The ultimate sacrifice: Bands of American
soldiers, dropped into the high mountains of Afghanistan, fought tenacious
enemies along rugged valleys and ridgelines. Some of them died, but all came
back from the battle zone
Sgt. John Chapman had been driven once from
the battlefield, but he went right back. Shortly before dawn on Monday, March
4, the Chinook helicopter carrying Chapman and a small reconnaissance team
came under heavy fire as it tried to land high in the Afghan mountains. Riddled
with bullets, the chopper limped to a safe landing zone. Chapman and his
team jumped into a second chopper and returned to base-but only to regroup.
Soon they were flying back into danger-to recover the body of a Navy SEAL,
Petty Officer Neil Roberts, who had fallen from the chopper in the first
landing attempt. Chapman's squadron officer told his family what happened
THE TEAM, A HALF dozen of America's toughest Special
Operators, jumped out of the CH-47 helicopter into a hail of bullets. Chapman
laid down covering fire as his buddies tried to set up a defensive position
behind some rocks. As he blasted away at the enemy, he was shot several times
in the chest. He died fighting so his comrades would live. Before the day
was done, five more of his comrades would perish: Sgt. Bradley Crose, Pfc.
Matthew Commons, Spc. Marc Anderson (all Army Rangers), Sgt. Philip Svitak
(a flight engineer) and Airman Jason Cunningham, a "pararescue"
American soldiers do not abandon their dead and
wounded on the battlefield. For Special Operators, the elite soldiers chosen
to play the riskiest roles in combat, the warrior's code is a question of
honor. For Eugene Chapman, John's father, the mantra is a source of pride
and solace. "It's a given. You do not leave your comrades behind," Chapman
told Newsweek. The military's Special Operators are generally not young
firebrands. Many, like Roberts and Chapman, are family men in their 30s.
After more than a decade as an Air Force combat controller, trained to drop
behind enemy lines to call in airstrikes, Chapman had been ready to pack
it in to spend time with his two young daughters. Then America went to war
in Afghanistan. "He said that as a father, he wanted to stay home," explained
his sister Lori. "But as an American, as a Special Ops guy, he wanted to
go. He knew it was something he had to do."
IN HARM'S WAY
Chapman's sense of commitment, while noble, was
unsurprising in the band-of-brothers world of America's elite Special Forces.
More remarkable has been the willingness of the top brass to send soldiers
like Chapman in harm's way. In recent years there has been a growing murmur
from friend and foe alike that the United States dares not fight its wars
from below 15,000 feet. America's hasty retreat from Somalia after 18 American
soldiers were killed in a botched raid in 1993 emboldened Osama bin Laden
to strike ever closer until he hit the American homeland. The Bush administration
wants to send a different signal. By throwing more than a thousand U.S. ground
troops at a large but undetermined force of Qaeda and Taliban fighters holed
up in the Shahikot Mountains, President George W. Bush and his war commanders
clearly intend to show they are willing to lose lives to fight
Operation Anaconda pales next to the bloodbaths
of World War II like Tarawa and Iwo Jima, which cost thousands of GI lives.
But for young Americans who know combat mostly from trips to the Cineplex,
the battle scenes described last week by wounded soldiers were all too real,
raw and shocking in their intensity. "Black Hawk Down" and "We Were Soldiers"
are vivid, but fiction cannot begin to capture the true face of battle. The
action began (as most real battles do) in fear and confusion. Most of the
men had never been under fire before. They were fighting in below-freezing
temperatures at dizzying altitudes against a dug-in enemy that would rather
die than surrender. Unprepared for the enemy's ferocity, some men panicked.
But many more fought bravely.
The assault did not go as smoothly as planned.
Intelligence had estimated enemy strength at 200 fighters. It now appears
that the real number was closer to 800 men. H-Hour was supposed to be dawn
on Saturday, March 2, but the enemy did not wait to be attacked. The first
explosive blasts lit up the darkness as a column of Afghan soldiers milled
around a staging point in the early-morning hours, waiting for orders from
their U.S. Special Forces minders to move out. "They knew we were coming,"
said Said Wahidullah, 35, an Afghan soldier. "We didn't know Al Qaeda has
so many people in caves and weapons." Reeling back under mortar and rocket
attack, the Afghan column stumbled into a second ambush to the rear. One
American-Chief Warrant Officer Stanley Harriman-and three Afghan soldiers
were killed and some 40 wounded.
ON TOP OF THE ENEMY
Undaunted, American forces pressed on with the
dawn raids. Chinook helicopters landed units of U.S. light infantry at the
foot of the mountains. The American soldiers were supposed to be a "blocking
force," intercepting enemy soldiers fleeing before the advancing column of
Afghans-the same force that had been ambushed a couple of hours earlier down
in the valley. American intelligence had apparently miscalculated. One company
of about 80 men of the 10th Mountain Division landed almost right on top
of the enemy. "We came under fire immediately, it was all over the place,"
recalled Sgt. Robert Healy. "I don't think they were looking for us, but
when they heard the aircraft, they came running." Sgt. David Smith remembers
a mortar attack as soon as his platoon gathered outside the chopper. "We
all got hit at the same time," he says. The Americans ran to escape-right
into a mortar round going off. "All of us fell like dominoes," Smith said.
"It was crazy." Nine members of his platoon were dropped with shrapnel wounds.
Sgt. William Sakisat took a hit in the left hip. "It was like somebody hit
me with a baseball bat," he says.
Some young troopers went into battle cocky. "When
we first took cover we were laughing," says Spc. Wayne Stanton, 20, whose
laughter may have been more nervous than real. "The first few rounds were
so wild we just thought it was harassment fire." But then "the first guys
got hit." Said Stanton: "I started getting scared." The tables quickly turned;
Al Qaeda became the taunters. "We could hear them laugh at us," said Stanton,
who was wounded in the leg. "They were 2,000 feet above us. Our small arms
couldn't reach them up there." ("They waved at us," recalled Sergeant Smith.)
Sgt. Robert McCleave, a forward observer in charge of fixing targets for
air support to attack, crept out of the wadi, the dry streambed where he
had taken cover, to get a better look. He saw enemy soldiers streaming along
the ridge. "There were more of them, and the next thing you know, we see
them coming up over the eastern ridge as well. It was like someone blew a
horn and called all their buddies."
The enemy fire grew more and more intense. "They
would all come out on the ridge and shoot at us with everything they got,"
says McCleave. "Then they'd run back down to the other side of the ridge
to their caves and come up about a half hour later with fresh ammunition."
The mortar hits were becoming more precise. "They've been fighting in this
terrain for 20 years," says Stanton. "They've been playing with their mortars
so long they know exactly where to shoot. They've got a grid in the back
of their heads. For us, it's all unfamiliar."
American air power arrived-"fast movers," F-16
and F-18 jets, and slower but more deadly Apache helicopters, AC-130 gunships
and A-10 attack planes firing machine guns and rockets. The air bombardment
brought only a brief respite. After retreating into their caves, the enemy
fighters would re-emerge and resume the onslaught.
'WHERE'S OUR BACKUP?'
The trapped Americans called for helicopters to
pull them out. "But they never came," says Stanton. "It was too hot." The
men would see the choppers come over the hill, draw enemy fire and wheel
away to safety. "We were all thinking: where's our backup, where's our backup?"
said McCleave. Ammo was running low. The men were cold, exhausted, woozy
from the altitude, stunned. "We thought we'd be taking a shoe off and swat
a bee, not knock down a hornet's nest," says McCleave, who was bleeding from
wounds in the thigh, arm and fingers as he huddled under a
Darkness saved the Americans. The enemy tried
to draw them out by provoking them to exchange tracer rounds, which glow
in the dark. But the enemy's own tracers allowed the American AC-130 gunships
to zero in and silence most of the enemy machine guns and mortars. Lumbering
Chinook helicopters began arriving to lift out the wounded. The last Americans
did not take off until nearly midnight. The toll: 27 wounded or injured.
"It amazes me that none of us died," says Sgt. Taji Moore. As he lay, bleeding
and pinned down by enemy fire, Moore had observed something curious: several
of the enemy soldiers were holding up the bright orange cloth flags normally
used by American forces to ward off friendly fire by attacking aircraft.
He wondered at the enemy's level of preparation.
"It was almost like we were set up," he told Newsweek.
The American attack plan may have been compromised
by spies. The proxy Afghan soldiers used by the Americans are not famous
for loyalty or discretion. But the rocky first day of Operation Anaconda
did not force the Americans to back off. Responding to the pleas of battlefield
commanders, the U.S. Central Command poured in more troops and helicopters
in the next few days. Overhead, B-52s and other warplanes dropped hundreds
of precision-guided bombs. About 700 enemy fighters have been confirmed dead
on the battlefield, a high-level commander told reporters (such estimates
have proved unreliable in the past). "We are killing these guys in
The greatest test of bravery came on the third
day of the battle. The details are not yet clear, and some accounts are
conflicting, but it appears that American soldiers were willing to take
extraordinary risks to reclaim one of their own. At about 5:30 on Monday
morning, a pair of Chinook helicopters flew into the mountains to insert
a reconnaissance team. As it landed, one of the choppers was hit square on
the nose by a rocket-propelled grenade. The grenade apparently did not explode,
but as small-arms fire peppered the aircraft, the Chinook quickly took off
again and limped, leaking hydraulic fluid, to a "hard" landing about a half-mile
away. There, the Special Operations team discovered that one of its men,
Navy SEAL Petty Officer Roberts, was missing. Had he been hit or somehow
fallen out of the chopper in the chaotic aborted landing? Had he just been
The incident had been captured on camera, in real
time, by a Predator drone flying high overhead. Back at headquarters at Baghram
air base outside Kabul, top officials had watched in horror as three enemy
fighters dragged off Roberts-who must have survived at least briefly, because
he had time to flip on his rescue beacon. A rescue team was quickly dispatched
to get him back. The next sequence of events is a little murky, but it appears
that a second chopper of reinforcements was also set down a mile or so away
from the first rescue team. The second chopper was reportedly greeted by
a hail of gunfire and had to make a hard-in effect, a crash-landing. During
the course of a long and vicious day, the two teams linked up and fought
to stay alive until they were extracted after nightfall. The body of Petty
Officer Roberts was recovered. The cost: six dead, 11 wounded, out of perhaps
two dozen rescuers.
Operation Anaconda was meant to make up for past
mistakes. While not admitting failure in so many words, the Pentagon was
clearly chagrined that a force of Afghan irregulars-for all intents and purposes
mercenaries hired by the CIA-had been unwilling or unable to close the noose
around bin Laden and the Qaeda leadership in the Tora Bora cave complex at
Christmastime. All through the winter, U.S. intelligence had watched and
waited while Qaeda and Taliban fighters regrouped in the Shahikot Mountains,
some 80 miles southwest of Tora Bora. When the enemy had massed enough to
become a target, the United States struck by land and air. Only this time
units of the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Division joined with Afghans
to try to flush out the enemy-and then block their escape. American officials
warned last week that it would be days before the enemy could be mopped up
in this battle-and that other bloody battles are sure to
There is an extended version of this story
and the mission at SgtMacsBar, CCT Stories, "Ambush At Takur Ghar". You'll
find a full length story by the Washington Post, graphics, a first hand account
and much more.
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