On the ground and in the air, they fought al-Qaida. This is how they saved lives.
In the pre-dawn hours of March 4, a pair of F-15E Strike Eagles were working targets near the Shah-e-Khot Valley in eastern Afghanistan when they picked up the first desperate call from someone they knew only as "Mako 3-0."
Whoever Mako 3-0 was, he was on the ground, on the run, taking heavy machine-gun and mortar fire and crying out for emergency close-air support.
At one point, Mako 3-0 told Maj. Chris "Junior" Short, flying the lead F-15E, that he "has one KIA, two wounded."
It was the start of what would turn into the bloodiest day for Americans in combat since the battle of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. And it would be a day in which seven Americans would die but airmen on the ground, working with pilots overhead, would set new standards for skill and bravery.
On the ground, a Navy SEAL team was searching for Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts, a SEAL who had fallen out of an MH-47 Chinook helicopter when it had taken fire at about 3 a.m. And now that SEAL rescue team was in deep trouble.
But Short, in his F-15E, knew none of those details. He just knew Americans on the ground needed his help. Right now.
To complicate matters, Short and his wingman were running low on fuel.
While his wingman, Capt. Kirk "Panzer" Rieckhoff, took on fuel from a tanker 20 miles away, Short dropped a second 500-pound laser-guided bomb and left to get fuel himself. For 12 minutes, there were no planes over Mako 3-0.
Rieckhoff was the first back on scene and he radioed Short: "Confirm you were bombing the ridgeline, the mountain peak that has the helicopter on it."
Short said those words hit him like a brick. "We were like, ‘No, we just dropped bombs there. There’s no helicopter … please tell me that.’" Where had a helicopter come from?
‘Here we go’
A quick reaction force at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, had boarded two more MH-47s at about 5:45 a.m. Their mission was to recover Roberts’ body and possibly aid the SEAL team still on the ground.
Tech. Sgt. Miller (who asked that his first name not be printed) is a pararescue jumper with more than 10 years in special tactics. Miller headed the combat search-and-rescue team boarding the first of the two helicopters, code named Razor 1. Staff Sgt. Gabe Brown, a combat controller, and Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, also a pararescueman, joined Miller. They boarded Razor 1 with eight crew members and 10 Army Rangers. Among the Rangers was Air Force Staff Sgt. Kevin Vance, an enlisted terminal attack controller.
As Razor 1 and Razor 2 lifted into the darkness, the heavily outnumbered SEAL team was fighting for survival. Roberts was already dead. The ridgeline would come to be known to U.S. forces as Roberts Ridge.
As the helicopters prepared to land, al-Qaida forces savaged Razor 1 with a barrage of machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire. Brown said rounds were "ripping through the aircraft ... it looked like confetti from the padding" being shot off the walls.
One, two, three maybe even four RPGs hit the Chinook, no one is quite sure. But one of those RPGs hit the tail rotor, and the helo dropped 15 feet onto the mountain. Miller said no one was killed in the crash, but the small-arms fire was taking its toll. Everyone now had one objective: Get out of that bullet magnet as fast as possible.
For some, it wasn’t fast enough.
Army Sgt. Philip J. Svitak, 31, the front right side gunner, was blasting away with his mini-gun covering his fellow soldiers when an RPG round killed him. Another Ranger also was killed near there.
Brown ran past two more Rangers lying facedown — one on the ramp, one just outside — and took cover a few meters off the helo’s 5 o’clock. The rest of the survivors rallied there "to figure out what the hell was going on," Brown said.
Brown and Miller made eye contact. "Here we go," the controller said. Miller gave him a nod.
While Brown struggled to establish communications with planes, PJs Miller and Cunningham and the aircrew medic began to patch up the wounded. The trio moved the casualties inside the helicopter. In addition to the four already dead, there also were three litter patients: both pilots and the left-door gunner. Some of the Rangers also were wounded.
The soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment, joined by a handful of aircrew members, charged up the hill and established two positions about 150 feet from an enemy bunker that was pouring the most devastating fire on their position. Vance passed at least one dead guerrilla on his way up the hill, he said in a written statement provided to Air Force Times. Large rocks provided cover for four men at each position. The enemy fire was largely concentrated on their positions, but the Rangers were giving what they got.
Overhead in his F-15E, Short, with his weapons officer Lt. Col. Jim "Meat" Fairchild, and their wingman Rieckhoff, maintained holding patterns almost within spitting distance to the east. Through their targeting pods, Fairchild said, "We see one helicopter down, we see one leaving the target area."
The fighter jets still had no idea the Chinook had been shot down. From their vantage point, it "looked like a helicopter that landed on the ground," Fairchild said. There was no radio chatter to the contrary. But they did know the helicopter had, for at least 25 minutes, sat on a mountain littered with al-Qaida. And they knew Mako 3-0 had been without air support for 37 minutes. And now, for whatever reason, they were ordered to leave the area.
Help from a nearby hill
Two miles to the southwest of Razor 1’s location on a hilltop observation post, Tech. Sgt. Jim Hotaling, a 10-year combat controller who was part of a coalition forces special operations team, was handling battles to his south, to his north and was lending aid to Mako 3-0. Then he got word a helicopter had gone down.
It was just another fight — until he heard the controller’s voice.
"Then I knew it was one of my own," Hotaling said. "And that’s when it does make a difference, personally. I had instant voice recognition. It was go time."
He knew it was Brown.
Hotaling couldn’t see the helicopter because it had crashed just behind a ridgeline. He could see enemy troops — small in number, at first — silhouetted in the snow as they headed up the mountain to Razor 1’s south and west.
Hotaling told Brown that enemy reinforcements were on the way. The two controllers formulated a game plan. Brown would coordinate and control all air assets needed within half a mile of the helicopter. Everything beyond that was Hotaling’s responsibility.
Change is in the air
Back on Roberts Ridge, patients were as stable as could be expected and Brown was making some progress with communications.
Grenades were landing 5 to 10 feet in front of the Rangers’ positions, Vance said. Mortars were dropping within 100 yards of the helicopter — and coming closer. Assuming they were targeting the helicopter, Miller decided to move his patients to the rally point. He pulled a 60 mm machine gun off the ramp and gave it to an aircrew member to provide security at the helicopter’s 6 o’clock.
The quick-reaction force commander decided to assault the bunker. Try as they might, an uphill assault in deep snow didn’t work. The platoon leader pulled his soldiers back, just in time to hear some good news: Brown now had the frequency for Twister 5-1 and 5-2, the F-15Es flown by Short and Rieckhoff.
For the second time that morning, a ground controller on Roberts Ridge sent out a call out for help.
Cutting down trees
"We’re a downed helicopter. … We’re receiving enemy fire … ."
Brown’s abrupt, panicked words brought a lump to Short’s throat. He knew he could get to them in less than two minutes. Short hoped it would be soon enough.
Despite the chaos that surrounded Brown, the combat controller’s voice was loud and distinct. "We have enemy troops 75 meters away. … I need guns only!"
Short’s heart raced as Brown talked the two F-15Es onto a precise target — a single pine tree. Both Strike Eagles were fully loaded with 500 rounds each, but their 20 mm multibarrel guns are designed to rip aircraft from the sky, not pick off bad guys on the ground. Or in trees. In fact, no F-15E had ever used the gun in an emergency close-air support mission.
But Brown was too close for bombs and he needed rounds on target. Quick.
"We have dead and wounded!" Brown shouted into his radio.
Short’s heart was pounding as he absorbed his mission: Descend from a "medium altitude," enter the target area at roughly 575 mph, use his 20 mm cannon in a way it has never before been used and hit one specific tree only 250 feet from friendly forces.
"The sense of urgency is incredible in the kid’s voice," Short, a pilot of 13 years, said. "We can feel it. … They need you right away, anything you can do."
What they needed was a common reference point the pilot could see from the air and the controller could see from the ground. That point was easy to find. It was a 60-foot bullet magnet — formerly known as an MH-47 Chinook.
The bad guys’ position was 250 feet from Razor 1, between two pine trees that sat at about 2 o’clock from the helicopter’s nose.
Two hundred and fifty feet is mighty close for a 20 mm multibarrel machine gun, as Short was about to learn.
Moving at 575 mph, he needed to hit a tree using an air-to-air cannon designed to bring down supersonic aircraft. It was a tough shot for any pilot, but Short thought the odds were in his favor. He pointed to recent avionics upgrades, the "solid" controller he had bringing him in and the fact he was accompanied by a lot of know-how. He also had three years flying the A-10, a close-air support "hog."
Short rolled his Strike Eagle hard right, lined himself on the target and found the tree in his heads-up display. Everything looked right from the air, but not from the ground. Brown waved the fighter off.
"The FAC is doing this all visual," Short said with a nod of approval. "If the guy’s that close, he’s got to be comfortable enough to trust that when you pull the trigger, you’re not going to kill him."
Short and Brown gave it another try. And again the controller waved him off.
The third time was the charm. Short came in square, and with a one-second squeeze of the trigger sent about 100 rounds tearing through the enemy position. Or, as Rieckhoff puts it, "Junior then proceeds to cut some trees down."
Short, 1993 Air Force Academy grad, could hardly contain his excitement as he described Brown’s response. "He said, ‘Direct hit! I can smell the pine! Good guns!’"
The tree was splintered right in front of the Rangers and snow flew up within feet of their position. Brown described it as "a fine line between life and death."
Though the first flurry of rounds had hit their mark, Razor 1’s crew was not out of the woods.
They would spend the next 14 hours fighting for their lives. Some lives would be lost, but many would be saved. As one unit commander would say, "Many heroes died on that mountainside — but many heroes emerged that day, too."
Air Force Staff Sgt. Kevin Vance is one of those heroes.
Getting in a rhythm
Vance, the ETAC, had taken shrapnel in his arm, but didn’t notice it. He kept exposing himself to enemy fire to get a better look at the situation, fired off 420 M-4 rounds and counted seven enemy dead as he scanned the landscape.
As the Strike Eagles started hot runs with their 20 mm machine guns, Brown told the pilot that he had someone forward-deployed.
"Forward-deployed?" Short said, apparently still baffled by the concept. "I’m thinking, ‘They’re 75 meters [250 feet] from the enemy, and now he’s forward-deployed? How much closer can you get?!’"
Roughly 75 feet closer.
After only one hot pass, Rieckhoff’s F-15E had to head back to the tanker. Short had expended all of his 20 mm rounds in three hot passes. Brown wanted to know who was "going to be his air." Short didn’t have an answer. Fairchild had requested other air support, but none was available.
Short was running on empty, too, his fuel at the bingo line. Nevertheless, Short and Fairchild decided to stay on scene a little longer.
"We pushed our gas a little further, just to stay close and keep talking to the guy, and let him know there was somebody out there working for his cause," Fairchild said.
They offered to drop bombs on the ridge, but Brown declined because friendlies were too close. Short flew dry runs over the target hoping the noise would "keep the bad guys down." But inevitably, they had to get to the tanker.
"I’m frustrated that we couldn’t do more," Short said. "I’m out of bullets and I’m out of gas. I’m frustrated that I can’t get more air power on scene."
Rieckhoff was doing everything he could to support that effort. But bullets run out pretty quick when your cyclic rate is 100 rounds per second.
Then other fast-movers checked in: a pair F-16s from the 18th Fighter Squadron. You couldn’t have hoped for better help. The 18th Fighter Squadron Blue Foxes is the only active-duty F-16 unit whose primary mission is close air support.
Lt. Col. Burt "Divot" Bartley was 187 miles away when he and wingman Capt. Andy Lipina got the call. The pair hit the tanker and arrived above the scene 22 minutes later — not a moment too soon.
"There was not a lot of time to mess around," said Bartley, who is the 18th Fighter Squadron commander. "I could tell by the controller’s voice — it sent a chill down my spine."
Bartley swooped into the zone while his wingman provided high cover.
"When I look back at how close they really were to the target, just outside my gun symbology is a helicopter on the mountainside. That’s pretty close," Bartley said.
Soon after the F-16s joined the fight, all four planes were out of 20 mm rounds.
It was time for something more drastic — and a great deal more dangerous. Brown called "cleared hot" for the 500-pound laser-guided bombs and brought the fast-movers in using the same approach they used on the gun runs.
The "hair on the back of everyone’s neck was really standing up pretty high" then, said Fairchild, the F-15E weapons system officer from Twister 5-1. The bomb has a considerably larger fragmentation pattern than the 20 mm — a blast radius of half a mile, he said.
"Danger close" with a 500-pounder is normally 1,300 feet. But the friendlies were no more than 250 feet from the target. It was time for combat-controller math.
Problem: How do you do this without killing friendlies?
Solution: Walk the bombs in and use the terrain to your advantage.
The Rangers were able to crouch behind the rocks that had provided them cover all day. The helo had crashed on the opposite side of a slight ridge — just enough earth to provide shelter from the blast pattern, which would go uphill and, theoretically, over their heads.
Still, Brown told the pilots to start by dropping the first bomb 1,200 feet away.
"I was using big steps," he said. "The evolution into that made it fairly comfortable. And the enemy shooting at us made it even more comfortable than that."
Short and Rieckhoff in Twister 5-1 and 5-2 were again told by the battle manager to break off and leave the area. Rieckhoff convinced command and control to allow one more run. He dropped 1,200 feet northwest of the helicopter, and Brown quickly gave clearance to cut the distance by half. Short came in about 10 seconds later and put one at 600 feet out.
On the ground, Brown’s confidence grew stronger by the bomb. He had the F-16s split the difference again and drop a 500-pounder well within danger-close parameters. The target was so close, in fact, that Bartley wouldn’t let his wingman drop any bombs. The 18-year veteran knew friendlies may very well be killed or wounded on any bomb run. So the colonel took it upon himself to shoulder the responsibility.
Then Brown told him to bring the fire closer still.
"At one point, he told me ‘Whoa! That was a good shot! Now bring it in a little closer to the tree.’ But in my mind, I couldn’t," Bartley said.
Bartley ultimately dropped three bombs within 300 to 450 feet of the Rangers’ position. Though no friendlies were hurt, it was an earth-moving experience.
"One of the bombs passed in front of the nose of the helo. It shook us pretty good," said Brown, who said he never has been that close to an explosion. "We were out of the blast pattern, but debris rained down on us. I heard that rocketing sound before the impact. I knew it was going to be close."
After only three hours on station, the F-16 two-ship was ordered to return to base. Bartley said he was thinking the worst: "I thought I had killed [a friendly] on the ground and they were throwing us out. I learned that wasn’t the case in a few hours, but I didn’t know if I had injured them for a few days. That worried me."
"I don’t know what I missed, I don’t know what I hit and I don’t know if it mattered enough to save anybody’s life that day. Was it enough to save one kid’s life? I hope so, but I don’t know."
"Did they save a life? Yeah, they saved 26 of them," he said. "They did it perfect, no doubt about it."
UAV may have hit bunker
Roughly 2 ½ hours into the battle, 10 Rangers inserted by Razor 2 made their way to Razor 1’s position, but they weren’t the only ones who showed up. Brown saw four enemy troops moving about a half mile to the south. The controller knew he needed to silence that bunker in front of him. Four hours into the battle, he got his chance.
Brown would say only that "other air assets" destroyed it. A battle manager familiar with Razor 1’s ordeal said the asset "did not belong to the U.S. military."
It’s likely, based on accounts of similar actions in Afghanistan, that the bunker was destroyed by a Hellfire missile fired from an unmanned CIA Predator aircraft.
Miller didn’t care what took out the bunker. The pararescueman only cared about moving his casualties to a flatter area to prepare for a hasty exit. He found such a place roughly 250 feet at the downed helicopter’s 11 o’clock.
The platoon leader, ETAC and Brown converged on the hilltop adjacent to the destroyed bunker, claiming it as their new control point. Brown at this time was able to contact Mako 3-0, who was about a half mile east-northeast of the downed helicopter.
The reinforced Ranger team quickly set up a perimeter security with positions scattered 360 degrees within 100 yards of the new control point. In the process, the Rangers discovered the bodies of Navy SEAL Roberts and Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, an air controller.
The team was five to six hours into the battle, and Brown didn’t seem to be the only one who knew the close-air had departed. As the skies above had grown silent, the enemy decided to reinforce.
Bad decision. From his position about two miles to the west, Hotaling watched dozens of guerrillas move up the mountainside.
He had a B-52 on station.
It had 2,000-pound JDAMs.
The enemy didn’t have a chance.
Hotaling said, "You bring power to bear on the enemy and you kill as many as you can, and that’s what I did."
A hero is ‘hit’
As Miller and his medical team moved the wounded to a new casualty collection point, Brown said, "We got lit up pretty hard." Cunningham and the aircrew medic immediately were hit.
As Cunningham and the aircrew medic were moved, Brown got on the horn and called on a heavy bomber to destroy bunkers. As he had done with the first bunker, Brown tried to walk them in, this time using a 2,000-pound JDAM, but the round fell too far to the south. He then turned to the Navy fighter jets, F-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats, which dropped six 500-pounders, two of which silenced the enemy position.
Throughout the day, Rangers had requested Brown set up an exfiltration, or "exfil." The desire only increased with the latest round of casualties.
It was a tough time for everyone, Brown included.
"I told an airborne asset at one time, ‘People are dying, and all I can do is push this button and talk to you,’" he said. But there wasn’t much else he could do. Besides coordinating extremely close air-strikes, Brown knew an exfil would be highly unlikely because the zone was still hot.
Sources had said that enemy surface-to-air missiles were in the area. But no one knew where they were, and Miller didn’t think it wise to risk another helicopter.
"Worse thing you want to happen is to lose another 40 guys coming to get you," he said. "We go into ****ty situations, and nothing says you’re coming out in an hour. It’s great if you do, but I was just focusing on my patients."
It turned out to be a good call. No other members of Razor 1 or Razor 2 were killed or seriously wounded as they waited for darkness. But death would visit these men once more. Cunningham, the 26-year-old pararescueman, died during the wait. No one can say for certain whether Cunningham would have survived had the exfiltration come sooner. But one source familiar with the combatants said: "If it was up to Jason, he’d never allow a helo to come get him if it put them at risk. Never would have."
As darkness fell, the long-awaited word came: Two Chinooks would arrive roughly 45 minutes after darkness fell. Miller would accompany the wounded on the first helicopter. Most of the rest of the team would accompany the dead on the second.
AC-130 gunships, which have infrared sensors that allow them to identify targets at night, kept the enemy at bay during the escape.
Brown was aboard the second helicopter, which stopped to pick up the remaining Mako 3-0 team.
Though he "felt great" those guys got out of there, it was then that the battle became very busy — and very personal — for Jim Hotaling. He had two troops-in-contact situations as the exfil took place. Many more would materialize in coming hours. "The fight was on," he said. He would go into a third day before he got sleep.
When Hotaling returned to Bagram at the end of his 14-day mission, he looked forward to seeing Brown. But his fellow controller was nowhere to be found. To Hotaling’s surprise, Brown already had been sent stateside.
"I literally ran off the helo looking for him," Hotaling said, raising his hands in mock despair.
"Man, I’m sorry," said Brown, who seemed to be unaware of Hotaling’s search.
"Ah, don’t be," Hotaling replied. "I’d a been home too, if I could."