First to go

Green Berets remember earliest mission in Afghanistan

September 11, 2001 wrought destruction in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, and sent shockwaves throughout the rest of the country, and the world, especially military communities, which knew they would soon be called to respond. Indeed, tragedy and outrage and tears turned to love and comfort and connection, but also resolve and vengeance. In fact, the sun hadn’t even set on the smoldering pile of ruins that once was the World Trade Center, when the U.S., the Central Intelligence Agency, the military and U.S. Army Special Operations Command began planning a response. They would rain fire on the terrorists who had claimed thousands of innocent Americans, and on the brutal regime in Afghanistan that had sheltered them.

Starting Oct. 19, 2001, 12-man Special Forces detachments from the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) began arriving in Afghanistan in the middle of the night, transported by aviators from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Battalion (Airborne). They were the first ground Soldiers of the war on terrorism following 9-11 and their mission was to destroy the Taliban regime and deny Al-Qaida sanctuary in Afghanistan. They scouted bomb targets and teamed with local resistance groups. Some of the Green Berets found themselves riding horses, becoming the first American Soldiers to ride to war on horseback since World War II. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Special Operations Command)

Starting Oct. 19, 2001, 12-man Special Forces detachments from the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) began arriving in Afghanistan in the middle of the night, transported by aviators from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Battalion (Airborne). They were the first ground Soldiers of the war on terrorism following 9-11 and their mission was to destroy the Taliban regime and deny Al-Qaida sanctuary in Afghanistan. They scouted bomb targets and teamed with local resistance groups. Some of the Green Berets found themselves riding horses, becoming the first American Soldiers to ride to war on horseback since World War II. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Special Operations Command)

Task Force Dagger

It was soon clear that the initial operation, named Task Force Dagger, would involve bomb drops and small teams of special operators who would link up with local warlords and resistance fighters, collectively, as the Northern Alliance. They would train the Afghans, supply them and coordinate between the U.S and the various ethnic groups (many of which were historic enemies). The Army’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) eagerly took on the job, despite little intelligence on Afghanistan, and despite the fact that few could speak Dari or Pashtun. They picked up a few phrases pretty quickly, and many of them spoke Arabic or Farsi or Russian and wound up doing three-way translations.

“You had all of the emotions going on from 9-11,” remembered Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brad Fowers, then a junior weapons sergeant on Operational Detachment A 574. It would be his first combat deployment, and his team wound up escorting future President Hamid Karzai into the country. (Fowers still serves on an ODA.) “There was a lot of emotions, excitement, amazement. It was an extreme honor. Looking back on it now, it’s humbling. … It was a very privileged moment in our history to see how things unfolded and what so many are capable of doing.”

Now-Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brad Fowers poses with Afghan fighters and warlords who opposed the Taliban. Fowers served on one of the first Special Forces detachments from the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) to arrive in Afghanistan following 9-11. Their mission was to destroy the Taliban regime and deny Al-Qaida sanctuary in Afghanistan. They scouted bomb targets and teamed with local resistance groups. (Photo courtesy of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brad Fowers)

Now-Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brad Fowers poses with Afghan fighters and warlords who opposed the Taliban. Fowers served on one of the first Special Forces detachments from the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) to arrive in Afghanistan following 9-11. Their mission was to destroy the Taliban regime and deny Al-Qaida sanctuary in Afghanistan. They scouted bomb targets and teamed with local resistance groups. (Photo courtesy of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brad Fowers)

“We went carrying what we believed to be the hopes of the American people with us,” added Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, former USASOC commander, in a speech. In September 2001, he served as the 5th Special Forces Group (A) commander. “If there was any fear that we had, it was that we would be worthy of the American people … the people of New York, the people of Washington, the people of Pennsylvania, the people of our great country and all those … who lost people that day. So that was with us constantly, the fear that we would not be worthy of the American people.”

Knuckle-whitening flight

After almost two weeks of bombings, which kicked off Oct. 7, 2011, the first insertion was set for mid-October. As with any covert, nighttime flying operation, the dangerous mission was assigned to the Night Stalkers of the 160th Special Operations Regiment (Airborne), “the finest aviators in the world, bar none” according to Mulholland. They’re certainly the toughest, at the forefront of every combat action since Grenada.

But the mission to insert the Green Berets into Afghanistan, flying from Uzbekistan over the Hindu Kush mountains (which could reach some-20,000 feet and caused altitude sickness) when they had trained for maybe half that elevation, was something else. The weather, sandstorms and a black cloud of rain, hail, snow and ice, was atrocious, so bad it delayed the first insertion by two days until Oct. 19 – an eternity for men who pledge to always arrive at their destination on time, plus or minus 30 seconds. The weather could change from one mile to the next, from elevation to elevation, and continuously caused problems throughout Task Force Dagger.

Command Sgt. Maj. Mark Baker of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) poses in front of De Oppresso Liber, or the Horse Soldier, a 16-foot bronze statue honoring the work of Special Forces Soldiers in Afghanistan at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in the last months of 2001. As a flight engineer on a 160th SOAR MH-47 Chinook, Baker helped transport the first Special Forces teams into Afghanistan through horrible weather and in some of the most challenging flying conditions in history. (U.S. Army Special Operations Command photo by Cheryle Rivas)

Command Sgt. Maj. Mark Baker of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) poses in front of De Oppresso Liber, or the Horse Soldier, a 16-foot bronze statue honoring the work of Special Forces Soldiers in Afghanistan at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in the last months of 2001. As a flight engineer on a 160th SOAR MH-47 Chinook, Baker helped transport the first Special Forces teams into Afghanistan through horrible weather and in some of the most challenging flying conditions in history. (U.S. Army Special Operations Command photo by Cheryle Rivas)

“Just imagine flying when you can’t see three feet in front of you for a couple of hours, landing or hoping the weather would clear so you could refuel, and then flying through the mountains all the while getting shot at and hoping our (landing zone) was clear,” recalled Command Sgt. Maj. Mark Baker, now of the SOAR’s Special Operations Training Battalion. Fifteen years ago, he was a young, brand-new flight engineer on his first combat mission.

“I was proud and scared. … There was a lot of stuff going on. There was bad weather. A lot of people compared those first missions to Lt. Col. (James) Doolittle in World War II because we were doing stuff no one had ever done before. … We had a mission to make sure these Soldiers got in. … It was my first time ever getting shot at. That’s a pretty vivid memory. … It was war. I don’t think I’ve ever been any closer to my fellow brothers-in-arms than I was then. All we had was each other.”

On the ground

Indeed, special operators have a famously tight bond. They have to. As the Green Berets stepped off the SOAR’s highly modified MH-47 Chinooks, they stepped back in time, to a time of dirt roads and horses. They stepped into another world, one of arid deserts and towering peaks, of “rugged, isolated, beautiful, different colored stones and geographical formations, different shades of red in the morning as the sun came up,” said Maj. Mark Nutsch, now a reservist in special operations, but then the commander of ODA 595, one of the first two 12-man teams to arrive in Afghanistan. The world was one of all-but-impassable trails, of “a canyon with very dominating, several-hundred-feet cliffs.” It was a world of freezing nights, where intelligence was slim, women were invisible, and friend and foe looked the same.

U.S. Army special operators confer with Afghan chieftains and resistance fighters. Starting Oct. 19, 2001, 12-man Special Forces detachments from the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) began arriving in Afghanistan in the middle of the night, transported by aviators from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Battalion (Airborne). They were the first ground Soldiers of the war on terrorism following 9-11 and their mission was to destroy the Taliban regime and deny Al-Qaida sanctuary in Afghanistan. They scouted bomb targets and teamed with local resistance groups. Some of the Green Berets found themselves riding horses, becoming the first American Soldiers to ride to war on horseback since World War II. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Special Operations Command)

U.S. Army special operators confer with Afghan chieftains and resistance fighters. Starting Oct. 19, 2001, 12-man Special Forces detachments from the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) began arriving in Afghanistan in the middle of the night, transported by aviators from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Battalion (Airborne). (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Special Operations Command)

They arrived in the middle of the night, of course, to the sort of pitch blackness that can only be found miles from electricity and civilization, at the mercy of the men waiting for them. “We weren’t sure how friendly the link up was going to be,” said Nutsch. “We were prepared for a possible hot insertion. … We were surrounded by – on the LZ there were armed militia factions. … We had just set a helicopter down in that. … It was tense, but … the link up went smoothly.”

Horsemen

The various SF teams that were in Afghanistan or would soon arrive split into smaller three-man and six-man cells to cover more ground. Some of them quickly found themselves on borrowed horses, in saddles meant for Afghans much lighter and shorter than American Green Berets. Most had never ridden before, and they learned by immediately riding for hours, forced to keep up with skilled Afghan horsemen, on steeds that constantly wanted to fight each other.

But that’s what Green Berets do: They adapt. They overcome. “The guys did a phenomenal job learning how to ride that rugged terrain,” said Nutsch, who worked on a cattle ranch and rodeoed in college. Even so, riding requires muscles most Americans don’t use every day, and after a long day in the saddle, the Soldiers were in excruciating pain, especially as the stirrups were far too short. They had to start jerry rigging the stirrups with parachute cord.

Starting Oct. 19, 2001, 12-man Special Forces detachments from the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) began arriving in Afghanistan in the middle of the night, transported by aviators from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Battalion (Airborne). They were the first ground Soldiers of the war on terrorism following 9-11 and their mission was to destroy the Taliban regime and deny Al-Qaida sanctuary in Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Special Operations Command)

Starting Oct. 19, 2001, 12-man Special Forces detachments from the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) began arriving in Afghanistan in the middle of the night, transported by aviators from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Battalion (Airborne). They were the first ground Soldiers of the war on terrorism following 9-11 and their mission was to destroy the Taliban regime and deny Al-Qaida sanctuary in Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Special Operations Command)

“Initially you had a different horse for every move … and you’d have a different one, different gait or just willingness to follow the commands of the rider,” Nutsch remembered. “A lot of them didn’t have a bit or it was a very crude bit. The guys had to work through all of that and use less than optimal gear. … Eventually we got the same pool of horses we were using regularly.”

Nutsch had always been a history buff, and he had carefully studied Civil War cavalry charges and tactics, but he had never expected to ride horses into battle. In fact, it was the first time American Soldiers rode to war on horseback since World War II, and this ancient form of warfare was now considered unconventional.

“We’re blending, basically, 19th-century tactics with 20th-century weapons and 21st-century technology in the form of GPS, satellite communications, American air power,” Nutsch pointed out.

Audacity

And there were military tactics involved. Even the timing of the attacks was crucial. Nutsch remembers wondering why the Northern Alliance wanted to go after the Taliban midafternoon instead of in the morning, but it accounted for their slower speed on horseback, while still leaving time to consolidate any gains before darkness fell. (They didn’t have night vision goggles.)

Now-Master Sgt. Keith Gamble poses in Afghanistan as a senior weapons sergeant on Operational Detachment A 585 in 2001. Gamble served on one of the first Special Forces teams to go into Afghanistan after 9-11. The mission was to destroy the Taliban regime and deny Al-Qaida sanctuary. Gamble and his battle buddies scouted bomb targets and teamed with local resistance groups. Identifying information for the other Soldiers has been blurred for security reasons. (Photo courtesy of Master Sgt. Keith Gamble)

Now-Master Sgt. Keith Gamble poses in Afghanistan as a senior weapons sergeant on Operational Detachment A 585 in 2001. Gamble served on one of the first Special Forces teams to go into Afghanistan after 9-11. The mission was to destroy the Taliban regime and deny Al-Qaida sanctuary. Gamble and his battle buddies scouted bomb targets and teamed with local resistance groups. Identifying information for the other Soldiers has been blurred for security reasons. (Photo courtesy of Master Sgt. Keith Gamble)

Supported by the Green Berets, Northern Alliance fighters directly confronted the Taliban over and over again. Some factions, like Nutsch’s, relied on horses for that first month. Others had pick up trucks or other vehicles, but they usually charged into battle armed with little more than AK-47s, machine guns, grenades and a few handfuls of ammunition. Meanwhile, the Taliban had tanks and armored personnel carriers and antiaircraft guns they used as cannons, all left behind by the Soviets when they evacuated Afghanistan in the late eighties.

It took a lot of heart, a lot of courage. “We heard a loud roar coming from the west,” said Master Sgt. Keith Gamble, then a weapons sergeant on ODA 585, as he remembered one firefight. “We had no clue what it was until we saw about 500 to 1,000 NA soldiers charging up the ridge line. I called it a ‘Brave Heart’ charge. What the NA didn’t realize was that the route leading up the ridgeline was heavily mined. The NA did not fare too well, as they received numerous injuries and had to retreat. We continued to pound the ridge line with bombs until the NA took it that evening.”

“They weren’t suicidal,” Nutsch, who worked with different ethnic groups, agreed, “but they did have the courage to get up and quickly close that distance on those vehicles so they could eliminate that vehicle or that crew. We witnessed their bravery on several occasions where they charged down our flank (to attack) these armored vehicles or these air defense guns that are being used in a direct fire role, and kill the crew and capture that gun for our own use.”

Bomb strikes

One of the primary and most important functions of the Special Forces teams, supported by combat controllers from Air Force Special Operations Command, was calling in air strikes. The U.S. military had been bombing the Taliban for a couple of weeks, but in a land of caves and mountains and small villages, it was difficult to distinguish targets. To help level the field and give the resistance forces a chance, the U.S. had to get rid of those tanks, armored carriers and antiaircraft guns. Once they got on the ground, Soldiers identified enemy targets and skilled Airmen called in those targets and quickly began picking off the Taliban and Al Qaeda. They also called for resupplies and humanitarian assistance drops.

Now-retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Calvin Markham poses in Afghanistan with a local resistance fighter in 2001. As a combat controller with Air Force Special Operations Command, Markham served with one of the first American ground teams to go into Afghanistan following 9-11. Some of his most important duties included finding areas to establish an airhead and scout locations for airdrops, and, of course, to call in air strikes, many of which were danger close to American and coalition positions. (Photo courtesy of retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Calvin Markham)

Now-retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Calvin Markham poses in Afghanistan with a local resistance fighter in 2001. As a combat controller with Air Force Special Operations Command, Markham served with one of the first American ground teams to go into Afghanistan following 9-11. Some of his most important duties included finding areas to establish an airhead and scout locations for airdrops, and, of course, to call in air strikes, many of which were danger close to American and coalition positions. (Photo courtesy of retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Calvin Markham)

“The sole focus of that combat controller was to bring that air-to-ground interface,” explained former combat controller and retired Chief Master Sgt. Calvin Markham, who received a Silver Star for the operation, “so to look for areas where we could establish an airhead, where we could land aircraft, where we could bring supplies where we could do airdrops. The other side of it was to bring that close air support expertise with our air traffic control background, having multiple stacks of aircraft … from fighters to bombers overhead.

“It annihilated the enemy,” he continued, noting that the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom was the first time B52s had been used for close air support since the Vietnam War. “I think it really broke their will to fight. You kill 10, 15 enemy combatants on the battlefield at one time, I’m sure it’s a devastating blow to them, but when you’re talking about hundreds of enemy combatants losing their lives from one strike, it makes the other guys think about what they’re doing and that maybe they should retreat.” It also encouraged other fighters, who were perhaps on the fence, to join the coalition.

“We fought for about a month and a half to two months, constantly air attacks, air attacks, air attacks on all of the Taliban positions,” said Gamble, “until it got to a point where we moved forward and took their lines and they just kind of went back to the populace,” much to the jubilation of the Northern Alliance soldiers and Afghan civilians. Indeed, they liberated the country in weeks, when plans called for months.

“Once we started dropping bombs on the enemy, their whole attitude changed,” Gamble added. “They were loving us. A lot of (sodas) came out. A lot of really good food came out. We were their heroes.”

An errant strike

There were tragedies as well as successes. Fowers’ team had a communications sergeant shot in the neck as they tried to advance across a heavily defended bridge. Then, the next day, Dec. 5, came one of the worst tragedies in those first months. A new GPS system resulted in some confused coordinates and a huge bomb – a joint direct attack munition – dropped inside his ODA’s perimeter, killing three Americans and perhaps a dozen Afghan soldiers, and wounding almost everyone, including Fowers.

“I actually thought I had been hit with an RPG,” he remembered. “I thought I had taken a direct round to the chest. I thought we were getting attacked. … I was thrown probably a good five or six feet and I think I went unconscious for a little bit. When I came to, the Afghans that had been perching near us had been killed. I remember crawling over and grabbing one of their AKs and going over by our little mortar pit. I remember just waiting for the advancing threat I thought was coming up over the hill.”

Fowers and his team were eventually medevaced out of Afghanistan. (Operation Enduring Freedom was in its infancy and evacuation processeses and local medical facilities had not yet been established.) He has received multiple Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart throughout his career. Nutsch’s deployment lasted about three months and earned him a Bronze Star with valor, while Gamble was in country until the end of January. He was seriously wounded on a subsequent deployment to Iraq, and plans to retire next year after a long career with multiple awards, including a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Like Markham, who has lost count of his deployments, all of the men have deployed multiple times. Nutsch has even returned to Afghanistan on charitable humanitarian missions.

Starting Oct. 19, 2001, 12-man Special Forces detachments from the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) began arriving in Afghanistan in the middle of the night, transported by aviators from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Battalion (Airborne). Their mission was to destroy the Taliban regime and deny Al-Qaida sanctuary in Afghanistan. Following the liberation of Mazar-e-Sharif and the six northern provinces, November 11, 2001, Afghan commanders began to erect billboards thanking the American military. (Photo courtesy of Maj. Mark Nutsch)

Starting Oct. 19, 2001, 12-man Special Forces detachments from the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) began arriving in Afghanistan in the middle of the night, transported by aviators from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Battalion (Airborne). Their mission was to destroy the Taliban regime and deny Al-Qaida sanctuary in Afghanistan. Following the liberation of Mazar-e-Sharif and the six northern provinces, November 11, 2001, Afghan commanders began to erect billboards thanking the American military. (Photo courtesy of Maj. Mark Nutsch)

New York

Today, a 16-foot, bronze statue of an SF Soldier on horseback, named De Oppresso Liber – the SF motto, “to free the oppressed” – or the Horse Soldier, stands near ground zero in New York, watching over the 9-11 memorial and honoring those first special operations teams.

Left to right: Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brad Fowers, Master Sgt. Keith Gamble, Maj. Mark Nutsch, Air Force Lt. Col. Allison Black and author Doug Stanton pose in front of De Oppresso Liber, or the Horse Soldier, a 16-foot bronze statue honoring the work of Special Forces Soldiers in Afghanistan at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in the last months of 2001. Recently rededicated, the statue stands near ground zero in New York. Fowers, Gamble and Nutsch served on some of the Special Forces teams that the statute recognizes. Stanton wrote a best-selling book about some of their experiences, “Horse Soldiers.” (U.S. Army Special Operations Command photo by Cheryle Rivas)

Left to right: Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brad Fowers, Master Sgt. Keith Gamble, Maj. Mark Nutsch, Air Force Lt. Col. Allison Black and author Doug Stanton pose in front of De Oppresso Liber, or the Horse Soldier, a 16-foot bronze statue honoring the work of Special Forces Soldiers in Afghanistan at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in the last months of 2001. Recently rededicated, the statue stands near ground zero in New York. Fowers, Gamble and Nutsch served on some of the Special Forces teams that the statute recognizes. Stanton wrote a best-selling book about some of their experiences, “Horse Soldiers.” (U.S. Army Special Operations Command photo by Cheryle Rivas)

“Every time I go and look at it, it’s pretty powerful,” said Gamble. “It shows the bond between us and the first responders, the guys here in New York who went into ground zero, who rushed into the buildings to save as many people as they could, and then us, once we got the call, we were in Afghanistan taking care of the people who frigging decided to have this act of terror against us on our ground. Every time I see it, I get goose bumps, seeing the stuff we did over there, the good things we did, the response America had to what happened to us.”

Editor’s Note: To learn more about the Night Stalkers and the terrifying and deadly missions they’ve faced, read “Honoring the U.S. Army heroes of Operation Red Wings” and “Living hard to be hard.”

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

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.”

Living hard to be hard

Retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Daniel “Dan” Laguna should be dead.

The former Green Beret should have died several times, actually.

But he survived skydiving and car accidents and horrific helicopter crashes and came back stronger each time because he had something to prove.

Of Mexican-Indian descent, the son of poor farmers from Rio Linda, Calif., was the first minority kid many of his classmates had ever met. They teased him and bullied him. Even his teachers said he would probably end up in jail, or at best “flipping burgers” for the rest of his life.

“Those comments only served to make me more determined than ever to prove them wrong,” he later wrote in his memoir, “You Have to Live Hard to Be Hard.” Laguna also had a proud family legacy of service and sacrifice as an example. Not only were two of his uncles killed while serving in the Pacific during World War II, his father, Daniel Laguna Sr., was a wounded veteran.

Blown upward after stepping on a land mine that killed most of his men, he “cussed all the way up and prayed all the way down,” he told his sons. Badly burned, the elder Laguna barely survived, and spent years in the hospital. He still loved the Army, though, and proudly took Laguna and his brothers to war movies like John Wayne’s 1968 film “The Green Berets,” which was a turning point in Laguna’s young life.

“He said, ‘You know, if I had gotten to stay in the Army, this is what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a Green Beret,’” Laguna said in an interview. “My dad wanted to be a drill sergeant … an airborne guy … a Ranger. … Because my dad couldn’t do it, I (wanted) to do it for him.”

Laguna knew that to become a Green Beret he couldn’t just be a good Soldier, he had to be the best. So he finished first on runs, maxed his physical training tests and studied hard. But after three years at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, he received orders to Fort Jackson, S.C. He was going to be a drill sergeant, another of his father’s dreams.

His trainees, who in the mid-70s were among the first enlistees into the all-volunteer Army, never forgot him. He was famous for being tough, and for biting the head off a bird — just the way his Mexican Indian grandfather Merced Santoyo had taught him.

“Early in the mornings we’d go out and catch pheasants or quails … that he would make for breakfast,” Laguna explained. “We would run and catch (them) and pick up two or three at a time. You don’t want them to run off. You can’t let them go, so you bite the head off, set it down and catch more.

“When I was a drill sergeant … I had all these trainees in front of me. We’re at a rifle range … and this bird just fell out of the sky next to me, flopping its wings. I picked it up and bit its head off without thinking, and then … I heard these helmets hitting the ground. It was my trainees passing out.

“I gave some survival classes and showed them how to kill and skin rabbits by biting a hole in the back of a rabbit’s neck and ripping it off. … I was just teaching them how I was raised as a Native American. You don’t waste anything and you don’t have a lot of tools,” Laguna continued.

They were survival skills that served him well when he finally did become a Green Beret in 1978. That green beret, which he promptly presented to his father, symbolized “the culmination of years of dreams and effort.” Of 250 Soldiers in his class, 30 had graduated. “It’s a test of fortitude. … You weed out the ones who want to go there just to wear the beret.”

Later, as an instructor at the Special Forces school, Laguna not only headed the survival committee, he helped former prisoner of war Col. Nick Rowe  — famous for escaping the North Vietnamese after five years of captivity — develop Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training requirements that are still in use today.

“I think one of the most important survival skills … you need to know is what you can handle, what your body can withstand as far as being deprived of food and water, mental and physical (stress),” Laguna said. “That’s one of our greatest survival skills. That’s why we put that SERE program together, because it teaches a person how far he can go before he … breaks down.

“I tried to (teach) the ‘don’t give up’ attitude. … What I try to instill in all of the students I’ve taught is ‘You can go further than you think you can. You can do more than you think you can.’ It’s all mental.”

An “If-you-can-do-it, I-can-do-it” bet with his brother Art, a pilot and eventually a chief warrant officer 5 in the California National Guard, landed Laguna in flight school with only two weeks’ notice. Then Laguna joined the brand-new 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Night Stalkers), where he spent the rest of his career.

“We (got) to go a lot of places, do a lot of neat things, either training or real-world missions,” Laguna remembered. “Obviously a lot of them we can’t talk about, but … my career was very rewarding. … That’s probably at the sacrifice of my family … but I had 100-percent support from my wife.”

It was especially hard on his wife, Deonna, and kids when Laguna deployed to Iraq during Desert Storm. He wasn’t “officially” there, so Deonna had to say he was at a “training exercise” while other families displayed yellow ribbons.

And it was hard, after surviving numerous covert missions deep into Iraq and a friendly bomb, as well as a mysterious, painful rash that may or may not have been Gulf War Syndrome, to return to ribbing from his buddies: “Man Dan, it’s too bad you missed it. You wouldn’t believe the kinds of things we did. You should have been there!”

There was no debate about Laguna’s next deployment, however. He joined the search for his fellow 160th SOAR pilot and friend, then-Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Durant, who had been captured in the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. Eighteen Americans were killed and Durant was released about a week later, but Laguna was done. A mortar had hit a spot where he was standing only moments before, injuring two senior commanders and several other Soldiers on the very day he arrived. There had been “too many close calls,” and it was time to retire.

Or so he thought.

Haiti began to heat up when Laguna was on terminal leave in the summer of 1994, and the Army was short a helicopter flight lead for Operation Uphold Democracy.
“Tell them I’ll go,” Laguna told his boss.

“I already did,” his boss answered.

But Laguna never made it.

During a nighttime training flight that July, his helicopter’s engine “hiccupped, quit.” It crashed with about eight times the force of gravity and bounced, end over end — high enough to clear a 15-foot tree — for about 300 feet before landing on its right side in a ball of fire.

Strapped to his seat, he heard cracking that turned out to be his bones. In addition to sustaining third- and fourth-degree burns, Laguna had broken many bones, including both legs and several ribs that had punctured both lungs.

Something told him to unbuckle his seatbelt, and Laguna suddenly found himself on the ground 20 feet away from the helicopter — a mystery the investigating board could never explain.

He heard his best friend and copilot, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Carlos Guerrero, screaming, but was too badly injured to crawl more than a few feet. Later, in the hospital, Laguna would scream for his friend after each of his dozens of surgeries. He eventually refused morphine too, believing the intense pain was a just punishment for letting Guerrero die.

Doctors expected Laguna to die as well, and later told him he would never walk again. Laguna, however, was determined to not only walk, but also run and fly helicopters again. Retirement was the last thing he wanted.

Through sheer determination and by spending eight hours in physical therapy for every half hour the doctor ordered, Laguna was back in the air about four months after his crash and back to duty a year later, even deploying to Bosnia (another assignment he can’t talk about).

“I would not have been able to go back to duty in the regular Army,” he explained. “Because I was in special operations, those guys look at things differently. … They said, ‘When the time comes, you’re going to have an evaluation … to see if you can perform your duties.’ I worked extremely hard for a year. … I maxed my PT test again, and I did all the evaluations … that I had to do. I’m not saying without pain, without some question in my own mind about whether I was going to be able to do some of those very demanding things … without much of a leg … but I did it. It was just like Christmas.

“It goes back to (my motto): ‘You’ve got to live hard to be hard.’ People will say if you fall off your horse, get back on. … You can’t let it beat you. … Every guy who’s been in the task force for any length of time … has crashed. … There’s two guys who are very close friends of mine — after their crash, they quit flying. I couldn’t do that. I won’t quit.”

Laguna eventually did retire in 2001, but was back in the action by 2004, signing on to work as a contractor flight lead in Iraq. Laguna survived another helicopter crash and his brother Art was killed practically in front of his eyes, Jan. 23, 2007, in an insurgent attack that was so violent, so intense, Laguna had never seen anything like it, even after decades in special operations.

“It felt as if all the blood ran right out of my body and my eyes began to fill with tears,” Laguna wrote of cradling his brother’s body in his arms. “Tears trickled down my face as I whispered, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I love you Art. Please forgive me.’

“I’m the one who should have died in Iraq instead of my brother, who was working for me,” he later added. “My brother should never have been there. … That’s the only mission we ever flew together and we both got shot down together.”

And then Laguna had to call his mother and his sister-in-law with the news. It was the hardest thing he ever had to do. “I’d rather get burned again,” he said. He stayed in Iraq until his company sent a replacement and then returned two weeks after Art’s funeral. His men needed him.

Today, Laguna advises His Majesty King Abdulla II of Jordan on all aviation matters. He’s briefed senators, ambassadors and presidents — not bad for a dirt-poor “guy from Rio Linda, Calif., who couldn’t amount to anything.”