Honoring the U.S. Army heroes of Operation Red Wings

Story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers Live
This memorial honors eight Soldiers from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), better known as Night Stalkers, who were killed during Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan, June 28, 2005. While they were transporting eight Navy SEALs to aid four of their brothers in the remote Hindu-Kush mountains, a rocket-propelled grenade destroyed their MH-47 Chinook, killing all 16 men aboard. Night Stalkers are well known in the special operations community for their expertise at difficult insertions and extractions, and colleagues said these eight were the best of the best. Their loss was unthinkable. (U.S. Army photo)

This memorial honors eight Soldiers from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), better known as Night Stalkers, who were killed during Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan, June 28, 2005. While they were transporting eight Navy SEALs to aid four of their brothers in the remote Hindu-Kush mountains, a rocket-propelled grenade destroyed their MH-47 Chinook, killing all 16 men aboard. Night Stalkers are well known in the special operations community for their expertise at difficult insertions and extractions, and colleagues said these eight were the best of the best. Their loss was unthinkable. (U.S. Army photo)

* The names of all active-duty Soldiers quoted in this article have been changed for security reasons.

In June 2005, Marines from the 3rd Marine Regiment and special operations service members in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar Province were on the trail of Ahmad Shah, alias Muhammad Ismail, the leader of a local Taliban-aligned guerilla group known as the “Mountain Tigers.” The operation was called Red Wings.

During the night of June 27, two modified MH-47 Chinooks from the 160thSpecial Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) left Bagram Airfield and inserted four Navy SEALs, Lt. Michael P. Murphy and Petty Officers 2nd Class Danny Dietz, Matt Axelson and Marcus Luttrell, in a narrow saddle of land between two of the remote Hindu Kush mountains. The four SEALs began their ascent into the mountains and the 160th Soldiers, better known as Night Stalkers, returned to Bagram, having lived up to their nickname by completing yet another undetected nighttime mission.

By the next night, however, 19 Americans would be dead – eight Night Stalkers and 11 SEALs.

About the Night Stalkers

According to unit pages on the Special Operations Command and Fort Campbell, Ky., websites, the regiment was originally created out of elements from the 101st Airborne Division in 1981. It quickly gained an unparalleled record of inserting and extracting special operations forces. It uses highly modified MH-60 Black Hawks, MH-47 Chinooks and MH-6 Little Birds to provide airborne command and control, resupply special operations units, conduct search and rescue, support escape and evasion activities, and provide fire support.

Its combat history dates to Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada in 1983, when it lost its first Soldier in action. The unit also completed successful missions during Operation Just Cause in Panama and Operation Desert Storm. Night Stalkers then deployed to Somalia in 1993. In fact, the two Black Hawks famously shot down during the battle of Mogadishu were 160th SOAR aircraft, and five Night Stalkers were among the 18 Soldiers killed during that fierce battle.

Night Stalkers also served in Haiti and in Bosnia, and have been continuously engaged in combat operations since 9-11. Most notably, the helicopters that inserted Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, Pakistan, for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden were 160th SOAR aircraft, manned by experienced Night Stalker crews.

To prepare for such intense missions, Night Stalkers must meet rigorous selection criteria and endure a difficult training process known as Green Platoon. Although the percentages have changed slightly in the 19 years since he first joined the regiment, *Chief Warrant Officer 5 Max Lawther explained that at the time, only about 10 percent of Soldiers who applied were chosen for assessment. Ten percent of that group were picked up for Green Platoon. Then, only 10 to 20 percent of them graduated from Green Platoon. From there, it could take five to seven or more years for a pilot to make flight lead. They aren’t necessarily looking for the best pilots either, Lawther said – the 160th will probably train them on different aircraft anyway – but the most trainable and the most motivated Soldiers.

“It’s not necessarily that we are better aviators,” agreed *Chief Warrant Officer 5 Kyle Parson. “We are much more motivated than the average aviator. Our attitudes are completely different. … Everything in the regiment is trained to exceed any possible parameter of failure.”

Achieving the impossible

The 160th’s unit motto is “Night Stalkers don’t quit.” They not only never quit, they pledge to arrive at any location in the world within 30 seconds of the desired time for any mission, no matter how dangerous.

“A Night Stalker will never tell you ‘no,’” said *Chief Warrant Officer 2 Charles Barton, speaking both as a Ranger who has caught rides from the Night Stalkers, and now as a Night Stalker himself. “As a Night Stalker … I have conducted two and three missions a night … many times. Depending on the deployment, that can max out at just less than 270 missions.”

“When we invaded Iraq,” said Lawther, “I sat down with the company commander and we talked through the threat. Our initial push was six helicopters. Our assumption was that we would lose two or three of those helicopters. All the crews still went. No one said, ‘I’m not going to go because I think I’m part of that 50 percent that’s not going to make it.’”

They look forward to accomplishing the impossible mission that no one else will try, he continued. It’s in the Night Stalker pledge: “And when the impossible has been accomplished, the only reward is another mission that no one else will try.” It quickly becomes a way of life, with many Night Stalkers like Lawther spending a decade or more with the regiment.

For example, Master Sgt. James “Tre” Ponder III, who was killed during Operation Red Wings, joined the 160th SOAR in 1992. According to his widow, Leslie, he had recently returned from a year in Korea and was about to head to another assignment when he knocked on the 160th’s door and said, “You need me.”

“He loved everything about the unit,” she said, “the missions, the people, the relationships that we had. … You got to know the people. They were part of your family.”

The fateful day

So on June 28, 2005, when they started to hear sketchy reports that the SEALs they had just inserted might be in trouble, the Night Stalkers didn’t hesitate to respond. No one knew what had happened or what they would find, but, in fact, the situation was desperate. The four SEALs had come into contact with locals who presumably relayed their location to enemy forces, and were engaged in a fierce firefight with more than 50 insurgents. With 10,000-foot mountains surrounding them, it was difficult to obtain a satellite signal and call for help. In fact, Murphy would posthumously receive the Medal of Honor for exposing himself to intense gunfire to obtain a signal. Dietz and Axelson were also killed. Despite severe wounds, Luttrell managed to escape and was eventually rescued by friendly Afghans. All three petty officers received the Navy Cross, and the story has been made into a major motion picture.

After developing a quick battle plan, a team of Night Stalkers linked up with additional Navy SEALs and took off in two Chinooks, racing to the remote battle site, flying so fast that they outstripped the slower, heavily armored Apache helicopters that would have provided some protection. There was no way the Apaches could have kept up with the Chinooks at such a high altitude. It was also daylight, and the lightly armored Chinooks quickly became targets.

And then it happened: A rocket-propelled grenade ripped through the first Chinook, known as Turbine 33, killing all 16 men – eight Night Stalkers and eight SEALs – aboard.

Parson, who was piloting the second helicopter, doesn’t believe their speed actually mattered, nor did the absence of the Apaches. Thanks to the terrain, there was only one place where they could insert the SEALs and the enemy knew it. All they had to do was hide and wait.

“The individual who shot the aircraft down was in a hide. We never saw him until we briefly flew over him,” Parson said. “Then he stood up and fired. … I was in the right seat. We were in a right turn. So neither of the pilots witnessed the RPG. Our left ramp crewmember told us that 33 had taken fire and came apart in a huge fireball. … By the time I completed the turn, we could find nothing of the aircraft. There was just a large column of smoke.”

He couldn’t be completely sure, Parson continued, but he assumed everyone on the first aircraft was dead at that point. “The aircraft nearly inverted and then came apart, and it exploded prior to hitting the ground,” he said. He has decades of flight experience, both in the regular Army and the National Guard in addition to the 160th, and has seen the results of numerous in-flight explosions. “No one ever survives them before they hit the ground.”

The fallen

Seven of the Night Stalkers killed in action were from the 160th SOAR’s 3rd Battalion out of Hunter Army Air Field, Ga. Ponder was from its Headquarters Company, located in Fort Campbell, and had deployed with the 3rd Battalion to provide specialized training during their deployment. According to official biographies, news reports and tribute sites, the men were:

  • Maj. Stephen C. Reich, 34, of Washington Depot, Conn., was Company B’s commander. He was a gifted baseball player who played in the minor leagues, and is remembered at his alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., as one of its best pitchers ever.
  • Chief Warrant Officer 4 Chris J. Scherkenbach, 40, of Jacksonville, Fla., was a pilot and former communications specialist with 18 years of service. According to family members, he and his wife were about to adopt a baby girl from China.
  • Chief Warrant Officer 3 Corey J. Goodnature, 35, of Clarks Grove, Minn., was a former parachute rigger who had served with the 160th as an MH-47D Chinook pilot since 1998. He was the flight lead for Operation Red Wings.
  • Master Sgt. James “Tre” Ponder III, 36, of Franklin, Tenn., enlisted in the Army in 1990 as a Chinook helicopter repairer. After joining the 160th SOAR in 1992, he served in a variety of positions, including several instructor roles. After his death, his wife learned that he was actually the first Night Stalker to fire shots during Operation Enduring Freedom.
  • Sgt. 1st Class Marcus V. Muralles, 33, of Shelbyville, Ind., served as the team’s flight medic. Muralles had been about to head home on leave to celebrate his daughter’s birthday when he was assigned to the mission at the last minute. According to family members, he planned to attend medical school and become an Army doctor.
  • Sgt. 1st Class Michael L. Russell, 31, of Stafford, Va., was the son of a butcher. He enlisted in the Army as a Chinook helicopter repairer in 1991. He was assigned to the 160th SOAR as a flight engineer in 1996, and had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan nine times.
  • Staff Sgt. Shamus O. Goare, 29, of Danville, Ohio, enlisted in the Army as a utility helicopter repairer in 1994. After assignments that included Egypt and Korea, he completed Green Platoon, and was assigned to the 160th as a flight engineer for Company B.
  • Sgt. Kip A. Jacoby, 21, of Pompano Beach, Fla., was assigned to the 160th SOAR as a helicopter repairman in 2003. The following year, he was reassigned to Company B as a flight engineer. He would have welcomed the mission to rescue the four SEALs, his uncle said shortly after his death.

The men were highly trained – no one was better at their jobs – and their loss was unthinkable, on both personal and professional levels, both for their families and for the tight-knit Night Stalker and special operations communities.

“In a company you have eight Chinooks,” Lawther said, attempting to quantify the loss of experience that the crash of Turbine 33 represented. “You have eight crews. … Two of those helicopters are flight leads. So you have two separate missions you could do at one time … and you’ve lost that ability. … The company’s only around 50 to 55 guys. … It will take you another six years to even think about getting close to where you’re at.”

Barton, who was with the 75th Ranger Regt. at the time and was waiting for additional intelligence before setting out on the search for Luttrell said that “although I was not a Night Stalker at the time, it cut deep. There were many times that the 160th SOAR provided me and my fellow Rangers safe transport. … It’s a feeling that cuts into your soul.”

Recovery

The rough terrain and terrible weather prevented an immediate recovery effort. Even when they were able to get close to the crash site almost two days later, Parson said, clouds obscured the mountains. They had to drop Rangers and other special operators via long ropes before the recovery teams hiked up the mountain.

“I will be forever grateful,” said Leslie. “I can’t say this enough – these guys willingly put themselves in harm’s way to bring my husband’s body back to me. They knew the enemy was out there and it didn’t matter to them.”

When the eight Night Stalker body bags did finally arrive back at Bagram, it was a solemn, terrible moment, Parson recalled. Mortuary affairs Soldiers would typically be the ones to unload the fallen during a ramp side ceremony, but the Night Stalkers wanted to care for their brothers themselves. “We picked up the body bags and carried them into mortuary affairs to the morgue,” he remembered. “It was very emotional. It was obviously very hard for us to accept. … To date, that was the worst day of my life, and one that I relive on a constant basis. It’s with me always.”

Waiting for word

Meanwhile, at home, it was still an agonizing wait for Leslie and other family members. Word of a helicopter crash had started to spread around the command Monday night (still June 27 in the U.S.), but no one had any details about who was on it. A friend from the 160th actually got the call while Leslie was over at her house.

No one knew anything at that point, she stressed. But, said Leslie, “she kind of looked at me and I was like, ‘I’ve got to go home.’” A pilot friend came over, in tears, and offered to stay until they knew more. “I told him ‘No,’ because I had two small children. I said I needed to get the girls out of there.” If it was her husband, she didn’t want them to see her break down, and if it wasn’t, she reasoned, why would she expose them to that kind of worry and heartache? So she sent them to a friend’s house.

“On Tuesday morning,” Leslie remembered, “there was a knock on my door and they said that Tre’s helicopter was shot down, but they didn’t know his fate. They came back Wednesday and told me that 16 on board, 16 bodies were recovered. And then they came back again on Thursday with positive identification.

“People kept telling me to have hope … but I didn’t want to have hope. I didn’t want it crushed if he wasn’t found alive. So I just kind of went on the notion that he had died.” When she finally had to tell her six- and seven-year-old daughters, she said, “it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Although Leslie didn’t know the other widows, who were all at Hunter, the women quickly reached out to each other. Later, she became good friends with many of the SEAL wives as well. They helped each other survive. She was devastated and she grieved, but Leslie never felt alone. She also knew that Ponder had died doing what he loved, trying to save others.

“I can only speak for Tre,” she said, “but I know without a shadow of a doubt that if my husband knew the outcome of that flight, he still would have gotten on that aircraft.” All eight of them would have, Parson and Lawther agreed. It’s part of being a Night Stalker. “When those guys were dropped off on the mountain, our guys promised them they would be there if anything should happen,” Leslie continued. “They are incredible, incredible men. … They’re heroes in every sense of the word.”