Bravery and Breakdowns in a Ridgetop Battle
"It was just a moment of pure panic," the pilot of Razor 4 recalled.
Lifting off in a hover, Razor 4 landed in front of Razor 3, loaded the other crewmen and hustled to Gardez. There, it dropped off the other crew and -- with the SEALs and Air Force Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman, the air controller, on board -- set out back to Ginger, and Roberts.
'This Is Going to Hurt'
At Bagram air base outside Kabul, the command staff was trying desperately to gather some sense of Roberts' condition and location. U.S. military officials say no one knows exactly what transpired during the next few minutes on the ridge. There were no surveillance aircraft over the mountain at the time Roberts fell from the helicopter.
Based on forensic evidence subsequently gathered from the scene, officials with the U.S. Special Operations Command concluded that Roberts survived the short fall, likely activated an infrared strobe light and engaged the enemy with his M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon, a light machine gun known as a SAW.
"He was there moving around the objective for a period of time, at least half an hour," Hagenbeck said. An AC-130 gunship moved over the area and reported seeing what the crew believed to be Roberts surrounded by four to six enemy fighters. As a Predator drone arrived to provide a video picture, the strobe light went out.
Hagenbeck says the imagery taken by the drone appeared to show him being taken prisoner. "The image was fuzzy, but we believe it showed three al Qaeda had captured Roberts and were taking him away around to the south side of Ginger and disappearing into a tree line," Hagenbeck said. "That was 15 to 20 minutes before the first rescue team arrived."
The review by Special Operations Command concluded that Roberts was shot at close range. His SAW was found near his body with blood on it, along with other evidence that he had been able to fire some shots. Some ammunition remained in the gun, suggesting it had jammed.
It is unclear just how much information commanders were relaying to Razor 4 as it sped Roberts' comrades back to Ginger. Uncertain about Roberts' situation, the rescue team approached the ridgetop cautiously, resolved not to fire wildly lest they hit the stranded SEAL.
The pilot of Razor 4 had never flown into a hot landing zone. The briefing he had received from Razor 3's pilot gave him some confidence that he wouldn't be caught by surprise. He figured all he had to do was put the chopper on the ground long enough to let the SEALs dash out.
About 40 feet above the ground, the pilot saw the flash of a machine-gun muzzle off the nose of the aircraft. "I thought, 'Oh, this is going to hurt,' " he said. "And then the second thought was, 'How do I get myself into this?' But we had to go. We had to put these guys in."
Rounds of gunfire started hitting the aircraft, "pinging and popping through," in the words of one crew chief.
Hagenbeck, watching the Predator's pictures, saw Razor 4 land and the SEALs and Chapman rush off toward the enemy positions. He had little view of the enemy fighters, who were hidden under trees, dug into trenches and obscured by shadows.
"They didn't take cover, they just started moving immediately to where they thought that Roberts was located, right off the nose of the helicopter," Hagenbeck said of the U.S. commandos. "They moved straight out and took withering fire and they returned it as well."
The most prominent features on the hilltop were a large rock and tree. According to the Special Operations Command review, Chapman saw two enemy fighters in a fortified position under the tree. He and a nearby SEAL opened fire, killing both fighters.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
In the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, a Navy SEAL watches U.S. forces destroy munitions captured from al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Navy SEALS played a leading role in the combat of March 4, the deadliest day of the Afghan war for U.S. soldiers.
(Photographer's Mate First Class Tim Turner - U.S. Navy)
Post Reporter Bradley Graham talks about the process of reporting on the operation and lessons the military learned from the experience.
A look at how the operation unfolded in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Killed in Battle The seven servicemen who died during a rescue effort in the mountains of Afghanistan.
_____From The Post_____
U.S. Pulls 400 Troops From Afghan Battlefield (The Washington Post, Mar 11, 2002)
Surprises, Adjustments and Milestones for U.S. Military (The Washington Post, Mar 10, 2002)
Night Under Fire: 'A Lot of People Got Hit' (The Washington Post, Mar 9, 2002)
Mourning and Remembrance (The Washington Post, Mar 6, 2002)
Seven U.S. Soldiers Die in Battle (The Washington Post, Mar 5, 2002)
March 4, 2002: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke to reporters about the Gardez offensive and the U.S. servicemen killed in two helicopter incidents in Afghanistan.
Military: Related articles, Web search, online resources.