Into the Fire

 

Despite being forced to wait its turn to enter the fight in the Global War on Terror (Delta was the first special mission unit that JSOC sent to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11), DEVGRU would play a pivotal role in a number of major actions that took place during the early stages of the war.

Those events would provide a glimpse of both the heroism and tragedy that was to follow for SEAL Team Six in the decade ahead.

On November 25th, 2001, less than three months after the 9/11 attacks, a prison uprising at the massive Qala-i-Jangi fortress near Mazar-e-Sharif claimed the life of CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer Johnny “Mike” Spann.  Spann, a former ANGLICO Marine, became the first American killed in combat during the GWOT when several hundred Taliban detainees turned on their captors.i

What followed was a bloody, week-long engagement involving the prisoners and the Northern Alliance, U.S. Army Special Forces, and the British Special Boat Service that resulted in the death of hundreds of Taliban fighters.ii

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Included among the small group of Special Boat Service troopers was a SEAL who had been ‘seconded’ to the UKSF unit as part of an exchange program. Bloody Heroes, a chronicle of the SBS’s role in the conflict penned by war report Damien Lewis, details the remarkable bravery of ‘Sam Brown.’ Brown is described as an experienced and unflappable DEVGRU operator who would become the first SEAL since 1989 to be awarded the Navy Cross.iii

(The author didn’t use the SEAL’s real name, however, it’s easily discovered. This is the source of some confusion as the Navy Cross award citation lists SEAL Team One as the SEAL’s parent outfit. That said, in a seemingly similar situation that took place just months later, a confirmed DEVGRU operator was listed as belonging to a non-classified SEAL team in his Silver Star citation as well.)

The citation, in part, reads, “Chief Petty Officer (Brown) deployed to…locate and recover two missing American citizens, one presumed to be seriously injured or dead, after hard-line al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners at the Qala-i-Jangi fortress in Mazar-e-Sharif over powered them and gained access to large quantities of arms and ammunition stored at the fortress. Once inside, Chief Petty Officer (Brown) was engaged continuously by direct small arms fire, indirect mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fire. He was forced to walk through an active anti-personnel minefield in order to gain entry to the fortress. After establishing the possible location of both American citizens, under heavy fire and without concern for his own personal safety, he made two attempts to rescue the uninjured citizen by crawling toward the fortress interior to reach him. Forced to withdraw due to large volumes of fire falling on his position, he was undeterred. After reporting his efforts to the remaining members of the rescue team, they left and attempted to locate the missing citizen on the outside of the fortress. As darkness began to fall, no attempt was going to be made to locate the other injured American citizen. Chief Petty Officer (Brown) then took matters into his own hands. Without regard for his own personal safety, he moved forward another 300-400 meters into the heart of the fortress by himself under constant enemy fire in an attempt to locate the injured citizen. Running low on ammunition, he utilized weapons from deceased Afghans to continue his rescue attempt. Upon verifying the condition and location of the American citizen, he withdrew from the fortress. By his outstanding display of decisive leadership, unlimited courage in the face of enemy fire, and utmost devotion to duty, Chief Petty Officer (Brown) reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”iv

According to Lewis, ‘Brown’ had actually taken the place of SEAL Team Six teammate Neil C. Roberts, who was slated for the SBS exchange before having to turn it down at a late date.v

Four months later, Roberts would become the first SEAL killed in combat since 1989vi — the first of a great many DEVGRU operators who would make the ultimate sacrifice in the years following 9/11. Perhaps inescapable considering the unit’s constant presence at the sharp end of the nation’s most dangerous and vitally important fights, it is no less tragic as a result.

Operation Anaconda — a complex offensive that involved multiple task forces and lacked unity of command — rapidly escalated in the Shah-i-Kot Valley in March of 2002.vii

As the battle began to rage, a small handful of extraordinary JSOC reconnaissance specialists from Advanced Force Operations (AFO), commanded by Delta officer Lt. Col. Pete Blaber, took on the starring role. Silently infiltrating through unforgiving terrain to claim key positions around the valley ahead of the full-scale assault, they called down air strikes to devastating effect.viii

Meanwhile, Task Force Blue’s assault team of DEVGRU operators initially chose to stay put at Bagram Air Base, some 150 miles to the north. At the behest of then-JSOC commander Dell Dailey, the squadron sat ready in the event that one of the ‘big three’ — Osama bin Laden, Ayman-al-Zawahiri, or Mullah Omar — was located so they might strike.ix

However, Task Force 11 (the larger JSOC task force to which Delta’s Task Force Green, SEAL Team Six’s Task Force Blue, and other sub-task forces answered), directed by Dailey’s deputy, Air Force Brig. Gen. Gregory Trebon, and Joe Kernan, the commander of ST6 (and hence, TF Blue), became anxious to get a piece of the action at Anaconda when it proved unexpectedly hot.x

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A TF Blue element of DEVGRU operators, led by Lieutenant Commander Vic Hyder, was sent to the AFO safe house in Gardez. Despite Blaber being informed to expect otherwise, Hyder effectively assumed control of the recon teams already in the field, along with the SEAL reinforcements, upon arrival. And even though they had not yet been given an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the terrain or the situation, TF11 urged the operators from Six to enter the fight immediately.xi

This flew in the face of Blaber’s recommendations. The situation soon became further confused; both Hyder and Blaber believed they were in command and communication channels were not shared between them (unbeknownst to Blaber).xii

Two teams of SEAL assaulters, Mako 21 and Mako 22, infiltrated into the valley without resistance. Despite lacking specialized training and equipment for the operation, the men of Mako 22 impressed the more experienced AFO operators by effectively spotting enemy positions and directing accurate strikes. Mako 21, meanwhile, enjoyed considerably less success.xiii

A third team was tasked with the most challenging objective of the operation; Mako 30 was to secure an observation point at the 10,469-foot peak of Takur Ghar, which would provide a dominating position overlooking the entire valley.xiv

After conferring with Blaber, the initial plan was to place Mako 30 some 1300 meters short of the peak while allowing sufficient time to make the arduous four-hour march to the desired location under cover of darkness.xv

However, multiple delays forced the TF Blue element to reconsider. The SEALs ultimately gambled and shifted their landing zone directly to the peak — ill-advised as it would signal their placement to any enemies fighters in the area and because there was strong evidence of an entrenched enemy force already holding the site.xvi

Blaber, who had earlier vehemently cautioned against any such temptations, was effectively cut out of the loop. Despite retaining nominal authority, he was unaware of the last-minute direction from TF Blue’s TOC in Bagram to go ahead anyway — this despite Mako 30’s team leader having requested to push the op back to the following evening.xvii

A 160th SOAR MH-47E Chinook ferried the eight-man JSOC team to the risky LZ. Along with six DEVGRU SEALs, the team also included an operator from the Army’s enigmatic ‘Activity,’ — an intelligence-gathering unit that is perhaps the most shrouded of JSOC’s SMUs. The eighth member of Mako 30 was a Combat Controller from the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron.xviii (Regular attachments to ST6 and Delta strike forces who specialize in directing close air support, CCTs of 24 STS take part in Green Team training so that they can operate seamlessly with DEVGRU assault teams.xix)

Ignoring a number of warning signs on approach, the Chinook set down on top of the mountain. Within seconds it was hit with a barrage of RPG and small arms fire.

The limping helicopter attempted to make a rapid escape, but Petty Officer 1st Class Roberts, the aforementioned DEVGRU operator, fell from the open ramp of the ascending craft and down to the snow-covered earth approximately ten feet below. It is unclear whether he was already making his exit when the Chinook unexpectedly took off or whether he slipped in oil that was spraying inside the flaming cabin. In any event, he found himself on his own on the mountain peak, surrounded by al-Qaeda militants, while his teammates helplessly drifted away in a failing machine that had suffered massive damage to its electronic and hydraulics systems in the attack.xx

The SEAL team urgently requested to be reinserted without delay in hopes of saving Roberts, but the lack of shared communication linking commands made a dire situation even worse. When a second helo arrived at the site of their hard landing, the men were ordered back to Gardez; leadership was unwilling to leave the downed helicopter’s crew by the wounded chopper after mistakenly identifying nearby friendlies as an approaching al-Qaeda pack.xxi

This all took place while AC-130Hs were changing station, resulting in a lack of accurate eyes on Roberts, whose condition and predicament remained a mystery.xxii

The remaining five from Six and their CCT finally raced back to Takur Ghar after ushering the spare 160th crew to Gardez.

But by that time the fate of Roberts, who offered fierce resistance for as long as he could, was sealed. The wounded 32-year-old Petty Officer 1st Class was ultimately undone when his M249 SAW jammed. He was overrun after holding off his attackers for as much as 30 minutes, if not longer, although the precise details of his demise have been the source of some debate.xxiii

When the DEVGRU operators touched back down on Takur Ghar, they split into three pairs and were engaged straight away in an intense, close-range fight. Multiple terrorists were dropped in the frenetic moments that followed, but three of the hopelessly outnumbered commandos were wounded in return. The 24 STS Combat Controller, Technical Sergeant John A. Chapman, was killed in the firefight (though there is some dispute concerning the particulars of Chapman’s death as well).

The ST6 men were forced to make their escape, leaping over the crest of the peak. They slid down the side of the mountain and scrambled to cover some fifty meters below.xxiv

A 75th Ranger Regiment-led QRF (Quick Reaction Force), split between a pair of Chinooks, was called to the SEALs’ aid. However, one of the helicopters was mistakenly sent directly into the firing lines of the foreign fighters waiting at the top of Takur Ghar. The other was directed to Gardez before inserting some 800 meters away, now with ST6 officer Hyder in tow.xxv

The QRF ultimately took the peak that would come to be known as “Roberts Ridge” but not before five additional American lives were lost.xxvi

Hyder, meanwhile, located his SEALs, who had been sheltered by the combined firepower of a circling AC-130H Spectre gunship, F-15E Strike Eagles, and a CIA MQ-1 Predator drone (in the first-ever case of UAV ground-to-air supportxxvii). Though wounded (one in mortal danger), the SEALs made a six-hour, 1500-meter march back to safety.xxviii

Operation Anaconda as a whole, and the Battle of Takur Ghar in particular, was a mixed victory — an awesome display of courage under fire by the men on the ground and yet an undeniable C2 (command and control) debacle. Multiple opportunities to avoid or correct mistakes were missed — mistakes that were instead often compounded.

While far from alone, Task Force Blue had played a role in the chaos, and ST6 was forced to take a hard look in the mirror. Thrown into the fire of Operation Anaconda, DEVGRU’s command element lacked when it came to “planning, command and control, and working in a joint environment.”

That the unit would be so highly praised in those areas just ten years down the line underlines the tremendous strides that have been made. Like Desert One, it was a hard lesson but a lesson learned.

In the weeks following Operation Anaconda, the CIA managed to track down a collection of al-Qaeda fighters who had escaped the Coalition’s onslaught in the Shah-i-Kot Valley.

A U.S. Navy P-3 Orion spotted their convoy before passing off surveillance to a CIA Predator drone. After positively identifying the group as enemy combatants, a CIA/Afghan ground team redirected the convoy away from the Pakistan border. That maneuver bought heliborne SEAL Team Six interceptors just the time they needed.xxix

The DEVGRU operators dismounted and tore the convoy apart with frightening precision. They took no casualties while leaving no survivors among the fleeing Chechen al-Qaeda terrorists.xxx

Later that year, a DEVGRU close protection detail saved Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai from an attempted assassination in Kandahar.

Abdul Rahman, a suspected member of the Taliban, emerged from a mass of onlookers and sprayed four rounds at Karzai at close range when the president reached out of his vehicle window to exchange greetings with a child. ST6 operators swiftly countered the shots, killing Rahman within seconds of his surprise attack.

Two others who jumped into the crowded fray in defense of the president were also killed in the gunfire, while Karzai escaped unharmed.xxxi

 

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In 2003, the nation’s military focus shifted from Afghanistan to Saddam Hussein’s regimen in Iraq. Yet again, the Army’s Delta Force took the lead and spearheaded what would eventually prove to be a revolutionary counterterrorism campaign.

While SEAL Team Six assumed the role of lead CT element in Afghanistan,xxxii it also provided a significant presence to the expansive Iraqi effort and again established itself as a vital contributor and standout performer.

On March 23, 2003, in the opening days of the invasion, a 506th Maintenance Company convoy went off route and was ambushed. Eleven soldiers were killed and six others were captured, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch.

The wounded Lynch was taken to Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah, which had also doubled as an Iraqi military command post.

After the Coalition received a tip concerning her whereabouts from a local, SEAL Team Six led a rescue effort. With an AC-130 overhead and Marines conducting a nearby diversionary attack, DEVGRU operators, Army Rangers, and Air Force Pararescue Jumpers descended on the hospital aboard 160th SOAR Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters and stormed the compound.

ST6 fronted the assault and successfully retrieved Lynch without meeting resistance inside the building.

The rescue mission went off without a hitch but became the subject of some controversy. Lynch’s actions in the ambush that led to her capture were later exaggerated and made a rallying cry for the early war effort to some backlash. Additionally, there was some suspicion that the raid had been staged (including the use of blanks), but those suggestions were proven false.xxxiii

DEVGRU also reconfirmed its status as a superior manhunting unit, netting a number of key members from Hussein’s ousted Ba’athist regime — the so-called ‘deck of 55,’ in the early stages of the conflict.xxxiv

As the two wars continued to take shape, SEAL Team Six would continue to hold down the Afghanistan AO. Meanwhile, JSOC maintained Delta’s position as the primary (but not sole) SMU element in Iraq, a rapidly devolving situation that eventually served as a proving ground for cutting-edge counterterrorism techniques.xxxv

JSOC fused together a network of military units and civilian agencies in order to employ groundbreaking ways of collecting and exploiting intelligence. This set the stage for a relentless, self-perpetuating CT campaign on a scale previously unimagined.

The approach was systematically perfected and played a crucial role in dismantling al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), an especially brutal offshoot of the global terrorist network.

As then-JSOC commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal was fond of pointing out, “it takes a network to defeat a network.”xxxvi

Under McChrystal, former SEAL Team Six squadron commander William McRaven headed up the paradigm-shifting operations of Task Force 121/145. McRaven in particular is said to have pushed the boundaries made possible via intermeshed JSOC/CIA capabilities.xxxvii

Based out of Al Asad Airbase in Al Anbar,xxxviii a DEVGRU element (Task Force Blue/West) was given high-value target responsibilities for the areas west of Baghdad.xxxix

By 2005, the Coalition was getting hit hard by AQI improvised explosive device (IED) attacks (some 70% of the American KIAs were due to IEDs). In response, JSOC shifted the chief focus of its SMUs away from tracking down HVTs and increasingly to eliminating local players and mid-level leaders; they would then exploit the resultant intelligence and work up the chain as quickly as possible. Essentially, they aimed to cut the terrorist networks down faster than they could regenerate.xl

In Operation Snake Eyes, SEAL Team Six executed a series of nightly raids in the Euphrates Valley, wiping out an IED ring in order to protect the conventional troops operating in the area.xli

ST6 readily took to the task and continued to eviscerate IED and suicide bombing networks into 2007. Expanding their geographic focus, the unit executed simultaneous raids in northeastern Iraq, recovering a cache of bomb-making materials transported over the border from Iran.xlii

The unyielding effort to reduce the IED threat only picked up pace heading into 2008. During one three-month deployment early in the year, Gold Squadron eliminated 117 insurgents and captured another 152.xliii

Complete control of the nation’s cellular network and an unblinking eye of constant drone surveillance helped direct DEVGRU assaulters to their targets with shocking accuracy. And once on site, the raids were executed with similar efficiency.

Overall, the brutally efficient combined efforts of two DEVGRU squadrons eliminated over 200 enemy fighters and captured another 300.xliv

However, the true effectiveness of the campaign is perhaps better described by another set of numbers: By August of 2008, the number of IED incidents had plummeted 79%, causalities decreased 85%, and troops wounded dropped 86%.xlv

The relentless pace and pinpoint targeting of the raids that Six and Delta conducted in Iraq were also credited with the release of Jill Carroll. An American freelance journalist working on assignment for the Christian Science Monitor, Carroll was taken hostage only to be set free after JSOC began taking apart the terrorist cell holding her while rapidly closing on her position.xlvi

JSOC’s ‘industrial scale’ counterterrorism campaign in Iraq radically altered the nature of the business. After all those years of sitting on the shelf, the promise of Tier 1 special ops had not only been realized but taken to staggering levels. By 2008, over 15,000 enemy fighters in Iraq had been removed from the battlefield thanks to a supremely capable force just a small fraction of that size, leaving the insurgency devastated.xlvii

However, the tempo and intensity took its toll on the Americans as well. Delta Force absorbed numerous casualties while taking the fight to AQI in an unremitting series of strike operations in and around Baghdad. DEVGRU stepped up and reinforced the effort by essentially ‘loaning’ out a number of its assaulters who were then slotted into preexisting Delta teams and effectively worked as Unit operators during select deployments.xlviii

The lessons learned in Iraq were soon applied in Afghanistan, where SEAL Team Six had largely bided its time since 2003, just waiting to be unleashed on a regenerating and emboldened al-Qaeda and Taliban presence.

 

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Notes

i “Remembering CIA’s Heroes: Johnny Micheal Spann,” Central Intelligence Agency (November 25, 2009), https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/johnny-micheal-spann.html.

ii Alex Perry, “Inside the Battle of Qala-I-Jangi,” TIME (December 1, 2001), http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1001390,00.html.

iii Damien Lewis, Bloody Heroes (London: Arrow Books, 2007).

iv “Valor Awards for Stephen Bass,” Military Times, http://www.militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=3630.

v Damien Lewis, “Bloody Heroes: Story Update,” DamienLewis.com, http://web.archive.org/web/20061224235112/http://www.damienlewis.com/damien-lewis-bloody-heroes.php#images.

vi “Neil Roberts,” NAVYSEALS.com, http://www.navyseals.com/neil-roberts.

vii Naylor, Not a Good Day to Die.

viii Ibid, 263.

ix Ibid, 37.

x Ibid, 286.

xi Ibid, 300.

xii Ibid, 302.

xiii Ibid, 371.

xiv Ibid, 305.

xv Ibid, 305-306.

xvi Ibid, 78, 287.

xvii Ibid, 308-309.

xviii Ibid, 311.

xix Wasdin and Templin, SEAL Team Six, 214.

xx Naylor, Not a Good Day to Die, 311-317.

xxi Ibid, 318-321.

xxii Ibid, 321.

xxiii Ibid, 323-324.

xxiv Ibid, 325-328.

xxv Ibid, 352-353.

xxvi Ibid, 433.

xxvii Henry A. Crumpton, The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service (New York: Penguin Press, 2012), 265.

xxviii Naylor, Not a Good Day to Die, 366.

xxix Crumpton, The Art of Intelligence, 265-266.

xxx Malcolm MacPherson, Roberts Ridge: A Story of Courage and Sacrifice on Takur Ghar Mountain, Afghanistan (New York: Delacorte Press, 2005), 283-286.

xxxi “Wave of arrests after Karzai attack,” BBC News (September 6, 2002),

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/2241378.stm.

xxxii Ambinder, “Then Came Geronimo.”

xxxiii “Special Ops say lives were on the line in Lynch’s rescue,” The Washington Times (June 9, 2003), http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2003/jun/9/20030609-122701-9940r/?page=all#pagebreak.

xxxiv Ibid.

xxxv Naylor, “Bin Laden raid a triumph for Spec Ops.”

xxxvi Stanley A. McChrystal, “It Takes a Network,” Foreign Policy (March/April 2011), http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/02/22/it_takes_a_network?page=full.

xxxvii Gellman, “William McRaven: The Admiral,” TIME.

xxxviii Mark Urban, Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the Secret Special Forces War in Iraq (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010), 71.

xxxix Sean D. Naylor, “Closing in on Zarqawi,” Army Times (May 8, 2006), http://www.armytimes.com/legacy/new/0-ARMYPAPER-1739369.php.

xl Blehm, Fearless, 179-180.

xli Urban, Task Force Black, 81.

xlii Blehm, Fearless, 181-183.

xliii Ibid, 182-184.

xliv Blehm, Fearless, 184.

xlv Ibid.

xlvi Rowan Scarborough, Sabotage: America’s Enemies Within The CIA (Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2007), 159.

xlvii Urban, Task Force Black, 270-271.

xlviii Owen, No Easy Day.