A Wintry Ordeal at 10,000 Feet

By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 25, 2002

Second of two articles

Sgt. Eric W. Stebner knew something about snow and cold, having grown up in North Dakota. He also knew something about mountain trekking, having trained as an Army Ranger and climbed rocks in the Shenandoah Mountains.

But neither Stebner nor any of the other nine U.S. Army Rangers struggling behind him on the morning of March 4 had encountered anything like Takur Ghar, the mountain in eastern Afghanistan on which they found themselves.

They faced a climb up a steep, forbidding slope, with upwards of 80 pounds of military gear, wearing inappropriate clothing and boots, and under sporadic enemy fire. They also were in a race against time.

The other half of their unit was stranded at the top of the ridge, their helicopter shot down shortly after sunrise. They had flown in to rescue a Navy SEAL team, only to be ambushed by enemy fighters. Four of the quick-reaction force were dead, three aircrew members were seriously wounded and the rest of the contingent was pinned down.

The ordeal had begun around 3 a.m., when the SEALs had come under attack as their helicopter landed on the ridge for a reconnaissance mission. One, Navy Petty Officer First Class Neil C. Roberts, fell off the damaged chopper as it took off. The SEALs returned to rescue Roberts and were ambushed again, losing the Air Force combat controller in their group, Tech. Sgt. John Chapman.

It was day three of what the U.S. military called Operation Anaconda, a three-week-long offensive against members of al Qaeda and the Taliban in the Shahikot valley. Over the course of 17 hours, seven Americans lost their lives, the highest number of combat deaths in a single day by any unit since 18 Rangers and Special Operations soldiers had been killed in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.

As their comrades began the climb, the Rangers on the ridgetop had made one uphill attempt to assault enemy positions on a crest line 50 to 75 yards away. They were forced to retreat behind boulders near their downed MH-47E Chinook. Although airstrikes had silenced some enemy fire, the Rangers lacked sufficient manpower and weaponry to try again.

They were worried about an enemy counterattack. They saw enemy fighters moving in the distance toward their rear, and U.S. military spotters and aircraft picked up other signs of enemy reinforcement efforts.

Mortar shells fell around their chopper. The first landed ahead of the nose, the next one down the hill to the rear, suggesting the enemy was attempting to zero in on them. The whooshing of the shells sent shivers through the Americans, especially the helicopter crewmen, who were unaccustomed to ground combat.

Concerned about the condition of the three wounded aircrew members, some of the chopper team pressed the Ranger platoon's commander, Capt. Nathan Self, to mount a new assault to clear the way for an evacuation. Self told them he needed reinforcements first.

"They didn't understand the timetable that we were really on," Self said. "They expected things to happen quick, quick, quick: 'You guys run up there and kill the enemy.' "

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