It was about 1140Z. Two MH-47s, callsigns Turbine 32 and Turbine 33, were closing on the LZ (Landing Zone) near the base of Sawtalo Sar, the compromised team’s last known position. Two Blackhawks and two AH-64 Apaches were flying cover, and Grip 21, a flight of two A-10 Warthogs, were circling above.
Lt Cmdr Kristensen, commanding SEAL Team 10, and the four-man Special Reconnaissance team’s commanding officer, was aboard Turbine 33, determined to lead the effort to get his SEALs back, in one piece if at all possible.
The SEALs aboard both helos had been preparing to follow on the reporting from Murphy’s team. They had been hunting a particular ACM (Anti-Coalition Militia) leader, known either as Ahmad Shah or Sharmak, who had killed a number of the Marines of 2/3 (2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines), who were moving into Kunar Province in the Korengal and Pech valleys, and had set up in a FOB (Forward Operating Base) named Camp Blessing, named after Jay Blessing, a Special Forces soldier killed by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) strike in the area in 2002. Initial intelligence had Shah leading 100-300 fighters, and boasting that he had a weapon that could bring down helicopters.
The men aboard the helos, SEALs from both SEAL Team 10 out of Virginia Beach and SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 out of Pearl Harbor, had been preparing to go in the next night, clear the target villages where Ahmad Shah was believed to be, then blow LZs for the Marines of 2/3 to come in and do a more thorough sweep of the entire area. There were about five villages on their target list, most of them clinging to the steep sides of the mountains. Now, instead, they found themselves going in in daylight, trying to retrieve their teammates under fire on the mountain.
Sawtalo Sar is the highest point on a ridgeline running between the Korengal and Shuryek Valleys, roughly in the center of Kunar Province, a mountainous province in the northeast of Afghanistan. The Pech River runs across the end of the ridge to the north, with the Korengal and Shuryek rivers running into it. The valleys are dotted with small, stone villages, surrounded by terraced fields. The heights are rocky alpine slopes, cloaked in thick coniferous woods.
Turbine 33 took the lead, descending toward the chosen LZ, an open meadow surrounded by scrubby trees on the shoulder of Sawtalo Sar, about 650 meters from the summit of the mountain. In their haste to rescue the SR team, they pushed to the LZ ahead of their escort.
As the big Chinook prepared to settle on the LZ, a white smoke trail was seen streaking up from the trees near the zone. The projectile impacted the MH-47’s exhaust duct and detonated.
The Chinook rolled over in midair at the impact. The pilot lost control and the helicopter hit the side of the mountain and exploded. All 16 men aboard, 8 members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the Nightstalkers, and 8 SEALs from Team 10 and SDV Team 1, were killed.
Under more ground fire, Turbine 32 turned away, hard, throwing the men in the troop compartment to the deck, and pulled into an orbit above the mountain, searching for survivors. According to the official contact report, one of the AH-64s reported a possible survivor near the crash at around 1215Z, but the report was never corroborated. It is remotely possible that one of the men aboard the helicopter survived, only to succumb to his wounds before rescue forces could reach the LZ, but it is equally possible that what the Apache pilot saw was a Taliban combatant, investigating the wreck. No one will likely ever know.
The birds continued to orbit the mountain. A No Fire Area was established for a 500 meter radius around the downed helicopter, so as to avoid accidentally hitting any possible survivors. There would be no air support or artillery missions approved within 500 meters of the crash site.
While the SEALs desperately wanted to get on the ground to look for surviving SEALs and Nightstalkers from the downed bird, as well as retrieve the SR team that still had not been contacted, word came from CJSOTF (Commander, Joint Special Operations Task Force) to return to Jalalabad. The risk of losing another helicopter on the mountain was considered too great. The aircraft turned southwest for Jalalabad airbase, while the SEALs aboard Turbine 32 fumed at losing a chance to rescue their brothers.
It was later reported that Turbine 33 was struck by an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) that went through the open ramp and impacted the main driveshaft, thus downing the bird. According to the SEALs who witnessed the shoot-down, however, it is the consensus that it was not an RPG, but something much more powerful, a MANPAD (MAN Portable Air Defense) of some kind. RPGs, contrary to movies and video games, do not leave smoke trails. Missiles do. There had been rumors of Stingers still around from the Soviet-Afghan War, but those were just that—rumors. Stinger batteries don’t last all that long; the missiles have a definite shelf-life. Whether it will ever be discovered what exactly shot down Turbine 33 is unlikely, but the question of how many loose SA-7 Strela shoulder launched surface to air missiles are still floating around has to be asked.
Given the operational impact of acknowledging an actual MANPAD (Man Portable Aire Defense System) threat in-theater, the reports were put down as an RPG shot down Turbine 33. Otherwise, it would have been necessary to completely alter air operations in the entire AO (Area of Operation). It did, however, put a substantial damper on air operations in support of the rescue effort. Having lost one bird already, the command became extremely skittish about risking another.
Were a suspected MANPAD reported, and found to be true, there’s the likely-hood loss of life in theatre linked to shot down helicopters could have been prevented, including the controversial Extortion 17 crash that would happen years later.
The SEALs weren’t going to sit still in Jalalabad. Now, not only were four SEALs missing on the mountain, but another eight, plus their Nightstalker brethren, had gone down on the same mountain. Getting off the MH-47, they pushed to get aboard new birds, this time UH-60 Blackhawks. They had to get back to the crash site as quickly as possible, in case the reports from the Apache pilots had been correct, and anyone had survived. The birds took off and headed back northeast toward Sawtalo Sar, passing over the checkered fields of the Kunar River valley before heading up into the Hindu Kush as the sun began to go down.
It was only about a 65 kilometer flight from Jalalabad to Sawtalo Sar. But they only made it about halfway before the storms building up in the mountains made it too dangerous to fly. The pilots had to tell the SEALs that they had to return to base, and turned around for Jalalabad once more. Once again, the SEALs had to wait, knowing their comrades—those still alive—were in deadly jeopardy on the mountain slopes.
Shortly after returning to Jalalabad, the SEALs were ordered back to Bagram, to reconstitute a new rescue force. The effort would now be completely coordinated out of Bagram Air Field.
It was after the second attempt to rescue the downed SEALs and the SR team that CJSOTF called off the organic rescue effort, and called for dedicated Air Force Rescue to come in and take over. The initial effort had been according to SOP, but with the situation getting more complex, especially with Turbine 33 down, the commander wanted expert rescue personnel involved. There were no Combat Rescue personnel or plans in that AO at the time.
The call was answered by AF Combat Rescue personnel of the 59th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron from Kandahar. The Combat Rescue Officer, or CRO (Combat Rescue Officer), had been in Kunar only a week before, working out of Camp Blessing in Nangalam to attempt to find and rescue a Marine who had been lost in the Pech River. While on an evening patrol, Marines in a Humvee had been moving down the road next to the river when the Humvee hit a washout, and began to tip toward the water. Two Marines were in the back of the vehicle, and when the truck started to slide, one went out to the left, the other to the right, into the water. The driver managed to right the vehicle, but the Marine had been swept away by the current. The Combat Rescue personnel, along with more Marines and their attached Afghan National Army counterparts, searched for several days, but the lost Marine was never found. Neither was any of his equipment.
The CRO, 6 Pararescue Jumpers, or PJs, and three HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, two of which were from the 920th Rescue Wing, a reserve unit, flown by “Skinny” and “Spanky,” flew from Kandahar to Bagram Air Field in the afternoon of June 28. The CRO went straight to the Joint Operations Center (JOC) to get a handle on the situation, while the other Rescue personnel got ready to head out as soon as possible.
The 920th Rescue Wing pilots and crews were reservists, and as such encountered a fair amount of tension with the 160th SOAR personnel. The Nightstalkers had lost 8 of their own, and felt that it should be their responsibility to go rescue them. They didn’t necessarily trust the training and expertise of reservists, who didn’t train constantly for the job, as they saw it. In fact, the reserve pilots and crews did spend a great deal of their time either training or deployed; the 920th is the only Reserve Combat Rescue Wing in the US Air Force and with the GWOT in full swing, they had quite a few operational commitments. Spanky had been flying Combat Rescue for 10 years.
The 920th pilots and crews had actually been scheduled to return home within days; several of them already had plans for the 4th of July. The disaster on Sawtalo Sar deferred those plans.
Getting up to speed and ready to go wasn’t as easy as it might sound. The CRO was the only one cleared to enter the JOC in the first place, which put a crimp in getting the rest up to speed. They had to get clearance paperwork done, and get the necessary briefs on what was going on. The concerns about possibly losing another helicopter on the mountain were still very fresh, which meant there was not a lot of hurry to send the HH-60s back up. There was required maintenance on the helicopters after the flight from Kandahar, as well as required crew rest before they could fly again.
In the JOC, the CRO sat down with the Special Tactics Officer, the Air Force SOF officer on-site, and got the full briefing of what they knew had gone down. There were already Rangers, Special Forces, and some PJs heading for Turbine 33’s crash site, so the primary effort became about finding the 4-man SEAL team that had come under fire, then dropped off comms. They had to figure out what they would do next, where they would go, so that they could get rescue assets there to pick them up.
What he found as soon as he started working was that there was very little coordination going on. Between the Army, Air Force, NSW (Naval Special Warfare), and the Marines, there were lots of units and groups trying to get in to help, but very few were talking to each other. The communications channels between the different chains of command simply weren’t there. Units in the field were setting up comms (slang for communications) with their own headquarters, but all of the radio frequencies being utilized for the rescue effort were separate. So anything the Rangers found wasn’t necessarily being passed to the Special Forces, which wasn’t being passed to the Air Force personnel who were in charge of the overall effort. In fact, throughout the entire recovery operation, the Combat Rescue personnel were never entirely sure who was where and when on the ground, due to the spotty nature of the communications channels.
He also found that, while the initial actions to launch the QRF on Turbine 32 and Turbine 33, and the follow-on attempt to get SEALs, PJs (USAF Pararescue), and Combat Controllers to the crash site were the correct ones, there really wasn’t any further contingency planning in place. There was no plan beyond the initial attempt. While the CRO will today stress that everything they did was the right thing to do, the JSOTF in Kunar was winging it. That was what he was there to fix.
While all this was happening, in spite of the numbers of forces on the ground already, including elements of 2nd Ranger Battalion, Special Forces, and Marines from 2/3 who were pushing into the Korengal and Merit valleys from Camp Blessing, more forces were deemed to be needed on the ground. To this end, elements of 3rd Ranger Battalion, still Stateside in Georgia, were called in and told to get ready to deploy to Afghanistan. All the 3rd Battalion Rangers were told initially was that a MH-47 had gone down with sixteen men aboard, SEALs and Nightstalkers. They would not find out about the 4-man SR team on the mountain until they arrived at Bagram.
The Rangers, most of whom were off-duty, were simply paged to report to Battalion Headquarters. When they got to their Company areas, they were told to pack their gear and get ready to go. 18 hours after receiving the first page, they were on the plane and heading for Afghanistan.
With forces already preparing to move to the Turbine 33 crash site, and the site being known already, the CRO’s primary focus became finding the 4-man SR (Surveillance and Reconnaissance) team. While Turbine 33 was well localized, no one knew exactly where the team was, or whether they were alive or dead. The assumption, for the sake of the operation, was that they were alive; if they were alive, it made it all the more urgent to find them and get them out. They were alone, off comms, in enemy territory, and quite likely one or more of them were wounded. The longer they stayed lost, the greater the likelihood that they would wind up dead. In fact, three of them already were dead, but the JOC didn’t know that for certain.
The first priority, in addition to getting air assets up to search and attempt to make contact over the SAR frequency, was to get inside the SEALs’ heads, and try to ascertain where they would go, assuming they were still alive. To that end, the CRO had to go through all of their operational plans and materials, as well as their personnel recovery materials, which would provide information that only they would know, in the event they were found, and had to be identified on the ground.
What had to be determined was what direction the team would go, based on their Escape and Evasion plan, what retrieval point they would make for, and what equipment they had with them they could signal with. What was their SAR (Search and Rescue) frequency? What non-radio signaling devices did they have? Moreover, he had to get to know the men themselves. He had to get into their heads, figure out how they thought, to try to determine what each one of them would do when alone and cut off, with everything having gone to hell in a handbasket. A man in a team will react differently from a man alone. Even if they had a detailed team E&E plan, there was no guarantee that if cut off from each other, they would follow it exactly. Personality quirks became extremely important.
He immediately ran into some serious difficulty. The E&E (Escape and Evasion) plan the SR team had left was vague at best—in fact, there hardly was one. There was a possible retrieval area, but actual E&E routes, especially in the brutally steep terrain of Kunar, weren’t there. The team may well have had a detailed E&E plan worked up before going out; they just didn’t leave a copy of it with the JOC (Joint Operations Center). This made the CRO’s job considerably harder, as the “Probability of Area,” the zone where the lost team might be found, couldn’t be narrowed down without that E&E plan, unless they actually made contact with the team.
Determining how they might make contact was made even harder by the fact that the team had apparently not left behind an Equipment Density List, or the list of all serialized gear (to include comms and other signaling devices), when they left on the mission. At least it couldn’t be found when the CRO requested it at the JOC. Eventually, however, some photographs of the team, taken just before insert, provided some idea of the equipment they’d taken with them.
They had gone light on comms, taking only PRC-148 MBITR radios and a satellite phone. The PRC-148 is a small, light, individual VHF/UHF radio. It is technically capable of satellite communications, but the MBITR can also be notoriously unreliable. While lightening the load, especially in the terrain they were operating in, is usually a good idea, comm is a reconnaissance team’s lifeline. All four men, Murphy, Luttrell, Dietz, and Axelson, were members of SDV Team 1, a SEAL team that specialized in reconnaissance. They would have known this. While the reasoning behind their choice not to take a heavier-duty radio isn’t known for sure, it does raise some eyebrows among those with reconnaissance experience. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, it could well be that they were familiar enough and confident enough in the SATCOM ability of the MBITR that they decided they could make do with it. The fact that comm failure contributed to their being cut off belies their confidence; in fact, at one point the only way they could make contact with the rear was with a Leatherman tool jammed into the antenna jack of a PRC-148.
To further expand his knowledge of the team, the CRO pulled all of their record files and began studying them. He interviewed other SEALs to try to understand the men’s personalities. By the time he was finished, he felt like he knew all four men personally. It only hardened his resolve to get them back. As a PJ before he was commissioned, he had always felt a kinship with the SOF (Special Operations Force) operators out in the field that he might be called upon to go rescue in just such circumstances. He considered them his brothers just as much as teammates might consider each other brothers. It was more than an assignment to get these men back; it was now a personal mission. He had family up on that mountain.
Even before sundown on the 28th, another obstacle to making contact with the missing SEALs arose. At 1623, an AC-130 Spectre gunship orbiting Turbine 33’s crash site reported one individual on the ground with a strobe, a common identifying marker for Coalition forces. It was only the first of many false communication attempts by the enemy, attempting to draw the Combat Rescue forces into a trap.
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