The Army has rejected an appeal from a 13-year public affairs sergeant and is kicking him out in a case tied to the Osama bin Laden raid, President Obama’s speech about it, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information.
Staff Sgt. Ricardo Branch told The Washington Times that he must leave the Army by Aug. 1. His crime was mentioning in an internal military email the name of the aviation unit that flew Navy SEALs inside Pakistan airspace to kill the al Qaeda leader.
The irony: He was trying to keep that fact out of a proposed article in an industry newsletter.
The Times featured Sgt. Branch’s plight in March, noting his excellent performance evaluations since the 2014 incident. His last chance resided with the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, which Sgt. Branch said rejected his plea.
The sergeant said he was “floored” by the decision.
“With honor and with integrity I fought this battle and even took it into the realm of public court/discussion in my Times story and it was for one reason only to let everyone know, like my commander said when giving me my notice May 10, 2016, that the Army is getting this one wrong,” he said July 19 in an email to the board.
“Moving forward, I would love to give this one last go round; however, I know now that without the military-level support I received for my third appeal I’m in a realm of hurt in that it will take forever to get another answer.”
His attorney, Jeffrey Addicott, who runs the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, said the married sergeant, with one child, did all he could to maintain his career.
He said Mr. Obama singled out the unit, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and that Mrs. Clinton did far worse in handling secrets and received no punishment.
Mr. Addicott told The Times on July 19: “The good news is that your story pushed the Army to move off its criminal investigation that he was facing when I took his case. We then also got the Army to consider his request to stay on active duty, and he was retained for many months while his appeal was considered. They have now denied his appeal to stay, but he will leave with an honorable discharge. Not a complete satisfaction for Branch but far better than it could have been. There is no inherent right for the Army to retain him. I know he is disappointed, but we accomplished all that could reasonably be expected. This is a win.”
Sgt. Branch’s problems began in February 2014 while he was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, doing public relations work for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. He was fact-checking a proposed article by the Boeing Co. for its internal news site that told of regiment personnel visiting a contractor facility. It mentioned that the regiment conducted the bin Laden raid.
Sgt. Branch sent an email to his boss recommending that the bin Laden reference be stricken because the Pentagon never officially acknowledged its role.
That was his crime: repeating the Boeing sentence in an official, internal email.
A higher-up saw the email thread and reported Sgt. Branch to Army intelligence. Instead of facing a court-marital, he opted for nonjudicial punishment and received an oral reprimand.
Mr. Addicott, who did not represent the sergeant at that time, said no court-martial jury would have convicted the sergeant because his motives were pure.
Part of Sgt. Branch’s defense was that Mr. Obama all but said that the aviation regiment conducted the raid by visiting the soldiers at Fort Campbell right after the successful operation.
The Army officially disclosed the regiment’s role in news stories.
“The leaders’ first stop after landing was to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment compound where the distinguished guests spoke privately with the 160th SOAR leadership and Soldiers,” said the Army’s official story on the visit, found on its web address, Army.mil.
On Army.mil, a May 9, 2011, Army News Service story on the Obama visit said, “It was the Night Stalkers who are credited with flying the mission in Pakistan that transported the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 on an operation that resulted in the capture and kill of terrorist Osama bin Laden.”
“I love the Army,” Sgt. Branch told The Times in March. “I like my job. The reason I’m so in love with the Army is I’m a career soldier. I’ve done three tours in Iraq. I’ve survived cancer twice. The Army is my career. It’s what I know. It is my life. My dad was a soldier. My brother’s a soldier. My grandfather was a soldier. I like telling the Army story because I’m a writer. That’s what I do.”