September 11, 2001, was a day that changed everyone’s life, especially those of warfighters.

I can remember telling guys, “be careful what you wish for.” Those of us in the Special Operations community had done nothing but train for eight years. Imagine a professional athlete that did nothing but practice and never played a game. We are the pointy end of the spear and wanted to test our skills.

All of us in the AH-6 Company, B Co., 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (160th SOAR) had never seen combat. All the guys that were in the battle of the Black Sea in Mogadishu had retired. We were all cherries. We continued to train and stay razor-sharp in the event something happened in a far off land. Well, we sure did get what we wished for, and more.

On September 11, 2001, I was in the post’s gym getting a workout in. It was quiet since the big crowd comes in much earlier. The TVs were off, so I set my pace for a run in the treadmill.

We had two groups out of town conducting training, one in New Jersey and the other in Europe. We were going to conduct day/night gunnery that day and needed to get in early to take care of admin details for going to our home — the shooting range.

The fella that operated the gym, a former special operations soldier, came walking in very briskly. He was pale. He walked past me and reached up to turn on the TV. He looked at me and said, “you need to see this, an airplane hit Tower 1 and the Tower is on fire.” My first thought was how in the world does an airplane run into one of the tallest buildings in New York on a clear, blue day. Then I watched in horror as another plane slammed into Tower 2. My beeper went off and I knew we were under attack.

After arriving at the hangar, we started to get deployment gear ready and conduct Pre-Combat Inspections (PCI). We were the rapid deployment force, the only ones in town, and awaited orders. It was a difficult time for us, we had no intel or situational awareness in Afghanistan. We already knew who was behind the attack: Osama bin Laden. The Clinton administration had cut all funding for that part of the world and our assets had been removed.

Conducting PCI in our forward staging base.

We flew to Ft. Bragg to start our planning sequence and after a long week of strategizing, planning, map reconning and more planning, we finally had our mission: find, fix and terminate the Taliban and Al Qaeda (AQ) leadership and cells. Kill OBL and Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban who had given safe refuge to Al Qaeda. Pretty simple.

I was tasked as the Fire Support Officer (FSO) for Task Force Sword along with my good friend Master Sergeant Leon Hanson, B Squadron, Delta Fire Support NCO (FSNCO). Initially, I wasn’t too pleased with the assignment since it would keep me away from the cockpit. However, Leon said, “Coke, we are gonna go start a war and kill some Taliban.” Everyone’s morale was extremely high, and we were all pissed off and wanted to get into the fight.

TF Sword’s Order of Battle was the following: Delta-B Squadron, A Squadron (minus some Troops), 3/75 Rangers, 160th SOAR. SEAL Team 6 arrived later to provide support for emerging targets on the Arabian sea and the Mediterranean. We had put into motion reconnaissance assets and bombers to gain intel and set the conditions of our battlespace in Afghanistan.

The 5th Special Forces Group (5th SFG) was going to operate in the north, trading their helicopters for horses. Many of 5th SFG guys were my friends and we all shot together at Ft. Campbell; I knew they would crush the Taliban. We landed at Masirah Island off of Oman and began the process of setting up our command and continuing the planning. I thought it was ironic: 21 years ago Colonel Beckwith and a team of Delta commandos took off from the same place to rescue hostages in Iran, during Operation Desert One.

I would go running with my buddy Tony and we coined the name “Tali-Cong.” It stuck and I used it in my briefs. Brigadier General Dailey, our Task Force commander who was also the commanding officer of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), would just shake his head whenever he would hear it.

The first day we conducted 35 hours of planning without a break while others set up our operations center. Leon and I spent hours looking over photos and maps of the target area, Objective Gecko, and the Forward Air Refueling Point (FARP) site and staging base, Objective Rhino. We selected Target Reference Points (TRPs) and Named Areas of Interest (NAIs) along the helo route and OBJ Gecko.

I was looking at overhead photos of Gecko one day and noticed something peculiar. It was an odd-shaped shadow just southwest of the compound. I asked Leon and Lieutenant Colonel Blaber, a Delta officer, to take a look.

“Hmmm, what do ya think, Gravy,” they said calling me by my nickname.

“It appears to be a large tunnel or pipe,” I responded.

They agreed so I asked for a better picture and put the location on the target list. It made sense to me that it could be an escape passage (KEEP THIS IN MIND!).

After conducting a photo recce of Rhino, we suggested putting a Ranger Recce team on the ground at Rhino to get eyes on and ensure runway capability. The MC-130s would have to land there and provide fuel for the helos when they came off Gecko. We had photos of the OBJ and runway. One of the photos had a Boeing 707 sitting on the ramp. I thought, “well, it is surely good to land an MC-130 there.” The mission was approved, and the Ranger Recce commander asked me if I could go with them: they wanted a fire support guy in case they got into trouble.

Jim Hosey, an AH-6 Little Bird pilot, was right! I was not too happy about getting tasked with the FSO job. I was gonna augment the AH-6 teams with us. I was an AH-6 attack helicopter pilot chomping at the bit to get in the fight and kill some terrorists. Jim had told me that I would probably find myself in the middle of this mission and getting into the fight before the Six Guns (the AH-6 crews). Boy, did he hit the nail on the head. The commander approved. I was going to conduct a High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) jump with the Ranger Recce team.

HOLY SHIT! I wasn’t even HALO qualified!

Read part two here.