a negligent discharge and then the bullet ricocheted into how coaches leg a a point that was also refusing

In the in the report by the doctors who examine them so it was the the investigation doesn’t say it’s conclusive however it does acknowledge and I’ll just read this verbatim quote the most plausible explanation is an intentional shooting based on redacted testimony I’m not sure whose testimony that is whether that’s how cubby Richard Downey or someone else and and then the next section use you had leadership a test to the guards loyalty and claims a negligent discharge impacting into the ground and ricochets caused injuries and then it says the surgeon confirm to entry and exit wounds from 7.62 rounds consistent with a direct impact. So the report says that basically they’re trying to make the argument that possibly it’s a negligent discharge however it happened at night the guard came up and shot this Marine Sergeant in the back he also got the Purple Heart for it which means that the

At least someone in the chain of command believe that this was an enemy attack. And last down, he got an award. He got a joint forces Commendation Medal for his response in this incident incident, so he fired back, he shot the SDF guard and then he saved How come it’s just live through his medical life saving techniques. If this were a negligent discharge, the the response would not be to give Downey own award it would be to court martial and you know, it would be it would basically be an SPF soldier accidentally discharges his weapon, shoots this other marine and then down, he shoots the guy, why would you shoot this guy? You just caused an international incident, you’re messing with our partnership with the SDF, you’re getting court martial. So there’s, there’s all these conflicting kind of narratives that are happening here and it just doesn’t really jive with what actually what actually happens.

Which is 100% and insider attack? And I don’t have any question or about that at all, in my mind, is it really that bad for there to be an insider attacking Syria that it’s worth the Pentagon going to all this trouble to create confusion? Well, so, um, I think there’s a couple things at play here. One is that there’s definitely there’s definitely different sort of chains of command that are not on board. They’re not like they’re not all working together to, you know, try to try to keep this one under wraps. And I don’t think it’s necessarily being they’re trying to keep it under wraps. But I do think that if you look at the bigger picture, you know, of the of the partnership, we have the United States, I mean with the SDF. We’ve used the SDF pretty successfully in the campaign against ISIS, and so that relationship, the relationship

Between Special Forces and you know, the Pentagon and the US military itself with the SDF, they want to keep that pretty strong and having anything get in the way of that doesn’t really jive to, well. You also have the outside influence of Turkey, Turkey doesn’t really like the SDF all that much, they basically think the entire idea of an SPF and, and our support of certain Kurdish elements of the militia were basically supporting terrorists. And so anything that Turkey can latch on to, to sort of screw with that relationship is something that they’re going to go after. So I can totally understand why the Pentagon or why Central Command would try to sort of downplay this as maybe it’s an isolated incident. It’s not a big deal, which I tend to believe that it probably was an isolated incident. But regardless of that, it’s still a story that should be out there. It should be told and I don’t think

You know trying to massage the truth is is helpful to the Marines and question you know this is their story this is their lives and trying to say that you know maybe it was an accident is is disgraceful to the Marines involved so I think another part of this here is that these Marines regarding NSF base right

So how much does that play into it and

is it okay that America kind of has no idea what some other conventional forces are doing and places like Syria in you know how much of a distinction is there between or should there be between those conventional forces and Special Operations you know what’s interesting is on that subject before I published the the original story of the attack I called

I called her email just about everybody, that was the Pentagon CENTCOM

Mars sent special mag Taff, which is this the crisis response, which is the unit that the two seven was attached to. I mean, I tried to get ahold of everybody just to at least at a minimum, just to ask for some sort of statement or comment on what the what my reporting was involved. But the second, you know, if not that, to talk to them about what I know here and ask them if I’m I’m putting anybody in danger with the reporting and I got crickets. I didn’t get any feedback. I basically had all these different spokes people basically shipped me around, you got to talk to this person. You got to talk to them and nobody really wanted to talk and it was really interesting. I called the Pentagon and I talked to a spokesman over there and I

know the name of the Mission Support site, which I won’t share. And I didn’t share in the article, I didn’t find it necessary to do so. But I talked to the spokesman and I meet and I tell him, Hey, I want to talk about this mission support site. And I mentioned the name and how quickly this guy clams up as if I just said, You know, I, I don’t know, I just got the pentagon papers or something.

He was he was it was a noticeable shift. And so I think with this kind of thing with a conventional unit attached to SF at a mission support site, it raises a lot of questions for me, it’s just like one, what are Marines doing there? What’s their mission and how are they involved? Are they indirect combat and you know, just what are they doing on a day to day basis? It’s a weird sort of thing we’re doing.

Now we’re retake conventional units and we’re we’re putting them with these soft units. It’s something that we haven’t really seen in the past, you know, basically it was it at least in the iraq afghanistan war days,

you know, maybe 510 years ago you had conventional units and they do their own thing and you had soft units and they do their own thing and you have you know, your overseers over all of that trying to deconstruct them and try to figure out where everybody fits and now they’re working in these joint manners and so it gets a little more secretive and it gets a little bit stranger for how these missions are are going and and ultimately trying to get to the truth of what they’re up to. You know I’m not I’m not naive I know that special operations are doing you know, secret stuff all over the place they’re doing it in Syria they’re doing it an Africa there.

Doing it everywhere else and there’s reasons why these missions are kept secret and there’s upset considerations and classifications concerns and all that kind of stuff but for a traditional infantry unit to be in Syria and be in danger and be shot at and for members of that unit to be getting Purple Hearts and for the public to not know why they got the Purple Heart or how or where that’s a concern for me i don’t i don’t think that secrecy is necessary and I think especially in a if we’re going to be in a democracy then we should be knowledgeable about what kind of dangers are traditional troops face and we just don’t see that lately especially when it comes to Syria so you know, beyond this incident, there’s there was a marine with the fallen unit. So this was to seven there’s three seven, they are over in

at least I don’t know about Syria, but they’re attached to the special mag tap.

Press response and there was a marine pretty recently who there was a photo of him getting awarded the Purple Heart. And it says, you know, the Marines name awarded the Purple Heart

and does not say

where he got the Purple Heart. As far as his wounds are concerned, I believe it says undisclosed location. It doesn’t say anything about the nature of that. And that’s, I don’t really understand it. It doesn’t make sense to me, these kinds of things. For me, if a marine gets shot in the world somewhere, they should, we should probably know why and where and what the circumstances were. And it also makes it harder for you as the journalist to be evil because you don’t know what you can and can’t write about, right. I know that you’ve made some sort of determination here, but you can even you have to be very careful about the way you port these stories. Well, actually, I think it has an opposite effect.

I think if the military were more transparent about what it was Ewing and combat zones, especially in Syria, then I wouldn’t have much to write about, you know, if if they put out they put out stuff about, you know, here’s what happened you know here’s why Sergeant how coverage was shot and here’s what happened what kind of story can I write from that point I have nothing you know and and if this marine from three seven he was wounded if you put out the information out there then it really it really defuses my me and what I can try to figure out it’s this lack of transparency which makes especially investigative journalists it makes them do what they do i mean i see marine wounded in Syria and I don’t know the understand I don’t understand why or what happened and all I want to do is get that understanding and I want to figure out who to talk to and get some document

And break this story and ultimately makes it a way bigger story than it would if the Pentagon put it out there and just said yeah he was shot he had you know by small arms fire and he was you know he was on post and or wherever you know something like that but the this push for so much secrecy around Syria is it basically gets my spidey senses going so you know that’s kind of that’s why I’m I want to figure this out you know that’s why I pushed for this story pretty hard when the when CENTCOM was sort of trying to say this was accidental or possibly accidental I was calling up the spokesman and saying hey you know give me that investigation. When can I see that investigation like I can’t I want to see what you got and you know it they basically released it publicly You know, I’ve been I guess it was like a week after I first first published it and you know we now

Know this little small little events that happened in Syria, we now know a whole lot more about what happened. And I think that’s a good thing. Paul, is there anything else coming up with the story? Or do you think that everything that needs to be known as known at this point, the investigation has been made public.

And you know, it was it’s already put out there, you can read it off of sent comms website and so there’s that. So I think the story isn’t really going to go much further than that. However, I put in I put in Freedom of Information Act requests for the Lord recommendations for Downey’s joint forces Commendation Medal, which would show witness statements and other sort of things that show what he did, why he did it and other people attesting to his actions that day. I also put in

a FOIA request for how Kubicek Purple Heart or

Word recommendation which would do the same thing, it would have witness statements and probably I’m

hypothesizing here, but it probably says something to the effect of the SDF soldier was an enemy, so I don’t necessarily think the story is going to go much further, but I think the documents that I’ll end up getting through foil will sort of show even more how the, the CENTCOM investigation is not necessarily telling the whole truth. And, you know, so we’ll see. But

other than that, I also kind of just going back to earlier, you know, I learned that

when when somebody is wounded an insider attack, there isn’t necessarily a press release that goes out as it is the case if somebody gets killed. And so that that’s sort of led me to think that there’s maybe more insider attacks that we don’t know about and so that’s something that I’m

Just going to be investigating probably for a while to try to figure that out and that’s that’s more about that’s more about Afghanistan

than it is isn’t Syria but I will I will keep looking into it and hopefully i you know i i really hope that I am totally wrong and there’s hasn’t really been a whole lot more insider attacks and the ones we know about are just the ones we know but I tend to think that maybe maybe there is a whole lot more out there that

that maybe isn’t public knowledge and and I think should be and hopefully the the whatever documents I figure out and other people that talk to me will will let me know what the what’s really out there

Paul, thank you so much for coming on the show. You can keep following his work and read about this story and others on task and purpose.

Thanks for listening to this week’s show. If you enjoyed it let the world know by leaving us a review on iTunes. We’re putting transcripts of the show online at or college podcast calm and you could reach us on Twitter. We’re at war underscore college and on facebook facebook dot com slash War College podcast. We’d love to hear from you. So hit us up.

We’re colleges me Jason fields and Matthew Galt We will be back next week.

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