Why Was Firefighter-Marine Reserve Maj. Jason Brezler Betrayed?
More than a year after three Marines were shot to death on their base in an insider attack by an Afghan police chief’s “tea boy,” there is still no official explanation for why a warning that could well have prevented the tragedy seems to have gone unheeded.
There is also no explanation for why the police chief was allegedly allowed to sexually assault children with apparent impunity on an American military facility.
But authorities have taken action against one person they should be praising, the 32-year-old Marine Reserve officer who issued the warning about the police chief and his crimes.
Marine Reserve Maj. Jason Brezler—now also a firefighter with the elite Rescue 2 of the FDNY—faces a forced exit from the Marine Corps as a result of an inconsequential security infraction he committed in his hurry to respond to an urgent email from Afghanistan that he received two years after he returned home.
The July 25, 2012, email that popped up on Brezler’s Yahoo account was sent to him from Helmand Province by a fellow Marine officer, and its subject line made its urgency unmistakable:
“IMPORTANT: SARWAR JAN IS BACK!!!”
Exclamation points by themselves in a message from Helmand meant it could very well be a matter of life and death. The name Sarwar Jan made it all the more so.
Jan had been district police chief when Brezler served in the same town, Naw Zad, in 2010. Brezler had come to the conclusion that Jan was involved in narcotics and arms trafficking as well as facilitating attacks by the Taliban, even selling Afghan police uniforms to the enemy. Jan also was alleged to be what Brezler’s lawyer would call “a systematic child rapist” who allegedly ran a child kidnapping ring and acquired “tea boys” with the help of U.S. taxpayer job development money.
Jan might have imagined himself untouchable as the protégé of an accused drug lord who has connections to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Brezler kept pushing and was finally able to pressure the provincial governor into removing Jan from his post, a rare and notable bright spot in the bloodiest province in the bloodiest year of the war.
But now here was this email from a fellow Marine officer in Afghanistan saying Jan was back as police chief and had allegedly been raping as many as nine boys at Forward Operating Base Delhi. The email asked Brezler for any information he might be able to provide.
The Marines had not issued laptops during Brezler’s deployment, and he had used his own to send and receive reports while in the war zone. He was at a graduate school seminar using this same laptop when he received the email from Helmand, and it seemed like a stroke of great luck that the lone report he inadvertently still had on hand summarized the allegations against Jan.
Brezler attached the report to his reply and emailed it with the same urgency that he would demonstrate as a firefighter whenever an alarm came in. He made clear in the accompanying message that he considered Jan a serious threat who allegedly dealt with the enemy while essentially making the Americans party to sex crimes against children.
The fellow officer who had made the inquiry and received the response, identified by one source as Marine Maj. Brian Donlon, noted that in his haste Brezler had sent what was technically a classified document via an insecure mode of communication. Brezler acknowledged the error and duly reported himself, in keeping with a code of honor befitting a graduate of the Naval Academy.
Whatever Donlon did with Brezler’s warning, little, if anything, seems to have changed. Jan continued to come and go as he pleased at FOB Delhi, free to carry weapons and to consort with his “tea boys.”
“The Marines continued to provide Jan and his sex-abuse victims armed, unescorted access to their base,” Brezler’s attorney, Kevin Carroll, would later say.
On August 10, 2012, just over two weeks after the warning that should have resulted in the police chief being banned from the base, one of Jan’s teenage “tea boys” went into the FOB Delhi gym with what was apparently the police chief’s AK-47. The tea boy, Aynoddin, proceeded to kill three unarmed Marines, Staff Sgt. Scott Dickinson, Cpl. Richard Rivera, and Lance Cpl. Greg Buckley Jr. A fourth, Staff Sgt. Cody Rhode, survived despite being shot five times.
Buckley’s father, Greg Buckley Sr., would later report that his son had expressed misgivings about the police chief three months before.
“He said, ‘The chief of police is filthy,’” the father says. “I said, ‘How can he be in your base?’ And he said, ‘He is.’”
The father adds, “Everybody on the base knew [Jan] was a bad guy.”
The son had made the darkest of predictions.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to be coming home. They’re going to kill me here, murder me here,’” the father says.
The son recalled some advice the father had often repeated.
“He said, ‘You know what, Dad, you always said go with your gut feeling, and my feeling is something bad is going to happen to me on this base,” the father reports.
The son had been lifting weights in the gym with his buddies just two days from the end of his deployment when the tea boy shot him in the chest and neck.
“They keep telling us it’s under investigation,” the father says.
The Buckley family learned of Brezler’s warning—and the apparent failure of their son’s superiors to act—not from the Marine Corps but from the office of Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who had taken up the major’s cause. King is close to Brezler’s godfather, retired FDNY Capt. John Vigiano, who lost two sons on 9/11, one a firefighter, the other a police officer.
The law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan heard of Brezler’s plight and offered to represent him pro bono, with their man Carroll in the lead. Carroll met with the Buckley family, and they were doubly outraged to learn that Brezler was to be brought before a Board of Inquiry with the possibility he would be forced from the Marine Corps.
Back when Brezler self-reported the security violation resulting from the urgent email response, his immediate commanding officer had found no cause to pursue the matter. The investigating officer from his headquarters recommended the matter be closed with no disciplinary action. An assessment in Afghanistan determined that this intelligence “spillage” was of no military importance and recommended that the emailed report be declassified. The military analyst who wrote the report is of the same opinion.
But for reasons that are not clear, NCIS went ahead and initiated an inquiry. Brezler allowed agents to examine his computer and search his residence on October 17, 2012. They left without discovering any classified material.
Brezler then remembered an external hard drive he had brought home from Afghanistan. The agents had missed it in the search, but Brezler again proved to be an old school man of honor. He would have called the agents to come get the drive even if he had known that it still contained some 100 classified documents, largely of a tactical nature pertaining to particular combat operations that were long since completed. Their value to an enemy would be essentially nil.
“There is no allegation that Major Brezler was unauthorized to receive these documents in the first instance, or any evidence of additional spillage of these documents,” writes Carroll in a summary of the case. “NCIS closed their investigation without any criminal referral. Agents even remarked in the case file upon Major Brezler’s remarkable cooperation and transparency.”
Again for reasons that are not clear, Marine Col. Michael LeSavage took it upon himself to lodge a negative evaluation against Brezler for his supposed security infractions. Protocol called for the evaluation to have been issued by another commander, Lt. Col. Daniel Whisnant, who reportedly considered Brezler one of his best officers and had recommended him for promotion.
Even as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, among others, stepped forward on Brezler’s behalf, the Marine Corps moved ahead with plans to conduct a Board of Inquiry at the Reserve headquarters in New Orleans, perhaps in December.
Some observers believe the matter is being pushed by the present Reserve commander, Lt. Gen. Richard Mills. He was previously deputy commandant for combat development and integration. His predecessor in that post was Lt. Gen George Flynn, whose son-in-law happens to be Maj. Donlon, who sent the email inquiry to Brezler with the subject line “IMPORTANT: SARWAR JAN IS BACK!!!”
Donlon and Mills’s office both referred requests for comment to the public affairs officer for the Marine Reserve, Col. Francis Piccoli.
“Pursuant to a NCIS investigation that substantiated the mishandling of classified information, Maj. Brezler has been ordered to show cause for retention in the U.S. Marine Corps before a Board of Inquiry,” Piccoli said in an email. “The Marine Corps will not comment further on this case at this time because we do not want to influence the Board of Inquiry’s decision-making process and/or jeopardize the due process Maj. Brezler should be afforded during this administrative hearing.”
Jan has denied the widely reported sex crimes allegations in the past but is presently unavailable for comment. He was briefly jailed after the tea boy shooting and was placed under house arrest thereafter—officially, anyway. The tea boy is supposedly going on trial in Afghanistan in May, though the Buckleys want to see him tried in America.
As Brezler awaits the Board of Inquiry that will determine whether he can remain a Marine, he continues to serve with the FDNY. To watch Rescue 2’s rig rumble from its Brooklyn firehouse in response to an alarm is to see the spirit of the 343 members of the department who perished on 9/11 come alive anew.
And the six firefighters from the company who were among those 343 would no doubt be particularly pleased that the current members include a Marine Reserve major who served with such distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan, receiving a Bronze Star.
The Marines who were killed while serving with Brezler would surely be just as pleased that one of their own was riding with an elite outfit that had served so bravely on the morning when our longest wars began and that now continues to race into harm’s way for the sake of others.
The fallen fighters and fallen Marines would have cheered as one when Brezler and the rest of Rescue 2 joined other companies in fighting a fire on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn on the night of November 9. Brezler was up on the fire floor, where flames were exploding out of the windows.
“A pretty intense job,” a fire officer remarked.
But imagine the disgust of the fallen, a disgust we all should share, at the prospect that this firefighter-Marine who so often has placed himself at risk should be betrayed.
Along with explaining its inaction following the warning and its failure to address the allegations of sex crimes against children in one of its facilities, the Marine Corps needs to explain why it is so insistent in going after one of its best.
What the Marines should do is send him another email, this one with the subject line “IMPORTANT: BREZLER’S BACK!!!”