RANGERS IN COMBAT - Excerpt

CHAPTER 18

BROTHERHOOD

THE LEGACY:

 

At approximately 3 AM on 4 March, with tail ramp down, the twin-rotor black silhouette of the 52-foot long Razor 03 helicopter approached HLZ Ginger located in a small saddle just beneath the peak of Takur Ghar, and touched down.  Despite the darkness, both Chinook pilots and the team in the cargo bay could see fresh tracks in the snow.  Goatskins lay about, and other signs of recent human activity could be observed.  The chopper’s crew reported the presence of a heavy machinegun about 50 yards off the nose of the aircraft, but it was unmanned; such sights were not uncommon in Afghanistan where caves and ridges were littered with seemingly abandoned tanks, armored personnel carriers, and anti-aircraft guns.  On the ramp, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Neil C. Roberts stood first in line to disembark.  Despite some tell-tale signs of human activity, the SEALs announced that the mission was a go, and that they were departing.

 

Suddenly, the muzzle flash of heavy machine-gun fire erupted from several directions, with bullets stitching the fuselage.  Streaking from the left side, a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) impacted against the side of the aircraft penetrating the skin, and detonating within the cargo bay in a blinding flash.   Severed hydraulic and oil lines spewed slippery fluids along the floorboards and about the ramp area.

 

In the right rear of the aircraft, a crew chief yelled to the pilots, “We’re taking fire!  Go!  Go!  Go!”  The helicopter shuddered and jerked as the pilots fought to lift the stricken chopper out of the hot landing zone (LZ), its electrical system short-circuited and hydraulics seriously damaged.  In a jerk, it began to lift off from the small clearing, gaining altitude.

 

In the rear, already off-balance from the impact of the RPG and losing traction from the fluids pouring on the floor about him, Roberts fell off the ramp with the sudden burst of engine power.  A rear crew chief tried to grab the SEAL as he went off the ramp but went over the side himself as he lost balance and footing.  Roberts fell approximately ten feet to the snowy ground below.  The crew chief, tethered to the bird with a harness, dangled off the edge of the ramp.  A second crew chief struggled to pull him back in as the helicopter was placed in a dive down the mountainside.

 

Leveling off, the pilot tried to climb, but the MH-47E began to shake badly from the bullet holes in its rotors and the hydraulics started to give out.  Informed that Roberts had fallen out and been left back on top of Takur Ghar, the pilot attempted to turn back, only to find his controls locked up as the hydraulic fluid reservoirs ran dry.

 

With the dangling crew chief finally safely on board, the crew began pumping desperately to force spare hydraulic fluids back into the system.  Though the controls came back and the pilot was able to level off the helicopter, the pilot knew that the chopper was no longer functional enough to return to combat.

 

 “Sorry guys, we’re going to have to abort,” was all he could offer as they began to make their way farther down the mountain’s slope.

 

Heavily damaged, Razor 03 limped north, eventually landing at the north end of the valley, approximately four miles from HLZ Ginger.  Within 30 to 45 minutes, Razor 04 and its SEAL team arrived to help secure the downed aircraft.  Options were discussed but with two teams, one operable aircraft and the perception that enemy forces were quickly closing in on their site, the only viable option seemed to be to return with everyone to a staging base at Gardez, drop off Razor 03’s crew, then return to Ginger with the SEALs for Roberts.  The SEALs knew that time was of the essence and that their only real hope of getting Roberts out alive was to take their chances and be set down in the same LZ where Roberts had fallen.

 

It was about 5 AM when Razor 04 made its approach to Takur Ghar.  Darkness was waning and about forty feet above the HLZ the pilot saw the first muzzle flashes of a machinegun just off the nose of the helicopter.  The MH-47E began to take heavier fires as it set down on the HLZ, the rounds “pinging and popping through.”  With machinegun fire cutting through the skin of the aircraft, the six member rescue team quickly exited the chopper.  Though damaged, Razor 04 was able to lift off, and safely returned to base.

 

The SEALs moved out and took withering fire.  All about them, the enemy was nowhere to be seen, located within dug trenches, hidden under trees, and obscured by shadows.  They moved toward the most prominent features on the hill, a large rock, and tree at the base of which unbeknown to them, were two enemy bunkers.

 

Approaching the tree, Technical Sergeant John Chapman, the team’s CCT and a nearby SEAL opened fire killing two of the enemy that the airman had spotted in a fortified position under the tree.  From 20 yards away, another bunker position opened fire, catching Chapman, 36, husband and father of two, with a burst of gunfire.  The airman fell to the ground, mortally wounded.

 

In quick succession, two more SEALs were wounded by enemy fire and grenade fragmentation.  Now, badly outnumbered by al Qaeda, with half the team either dead or wounded, and caught in a deadly crossfire on the mountain top, the SEALs decided to disengage from the direct fire fight and began to withdraw down the peak.

 

Prior to Razor 04’s insertion, the Ranger Quick Reaction Force (QRF)—from A Company, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment—located at Bagram, approximately 100 miles from Gardez had been alerted.  The QRF was a designated standby unit trained for just such emergency rescue situations.  Task organized into two elements, the QRF’s Chalk 1—a military term and designation for a ground unit assigned to an aircraft—was assigned to the MH-47E codenamed Razor 1, crewed by eight members of the 160th SOAR.

 

The overall commander, Captain Nathan Self, 25, a West Point graduate, was assigned to Chalk 1.  While they had been in Afghanistan since December, and scrambled on a number of occasions, none of the team members had seen combat in Afghanistan, or anywhere else, for that matter.

 

An additional eight Rangers and four Air Force special operatives from the Special Tactics Squadron completed Chalk 1.  The aircrew of Razor 01 was composed of nine additional soldiers, a mixture of 160th SOAR and Air Force personnel.  The remainder of the QRF, Razor 2’s Chalk 2, was comprised of ten Rangers under the command of Staff Sergeant Arin Canon.

 

Shortly after 5 AM, as the SEALs—inserted by Razor 04—were fighting for their lives, Razor 01 and Razor 02, loaded with Chalk 1 and Chalk 2 respectively, lifted off from Bagram to make the flight to Gardez.  Given the rapidly changing situation, the lack of intelligence gathering platforms in the area and the communications problems, the QRF flew off into the unknown, lacking any awareness of what was actually happening on Takur Ghar.

 

As the QRF flew to Gardez, the embattled SEALs requested the QRF’s immediate assistance as they began to withdraw down Takur Ghar.  Headquarters approved the request and directed the QRF to proceed quickly to the area and insert the team at an “offset” HLZ—meaning they were to select an LZ at their discretion but some distance away from the designated coordinates that had been provided earlier.  They were not to land at HLZ Ginger, where Razors 03 and 04 had taken heavy fire and sustained serious damage.

 

Tragically, the QRF never received the “offset” instructions.  Headquarters made several attempts to pass the information about the offset and SEAL situation through other means, but those efforts were misunderstood.  At 5:45 AM, Razor 01 and Razor 02 were entering “the box”—operational area—of Anaconda.  Razor 02 moved off to take a holding pattern over the Shahikot valley as Razor 01 flew on, directly towards HLZ Ginger.  Soon, all communications were lost between the two MH-47Es as Razor 01 disappeared up, into the mountain.

 

Self and his men were totally uninformed of the situation.  They did not know how many of the enemy to expect.  They did not know what weapons systems they’d be facing.  They didn’t know exactly where the enemy would be.  They didn’t have any communications with support elements.  And they didn’t even know where the SEALs were that they were sent to rescue.  They were essentially flying blind.  “Into the valley of Death rode the 22”...to paraphrase Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade.

 

The Rangers in Razor 01 were quickly losing the advantage of darkness as they continued to fly in the dawn’s rapidly growing early light.  The six-minute warning—a time hack reference from pilot to passengers—was issued to Chalk 1 at 6:09 AM.  Approaching the HLZ from the south, the black form of Razor 01, illuminated by the sun, was just beginning to crest the mountains to the east.  The helicopter was on its final approach when the impact of an RPG knocked out the right engine with the aircraft still 20 feet off the ground.  The RPG was followed immediately by heavy machinegun fire that sprayed the side of the Razor 01 and shattered the glass in the cockpit.  Small arms fire struck from three sides.  Sergeant Philip J. Svitak, 31, father of two, flight engineer and right forward gunner fired a single burst of his 7.62 mm minigun before he was struck down by an AK-47 bullet and died almost instantly.  The other forward gunner, David (the last names of Task Force 160 were withheld by their request), was hit in the right leg but continued to sweep the terrain with fire.

 

The pilots struggled to abort the landing but with the loss of an engine, Razor 01 slammed into the ground, its nose pointing up the hill toward the main enemy bunkers.  It impacted hard enough to send the Rangers and aircrew sprawling across the floorboards.  David was sprawled on the floor, attempting to apply a tourniquet to his bleeding and broken leg with the nylon cord that was normally attached to his 9 mm pistol.

 

Rounds shattered the cockpit glass, along with the lower leg of one of the pilots, Chuck.  Kicking open his emergency side door, the pilot flopped onto the snow alongside the downed bird.  The second pilot, Greg, had a chunk of his left wrist ripped off as another round passed through his thigh.  Wrist spurting blood even as he held it, the pilot staggered out of the cockpit toward the rear of the aircraft.

 

Insulation rained as confetti from the rounds peppering all about.  Through the right forward window an RPG streaked to impact against an electronic console that started to burn.  The aircraft medic, Sergeant First Class Cory, took three rounds to his Kevlar helmet, sufficient enough to knock him down but inflicting only a small laceration to an eyebrow.  Though the fire was soon put out, the air was still laced with smoke and bullets, and the enemy seemed to be firing from everywhere.  Razor 01 was in a hornet’s nest.

In the rear of the downed MH-47E, the rear door gunner and a Ranger opened fire, killing one al Qaeda.  But the Rangers knew that they’d all be dead if they didn’t get out of the Chinook quickly.  With every second counting, a well-rehearsed exit out of the rear of the aircraft to assigned positions around the helicopter was replaced by a desperate evacuation to get out of the hulk that had now become a virtual magnet for bullets.

 

In the mass exodus, the Chalk 1 crew braved the fires and rushed down the rear ramp.  Specialist Marc A. Anderson, 30, due to be discharged from the Army within a few months, his term of enlistment completed, was cut down and killed while still in the cargo bay.  Sergeant Bradley S. Crose, 22, and Private First Class Matthew A. Commons, 21, were both killed on the ramp.  To have four men outfitted in full battle armor cut down and killed in such a brief time span, only indicated the incredible fusillade of fire they all faced at that moment.

 

Others were more fortunate.  Specialist Anthony Miceli had only his 5.56mm M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW)—a light machinegun—struck by enemy fire as he made his way down the ramp while Staff Sergeant Joshua Walker had a bullet stopped by his Kevlar helmet.

 

From a Predator drone—an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft—above, visual imagery was transmitted back to the commander of U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan, Army Major General Franklin L. "Buster" Hagenbeck, headquartered at Bagram air base just outside Kabul.  There, he and his staff watched in stunned amazement the unexpected ferocity of the ambush as the real-time imagery streamed in.  Noted Hagenbeck, "It was gut-wrenching.  We saw the helicopter getting shot as it was just setting down. We saw the shots being fired. And it was unbelievable the Rangers were even able to get off that [helicopter] and kill the enemy without suffering greater losses."

 

Laboring through knee-deep snow, the surviving Rangers spread out separately in different directions and returned fire at two enemy concentrations 50 to 75 yards above them on the ridgeline.  Each man sought whatever cover he could find among the rocks.  From the left rear of the aircraft, at about the 8 o’clock position—the nose of the aircraft pointing at 12 o’clock—the first Ranger out, Staff Sergeant Raymond DePouli, spotted two or three of the enemy.  As tracers impacted on his body armor, he let loose a full magazine of rounds from his M-4 assault rifle that quickly eliminated the source of the firing.

 

Behind a boulder located under a tree off to the right at 2 o’clock, another cluster of enemy fighters was engaging with machineguns and RPGs, one of which impacted and detonated near the right side of the bird.  Shrapnel whizzed through the air, wounding Staff Sergeant Kevin Vance in the left shoulder, Specialist Aaron Totten-Lancaster in his right calf, and Self in the right thigh.

 

Another RPG followed, deflecting off the MH-47’s tail.  Moving around from the far side of the aircraft, DePouli could see the man who fired the RPG and shot him in the head.

 

The sounds and smells were different than many of them had expected.  For Self, it all seemed surreal.  “You see something happening and it doesn’t seem real.  We understood we were getting shot [at].  But it just seemed like a bad movie.”

 

The fright and disorientation of the first moments of intense combat were soon replaced by a sense of anger and outright indignation.  Walker vented his irritation with a shout, “Who do these guys think they are?” followed by a rush forward.  Laying down fire from his M-4 as he advanced, Walker moved to the aircraft’s right side and took up a position behind a rock.  He was soon joined by Self and Vance.

 

Totten-Lancaster, who’d been struck in the right calf by shrapnel from an RPG, attempted to join the other three Rangers, only to realize that he couldn’t stand on his right leg.  The wound did not stop him as he rolled the several yards necessary to reach the rock.

 

A bit farther behind and to the right of the small group as they scanned the ridge above them, DePouli and Private First Class David Gilliam—the newest member of the platoon and the only one not to take a hit to the body or equipment—sought cover behind another rock, where they found the bullet-ridden body of an al Qaeda and an unused RPG.  The seventh surviving Ranger of Chalk 1, Miceli, remained on the left side of the aircraft, guarding that flank with a team member’s weapon that he’d grabbed off the ground to replace his damaged SAW.

 

For the next few moments, a grenade exchange took place with several Rangers attempting to hurl them towards the closest enemy position approximately 50 yards away while a similar effort was attempted by some al Qaeda.  The exchange of explosive charges proved to be ineffective for the farthest the grenades could humanly be thrown was only about 35 yards.

 

Inside the helicopter, the wounded were being attended to in the shot-up cargo bay by Cory and the two para-rescue jumpers (PJs), Tech Sergeant Cary Miller and Senior Airman Jason Cunningham.  All three wounded were crew members:  Chuck—who’d been pulled around to the back of the aircraft after escaping through his side cockpit door—with a serious leg wound, Greg—who had to have a tourniquet applied to stop the bleeding of his left wrist, and David, who still had the tourniquet applied to his leg wound.

 

Electing to keep the wounded inside the aircraft in order to shield them from enemy fire, Cory and the two PJs were compelled to crawl on their stomachs within the ruins of the chopper to make their way around, for the enemy could see into the heavily damaged right side of the helicopter from their elevated vantage point off the nose of the aircraft, and shot anything that moved inside.  Cory also knew that he needed to do his best to shelter the seriously wounded men from the cold; anyone who loses significant amounts of blood is more susceptible to hypothermia.

 

Outside of the chopper, Captain Self needed help to keep fighting, and enlisted the aid of two aircraft crewmembers, Don and Brian.  Returning to the chopper, the crewmen came back with additional ammo and Commons’ M-203 grenade launcher that he’d been carrying when cut down on the ramp.  Multiple returns to the chopper under the covering fire of the Rangers left both men near exhaustion because of the high altitude.  But, they had accomplished their mission, and the Rangers were now ready to carry the fight to the enemy, just as they’d been trained to do.

 

Unfortunately, given the circumstances of a downed helicopter, wounded, dying and dead buddies, there was only one offensive choice available to them.  To their left was high ground, movement along which would leave them exposed for too long to enemy fires.  To their right, the terrain dropped off steeply, leaving no possibility for maneuver.  Self said: “That’s when we made the decision that the only way to assault would be straight at them.”

 

Gilliam, armed with his M-240B heavy machinegun was told to provide cover fires with Brian serving as his assistant gunner (AG).  With Gilliam laying down withering 7.62 mm machinegun fires, Self, DePouli, Walker, and Vance charged.  Weapons ablaze and grenades in hand, they assaulted up the hill, laboring through three feet of snow.

 

Suddenly, after approximately twenty-five yards, half way up the hill, Self spotted an enemy fighter in a chest-deep entrenchment.  Glancing around a tree, the enemy took a shot before disappearing down into his hole.  The reality of the situation struck Self immediately as he realized that he and his three fellow teammates were attacking bunkers shielded by logs, and camouflaged with branches, leaves, and snow.  They did not have sufficient manpower or weaponry for such a task.

 

 “Bunker!  Bunker!  Bunker!  Get back!” he shouted to the others.

 

The small team returned to the rocks.  The Rangers knew that any further attacks would require more than four soldiers.

 

Staff Sergeant Gabe Brown, in the meanwhile, had made his way about 25 yards down the slope to the rear of the helicopter to set up a communications post behind a rock from where he was able to finally establish communications with the SEALs.  It was the first news Self had that the SEALs they had come to rescue were no longer even on the ridge top!  They had already moved some distance down the mountain even before the Rangers had arrived.

 

With rescuing the SEALs no longer an urgent matter, Brown went to work attempting to contact any U.S. fighter bombers in the area for close air support (CAS).  His frustration began to mount as communications glitches continued to hamper his ability to contact any support.  At last, nearly 20 minutes after the helicopter had been shot down, he was able to reach Bagram and receive the additional radio frequencies he needed to talk to the inbound fighter-bombers, two F-15 Eagles and two F-16 Falcons.

 

Multiple gun runs by the CAS with 20mm cannon fire failed to destroy the bunker.  Finally, despite the danger and closeness of the target to the Rangers, the aircraft dropped three 500-pound GBU-12s (Guided Bomb Unit).

 

The first bomb impacted down the hill, behind the helicopter, prompting Brown to chide the pilot, just a bit.

 

“Whoa, you almost got us with that one.  Can you move it a little closer to the tree?”

 

The second strike was on the ridge crest, to the front of the downed bird.  The third, and last, strike proved to be a direct hit on the bunker, destroying the tree before it, in the process.

 

Though the air strike had suppressed the enemy fire and destroyed one of their bunkers by mid-morning, the high ground of Takur Ghar ridge was still in enemy hands, and Self was no closer to securing it.  Enemy fighters could be observed in the distance moving to envelope them from the rear.  Spotters in the area and aircraft overhead noted other signs of enemy reinforcement efforts.

 

With the bunker destroyed, Cory was able to shift his patients to an area behind Razor 01.  Though their bleeding had stopped and their vitals remained stable, all three were suffering from life-threatening injuries and were in dire need of quality medical care.  They needed to be evacuated immediately.

 

An apprehensive aircrew unaccustomed to ground combat grew more alarmed about the condition of their three wounded comrades and pressed Self to mount a new assault on the fortified defenses to clear a way for an evacuation.  Their alarm grew as an unexpected and unpleasant battlefield situation soon developed when al Qaeda mortar rounds began to fall around the remains of Razor 03, landing in front of the aircraft’s nose, then in the rear, and finally down the hill, bracketing the group.

 

Self shared their sense of urgency and realized that they may all be in trouble soon, if he didn’t get his team to the top of the ridgeline.  He wished that there were an option but...“[The aircrew] didn't understand the timetable that we were really on.  They expected things to happen quick, quick, quick. 'You guys run up there and kill the enemy.'"

 

For a moment, the Ranger captain had second thoughts about his decision to break off the first assault on the northern bunker and withdraw but, in the end, he knew it had been the right decision at the time.  The four Rangers assaulting the bunkers were the four most senior combatants on the mountaintop.  Had they died in the attempt, the survivors of Razor 03 would have stood little chance against an attack.  Self’s reply to the aircrew’s request to attack was “No.”

 

While Self shared their sense of urgency, he also knew another frontal assault was not an option.  To take the hill eventually, the Rangers had to stay put, and continue waiting for additional help.  They needed reinforcements.

 

Razor 02 had loitered, circling over the valley, while Razor 01 had disappeared up the mountain.  Shortly afterwards, communications with Razor 01 had been lost.  Not aware that Razor 01 had been shot down, Razor 02 was eventually directed to put down at Gardez and await further instructions.

 

Time passed and Chalk 02’s crew’s anxiety grew as they waited further word about the fate of Chalk 01.  The agonizing wait created frayed nerves.  Staff Sergeant Canon, the ranking Ranger in the Chalk grabbed one of the airmen.

 

"At one point, I had a crew chief by the collar.  I'm screaming at him that regardless of what happened, the first bird only had 10 guys on it. That's the bare minimum package. If something happened to them, they need us. We complete the package!"

 

Time passed and Chalk 02’s crew’s anxiety grew as they waited further word about the fate of Chalk 01.  Finally, with confirmation that Razor 01 had gone down, Razor 02 was back on its way towards Takur Ghar, a half hour to hour following notification, with the ten Rangers of Chalk 2 and an additional SEAL who had joined the group.

 

With HLZ Ginger no longer an LZ option, Razor 02 searched for an offset...alternate...LZ.

 

Ray, the pilot noted that "It's the side of a mountain, so there are not a whole lot of places to land.  You basically hunt and peck around."

 

It was 8:30 AM before they were able to find a space clear enough to touch down with all four sets of wheels—two sets, four wheels up front, two sets, two wheels in the rear.

 

The Rangers were informed by the aircrew that Chalk 1 would be straight ahead, 250 to 300 yards away.  Astonishingly, after a quick glance around, Canon realized that they were way off the mark.  In reality, they were 800 yards to the east and 2,000 feet below their trapped fellow comrades.

 

Though some of the Rangers knew a thing or two about the cold and snow, and all had some basic experience as a result of their Ranger training when it came to mountain climbing, none of them was prepared for the task they had before them: a climb in thin mountain air, weighed down with weapons, ammo, body armor and equipment along a towering, forbidding 45 to 70 degree slope that was mostly covered by three feet of snow.

 

Before they even began to move out, they observed, about 1,000 feet up to their right, a small cluster of Americans, two of them wounded, slowly making their way down the mountain.  They were the SEALs that the Rangers of Chalks 1 and 2 had been sent to rescue.

 

The SEAL who had joined Chalk 2 requested that the Rangers assist the SEAL team prior to commencing their climb.  The request was transmitted by Canon to Self, who immediately declined.

 

"I've got casualties up here, and I need you now more than they need you.”

 

The SEAL and Rangers finally went their separate ways, each moving to assist their own—he across the mountain to join his fellow SEALs, Chalk 2 up the mountain to join their fellow Rangers.

 

"It was kind of like a merry-go-round," observed Chalk 2’s Ranger medic. "We were trying to go up and they were coming down."

 

Later, the SEAL team would acknowledge that it would not have lasted much longer if the Rangers had not arrived when and where they did.  Though they had already started to egress down the mountain, they were still under fire.  The arrival of Chalk 2 diverted those fires.

 

Being a remote mountain under snow, there was no trail to follow, so the Rangers began to make one of their own.  Despite not knowing what lay ahead of them, the Rangers did know one thing:  time was undoubtedly running out on the small group of survivors above.  They had to move quickly.

 

 “Quickly,” however, proved only to be a relative term as the Rangers struggled to find traction on the loose shale rock of the mountain’s steep slope.

 

"Just the grade of the ridge made it an unbearable walk, never mind the altitude.  It was enough to where my guys' chests felt heavy and my joints were swollen,” Canon was to comment later.

 

Periodically, the Rangers just found it easier to crawl along on their hands and knees.  Though sporadic and poorly aimed, enemy mortar rounds periodically fell around them, reminding them not to tarry.

 

Team leader Sergeant Stebner would spur the men on whenever they stopped to look and see where the rounds were coming from.  “You can't stop. It's not going to do us any good to stop. We have to keep moving.”

 

Compounding their difficulty, the Rangers were improperly outfitted with their equipment and clothing.  When first alerted for the mission, most of the team members were under the impression that the operation would be a standard quick in-and-out rescue with little maneuver or movement involved.  With the expectation of long waits in drafty, cold choppers or in stationary positions forming a defensive perimeter on the ground, many of the Rangers had dressed in thermal underwear under bulky parkas.   Consequently, while dressed for the cold, they were beginning to experience heat exhaustion as those wearing the heavy gear began to sweat profusely from the exertions of their climb.  Others had made the mistake of foregoing their Gortex or cold-weather boots for their suede desert boots that were now taking a beating and sopping up the snow like sponges.

 

Furthermore, though Rangers were classified as ‘light infantry,’ there was nothing light about the soldier’s load they had to ‘hump.’ In addition to their uniform and outer garments, they wore 22 pounds of body armor and a four pound Kevlar helmet.  Each man also carried a weapon—the majority an M-4 assault rifle, seven to twelve magazines of ammunition—each with 30 rounds of 5.56mm, two to four grenades, a 9mm pistol with at least two clips of 15 rounds each, knives, flashlights, communications gear, night vision devices, a first aid kit and three quarts of water—weighing and additional six pounds.  All told, these ‘light infantrymen’ carried a minimum of 80 pounds on them.

 

Heavy machinegunner Specialist Randy Pazder, carried the heaviest load of all.  His M240B weapon alone weighed twenty-eight pounds.  Just with his weapon, thirty pounds of ammunition, and his protective armor, Pazder was already well maxed out at eighty-four pounds, seventy pounds being the recommended maximum load.  His assistant gunner, Specialist Omar Vela, carrying an additional thirty pounds of ammo, a spare gun barrel and his own personal weapon and ammo was not too far behind.

 

Slowly the Rangers trudged up the mountain, at times throwing their weapons ahead into the snow then climbing forward to pick them up.  If they appeared to tire, Canon would urge them forward.

 

"You need to get to the top of the hill, where we'll be in a static position and can rest.  We've got to go, our guys need us."

 

Approximately 1,000 feet up, with another 1,000 feet to go, the Rangers shimmied around a rock to lift themselves past a tree that protruded from the mountain face. 

 

Momentarily stopping, Canon took a good, hard look at his exhausted men.

 

"Everybody had the, you know, 'Man, this sucks' face–just a long face.”

 

It was time to make some adjustments.

 

As the Rangers shed their heavy clothing, Canon contacted Self and received authorization to lighten their load by allowing those who wished to discard the six pound ceramic back plate—with a cost of $527—that supplemented the basic Kevlar vest.  Ballistically, the plate was designed to stop a 9mm round from a pistol or a 7.62mm round from a high-powered AK-47 assault rife—the type used by al Qaeda.  Though the load lifted from their backs was relatively minimal, it did allow for greater comfort and mobility.

 

To avoid their falling into enemy hands, Canon had his men shatter them by tossing the plates to the rocks below.

 

"It's the most expensive Frisbee you'll ever throw.”

 

Rucked up and ‘refreshed,’ their thoughts once again turned to their buddies in need.  The climb resumed.

 

(Continued Excerpt #2)