Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Long Ride Home

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 Salerno back in March, rockets rained down in the worst attack in over a year and while the details escape me, the tradition has faithfully continued upon each of his departures.  This time would be no different.

 

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 Pakistan border.  As they approached their landing zone, the smaller Blackhawks slowed to allow the Chinooks to move ahead.  A Blackhawk Crew Chief looking from his side window as the ill fated Chinook moved ahead saw the smoke trail of an RPG from the trees below then the explosion as the round hit the rear of the Chinook.  Reports varied on whether the Chinook hit the trees wheels first or inverted, but it was very clear that it had then rolled to the bottom of the ravine.  There were secondary explosions and there was fire.  What we also knew by the time we went to bed that night was that there was no way to land an aircraft at the crash site, and we obviously knew that there were bad guys in the area.  The terrain was brutal and inaccessible by vehicle.  Help would have to come by foot from Asadabad.  It would be a long time coming, and the question was how to protect the crash site until that help arrived without endangering more aircraft.  These were special ops guys on the ground and they would have their own unique solutions to these problems, but all of them would take time.

 

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 Germany for a few days.

 

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 Germany.  I had finally produced all the required paperwork and signed up for what I though was the most expeditious route to Germany through Kuwait, when an announcement was made that a flight directly to Ramstein with seats available had just been scheduled.  The delight over my good fortune of a flight directly to my destination was quickly tempered when I heard the PA announcement that the fallen comrade ramp ceremony was scheduled a half-hour before my flight was due to leave.  It was going to be a somber ride.

 

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

14 comments:

six said...

MAJ Delaplane-
I was hoping that you would be able to shed some light on what happened with SEALs and 160th SOAR soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan three weeks ago, but I'm sorry that you ended up having such close personal contact with such a devastating loss of good people. I can not imagine what it must be like to fly for seven hours staring at caskets of my fallen brothers.
Your blog doesn't support trackback, so I just wanted to know that I linked to your post on my blog.
Thanks again for returning to active service and your extraordinary reporting of your experiences.

janet said...

i cant imagine any worse place to be, but yet a place of such honor. those that gave their lives deserved nothing but the utmost respect, which they were granted!!! thank you and all those that helped escort those fallen heroes. my heart and tears and prayers go out to all.

MissBirdlegs in AL said...

Thank you for this post. I've shed many tears over these (unknown to me) men in the last week or two. I'm so sorry for their families, their comrades and their Commander, but am filled with pride that we had such men. I won't forget them and their service. Thank you for YOUR service. I'm grateful to you all.

Anonymous said...

My husband is a SEAL at one of the commands affected. I attended the East Coast memorial. Several of the guys lost were guys we knew and considered friends.

Near the end of the memorial there was a montage of photos of the guys with their families, on the job and also (and most heartbreaking to me) photos of their flag draped bodies on the aircraft ready to come home. There were photos of the guys standing in rows over the coffins, some of them clean shaven and many of them with beards. Saying goodbye to their friends and brothers. Those photos brought the reality of what had happened home to me.

It's a difficult time for the SF community and in particular the SEAL community, as the loss of life was so incredibly steep.

devildog6771 said...

When my nephew was killed in Kuwait on March 5, 2004, we were all devastated. We were especiallky upset that he died alone with no family there as he breathed his last breath.

We could not hold his hand and comfort him. We couldn't tell him one last time how much we loved him.

We were told we were not allowed to go and ride back with his body or meet the plane at Dover.

When the Seattle Times published the Coffin photos, his Mom wrote them a letter that said it all. She told them that she was greatful for the photos and the accompanying story. It showed the revereance and dignity with which those troops showed her dead son every step of his final journey home instead of an assembly line shuffle of dead bodies. It gave her some sense of relief and comfort.

I know your journey was painful because you were accompanying those lost brothers and sisters; but, the peace and comfort you give us, the families of those fallen is beyond measure.

God bless you for your sacrifices. Your courage, honor and dignity will be your monument when all others have faded from memory. For me and my family, we we thankful that those such as yourselves brought home our loved one.

Thank you!

Toni said...

Thank you so much for that story. This is truly a heart wrenching situation. Very sad.

Some Soldier's Mom said...

thank you for this tribute.

mdmhvonpa said...

Something that more people should read and think about.

Jen said...

I was so touched by reading your post. As painful as I am sure it was to put your fingers to the keyboard to recount the events of that day, I thank you for doing so. It truly helps us back in the States understand the sacrifices you and your comrades make each day, and helps us to appreciate those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. May the hearts of those who lost loved ones that day find peace and comfort.

Buffy said...

Thank you for writing this, as painful as it must have been to do so. I have linked your blog to mine and will keep you and your fellow soldiers in my prayers.

I thank God there are men like you and your fallen brothers to fight for the future of my children.

civilwarrior said...

Sir,
I completely understand how you must have felt on your flight to Germany with the bodies of these heroic men. It is good tht you had the opportunity to express your condolences to the TF commander. I can only very dimly imagine how he must have felt seeing the caskets carrying the men for whom he was responsible being loaded on the aircraft. Too often commanders are portrayed as being aloof, removed from the suffering of the men and women whom they may have to order to their deaths, but nothing, I think, could be further from the truth. No one wants to have the responsibility of another person's death thrust upon them. But to have numbers of men die under your command....it is something I would never want to face. Thinking of your description of the TF commanders rection to your condolences, I am reminded of a pasage from Michael Sharra's "The Killer Angels" in which Robert E. Lee is talking to his trusted lieutenant, James Longstreet. Speaing of the Civil war as a whole Lee says:
"I pray it will be over soon."
"Amen." Longstreet said.
"Soldiering has one great trap....To be a good soldier, you must love the army.But to be good officer, you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. This is...a very hard thing to do. No other profession requires it. That is one reason why there are so very few good officers. Although there are many good men."
Gob bless you and take care sir.

Beth said...

My best friend's step-brother was one of the Army SF men killed that day. I passed the link onto her. Thank you for filling in part of the story of her brother's final journey home.

Anonymous said...

My boyfriend was Lt. Cmdr. Erik S. Kristensen, one of the 16 on the MH-47. I have just read this Blog for the first time, and my insides have turned over. I am a newcomer to the military life, and this posting gave me such a sense of relief to know he was escorted every step of the way, and honored in such a dignified way. I would have assumed as much, but seeing the printed words on the actual crash and how it happened - well, it may haunt me forever but at least I know.

Thank you for your courage in telling this story. My loss is unbearable, but knowing this story has helped me tremendously.

Anonymous said...

Major Delaplane:
Thankyou for your very moving description of the last trip home for some very wonderful and dedicated Americans. It was helpful to my wife and I who are parents of a SEAL Team Ten operator.
God bless you,
Mom and Dad