Rangers, Special Forces, and PJs were already moving up the mountain toward the crash site. It would take them until nearly midnight to reach it, after the first attempt had been turned back by the weather, but the weather had eased up. There had also been the issue of theater command denying any further flights in the area. The loss of Turbine 33 had hit US forces hard, and no one wanted to risk losing another bird on Sawtalo Sar. The CRO and the two 920th Rescue Wing pilots remained focused on the missing SR team.
Other Rangers and Special Forces were patrolling the surrounding valleys, looking for any sign of the missing SEALs. Marines from 2/3 were pushing down from the north, but 2/3’s chain of command had no contact with the JOC; while they were known to be operating in the area (it was their AO, after all), the CRO didn’t know exactly where the patrols were, and had no contact with them. This disconnect would continue throughout the operation.
Throughout the day, there were more and more reports of attempted communication on the SAR frequencies, and aircraft were reporting visual signals as well. Few if any of these reports could be corroborated by satellite or national assets, and as the CRO mapped them out with pushpins on the map in the JOC, he saw increasingly clearly that the enemy was attempting to draw in the rescue forces. By the time the operation was over, there had been between 50 and 60 separate attempts at communication, either over the SAR frequencies or by visual signals, and spread over a radius of over 6 miles. It was frankly impossible that they were coming from the missing SEALs, as there were too many of them, spread too widely. While it was possible that some of the contacts were coming from one of the missing men, the rest of the white noise made it impossible to determine if such was the case, and if so, which ones. As it was, the enemy’s spoofing tactics were never officially reported, although mention remains in the AAR.
The CRO and the rest of the personnel in the JOC continued to attempt to nail down a workable “Probability of Area.” Unfortunately, with the terrain being as harsh as it is, the lack of verifiable contact with any of the SEALs, on top of the uncertainty as to their E&E plan, the task appeared hopeless. They didn’t even know which direction they may have gone—east into the Shuryek Valley, west into the Korengal (which was considerably more hostile to US forces than the Shuryek), or even north or south along the ridge. They had to press on, hoping and praying that the SEALs were still alive, while constantly attempting to establish contact on every frequency on the team’s comm plan.
Rangers, USAF Combat Controllers, and PJs finally arrived at Turbine 33’s crash site at 2316Z, set security, and began to recover the bodies, as well as any electronics, equipment, and weapons. The earlier reports of a survivor on the ground were belied, as they found the bodies of all 16 men aboard, 8 Nightstalkers and 8 SEALs. The crash being as localized as it was, on the relatively flat shoulder of the mountain, they didn’t have to go far, as they set a perimeter and went to work.
Meanwhile, it had taken some time, but the pilots finally had the go-ahead to go back up into the mountains to search from the air. CJSOTF had been reluctant to clear any more flights, fearing the loss of another helicopter after the shoot-down of Turbine 33. Finally, with a stern warning to the pilots that the US could not afford to lose another bird on that mountain, they were allowed to take off.
This time, the birds didn’t take off until after dark. Turbine 33 had been shot down trying to land in broad daylight, driven by the sense of urgency to get the SEALs out. The follow-on rescue effort would be more cautious, relying on the cover of darkness to keep the birds safe.
Skinny and Spanky flew patterns over Sawtalo Sar and the surrounding Korengal and Shuryek Valleys, listening and watching for any sign of the missing men. Spanky was on the radio, calling out repeatedly, “This is Air Force Rescue. We are here to get you out. Please, show yourself. Make yourself known.” They flew close to the mountainsides, looking with night vision goggles and the helicopters’ Forward Looking InfraRed (FLIR) thermal cameras for any sign of the missing men. But in the mountainous terrain, without a verifiable signal to narrow things down, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Multiple times during the night, they heard the radio key on the SAR frequencies, but they could never nail down where the transmissions were coming from, or whether they were legitimate. Given the pattern that was developing in the JOC, most or all of them were SAR traps, sent by the enemy to attempt to draw the helicopters in to striking range.
Several times, aircraft even saw IR lasers signaling from the ground. It is still uncertain where exactly the enemy procured them, as Marcus does not recall signaling with his own laser at any time. The weapons captured from the dead SEALs, which Ahmad Shah’s fighters displayed in their video, did have PEQ-2 IR laser sights attached; it is entirely possible that these were the source of the spurious IR signals.
As dawn approached, the helicopters had to turn back to return to Bagram before losing the cover of darkness. There had been no definite sign of the SEALs, but they weren’t about to give up.