The families of some of the 17 SEAL Team 6 commandos who were killed in an ambush in Afghanistan during a helicopter flight to help Army Rangers pinned down by Taliban gunmen accused the Obama administration of deliberately endangering their loved ones for political ends.
During a press conference on Washington Thursday, family and advocates for the fallen troops called into question the rules of engagement that they say prohibited their sons from being able to return fire, and the White House's decision to announce shortly after the killing of Osama bin Laden that SEAL Team 6 was responsible for the raid.
"In releasing their identity, they put a target on their backs," said Doug Hamburger, whose son, Army Staff Sgt. Patrick Hamburger, served among the helicopter's crew.
The event was organized by Freedom Watch, a conservative advocacy group, at the National Press Club. One by one, fathers and mothers of the victims of the crash spoke about what they see as gaping holes or inconsistencies in the review of what U.S. Special Operations considers its most deadly incident.
In all, 17 members of the SEAL Team 6 counterterrorist force were on board the CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter, along with its Army National Guard aircrew, several support personnel and seven Afghan commandos. In all 38 troops died after the helicopter was shot down by what a review determined to be a Taliban RPG over Wardak Province, Afghanistan, on Aug. 6, 2011.
The team was responding to an Army Ranger unit that was engaged in a protracted firefight with Taliban fighters and needed reinforcements.
The families hope to raise awareness of the incident, which they say the government has largely forgotten since the official report was released in October 2011.
Some congressional lawmakers demonstrated their support for the group, including former Florida Republican Rep. Allan West -- an Iraq war vet -- and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.
While the press conference was long on speculation and short on concrete evidence, the family members and their supporters didn't pull any punches.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who served as deputy undersecretary of defense for Intelligence and was a commander in the Army's super-secret "Delta Force," denounced politicized rules of engagement as a "deliberate plot" within the American armed forces that he says puts political correctness above the safety of the troops.
"We've allowed politics to become more important than the lives and safety of those men and women," he says.
Petty Officer 1st Class Aaron Vaughn was one of the SEAL Team 6 operators who died in the crash. His father Billy Vaughn recounted Thursday a phone call from his son following the White House decision to credit the highly secretive military unit for the bin Laden raid.
"He said, 'Mom, there's chatter. My life is in danger. Your life is in danger. Get everything off your social media. Our families are in danger,' " Vaughn recalled.
Aaron Vaughn's mother, Karen, also demanded an explanation for why her son and his team were not using a special operations aircraft, such as the Chinooks flown by special operations pilots, which have specialized defenses designed to fly commandos deep behind enemy lines. The CH-47D that embarked on the mission that day had been built in the 1960s, she said, and last retrofitted in the 1985.
It is not uncommon for commandos to fly some of their missions aboard such aircraft in the war zone, however.
She also said the team was hindered by rules of engagement that prohibited their firing on potential targets unless they could see a weapon. Military officials told her operating outside of these rules "damages our efforts to win the hearts and minds of our enemies."
"The hearts and minds of our enemy are more valuable to our government than my son's blood," she said. "We have an ideology problem with this war, and we need to address it."
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Corrected 06/12/13: This story has been corrected to reflect that only some of the families of the fallen SEALs say their loved ones were deliberately endangered.