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The four fallen American soldiers whose families were denied a benefit because of the government shutdown were killed in a devastating series of explosions during a Special Operations mission in Afghanistan, U.S. military officials told NBC News on Thursday.
The mission was an attempt to capture a “high-value target” and take down what was described by the officials as a “bomb factory” for improvised explosives and suicide vests, the officials said.
Thirteen other soldiers were wounded in the mission, they said, many seriously.
The bodies of the four fallen soldiers were returned Wednesday to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, met by families and by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, among other dignitaries.
Earlier this week, a series of NBC News stories had detailed how the families were denied a benefit known as the death gratuity — a $100,000 payment meant to help military families plan funerals and travel to meet the bodies of their loved ones.
The benefit was suspended Oct. 1 because of the government shutdown. On Wednesday, the Defense Department struck a deal with a Maryland foundation that will cover it and be reimbursed by the department when the shutdown ends.
Congress has also scrambled to restore the benefit. The House voted unanimously on Wednesday to reinstate it, and President Barack Obama’s top spokesman stressed that the president wanted the matter fixed in short order.
The four Americans killed were Sgt. Patrick Hawkins, Pfc. Cody Patterson, 1st Lt. Jennifer Moreno and Joseph Peters, a special agent assigned to the Army’s criminal investigative division.
The U.S. military officials said that an Army Special Operations regiment entered a compound in the Panjwai district west of Kandahar on Saturday morning in search of a known Taliban master bomb maker.
The suspect emerged from a building apparently unarmed. But as Rangers approached the suspect, a man and woman suddenly appeared from a doorway. Almost immediately, the man detonated a suicide vest, the officials said.
The officials said that it was believed the suicide bomber was using the woman as a human shield or diversion. As other Rangers moved in to help the wounded, a series of improvised explosive devices, as many as 15, detonated, the officials said.
“The place was laced with IEDs — it was booby-trapped” as a highly complex defense against U.S. or Afghan forces, one senior official said.
The target of the U.S. operation, the Taliban bomb maker, was killed in the Taliban mass suicide operation, the officials said. They said that an investigation was underway to determine the exact sequence of events.
The 13 wounded have been returned to Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.