A few nights after we got back from the mission to Prata Ghar, we had a party to celebrate the successful collaboration of German and American forces. Since the Germans were the only ones on the base with beer, they played host.
This would be the first of a series. Over the following weeks it became commonplace to hear a bunch of SEALs leaving our compound saying, “Hey, we’ll be back, we have to go debrief with the Germans.” We had a number of parties with the Germans after that first mission, the last of which was quite memorable — although not in a happy sense.
We also went on additional joint missions with the Germans, including one that took us high up in the mountains to Ahmed Kheyl, on the Pakistani border north of Zhawar Kili, to explore another complex of caves. This place was high above the snow line, so we were going to insert by helo and trudge up there on snowshoes to check these caves out. All the intel said it was a fairly benign environment.
Once again, we flew up to Bagram the day before the op and stayed there overnight, departing early the next morning on a few Sikorsky H-53s. This is a big-ass helicopter, much louder than the CH-47, and it puts out such a large rotor wash that you can’t really use it for targeted search-and-rescue missions. Stealth was not an important element here, as we were going to be inserting at a friendly checkpoint.
They dropped us off right before sunup, and we immediately sank three or four feet into the snow. We set a quick perimeter and affixed our snowshoes. This was the first time I’d ever been on snowshoes. I loved it.
We hoofed up to our checkpoint and checked in with the commander there. This was my first sight of a blond-haired, green-eyed Afghan. Despite his traditional Afghan clothes and hat, with his cheap shades and blond beard he could have easily passed for an American. I thought it must be the Russian influence. I was wrong. In fact, I later learned, there are a lot of Caucasian, blond-haired, green- and blue-eyed Afghans that trace back to an invasion of Europeans led by Alexander the Great. These guys have been defending their turf for a long time.
We hiked up another 3,000 or 4,000 feet in elevation and confirmed the location of the entrance to the caves. It was a big complex and we explored pretty much all of it. In retrospect, I think of this as a fairly low-key mission, since the intel turned out to be correct and the place was more or less abandoned. But we couldn’t be sure of this going in. Spending hours creeping through thousands of yards of dimly-lit caves and tunnels known to be host to a terrorist enclave never knowing what you’ll find around the next corner (or what will find you), burns an awful lot of adrenaline.
After we had cleared all the caves, we prepared to hike back down again. I stood and looked out over the valley. Perched up there on that mountain, we could see for miles and miles — a hundred at least. Everything was silent except for the constant flux of the wind wafting through the mountains and crags. It was breathtaking. The snow conditions were unbelievable. “This would make a great place for a ski resort,” I thought. “That is, except for the part about the constant warfare.”
I thought about everything I’d seen in this place. I’d been in Afghanistan now for more than two months, but this location right here seemed to exemplify the place. This was really harsh terrain, of an extreme altitude, incredibly steep, and incredibly rocky. The ultimate natural impregnable fortress. We were fighting an enemy in an environment where they had the advantage of having been here for generations and generations, back to Alexander the Great and doubtless beyond that. And it hit me: “You can throw all the technology you want at this place — Predator drones, B52s dropping JDAM, even teams of the finest Special Operations troops in the world — and they’ll just laugh at you. Just ask the Brits and the Soviets. You can’t win here.“
In early March we were tasked to work with the Danish Frømandskorpset (Frogman Corps), their elite Special Operations team. As part of Operation Anaconda, we were to stand QRF watch (quick reaction force) in support of the action that was heating up in Zurmat, a district in Paktia, the province directly west of Khost. The largest ground offensive since the battle of Tora Bora, Operation Anaconda was a massive effort to hem in and wipe out some key HVTs along with an estimated 200 enemy combatants. That 200 turned out to be more like a thousand.
Standing QRF is a high-stress, get-ready-and-wait proposition. You and all your gear are prepped to go, your magazines loaded with bullets, everyone in the fighting force and the helo crew ready to take off literally at a minute’s notice… and you stand ready like that for hours, days, however long your station lasts. It’s something like being a fireman on call at the fire station.
We flew up to Bagram Air Base with the Danes and settled in. Everywhere we went, every minute of the day, we carried radios with us. No matter what we were doing, whether we were sleeping, eating, at the gym, or in the toilet, we were always completely set up and prepared to drop everything and run.
At one point I turned to Osman and said, “Hey, where’re our maps? How come we don’t have any maps of this area?” We had big country maps, but they didn’t show a lot of detail. We were QRF for a very specific region, the district of Zurmat — and we had no area maps for it. Where the hell were they?
We had each been assigned as department head for a different job. If you were assigned to diving, your job was to keep track of all the diving gear. If you were air, you were the one who packed all the air equipment for the platoon, certified it, kept it up, and took care of it constantly. Every one of us had a different specific duty. Mine was air equipment. Who was in charge of intelligence?
Turned out, it was Doug. Damn! There was already a lot of tension between Doug and me because of the taped-out lights that never got taped out at Zhawar Kili. Now I was seriously pissed off. Frankly, intelligence was a pretty easy duty. There was no equipment to be in charge of. All you had to do was make sure we had the maps we needed and that the GPSs were programmed. It was an important job, but not a difficult one by any stretch.
Osman and I found Doug and called him out in front of the other guys. “Doug, where the hell are our maps?”
“Oh,” he said, “at the TOC they said they’re out of them right now.” This was a bullshit excuse, and we told him so. He was just being lazy, and I did not want to get stuck out there in the hostile mountains with no idea where the hell I was. Sure, we had GPS, but that only gets you so far. GPS tells you where you are, in an absolute sense — but it doesn’t necessarily give you all the context of what’s around you. Especially in that part of the world, where the terrain is so starkly inhospitable, GPS data on its own is practically useless for anything but calling in an airstrike or an exfil.
Osman and I said “Fuck it” and hotfooted it over to the DEVGRU compound (aka SEAL Team Six), where we explained what we needed. “Here,” they said, and they handed us all the maps we could want. That’s how complicated it was. We thanked them, took the maps back to our own compound, threw them down on the table, and said, “Well, there you go, Doug. Appreciate all your hard work getting us the maps.”
Doug did not like my attitude, and he let me know it. I let him know it right back. “Look, man,” I said, “you almost got me killed once. I’m sure as hell not going to let it happen again.” We were toe to toe and almost got into a fistfight right there in the tent.
Later that evening I sat down and thought about what was going on. This was not good. In fact, it was very not good, and it had to stop.
I searched Doug out and pulled him aside so we could talk.
“Look,” I said, “this isn’t personal. I don’t want you and me to have this friction going on.”
I explained where I was coming from. I didn’t apologize for calling him out in front of the other guys. I explained that in GOLF platoon our leaders never let any sloppy behavior slide, and they would call us out in front of everyone for the slightest infraction. That’s what happened to me when they hazed me for not telling the truth about having gotten married: They let me know that they would not tolerate any lying or withholding of the truth. Honestly, I thought that was the right way to do things. I still do. Get called out in front of your peers, and it shapes you up.
Most people think SEALs are these perfect and infallible warriors, and it’s true that SEALs are some of the most dangerous, disciplined, effective fighting machines on the planet. But we’re human, too, and as much as there were guys who had their shit together, there were also guys who didn’t.
The truth was, Doug was a good guy. He just hadn’t been brought up right in his first platoon. As for me, I have the tendency to be a hard-ass and not the most diplomatic when it comes to these things. It’s just my nature.
We shook hands and made our peace with each other. From that point on, Doug and I didn’t have an issue. What’s more, from that day on he was in solid shape.
Later that night a few guys from DEVGRU were flown in to our medical station at Bagram for emergency medical attention. They were in rough shape, really blown to pieces. Word was that their convoy had been hit by a Taliban ambush. The SEALs all had survived, but a number of others in the convoy did not. There were guys dying on stretchers as they wheeled them in. It was terrible.
I spent a little time that night with one of the poor bastards from DEVGRU who’d come in to get patched up. He had glass fragments embedded in his skin all over his face. We talked for a bit, and he told me what really happened.
“Man,” he said, “that was one of our gunships. No doubt about it.”
One of ours? Was he saying that the hit that had messed them up so bad, wasn’t the Taliban’s, but ours?
He nodded. “We’re driving along and blam! something explodes in front of the convoy, like a howitzer round in the lead vehicle. Then the rearmost vehicle blows up, too, and suddenly we’re taking heavy fire. “Holy shit,” I’m thinking, “this is classic C-130 gunship tactics. Is this a blue on blue?!“
In fact, it was a blue on blue, otherwise known as friendly fire. No one likes to believe these things happen, but they do.
The only reason he wasn’t dead, he told me, was that when the attack started he managed to get down underneath the engine block of the vehicle he was in. “Man,” he said, “when I get back home I’m buying a Toyota — because that thing saved my life.”
I don’t know whether someone in the convoy hadn’t been in touch with air support, or someone made a mistake with their coordinates, or what. Maybe it had been something that at the time seemed no more consequential than Doug neglecting to tape over our dash lights. Whatever it was, something had gone badly wrong. When you’re operating in that kind of kill box situation, you better hope the person responsible checked in first with the gunship.
Otherwise, out in those mountain ranges, you’re just another heat signature on Murder TV.
First thing next morning we got the call: “Let’s get it on!” QRF had been activated. We were going in. Where, or to do what, we had no idea. All we knew was, it was now. “Saddle up, you guys,” said Cassidy when he showed up at our quarters. “We’ll brief en route.”
We and the Danes got ourselves loaded up in two Chinook helicopters, Razor 01 and Razor 02 — and then sat there on the tarmac. Nothing happened. Minutes ticked by, and still, nothing happened. Cassidy was going back and forth on the radio. Why the hell weren’t we taking off? Finally, we saw some Army Rangers running out toward us. Cassidy sighed and said, “C’mon, guys, we’re getting off.”
We climbed out of the two birds, and the Rangers got on. Obviously, there had been some kind of pissing match between Task Force K-Bar and Task Force Dagger over who was responsible for whom. We sat down on the tarmac and waited for a while to see what would happen next. The Rangers took off. We waited. Finally, we went back to our tent and waited there on standby.
Soon we heard people scrambling everywhere. Something heavy had happened, but at first, we didn’t know what. Then we heard that the Rangers who had replaced us in the two Chinooks were in trouble.
Eventually, we got the whole story.
Two teams of SEALs had gone out to insert high up on a nearby mountain called Takur Ghar. Originally they were supposed to insert in the dead of night at two different points in the valley to provide observation support for an op there, much the way those six marines and four of us had done that day in Zhawar Kili when Doug failed to blackout our vehicle. Delays and mechanical problems had forced a change in plans, though, and they were ordered instead to insert closer up toward the peak itself at close to dawn.
A daytime landing in the mountains — not a good idea in Afghanistan. The Taliban knew how to shoot down helicopters. In fact, they’d learned it from us back in the days of the Soviet occupation, using our ground-to-air Stinger missiles. Fortunately, the Stingers were no longer operational, but the Taliban were well equipped with RPGs and knew how to use them.
Sure enough, an RPG ripped into one of the SEALs’ helos as it went in to land, and one of the team, Neil Roberts — a totally solid guy, a bad-ass who was ready to rock on insert and be first out and on the ground — was hurled through the chopper’s open door. The bird was shot to shit and crash-landed a short distance away where its occupants immediately came under fire. The second helo, carrying the other SEAL team, came in to pick up the remaining personnel from the first chopper and also came under immediate fire. An Air Force Combat Controller was killed. That helo was forced off the peak and requested backup.
That was when a QRF team was dispatched to come get them — which was us until interbranch political squabbles intervened and we had to exit the helo. The Army Rangers took our place and took off for the ridge, but when they tried to put down they, too, came under fire that killed their door gunner. Moments later their chopper, Razor 01, was shot down by another RPG and crash-landed, just as the previous helo had done, killing three more of their crew. The surviving crew members and the Rangers who made up the QRF took cover, now also under heavy enemy fire.
Back at Bagram they now put us on another set of helicopters and flew us to a refueling station they had set up in the middle of nowhere, maybe 15 minutes by air from Takur Ghar. We sat there with the Danish Frogman Corps, listening to everything unfold over our comms. Gunfire, screams, guys dying, pleading for help, and no help arriving. It was brutal.
We heard the Ranger captain, Nate Self, on the radio, begging for reinforcements, but the air force general in charge of the task force, General Gregory Trebon, wouldn’t send anyone in. They didn’t want to lose another helicopter. “Sorry,” the guy on the radio passed the word, “the general says nobody else is going in there, not in daylight.”
We begged to get inserted up there, even anywhere close by, so we could go help these guys out. “Go in with F-18s or whatever you have,” we said, “and pound the place if you have to first — but put us on the ground.”
But it wasn’t going to happen.
When you have guys ready and willing to risk their lives to go in there and get their fellow soldiers out of that hell they’re in, you let them go do it. If it were me out there, I would want to know that our guys were doing everything in their power to come to get me and come to get me now. Going into battle you have to know that your guys will come after you no matter what. That’s the psychology you have to have in order to be able to function effectively on the battlefield. “No man left behind” isn’t just a catchy slogan, it’s the non-negotiable bedrock of a fighting force’s existence.
Do I think it was a bad call? Yes, I do. No question in my mind and morale suffered for sure.
I understand the situation they were in, not wanting to lose another helicopter, but if it were me, I’d take a deep breath, let my guys come up with a solid plan, and execute it. Yes, those first few sorties were kind of fast and loose and got confused, and that’s when things can so easily go wrong. Yes, things had fallen apart up there, but that’s when you sit back and say, “Okay, time out, let’s take stock and plan this out.” Then you let the guys who are closest to the action and have a hands-on understanding of what’s happening out there make the plan — and then you go. That’s what should have happened there.
Instead, we sat there all day, the Danes and us, all geared up and ready to go, just a 15-minute hop from the spot where our brothers were fighting and dying. It was agonizing, listening to Captain Self’s pleas for help all day long, talking about his wounded. Every time he checked back in the casualties were worse — and he’d lose another guy. Ten to 12 hours of daylight went by with no support whatsoever. People died because of it.
Soon after we had relocated to the refueling station, another element of that Ranger QRF did successfully insert, but a good way farther down on the mountainside. We followed their progress on our comms as they struggled up the face of Takur Ghar to link up with the downed helo and Rangers on Roberts Ridge (as the site would come to be called in honor of the downed SEAL) because those guys were being hammered. It took them hours to get up that mountain.
There was also an Australian SAS force nearby, holed up in a reconnaissance outpost on the side of the mountain, observing with long-range optics, providing some situational awareness, and calling in air support. Hats off to the Aussies: They saved some lives that day.
That second Ranger force did eventually succeed in climbing up there with all their kit, fighting their way through, meeting up with the downed QRF group, assaulting that position, and taking it over. There was a huge Taliban force up there that mounted a counterattack, and the Rangers took more casualties, but in the end, they got control of the ridgeline.
After spending the day sitting on our hands and listening to this whole thing go down, we boarded the helo and flew back to camp. The mood at Bagram was pretty dark. We all felt these guys had died for, what appeared to us to be, no good reason.
I’ve thought about this a thousand times, 10,000 times. What would have happened if we had been allowed to leave on those two Chinooks? Would it have just been us who got shot down instead? Or if we had left 10 minutes earlier, right when we first boarded the helos, would things have gone differently?
One of the SEALs who was in Neil Roberts’s team was a guy known as Turbo. A few years later Turbo and I got to be good friends when we worked as instructors together, and one night over some beers he told me the full story of what happened there on Roberts Ridge.
According to what I remember from Turbo’s account when they were on approach to that ridge, they got the 30-second call: ready to put down. He was standing right next to Neil. Turbo and Neil were close friends. “Neil was always squared away,” Turbo told me, “always had his pack on and ready to go. He was going to be the first one off that 47’s ramp.”
The ramp went down, they prepared to leap off, and Neil had just lifted one foot off the floor and was half a step out when boom! they took that RPG hit. The pilot yanked on the stick and banked the helo abruptly back in the other direction in a desperate bid to escape the volley of gunfire. Before Neil had a chance to catch himself, the inertia of their forward movement hurled him out through the chopper’s open door. Turbo reached out and just managed to catch hold of Neil’s ruck — but he didn’t have a firm enough grip on it to make the critical difference. The ruck tore out of his fingers, and Neil plummeted out of the helo and onto the ridge.
The helo took some further hits and crashed on the hillside, about four miles away from where Neil was left behind.
The other chopper swooped in, picked up Turbo and the other guys, and headed back to Bagram. Turbo and his teammates argued with the bird’s crew, insisting that they turn around and go back for Neil. The crew had their orders. The team kept arguing and insisting. Finally, they practically put a gun to the pilot’s head. “Look,” they said, “we’re going back for our friend. You are going back there and putting this copter down.”
The pilot took them back to the same spot on the ridge where they’d lost Neil, and Turbo and his teammates jumped out.
Turbo told me it was the most intense firefight imaginable. “We shot so many of these guys,” he said, “and they just kept coming and coming.” At one point he was back to back with one of the other SEALs, and he could feel the burn of bullets whipping past. Later he found burn marks all over the sides of his body from the friction of the rounds. Firepower from the enemy was so overwhelming they eventually realized that if they had any hope of surviving, they had to get off the ridge. They stepped off the ridgeline and started sliding down the slope.
It was incredibly steep, a 70-degree incline at some points. Predator drones were orbiting the area, and after it was all over I was able to watch this happening on the Predator video footage. It looked like a group of guys shooting down a mountainside on a frigging bobsled.
The moment Turbo stepped off the ledge he took a .762 mm round right through his leg. It blew out his calf, so now he was bleeding badly as he slid hundreds of feet down the hill along with his buddy. Once they came to a stop, he found he couldn’t walk. He asked his buddy to leave him there, and when he refused, Turbo insisted — he felt like a complete liability — but the guy would not do it. He put a tourniquet on Turbo’s leg and carried him a few miles.
Their OIC was an absolute maniac. The Taliban were pouring down the tree line after Turbo and the rest of them, and this guy held the whole scene together. He’d come back and check on them, then run out to the tree line and lay down a bunch of fire and kill a bunch of guys, then run back again — running back and forth, engaging the enemy and somehow managing to keep them at bay. “He saved all our lives,” Turbo said.
Their OIC finally was able to drag Turbo farther away from the firefight, and this was when they made the call for help. The nearby QRF was alerted and boarded a helo to come help them.
That was us. And you know what happened next.
The surviving SEALs spent a lot of time out there in the woods, and Turbo thought it was all over several different times until he finally lost so much blood that he lost consciousness altogether. Miraculously, they were finally picked up, and Turbo survived.
Seven of our people died there on Takur Ghar: three Army Rangers, Corporal Matthew A. Commons, Sergeant Bradley S. Crose, and Specialist Marc A. Anderson; the two aircrew on Razor 01, Technical Sergeant John A. Chapman and Senior Airman Jason D. Cunningham; Sergeant Phillip Svitak of the Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR); and Petty Officer First Class Neil C. Roberts himself.
After the whole thing was over, the group that had picked up the surviving Rangers went back to survey the scene. There were hundreds of Taliban there dead. “We found dozens and dozens of them lying there with multiple shots to the head,” they told us later. “That was the SEALs’ work.”
They could possibly save his leg. They told Turbo when they got him to a hospital, but he’d be crippled for life. Nah, he said, cut it off at the knee, and he would get a prosthetic lower leg. His rehab was unbelievable. What he does even to this day with that prosthetic is insane. You’d never know it was a fake leg.
Ten months from the day he first got back to the States, he was back in theater over in Afghanistan again with his new leg. Turbo is an amazing guy, a true patriot, and an absolute animal.