The shocking and affecting memoir from a gold-star widow searching for the truth behind her Green Beret husband’s death, this book bears witness to the true sacrifices made by military families.
When Green Beret Bryan Black was killed in an ambush in Niger in 2017, his wife Michelle saw her worst nightmare become a reality. She was left alone with her grief and with two young sons to raise. But what followed Bryan’s death was an even more difficult journey for the young widow. After receiving very few details about the attack that took her husband’s life, it was up to Michelle to find answers. It became her mission to learn the truth about that day in Niger–and Sacrifice is the result of that mission.
In Sacrifice: A Gold Star Widow’s Fight for the Truth, a heartbreaking and revelatory memoir, Michelle Black uses exclusive interviews with the survivors of her husband’s unit, research into the military leadership and accountability, and her own unique vantage point as a gold-star widow to tell a previously unknown story. Sacrifice is both an honest, emotional look inside a military marriage and a searing investigation of the people and decisions at the heart of the US military.
“A heartbreaking minute-by minute-composite of miscommunication, deception, bravery, and heroism… A compelling, heartrending story of ultimate sacrifice.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Black’s story is important for what it reveals about corruption at the highest levels of the military and how that corruption can result in the needless sacrifice of soldiers’ lives…[A] courageous and heartfelt military memoir from the perspective of a soldier’s family.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Black’s narrative hauntingly encapsulates her grief…Her book’s detailed research, based on new reporting and military memos, is one of the most complete accounts of the events of that fateful day…Black’s recollections on grief are especially poignant.”-–Library Journal
“I know first-hand that every military family makes sacrifices—and sometimes the ultimate one. But each of those families also deserves the truth of what happened to their loved one. Michelle Black’s fight for that truth is an inspiration, an act of remarkable persistence and genuine patriotism, and Sacrifice is a heart-rending and eye-opening read.”—Khizr Khan, Gold Star Father and author of An American Family
“Sacrifice is the harrowing account of a military wife’s search for the truth following the death of her husband on a special forces mission gone horribly wrong. Michelle Black writes with courage that seems etched onto her heart.”—Evan Wright, author of Generation Kill
About the Author
Michelle Black is a mother of two boys and is a Gold Star wife. She has a background in environmental sciences and horticulture, is an experienced snowboarder, and has a passion for writing. She lives in Washington State.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The day my husband was buried, his casket pulled by six black horses, the sun shone brightly. With my boys on either side of me, I wept for their loss, and for mine. I had always assumed that Bryan and I would grow old together. Surely a folded flag was never meant to be mine. But here I was.
Twenty-six days earlier, ten Green Berets fought a lethal battle on the ground in Niger, Africa, against ISIS militants. The ambush, which resulted in the death of my husband and three of his fellow soldiers, was the largest loss of American life in that region since the Battle of Mogadishu-also known as Black Hawk Down-in 1993. After being ambushed by an ISIS-affiliated group outside of the village of Tongo Tongo, six members of Green Beret Team 3212 would emerge alive but forever changed.
What most Americans remember about the Niger ambush, however, is the argument that erupted over a phone call between the president of the United States and one of the three widows. The poor handling of the phone call, coupled with a media firestorm and a handful of callous tweets, and the resulting feud took the focus from the soldiers and placed it firmly on American politicians. Because of this, the four American and five Nigerien soldiers who died in the attack were forgotten within a couple of weeks.
But not by us. Not by my family and the other families of the fallen.
We were shocked by the attack and wanted to know how and why it had happened. Niger was not meant to be a dangerous assignment. Teams like my husband’s conducted missions on the continent using a “by, with, and through” strategy to train their partner forces by having their partners take a lead role.
Knowing this, we had questions about the ambush: Why was the team out near the Mali border by themselves with no backup and so poorly equipped? Who had made the decisions leading up to these terrible events? General Thomas D. Waldhauser, the commander of AFRICOM (United States Africa Command), quickly started an investigation to learn the facts surrounding the mission that led to the ambush. I knew there was a process to military investigations, and I was certain that the Army would probe every decision that led to this heartbreaking loss of life.
I expected the story of the ambush would be simple, and the investigation truthful. However, over the months of waiting I was surprised and confused by how the team was being treated. The Army referred to the Green Beret soldiers as a team that went rogue and acted like cowboys in order to go after a risky target, putting their lives and teammates in danger. They were disparaged in the media and their captain was blamed and vilified for his decisions during the operation. I counted on the investigation’s results to clear up my confusion. But after the family briefing in April 2018, I found that I had more questions than I’d had going in.
I had thought the day my husband was buried, when my sons saw him put in the ground, would be the worst thing I could survive. But somehow, life had become less bearable. I needed to know the truth, to hear every detail of the ambush, to find out what AFRICOM had failed to tell us. What exactly happened to the men before, during, and after the ambush? The men of Team 3212 knew what had happened on the ground, but due to gag orders put in place by the military, they were not able to speak about it.
I was faced with an overwhelming task, one that I had no idea how to begin. In late spring of 2018, I began talking with the remaining members of Green Beret Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) Team 3212. When the gag orders were lifted, many of the survivors came to my home one at a time and allowed me to record them as they told me every moment of those fateful three days. They answered every question; I wrote their story. Simply by listening to the men of ODA 3212 and not blaming them, I had earned their trust. That trust meant the world to me-and I knew I couldn’t let them down. I had become the key to telling the true account of what happened in Niger.
I often say I’d prefer to hear an ugly truth than a beautiful lie. In the year following my husband’s death, I was told plenty of both. Sacrifice details many of the ugly truths I faced following the ambush and the lies I was told in the aftermath. It tells the story of what happened to ODA 3212 in October 2017 in Niger, and shows how that account differs from the official narrative. I have aimed to share that truth-and to honor the men who lived it.
Life and Death
Since the day Bryan left for Niger, I’d had a horrible feeling deep inside. We’d been through several deployments and long separations, but none had made me as nervous as this one.
In many ways I enjoyed my routine when Bryan was gone. I woke up early, got the kids to school, went jogging, worked on a house project. At night, when I wasn’t reading or painting walls, I caught up on all the “girl shows” Bryan hated, like The Bachelorette. I hadn’t felt uneasy when he left on his two previous deployments, and neither of us had ever seen the need for long goodbyes. A quick hug and a kiss; “I love you” and then “See you in six months.” But this time was different. I suppose some people would call it a premonition, others would call it God’s voice whispering to warn me, and others would say it was just my imagination. All I know is that as I stood at the curb of the small Fayetteville Regional Airport in North Carolina that sunny Saturday morning in August 2017, I desperately wanted to tell him to stay. For the first time in six years of watching him leave for training or deployments, I couldn’t let him go. He seemed to feel the same way, pulling me in a second time for a stronger embrace. I began to tear up, which had never happened before, and he promised he’d be home soon, but he faltered as he picked up his bags and walked away, turning back for a second glance. He called out, “I love you. I’ll call you as soon as I can.”
It was the last time I saw his handsome face, heard his deep voice, held him in my arms. I didn’t feel right about letting him go that day, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. I was more in love with him than ever, and I willingly let him walk out of my life when every fiber of my being was screaming at me to stop him. But what could I have done? Who can stop the tide from going out, even if you know a tsunami is what it brings back in? So I let the Army pull Bryan out of my arms that day.
I met Bryan fifteen years earlier in Mammoth Lakes, California, a ski town in the winter and a hikerÕs paradise in the summer.
After graduating college, I’d wanted some time off from reality to have fun. I learned I had epilepsy after having a seizure my first day of college classes, and it had taken me longer than expected to graduate as I adjusted to taking daily medication and managing my condition. When I treated it correctly, I could completely prevent my seizures. But I could not party, go without sleep, or take on heavy loads of schoolwork like most college students. Upon graduation, I was proud to have proved to myself what I could do-but I was ready for a break. I went skiing.
Every morning I’d walk a mile to the village, where I would take a gondola up to the ski lodge and teach children my favorite sport. I loved walking in that crystal cold air as the sky lightened. After a day on the mountain, I’d head down to my next job at a fur-and-leather shop in the village, where I’d make espresso for customers and run the register. At night, sitting by the woodstove while my roommates socialized and watched movies, I crocheted colorful hats for local boutiques that sold them to tourists.
Mammoth was a daily adventure. My jobs were enjoyable, and in my free time I explored the surrounding mountains and lakes with my friends. Some nights we would hike up local peaks to snowboard down in the full moonlight; other times we would sneak into condominium hot tubs or seek out hidden local hot springs. I wasn’t looking for anything or anyone when Bryan came along.
Like me, Bryan moved to town that fall after finishing college. He planned to ski, and he played online poker at night. He’d found a room for rent online and had accidentally moved in with the town drunk. In an effort to get out of the house one night, he wandered into the church I attended.
I spotted Bryan standing at the back by the coffeepot. He was hard to miss at 6’2″ and 230 pounds, with a neck as big around as my thigh. He stood with his arms crossed in front of his massive chest and gave no hint of a smile. He seemed like a tough guy with a bad attitude, but his outfit intrigued me. The ski-bum crowd usually wore saggy pants and fur-lined jackets, but Bryan was wearing fitted jeans and a blue crewneck sweater. I decided to say hi and find out what his deal was.
When I introduced myself, I was met by a deep monotone and a goofy smile. “I’m Bryan.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Bryan,” I said, smiling back.
“It’s nice to meet you, too.” Already I could see there was nothing tough about this tough guy.
“Have you been in town long?” I asked.
“No, just a couple weeks,” he said, continuing to smile at me in silence. I couldn’t decide if he was dumb or simply to the point.
As I was leaving church, it was snowing and the roads were covered in solid ice and lined with four-foot snowbanks. There on the steep main street that ran directly in front of the church, Bryan was gliding and sliding fearlessly down the icy road on a bike that looked two sizes too small. I would find out later that he had recently backed his truck into a park barbecue-and even though he had gotten out and bent it back into shape, he had been charged with a hit-and-run by an officer who had witnessed him “fleeing the scene.” The resulting rise in his insurance had led to him parking his truck for a year.
A few months after we met, I arrived home from work one night to find Bryan in my living room watching a movie with my roommates. Having been raised in a large family, I generally liked such gatherings, but that night I needed quiet, so I opted to stay in the front room crocheting. As I gathered my wool, Bryan came over and said he wanted to learn.
I tried to teach him the basics. As he sat cross-legged on the floor in front of me, he awkwardly held a crochet hook and pink yarn in his large hands. I thought it was the silliest thing in the world: a muscle-bound wrestler taking a night off from playing poker to take a crochet lesson from me. We giggled and joked back and forth, insulting each other as he worked on the knotted mess that he handed me proudly at the end. I liked that Bryan took the lesson seriously and learned a few skills despite the challenge that holding a small needle and yarn posed to his strong fingers. We decided the hat he made was actually more like a doily, but still called it a success.
The more Bryan talked, the more interesting and fun I found him to be. I appreciated that he was able to laugh at himself as he sat making a mess of my pink yarn, and in the years that followed I don’t remember a time when he cared about his image or what anyone thought of him. He was certain of who he was and more secure than anyone I have ever met, and yet he rarely talked about himself. I would find out later that he was a child chess prodigy and tied for second in the nation at just eleven years old. He continued to compete in national chess championships throughout his teen years.
At the end of ski season, we all looked forward to the Poodle Prom, a dance party with an open bar that was put on by Mammoth Mountain for all the instructors. I had broken my foot, landing me on crutches. As my friends partied and danced, I hung out at one of the tables, bored, trying to avoid advances from some of the drunker guys.
Bryan had been dating one of my coworkers for a while, so it came as a surprise when about halfway through the night I saw her up on the back corner of the bar swinging her long blond hair around and dancing suggestively for a couple of guys I didn’t recognize. I watched in bewilderment, wondering what had happened to Bryan. Then I saw him sitting alone at a table looking bored, with two full bottles of beer for company. Dressed in a light blue button-down shirt that complemented his eyes, he looked handsome.
He glanced up at me on my crutches, then smiled and asked if I wanted a beer, pointing to one of the bottles. I paused and looked back at the bar, where his girlfriend was dancing.
“Don’t worry, she’s already drunk and is too busy trying to make me jealous to notice either of us,” Bryan said matter-of-factly, then chuckled a little.
I put my crutches against one of the free chairs and laughed, too. “Well, okay, then.” Then I asked him why he wasn’t joining his girlfriend on the bar.
His answer was simple and direct: “I don’t dance. I’m bad at it.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m glad I’ve got someone to talk to.”
As we drank and joked, the hours flew by. Before I knew it, I was regretting having to leave.
In the summers, most people left town and the ratio of men to women changed to around ten to one. One night I was the only girl at a condominium rec room playing pool with a group of male friends of mine. It was loud and raucous. I loved playing pool and knew I was good at it. I had just won a game as Bryan walked in. I asked, “Well, does anyone else want to play?”