Lieutenant Colonel, US Army (Retired), MS, PMP, LSSMBB
RANGERS IN COMBAT - Excerpt
THE LEGACY (Continued):
Canon crested the final rise around 10:30 AM, surprised that the climb estimated to take 45 minutes, had taken two hours. More startling, however, was the carnage. At the rear of the downed aircraft, they saw their comrades spread about. Though Canon and his men expected to see casualties, they did not expect to see so many dead and wounded comrades. But, there was neither time for reflection nor for rest for Chalk 2. Finally, Self had his reinforcements; they would take the mountaintop.
The Rangers task organized into two groups. The support-by-fire element consisted of two heavy machinegun teams, Chalk 1’s Gilliam and his assistant gunner, Brian, and Chalk 2’s Pazder and his assistant gunner, Vela. Canon positioned himself between the two gun crews to control their fires. In close proximity near a rock beside Razor 01, it would lay down massive firepower at the right time.
The assault team was composed of six Rangers from Chalk 2: Sergeant Eric Stebner, Staff Sergeant Harper Wilmoth, Sergeants Patrick George and Walker, and Specialists Jonas Polson and Oscar Escano. Its attack position would be located behind another rock, to the left and slightly forward of the machineguns that would provide the supporting fires.
The primary objective of the assault was an enemy bunker situated 50 yards to the right of the nose of the helicopter. Though a CCT directed airstrike minutes before had appeared to silence it, there was no certainty that al Qaeda had been killed, reoccupied the position or had fled. The only way to be certain was to close on the position, destroy the enemy, and seize the terrain. And that was exactly what the Rangers intended to do.
At 10:45 AM, the machineguns opened fire, red tracers streaking forward, lapping at suspected enemy positions and forcing al Qaeda to remain under cover. Moving out in the “high ready”—weapons shoulder high, eyes over the gunsights, the six Rangers began to storm the hill as quickly as they could in the knee-deep snow, feet slipping on the rocks hidden beneath, firing and tossing grenades as they advanced.
Trained to conduct an assault with two four-man teams—one for maneuver, the second providing immediate supporting fires—and given the difficulty of the conditions, all six served as a maneuver element, plodding steadily forward. The Ranger fires were so heavy that it caused alarm with the aircrew, prompting them to yell out to the Rangers: “Slow down, you’re going to run out of ammo.”
To the left of the bunker, forty yards away from the downed Chinook helicopter was a boulder. First to reach the boulder was Stebner, who stumbled across a dead American lying face down in the snow. He didn’t know it at the time but he had found Petty Officer 1st Class Roberts.
Only the al Qaeda knows exactly what happened to Navy SEAL Neil C. Roberts, 32, during those early morning hours, alone and in the midst of a merciless enemy, fighting for his life as the sound of Razor 03’s beating blades receded down the mountain, into the valley below. Forensic evidence seems to clearly indicate that he not only survived the fall from the helicopter, but that he was also able to activate an infrared strobe light signaling device and engage the closing enemy with his SAW for at least the first half hour as he moved around the LZ. Later, Roberts’ SAW would be found near his body with blood on it. There were other indications that he had been able to fire it. Ammunition remained in the weapon, perhaps suggesting that it had jammed.
Following an overhead observation of Roberts being surrounded by the enemy, a Predator drone arrived to provide a video image of the area just as Roberts strobe light went out. Drone imagery, though fuzzy, possibly showed Roberts finally being captured by three al Qaeda and being led away to the south side of Ginger where the group disappeared into a tree line, approximately fifteen to twenty minutes before the arrival of Razor 04 and its team. All told, evidence suggests that he was able to hold the enemy at bay for an hour, maybe even two, before he was either executed or shot at close range.
Stebner was joined at the boulder by Wilmoth, George and Escano who immediately rushed the bunker approximately five yards away. Inside, amid the debris of the earlier airstrike, the Rangers found the body of the second missing American, Technical Sergeant Chapman, sandwiched between two dead enemy fighters.
Outside the bunker, Stebner and Polson maneuvered left of the bunker then circled right, firing on the last enemy positions they saw just over the crest. Their rush would prove to be the last as they seized the crest of Takur Ghar.
A sweep of the mountaintop showed what American intelligence had failed to detect, a network of enemy positions dug behind rocks and next to trees, connected by shallow trenches, even a canvas tent sheltering one of the positions. Throughout the area, sheaves of RPGs and Chinese-made 30mm grenade launchers were strewn about. Also amidst the rubble was a Russian-made DShK heavy machinegun and a 75mm recoilless rifle. Assorted small arms and long belts of machinegun ammunition lay scattered.
Eight enemy bodies were accounted for on the mountaintop, with one found to be wearing Roberts’ jacket. It was 11 AM, and the Rangers now held the mountaintop.
Finding the mountaintop a more defendable position, Self began to gather his Rangers and the rest of his team members along the ridgeline. Taking a seat beside Self, Canon listened as Self informed him of the Ranger dead. The three names struck the Ranger sergeant pretty hard but Self knew that he could not afford to have his most senior non-commissioned officer—or anyone else for that matter—preoccupied with the dead men, given their current situation.
“Arin, there’s nothing we can do about it now. Let’s get the rest of these guys out of here alive, and we’ll deal with what we have to deal with when we get back.”
Plans were made to begin moving the six dead and three seriously wounded men from their current location behind the helicopter to what appeared to be a suitable pick-up zone (PZ) on the far side of the crest. The movement of the wounded up the steep slope, however, was a difficult and slow process for it took four to six men to move each man or body.
Down in the chopper, Greg’s condition was growing worse and he started to speak to Cory as though he were preparing to die. Vance, in contact with his tactical air controllers back at headquarters, was pressed to relay whether or not the PZ was “cold”—meaning clear of enemy fires—and how many of the wounded would they lose if their rescue were delayed. Not sure, Vance directed the question to Cory.
“If we hang out here, how many guys are going to die?”
Cory’s reply was at least two, if not all three.
Vance passed along the situation report.
“It is a cold PZ, and we are going to lose three if we wait.” The time was approximately 11:15 AM.
The enemy’s counterattack arrived with the swoosh of an RPG overhead and the crack and whiz of small arms fire filling the air from three or four enemy who were located on a knoll approximately 400 yards to the south of the downed bird. Trees were splintered and pine needles fell all about as bullets ricocheted off the rocks around the feet of those carrying David, the first of the casualties to be moved up to the ridgeline. Forced to drop the litter, the men scattered for their lives. While David lay on his back, exposed to enemy fires, Stebner dashed out twice in an attempt to drag him to cover behind some rocks. Each time, though, he was driven back by heavy fires. Finally, on the third attempt, fifteen minutes or so after the engagement had started, Stebner was able to reach the airman and drag him to safety.
Below, behind the Chinook, Cory and Cunningham had just finished inserting a fresh IV into Greg when a stream of bullets ripped into the exposed casualty collection point. Caught in the open with two seriously wounded men, Cory realized that “we were just going to have to sit there and shoot it out with them. Neither Jason nor I were going to leave."
The fires intensified, an RPG coming straight at them rocketed over their heads, its fuse detonating the explosive warhead over the helicopter. A bullet struck just a few feet in front of Cory, spraying snow upon him. As they continued to engage the enemy, Cory thought to himself, “I have only two magazines left – something has to happen here pretty soon.”
In an effort to make something happen, Cory began to crawl up the hill on his stomach for approximately five feet to within six feet of Cunningham before stopping for a moment to turn on his back and return fire. Moments later, both men were simultaneously cut down. Cory was struck in the abdomen by two bullets that hit his ammunition pouch and belt buckle. Unsure as to the extent of his injuries, the medic hesitatingly reach down then pulled his wet hand back. Water, from a punctured canteen. His relief was short-lived, however, for the medic had been seriously hit. Cunningham, also, had been hit, leaving him bleeding profusely from a serious wound to the pelvis area. Though conscious and coherent, he was in considerable pain.
Farther down the hill from the downed chopper, a small group of Rangers which included Canon and DePoli, was positioned on a perimeter to provide security for the casualty collection point. Opening fire on the enemy position with a heavy and light machinegun, several assault rifles, and a grenade launcher, they could observe some of the enemy maneuvering around the hilltop while the tops of the heads of those firing could barely be seen.
To the left, Pazder caught sight of an al Qaeda popping up. The Ranger quickly killed him with a burst of heavy machinegun fire.
To the east, approximately 800 yards away down a slope, the Rangers spotted a small group of four or five enemy fighters making their way up. While they were far away, they were still within the maximum effective range of the M240B machinegun. Low on ammunition, Canon dispatched Vela back to the chopper to grab some more.
Vela dashed off towards the helicopter located 150 - 200 yards away. Arriving safely, he gathered some belts of 7.62mm ammunition and began his return run. An eruption of enemy fire forced him to dive behind a rock for cover where he found Stebner, who quickly informed him, "You might not want to be by me because for some reason the enemy doesn't like me.”
"What are you talking about?" asked Vela, unaware of Stebner’s two failed attempts to extract the wounded Dave, who was still lying out in the open on the stretcher.
In punctuation of Stebner’s comment, an RPG whizzed over their heads.
"That's one thing I'm talking about. Every time I get up and move, they shoot at me. And now I'm laying here and they're shooting at us."
Heeding the advice, but still with a task to accomplish, Vela scampered to another rock outcropping where he joined DePouli. Wrapping the machinegun ammunition in the spare gun barrel bag, Vela attempted to toss it across the remaining exposed distance to Canon on the far side. The throw was not strong enough and the bag thudded to the ground, only half way across. Scurrying out on all fours, Canon dragged the bag back.
Given that Canon had the better angle to shoot, Pazder passed him his machinegun. Opening fire, Canon placed plunging fires down into every tree or bush where an enemy might be hiding. The Rangers never saw an enemy at that location again.
As the fight continued to develop below, Self on the ridge realized one thing. Had his Rangers of Chalk 2 not made the valiant effort and climbed the mountain when they did, the small band of Chalk 1 survivors would now have been caught between the enemy’s plunging fires from the ridgeline and their fires from the distant knoll into their exposed rear. Literally and figuratively, they would have been between “a rock and a hard place” and most likely would not have survived. In the end, Chalk 2’s arrival had proven to be most fortuitous—and timely.
CAS finally arrived back on station in the form of Navy F-14 Tomcats around 11:45 AM. On the mountaintop, Brown began to call the strikes in on the knoll below, and a succession of 500-pound bombs was dropped. Shrapnel streaked through the air with each detonation. Noted Brown, "We could see the bombs go down the hill below us, and we heard the material rising up past us, whizzing through the air." After one blast that forced DePouli’s Kevlar helmet back on his head, the sergeant called Self on the radio.
"Can we get a little bit of a ‘heads-up’ [notification] down here the next time we're going to make a bomb run like that?"
"Yeah, sure, no problem,” was the platoon leader’s understated reply.
Six bombs later, the enemy on the southern knoll had been eliminated, and the transfer of casualties to the other side of the ridge crest could begin.
Self was now faced with an even greater sense of urgency regarding the evacuation of his casualties for he now had two freshly wounded men, Cory and Cunningham, in addition to the three previous and seriously wounded men. Worse was his realization that, while Cory’s wounds did not appear life threatening at the moment, the same could not be stated for Cunningham’s injuries.
Though the Ranger medic was able to staunch the para-rescue jumper’s external flow of blood, he had no idea just how bad the internal wounds were. Coincidently, Cunningham had strongly lobbied and convinced his command just days prior to authorize the inclusion of blood packs in their PJ kits. He was now the first beneficiary of his own common sense.
Despite their concern over the number of casualties designated “urgent surgical,” the senior command was even more worried about another daylight rescue attempt. Further complicating matters was Operation Anaconda which was still ongoing, with nearly 1,400 American soldiers maneuvering on the ground, and a multitude of U.S. aircraft streaking across the skies throughout the valley.
To complicate matters further, intelligence reports had indicated as many as 70 al Qaeda converging on the Takur Ghar mountaintop. However, given the intelligence community’s earlier failures at the start of Anaconda, these reports should have been considered suspect from the beginning. This was confirmed later by the observations of a combat air controller, Air Force Technical Sergeant Jim Hotaling, located at an observation post two miles to the south who had ‘eyes’ on Takur Ghar. While he did observe several very small groups of al Qaeda maneuvering in the area throughout the day, he saw nothing close to the 70 reported.
"Most of the enemy I was engaging,” Hotaling would later report, “was a good 1,500 to 2,000 yards away from their position, down on the bottom of the mountain and in the creek beds.”
Vance consistently badgered his headquarters, informing them that it was safe to send in a MEDEVAC.
"I kept telling [the] controller that we lost another [wounded soldier], [that it was a secure] PZ, [and asking] when are we getting exfiltrated? Controller said to ‘hold on.’” After asking him three times, PL [platoon leader—Captain Self] expressed urgency at getting the team out of there. I continued to tell controller but he just kept telling me to hold on. After the third time, I handed the [radio] hand mike to the PL and asked him to tell controller the same thing. I tried to keep a monotone voice. There were times that I tried to throw some words in there to make controller realize that we [had] to get out. It became a personal conversation, and we kept saying we have to get out of here.”
Finally, the Ranger medic got on the radio to emphasize the urgency of the men’s wounds.
"I felt as though if I started making a big deal about their condition, then it would worry my patients. You want to be open and honest, and I was, but I wasn't jumping up and down, ranting and raving, that this guy was going to die if we don't get him off this mountain. I said, 'Listen, here's the story. I've got two urgent surgical patients, and we need to be evac-ed.' And their response was, 'Roger, we understand.”
Even Self’s urgent appeals for an evacuation were rejected by his commanders, who refused to authorize any additional attempts during daylight.
While the Ranger medic did his best to assure the wounded men repeatedly that help was on the way, the aircrew—the pilots in particular—knew better. It was daylight and they had already lost one bird.
The medic would later recall, "I kept coming back to them saying, 'Hey guys, listen, they're going to come get us, we're going to be out of here soon, hang in there.’ And it was the helicopter pilots who were pretty upfront about it, and they said, 'We know we're not leaving until dark because that's just the way it is.' I knew in the back of my head that the chances of them coming during daylight hours were slim to none, but I was trying to be positive about it.”
And what was seriously wounded Jason Cunningham’s reaction to all this? "For the most part, he listened,” the medic reported.
By around 5 PM, the sun began to sink beyond the ridgelines and it began to grow dark. Along with the fading light, the temperatures began to drop, and the wind began to pick up as the ridgetop turned bitterly cold.
From the mountaintop, Stebner and Wilmoth admired the stunning vistas as the sun set. How strange it was, Stebner would mention to Wilmoth, to be in such a beautiful place amid such brutal conditions.
Momentarily, Self, also, became somewhat reflective, thinking back to a passage from Psalm 121 that some of the Rangers had read during a Bible study group at Bagram the evening prior to the mission. It had been a favorite of his since his days as a cadet at West Point.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from?”
But contemplation and mourning would prove to be too self-indulgent for now.
"There were a few times here and there where guys would start to reflect on what had just happened, and their minds started to affect them a little bit," Self recollected. During those times, he would tell them, "Hey, you've got tomorrow and the rest of your lives for that."
Conditions continued to worsen on the mountain. Breathing became more labored in the dry, thin air. Throats became sore and bled from their dryness leading to nearly everyone coughing up some blood. Dehydration began to set in for many. The chopper was searched for anything and everything that could provide warmth, be drunk or be eaten. Enough crackers, Power Bars and Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MRE) were found to assuage everybody’s appetite just a bit, but they exacerbated everyone’s thirst.
Hypothermia was setting in and an effort was made to keep the wounded men warm. The aircraft’s sound insulation liner was stripped and the wounded placed on it to insulate them from the cold ground. Anything that could retain heat—sleeping bags, blankets, jackets, sweat shirts, pants—was placed on top of them, leaving some literally buried beneath a foot of clothing. Others constructed a lean-to out of branches and wood from a shattered tree to act as a windbreaker.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, 26, died of his wounds shortly after at 6:10 PM. He had been a para-rescue jumper for only eight months. Such was combat on the slopes of a mountain at 10,000 feet.
The first of the extraction birds from the 160th SOAR arrived at 8:15 PM, about two hours after Cunningham died. The black shape of the first MH-47E touched down on the designated LZ, inadvertently positioning its tail ramp in the opposite direction of the Rangers waiting on the perimeter of the LZ with their four seriously wounded comrades. Once again, the Rangers were forced to carry these men an additional 75 feet or more through the snow and over ice encrusted rocks to the rear of the chopper.
"[More] than once we had to stop and set down, or one guy slipped on the ice," the Ranger medic would later offer. "We never dropped a casualty. But I know it was uncomfortable for the casualties, even with the pain control stuff they were given. I know they were hurting. They made it pretty vocal."
While a MH-47E flew a couple of thousand feet below the peak to pick up the SEAL team, the second aircraft arrived at the ridgetop to evacuate the seven killed in action (KIA).
Petty Officer 1st Class Neil C. Roberts Navy SEAL
Sergeant Bradley S. Crose Army Ranger, Bravo Team Leader
Sergeant Philip J. Svitak, Army 160th SOAR, flight engineer
Technical Sergeant John Chapman Air Force Combat Control Team (CCT)
Specialist Marc A. Anderson Army Ranger, M-240B machinegunner
Private First Class Matthew A. Commons Army Ranger, M-203 grenadier
Senior Airman Jason Cunningham Air Force Para-rescue Jumper (PJ)
A third chopper loaded the remainder of the team and aircrew, seven of whom were the walking wounded. Within an hour, all Americans—the living and the dead—had been loaded, and were on their way back to Bagram from what would later be honorably referred to by many in the SOF community as “Roberts’ Ridge.” The significant error in intelligence analysis that led the American command to believe that Takur Ghar was uninhabited had resulted in the highest altitude battle in U.S. military history.
The surviving Rangers of Chalk 1 deploy from the heavily damaged Razor 1 to establish a hasty defensive perimeter to the rear of the aircraft.
Still heavily engaged in battle, Rangers and wounded crewmen can be spotted on Razor 1's ramp and to its rear. (Mar 2002)
al Qaeda DShK 12.7mm heavy machine gun that first appeared abandoned but soon proved to be deadly.