A couple of weeks ago, just after my last entry, I found myself sitting in one of the canvas seats that lined the side of the C-17. Thirteen other people sat to my left and right and thirteen others sat in the seats on the other side facing us. Uncharacteristic of a flight headed out of a combat theater, there was no laughing or joking. All the normal yelling and good natured taunts were replaced with a stoic silence as we gazed at the two rows of caskets between us, each meticulously covered with an American flag. The plane leveled out, and some began to shift in their seats to get comfortable for the long ride. One of the two Slovakian soldiers on the other side stared at the casket nearest him with an expression that was not irreverent but seemed to indicate that he couldn’t comprehend something. Straight across from me, a young Sergeant wearing a Special Forces patch on his right sleeve sat ramrod straight gazing at the casket nearest him. We would accompany these warriors for the next seven and a half hours, the first leg of their final journey. We would each come to terms with it in our own way and wonder what it was that put us on this aircraft at this time.
Somewhere around Thursday, June 23rd I was assigned a mission of an administrative nature that not only promised to be tedious, distasteful, and time consuming it would carry the added benefit of being my primary mission until completed. I waded in, and by the weekend I was so thoroughly immersed in this newly assigned duty that I barely took notice of the LTF commander’s absence as he circulated the area of operations to see our soldiers in remote locations. I should have seen the omen. It seems that each time LTC Langowski departs, catastrophes emerge and crises erupt. The first time he left
On Tuesday, as the commander was making his way to FOB Ripley in the south, and I was deluged with paperwork, LT Mahoney put his head in my office and asked “Sir, are you aware of the Chinook that’s down?”
What had been my primary duty seemingly evaporated.
“Precautionary landing?” I asked hoping that a prudent aviator had sensed something amiss with the aircraft and chose to land, a fairly frequent and not very serious occurrence.
“No Sir, it was shot down near Asadabad, they’re not sure how many are on board but we think there are at least 2 survivors.”
My mind was whirling with questions, ‘How do we know it was shot down?’, ‘Where exactly was it?’ ‘Can MEDEVAC land there?’ but the first one out of my mouth as we walked back into our operations center was “Do we have anyone flying today?”
LT Mahoney was answering me, but I wasn’t paying attention, the question had been unnecessary. The screen was showing that it was an MH-47 that had been lost, a Special Ops version of the Chinook and it was logically being reported by CJSOTF, the Combined Joint Special Operation Task Force. We wouldn’t have had anyone on this aircraft. The initial sense of relief quickly dissipated though. There were still troops on the ground out there possibly badly injured and still in harm’s way.
I read through the reports. Not much was known and I chose not to frustrate myself by staring at an immobile screen.
“Make sure that all our people are accounted for just in case,” I told LT Mahoney as I began to leave “and make sure that Mortuary Affairs is aware.”
The Mortuary Affairs detachment which has the sad and gruesome task of attending to the bodies of those lost here, recently was realigned to fall under the control of our task force. I sincerely hoped that they would be they only unit in the task force that never had to do their job.
As the day wore on, I repeatedly made my way back into the TOC to see any updates, but little changed. It was quickly verified that it was a Special Ops flight and that all our people were indeed accounted for, but the number of people on board ranged from 14 to 22 and the number of survivors was unknown. It normally takes a bit of time piece all the details together from an incident like this but the information was painstakingly slow this time.
By nightfall, what we did know was that a formation of Apaches, Blackhawks, and Chinooks were traveling up a mountain valley north of Asadabad near the
What followed was waiting, no answers, and more waiting. By morning nothing new had developed. Predators had flown over the area all night and Apaches had over watched from the ridgelines above, but news was maddeningly scarce and hope dimmed with each passing hour. The day crept by, and as it passed, the only thing we really became sure of was that there had been 16 people, SEALs and Task Force 160th Aviators, on board the Chinook.
By Thursday, word finally came from forces that had reached the aircraft that there were no survivors. The LTF Commander had also returned from his trek by this time, and I informed him that it was becoming increasingly clear that the mission I had been assigned was going to require me to return to
On Friday, the Mortuary Affairs unit was unfortunately employed and I was at the air terminal trying to figure out the best way to get to
At 9:00 P.M., for the fourth time since our return to Bagram, I found myself standing on the flightline as part of a long solemn line rendering respect as Humvees carrying our fallen comrades slowly rolled towards the mammoth aircraft. For three of these four times, it had been the CJSOTF colors that marched alongside our national colors leading these men who had made the ultimate sacrifice towards the beginning of their final journey. Only bits and pieces of the bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace caught my ear over the wind before the rear doors of the C-17 clanged shut and the color guard made their way back into the darkness of the flightline.
A half-hour later, I was being led across the flightline with a group of 20 or so others towards the same C-17. As our group rounded the rear of the aircraft, enroute to the side passenger door, we saw that there were still a large contingent of CJSOTF personnel milling about. Our Air Force escort asked us to stand fast and she disappeared into the aircraft.
From time to time CJSOTF people would disembark the aircraft alone, or in pairs, after having said their final farewells to their comrades, and walk somberly back to the group of people huddled in the dark. Feeling like a plumber or mailman who had arrived at a house during a wake, decorum seemed to dictate that I divert my attention from the scene but it was impossible not to be drawn back to it.
Two people standing alone but very near me watched the procession, unmoving and in silence for the nearly 20 minutes I stood on that ramp. Instinctively, I knew that it was the CJSOTF commander and his Sergeant Major and when our escort thankfully turned us around to return to the terminal for a few minutes, this instinct was confirmed when I caught a glimpse of their name tags and ranks.
Thinking back, I’m not sure why I did it or if I would do it again, but I was surprised to see my hand tugging at the commander’s sleeve. When he turned to face me I saw the trails of tears glistening on his cheeks, and I could say only “Sir, I’m sorry for you loss.” Words failed him but were unnecessary as he reached out and squeezed my shoulder before I started my walk back to the terminal. What I did know at this time was that this man had completed his tour and was scheduled to hand over his command. This couldn’t have come at a worse time for him personally, but what I didn’t know then was that the reason those aircraft had flown up that valley to start with was to search for four other SEALs who had gone missing. Though I’m not sure why I tugged at this man’s sleeve, I knew that as I made the walk back to the terminal, I no longer felt like an intruder but rather a person who was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to express my condolences when it mattered most.
The lights illuminated in the cabin stirring me from my slumber and the crewchief announced that we would be landing at Ramstein in about 20 minutes. After zipping up my bag and tightening my seat belt I looked across the cabin to see the soldier with the Special Forces patch still sitting ramrod straight gazing at the two rows of flag covered caskets giving every indication that he hadn’t moved for the past seven and a half hours.
When the door finally opened and I made my way to the front of the aircraft, I noticed something different about the last casket I would pass. There was something on the flag. Thinking that something had fallen from a rucksack on the way out the door, I reached to remove it before I saw that it was a dogtag with an inscription. I touched it briefly then continued out the door, and standing on the ramp with the cool, early morning German rain streaming down my face I considered the inscription I had just read:
“And I heard the voice of the Lord saying “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said “Here am I! Send me.” Isaiah 6:8