WASHINGTON (AP) — Military investigators are trying to determine what went wrong in the downing of a U.S. helicopter in Afghanistan last week that killed 30 American troops and eight Afghans.
Questions remain about why the troops were called in to aid other U.S. combatants engaged in a firefight, what they knew about the situation on the ground and what role the flight path or altitude may have played in the disastrous crash.
Pentagon officials would not discuss the details of the probe, but it no doubt will include a look at the insurgent threat and the instructions given to the special operations team that crowded into a big Chinook helicopter as it raced to assist other U.S. forces.
According to officials, the team, which included 22 Navy SEAL personnel, three Air Force airmen, a five-member Army air crew and a military dog, was flying in to help U.S. Army Rangers who were going after insurgents on the ground. Seven Afghan commandos and an Afghan interpreter were also on board.
The helicopter apparently was shot down by an insurgent armed with a rocket-propelled grenade. It was the single deadliest loss in the decade-long war.
Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, has appointed Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Colt to lead the investigation. Colt is deputy commander of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.
The investigation comes as the remains of the troops killed in the crash were returned Tuesday in an operation shrouded in secrecy by a Defense Department that has refused so far to release the names of the fallen and denied media coverage of the arrival at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Two C-17 aircraft carrying the remains were met by President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the Joint Chiefs chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, and a number of other military leaders.
The helicopter crashed as it attempted to land in the Tangi Valley, a dangerous region in Wardak province of eastern Afghanistan, where coalition forces were engaged in a firefight with insurgents. The mission was targeting a Taliban leader believed to be in the mountainous and militant-riddled Sayd Abad district of Wardak.
The investigation will review a number of basic crash questions, which will probably rule out such factors as the weather, terrain and mechanical issues, since military officials believe the helicopter was shot down. It also will look at the flight of the Chinook as it moved into the fighting zone. Chinooks are heavy cargo helicopters that do not have the agility of smaller, more maneuverable aircraft.
At the Pentagon, officials continue to wrangle over whether to release the identities of any or all 30 Americans who died in the crash, even though many of the families have publicly named their loved ones and spoken about their deaths.
It has been department policy to identify troops who are killed. But several officials have said there is a reluctance to release the names because many were SEALs, and they worry their families will be targeted. Most of the SEALs were from the same team that killed Osama bin Laden in May, although none of those killed participated in that raid, senior defense officials said.
Obama and other officials at Dover boarded the two C-17 aircraft to pay tribute to the fallen troops and then watched as 30 transfer cases draped in American flags and eight draped in Afghan flags were taken off the planes. There were several additional transfer cases on the planes, also carrying unidentified remains from the crash.
The president met for 70 minutes with about 250 family members and military comrades of the fallen troops.
Reporters were not allowed to view the "dignified transfer" because the remains were mixed and no individual bodies had been identified, the military said, so no family could give permission for media coverage.