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While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton boozes it up in Australia and the Pentagon grapples with more floozy eruptions, outraged military families are still waiting for answers about the forgotten 9/14 attack on Camp Bastion.
Muckrakers and distraction engineers are having a front-page field day with the so-called "sex scandal." But for surviving relatives and colleagues of heroic Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Raible and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, it's the national security scandal at Afghanistan's Camp Bastion that deserves headline coverage.
There's been a virtual blackout of the alarming story in the national press. As I reported last month, the meticulously coordinated siege by 15 Taliban infiltrators — dressed in American combat fatigues and armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons — resulted not only in two deaths, but also in the most devastating loss of U.S. airpower since Vietnam. Six Harrier jets were destroyed; three refueling stations were wiped out; six hangars were damaged.
The attack came exactly six months after a failed suicide attack targeting Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and three days after the deadly attack on our consulate in Benghazi.
Yet, on Tuesday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney announced that President Obama is standing by beleaguered Marine Gen. John Allen. He's the four-star general and lead U.S. commander in Afghanistan who is now entangled in former CIA Director David Petraeus' sexcapades soap opera.
Allen reportedly exchanged hundreds of "flirtatious" emails with Petraeus family friend and married Florida socialite Jill Kelley. Kelley is the alleged "other other woman" who told the FBI she was harassed by alleged Petraeus mistress and biographer Paula Broadwell.
While Petraeus stepped down, Obama "has faith in Gen. Allen, believes he's doing and has done an excellent job" overseeing security in Afghanistan, Carney said.
Are families of our Marines at Camp Bastion happy with Allen and the Obama administration? Donella Raible, widow of Lt. Col. Raible, was blunt. "I'm not," she told me Tuesday afternoon by phone. "I'm mortified. It shows the corruption in the whole Washington/Arlington culture." Mrs. Raible, who is now raising three children (ages 11, 9 and 2) on her own, said, "I couldn't sleep at night if I were (Obama). If they're happy with things in Afghanistan, they should come look at the faces of those left behind."
If not for the heroism of Lt. Col. Raible, Sgt. Atwell and their fellow brothers-in-arms, the entire Harrier squadron and a barracks-full of sleeping Marines could have been lost. Another Camp Bastion Marine wife and mother of two told me: "My husband survived, and I am so grateful, but I am also heartbroken for those who died. ... There is no excuse for this. We are the United States of America and supposed to be the badass of all badasses, and we are constantly made out to be fools and caught off guard. ... I blame this administration for these recent preventable losses of life."
Off the record, several family members of Camp Bastion Marines have voiced persistent concerns about security in what was touted as one of the safest places to be in Afghanistan. "It is not a matter of if, but when" the compound is attacked again, one told me. Another relayed how a few weeks before the 9/14 attack, razor wire on the perimeter kept disappearing — but Marine sentries were barred from firing on suspected thieves to avoid causing civilian casualties. Others wondered why security hadn't been stepped up given the public threat by the Taliban on September 10 to kill Prince Harry, who was stationed at Camp Bastion.
Cpl. Cecil Burkes was on the flight line here tinkering with an MV-22 Osprey when he heard a fellow Marine screaming over the radio. He pulled his head out of the aircraft — just in time to see tracer rounds streaking at him through the night sky.
Burkes, 23, didn’t know it at the time, but 15 insurgents had penetrated the wire at Bastion. Working in three teams of five, they used assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons in a coordinated attack that killed two Marines, wounded at least nine other coalition personnel and destroyed six U.S. AV-8B Harrier jets, military officials said.
Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, 40, commanding officer of Marine Attack Squadron 211, the Harrier squadron deployed at Bastion, led a heroic counterattack against the insurgents that ultimately cost him his life — bravery that has led to a nomination for the Silver Star, Marine officials say. It’s the nation’s third-highest award for combat valor.
Also killed in the attack was Sgt. Bradley Atwell, 27, who was assigned to Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13 and working for MALS-16 while deployed. Both men were based at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., while stateside.
The U.S. military has disclosed few details about the initial moments of the attack. A statement released a day later by officials overseeing the war from Kabul said the attackers wore U.S. Army uniforms, penetrating the wire about 10 p.m.
Left unanswered: How did the insurgents breach Bastion, which was built in a vast desert to increase its isolation and security? Also, if much of the base was surrounded with 30-foot walls, how could the insurgents have gotten around them?
Interviews conducted at Bastion and Leatherneck underscore that the answers are painfully simple. The attackers snuck onto Bastion after cutting a 2-foot-by-5-foot hole in concertina wire on the east side of the base, said a Marine official with knowledge of the attack. A variety of coalition forces patrol the area around the base, but the insurgents apparently evaded detection by them and the personnel in the guard towers, likely British troops.
While Bastion and Leatherneck had almost nothing around them when they were established, clusters of shantytowns and farms have sprung up, particularly around the Bastion side of the base, the Marine official said. The release of wastewater on the east side of Bastion by British forces has made the surrounding land fertile, cutting back on the open land outside the wire as farmers moved in, a British official here said.
The fighters are believed to have posed as farmers, possibly for months, while observing the base. They showed nearly unlimited tactical patience, springing on a night in which there was no moonlight to aid in their detection, the Marine official said.
Elsewhere on Bastion, Raible had just finished flying a combat sortie over Helmand province with a fellow Harrier pilot, Capt. Kevin Smalley. The pair landed about 9 that night, with Raible departing to eat and call his family.
An hour later, his squadron was under attack. Raible hopped in an unarmored sport utility vehicle with another pilot, Maj. Greer Chambliss, and sped toward the flight line, said Smalley, the unit’s logistics officer. The Marines got out of the vehicle and ran under fire, weapons drawn, to meet other men from the squadron who were hunkered down near an aviation maintenance building.
Raible, carrying only his pistol, led a counterattack on the marauding insurgents on the flight line. Then he returned to the larger group of Marines. He grabbed a rifle and again headed toward the gunfire and his burning Harrier fleet but was killed when an RPG exploded overhead, Smalley said.