I sat down with a former Ranger medic from 3rd Ranger Battalion for a few hours to talk about the massive rescue and recovery operation following Operation Red Wings. Doc’s platoon was alerted and deployed to Afghanistan within 18 hours.
SOFREP: What was going through your head when you first got the page to deploy to Afghanistan ahead of our scheduled rotation which was a couple of weeks away?
Doc: Some of us were actually planning to have a barbecue when the page came in to report immediately to Battalion. Once I showed up to the Charlie Company area it was a mad house. My platoon (1st platoon) was the only one of the three to get alerted. At first I thought it was a random piss test until we were told to get our gear and hop on a plane.
From the time we were paged to the time we took off for Afghanistan it was well under 18 hours.
SOFREP: Did you have any information about what was going on?
Doc: We found out in route that a helicopter full of special operations personnel were down in Afghanistan. There was no mention of the 4-man SEAL team. The lack of information wasn’t because of secrecy, it most likely derived from a lack of information dissemination coming from Afghanistan. As the medic my focus was on “downed helo.” That meant casualty care and/or body recovery, which is part of my job.
SOFREP: You reach Afghanistan and then what sequence of events happened?
Doc: We landed in Bagram Air Base early afternoon that next day. I remember taking a bus to the JSOC compound where we were told to grab MREs, water, and kit up. Within an hour we received our mission brief, in which the first mention was made of the 4-man SEAL element that came under fire.
Our mission was to get on the ground and essentially patrol the entire area until we found them. The assumption was, based on the briefing, that we believed the SEALs to be alive and were escaping and evading the Taliban forces. I don’t think anybody at this point had any idea that three of them had been killed.
During the mission briefing, they also went over the route that the shot down MH-47 took and the point of where it crashed. This was immediately followed up by going over the route of which we will be taking to the crash site – it was the same route.
It was a “what the fuck?” moment for most of us.
SOFREP: The infiltration went smoothly I assume – what happened once you hit the ground?
Doc: First thing I saw was wreckage from the “Turbine 33” – the downed MH-47D that claimed the lives of 8 SEALs and 8 Night Stalkers. At this point the bodies from the crash site had all been recovered as we were probably the last element to arrive and help in the rescue effort more than a day after the shoot-down occurred.
Once boots were on the ground, we came across a Special Forces ODA huddled around a camp fire. It was my assumption this was an enemy infested area and these guys didn’t even have security in place. I later found out that there were plenty of friendlies in the general vicinity, including the other elements from SEAL Team 10 who were on the second Chinook during the initial rescue force.
I really didn’t know what to expect once we got here. In my naivete I assumed we were going to set up a patrol base where we kept most of our gear, and would head out on patrols and then return to base at the end of the night.
Well I was dead wrong.
Although we were packed light – no body armor and wearing our Rhodesian patrol vests – I had brought with me two separate packs: my aid bag, and my assault pack,which held my extra clothes, food, and water. I had planned to keep one in the patrol base and the other with me on patrols. Well, it turns out we were not coming back, so I had to wear both at the same time. All I could do was attach them together at the handles with a D-ring and for the next three days I had my assault pack banging against the side of my head with every step I took.
SOFREP: You setup a patrol base and packed it in for the night, talk to us about the first day of the mission.
Doc: We left the patrol base as soon as morning came with the objective of moving towards the area where the 4-man SEAL team was initially compromised. Before we stepped off, I gave an IV bag to each of the squad leaders to have just in case, one of whom complained about the extra weight but took it nevertheless.
We were maybe moving for an hour when the reality set in of how much this was going to suck. The air was thin, the terrain was unforgiving, and I had two heavy packs on my back, one of which was alternating from slapping the left side of my head to the right side of my head with every step.
We also added two men to our platoon, they were from the CIA’s secretive paramilitary force of Afghans, officially known as the Counterterrorist Pursuit Team, but from what I remember their nickname was the “Mohawks.” They were going to act as our interpreters who could also lay waste to Taliban if it came to it.
The highlight of our first day was when one Ranger opened fire in a thick foliage. He said he saw a man hiding in the trees – the rest of us thought he was seeing shit and we didn’t go look for anybody. The rest of the day comprised of moving up and down on some of the harshest terrain I have ever been on, and I grew up hiking in Arizona. Men were on hands and knees trying to crawl up the mountainsides.
Finally, night came and we setup a new patrol base. I never thought we would be on a real world mission where we would be setting up a patrol base and putting out claymores around the perimeter – it was some awesome Vietnam-type shit!
My responsibility was to make sure the guys around the perimeter were healthy, so I started checking everybody’s feet. I took care of a few blisters, but aside from that, everybody was still in high spirits. We even had a resupply pallet dropped from a plane, which landed feet away from two Rangers. It would have killed them instantly.
For a side note of humor – there was a 75th RRD team taking part of the search as well in a nearby area who also had a resupply drop that night. One of the operators was taking a piss in the middle of the night when he looked up to see a chem light falling from the sky. He looked up just in time to see the pallet coming down right above him! He leaped to the side and avoided it, but the pallet broke a large tree branch as it descended, which subsequently fell on the operator and knocked him unconscious.
Continue reading: Operation Red Wings II: Lone Survivor Recovery (Part II)