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Roberts Ridge: A Story of Courage and Sacrifice on Takur Ghar Mountain, Afghanistanby Malcolm Macpherson
Chief Warrant Officer Al Mack sat behind the left controls of a Chinook helicopter, heading southeast along a crest through a brilliant moonrise. As he flew through the night, the terrain reminded him of Mordor and Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. He told people, "Imagine landing on that at night without a light. And if a landing zone isn't big enough, what you do is set the aircraft's aft gear down, hover, and several thousand feet below you is the bottom, with no visual reference. Put the ramp down. Guys get out."
Take away some of the bluster and that was what Mack was about to do on the 10,240-foot peak of Takur Ghar.
He was happy to be moving again after frustrations that aggrieved even a sixteen-year Army veteran. Earlier, he had ferried his Chinook, code-named Razor 03, down from Bagram Air Base near Kabul to a temporary special operations airfield. He was working Operation Anaconda, the largest military offensive thus far in America's fight against al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan, which had kicked off, depending on who was doing the counting, either the previous day or two days before. He'd been dropping off special operations teams in the mountains on both sides of the Shah-i-Kot valley, often relying for guidance on outdated maps and imagery.
Since before midnight, he had been trying to deliver MAKO 30, his "customers," to a landing zone at the base of Takur Ghar, the highest mountain in the area. On his first try, only six minutes away from the LZ, he had asked a nearby Spectre gunship circling over the valley to take a look with its sensors at the landing zone to see if it was clear of hostile forces.
"I can't look at your LZ," the Spectre's fire control officer told him. "There's a B-52 strike coming in," and the gunship, with a wide, looping orbit, had to push off until it was safe to return, probably in less than an hour.
"OK," Mack had replied, with no real good choice but to suck it up and return to where they had picked up the SEALs. He was aware of the importance of delivering his customers to their offset LZ in a timely manner, and what it could mean for the revised plan for Operation Anaconda. In mission preparation, he'd been vested in the ground/air tactical plan and knew exactly what his customers--and his higher commanders--needed from him. That was why his frustration peaked when a glance told him that he was running low on gas. He always planned his missions with precision, calculating a gas supply sufficient to get him through a task with fifteen minutes to spare for emergencies, and nothing more.
Over all the hours Mack had flown Chinooks, he had achieved a nearly perfect spiritual fusion of man with machine. It came as no surprise that he admitted to a deep fondness for the bird. He saw charm and personality in its homely design. Veterans like him sometimes compared the helo to a "Winnebago with rotors," and indeed it was little more than a rectangular box with big fans in front and back, about 50 feet long and weighing in at around 40,000 pounds. To anyone else's eye, it was not sleek and it was not pretty. It had bumps and a weak chin, spindly legs, and a hay stalk sticking out the corner of its "mouth." Mack's version of the Chinook was a model (the MH-47E) made by Boeing and specifically configured at a significant cost for special operations missions. Several enhancements helped the twenty-four copies ever made to fly where and when other helos could not.
Instead of circling and wasting fuel until the B-52 pointed for home, Mack flew 22 miles back to the grubby and nearly abandoned airstrip where they had started, outside Gardez. He sat on the ground and waited in the dark, keeping the rotors at flat pitch to burn less fuel, like idling the engine of a car. Finally, the bomber pulled off and the Chinook took off, but it had not gained more than a thousand feet when Mack was told, "Razor 03, there's an air assault coming in. You need to abort and go back to Gardez and wait."
Saving on gas, this time Mack shut down the aircraft with the expectation that they would be on the ground for a while. Slab put out security around the aircraft. He understood the urgency to "put a cork stopper in that valley," but reaching the peak from an offset location, as planned, increasingly looked like it was going to require more time than prudence allowed, given these delays. Even in the best of circumstances, without the holds, they were starting to cut the time short. They probably would have been able to crest the peak, after an extremely long early morning climb, as the sun was coming up. To do it in stealth, they would have been on the margin of daylight in any case. Time was eating at Slab. The last thing he wanted was to get stuck out in the open on low ground in the middle of the day.
Two of his teammates were sitting back to back outside by the aircraft in the dark. One, named Turbo, a biker fanatic who had decorated his body from neck to ankles and wrists with a riot of tattoos, was listening through earbuds to a portable CD player, rocking to the sounds. The other teammates were talking quietly. Slab told them to tweak their gear, and with his combat controller, he used the delay to go over the list one last time to see that they had everything they might need.
Ninety minutes passed before Mack told Slab they had clearance to go. The SEALs got back onto the helo, and as usual, they did not bother to snap in their safety harnesses. Slab plugged in the inter-crew communication system (ICS). He heard a voice say, "You are cleared to go."
Up front, Mack hit the switches. The number-two engine spooled up and ran away, like a car accelerator that was stuck on the floor. The engine spike damaged a computer. Flames like the thrust of a rocket shot out of the engine and lit up the night, catching the wary attention of the SEALs in the cabin. The turbine blades would have disintegrated if Mack did not shut down the aircraft. He had no choice but to declare the machine non-mission-operable.
It was that kind of a night.
"Team leader," Mack alerted Slab, who was plugged into the ICS on the right side of the helo by the ramp hinge, "I can't take you in this helicopter." A spare would take two hours to arrive from Bagram, what with preparation and the hour flight south. That would push them up against daylight. The occupants of Mack's helicopter dreaded being out in the light of day.
Eavesdropping on Mack's radio net, the other pilots of his Razor cohort, flying in the area with their deliveries and pickups of special operations teams to and from the mountains of the Hindu Kush, proposed an easy solution to the broken helicopter and the onward rush of daylight: a front-end swap in which the pilots, who were briefed on the operation, and their passengers would switch to a healthy aircraft. The crews would stay behind. Mack talked to Slab, who was designated the mission commander.
"Here's the deal," Mack told him. "Best case, I can get you to the LZ by 2200 Zulu."
The original timeline had called for Mack to drop off the team three and a half hours earlier at the base of Takur Ghar. From there, the team needed at least four hours to climb 2,000 feet to an upper ridge and find a defensible position in which to hide and observe the peak before taking it over. With the delays--the B-52 sortie, the engine failure--they would be climbing up the mountain against a light sky. The timing did not mesh, and Slab did not like what he was hearing. It wasn't that he and his team couldn't ascend the mountain with the agility of young goats, night or day. As members of SEAL Team 6 and the Air Force's 24th Special Tactics Squadron, MAKO 30 was trained to operate in any environment on earth. Making them even more specialized, the operators of Team 6, who were fewer in number than 150, did not answer to the Navy's regular chain of command. They, a handful of Air Force combat controllers like MAKO 30's Tech Sergeant John "Chappy" Chapman, and the Army's fabled DELTA force took orders from a shadowy military organization known by its initials, JSOC--Joint Special Operations Command, based at Pope AFB adjacent to Ft. Bragg, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. These "black" commandos did not officially exist on the Pentagon's roster. In Afghanistan they had been assigned to Task Force 11 to hunt down and kill or capture "high-value targets" like bin Laden and his top lieutenants. Trained to a fine point, they were described as "Tier 1 operators" for their single-minded dedication and their ability to make hard choices in dynamic, dangerous settings and scenarios. They often operated independent of higher command to accomplish quietly what nobody else in the United States military was able--or, frankly, wanted--to do.
Slab conferred in the dark of the cabin with his point man, Randy,* and his combat controller, Chapman, the oldest team member, who both offered analyses that Slab knew to trust. Slab and Chapman, despite their age difference, were similar, both taciturn and deeply emotional. Slab could enter and leave a room as softly as a cat. Looking at his clean, open face, any suggestion that he was a commando of the highest order could provoke incredulity. Indeed, the same could be said of Chapman, a gentle family man and proud dad who carried his daughters' hair ties in his pocket as mementos.
Slab was further trained as a medic. He had served in the Navy for sixteen years, eight of them with JSOC, and as a reconnaissance team member and leader for six years. He'd been a SEAL since graduating from Navy boot camp, enlisting not long after graduating from high school. He had tried college for a short time, but with relationships at home deteriorating, he felt that he had to get away. Slab's father had spent four years as a SEAL when the organization was still called Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT). He had gone through Class 13 in 1953, and his influence was always present. He took Slab to the reunions and talked about his exploits. He had regretted getting out when he did, and that dissatisfaction often turned to sourness that had served to push Slab to get away and finish for him. As a teenager Slab wanted to do something hard. He was mad at the world. He wanted to just go out and do something.
Slab had already distinguished himself in Afghanistan. Two weeks earlier, he had been sitting aboard a Chinook flying in the Kush, and the KC-130 refueling tanker from which they had just filled up with gas suddenly plowed into the side of a snow-covered mountain. Slab's helo dropped down and landed beside the tanker. Slab and two SEALs slogged through waist-deep snow to help pull out the survivors. One crewman was trapped in the wreckage. Slab went inside the broken fuselage and crawled amid CO2 hoses and spilled fuel, expecting the aircraft to blow up any second. The trapped man was facedown in snow, with a foot wedged under a structural beam. Slab strapped a Maglite on his SIG Sauer pistol. He aimed the light at the crewman, who thought he was going to take care of the problem by shooting him.
"Don't shoot! Don't shoot me!" he screamed.
Slab, in his own inimical way, tried to calm him down. "Dude, I gotta cut your foot off to get you out of here," he told him--sardonically, he thought--and the crewman started screaming again. "I'm just kidding," Slab reassured him, thinking, Hey, we could all be dead in a minute, so what else is there to do but put some humor in it? Finally, after trying other approaches, he poured hydraulic fluid on the crewman's foot and ripped it out, tearing up muscles, but the crewman kept his foot. Slab was awarded the Navy/Marine Corps Lifesaving Medal for his effort.
That was nothing like this now. That had been simple; this was complex, and far more was at stake.
His first option was to push for a twenty-four-hour delay. He knew the urgency; he knew what his commanders expected of him. He felt under increasing pressure to ignore the rules, which would put him and his team in danger. He finally decided that the risks of going now were greater than the rewards, no matter what the tide of battle in the valley. He called back to Bagram to his highest commander, Air Force General Gregory Trebon, who was deputy commander of JSOC and the commander of Task Force 11. Chance alone put Trebon at Bagram that evening, instead of at JSOC's staging base on Masirah Island, off Oman in the Hormuz Straits.
Slab said, "Hey, I really--we're not going to be able to get up there by the time the sun comes up. I want a twenty-four-hour push. Let's do this tomorrow night."
By way of reply, Trebon never told Slab yes, and he never told him no. He said, "We need you to rethink that. We really need to get you in there tonight." Trebon was giving Slab latitude to decide for himself while letting him know his strong feelings in favor of continuing despite the onset of daylight. He did not think to tell Slab that another special operations team had tried to reach Takur Ghar the day before, but the presence of al-Qaeda fighters in the southern draw had turned them back. After that delay, a further twenty-four hours seemed somewhat inappropriate, especially considering that JSOC had "chopped" Slab's elite team to Operation Anaconda, arguing that it was underused in Task Force 11. Trebon knew that Takur Ghar was going to be occupied as an observation post sooner or later, and later meant further casualties inflicted on Army troops in the valley. He reasoned that Takur Ghar was simply too valuable not to occupy right now. And if for some unforeseen reason the team encountered resistance, it would happen regardless of whether they went to Takur Ghar that night or the next night.
No matter what words Trebon chose to use with him, Slab was hearing him say, "You got to go."
He walked up to the cockpit to talk with Mack. He knew that what he was preparing to ask the pilot was born of necessity, and he rationalized it with each step up the cabin floor toward the cockpit. Our offset LZ is only 4 kilometers away from the peak, and if there are enemy there, they will hear us anyway up top. The pressure is on us to get bombs on targets by sunup. Only one way that can happen. He looked at Mack and asked, "Can you take me to the top?"
From the Hardcover edition.
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