In our last visit in this series, we covered the Air Force Special Operations Command units that fell under the Reserve Component. Previously, we listed specific AFSCs (Air Force jobs) and their specific units. In this sidebar, we’ll learn about an individual Air National Guardsman, and his heroics during one of the most famous engagements of the entire GWOT.
Very many information and news outlets have covered this rescue mission. The story of the cause and subsequent effect of the fateful mission has been covered in books, as well as copious reruns and replays over various armchair blogs since the day it was made public. My point here is not to rehash every detail of the mission itself. My point is to highlight the absolutely integral role played by one particular AFSOC Guardsman. This, all to illustrate my assertion that RC SOCOM personnel will be called upon to perform to the same level and duration of standard as their active counterparts.
First, a little background. Initial U.S. forces entered Afghanistan in October of 2001, a few short weeks after the terrorist attacks the month before. Operation Anaconda was executed several months after that, in March 2002. Its purpose was to sweep AQ forces, and neutralize as many as possible. Three days into that Operation, a Navy SEAL (and one USAF CCT) special reconnaissance mission to a 10,200 foot ridgeline above Shah-i-kot Valley went completely fucking sideways.
Two 160th SOAR Chinooks (Razor 03 and Razor 04) had been dispatched with two separate SR teams. At approximately 0300 local, Razor 03 landed to drop its team onto their LZ. They immediately took heavy small arms fire from as close as 50m. The team could not egress and the helo took RPG fire.
The first SEAL at the door slipped and fell out as the helo jerked airborne and hit full throttle down the mountain. It eventually had to force-land more than four miles north of–and several thousands of feet lower than–where the SEAL had fallen. There it waited almost an hour for Razor 04–who had already dropped their team.
As the teams set up defenses and cleared Razor 03, the decision was made to ferry that crew back to base, then return to pick up the waiting [remaining] SEALs and CCT to go find their teammate. News came that enemy forces were massed a kilometer away and were moving toward the downed helo. (The only good news was that no one was moving quickly in that still-winter environment.)
Razor 04 returned to take the SR team back up the mountain. When they returned, again their helo took immediate fire. Razor 04 landed, the team exited …and immediately engaged the same AQ fighters from earlier. Razor 04 pulled away and left the scene. In this momentary exchange, the CCT and two SEALs were wounded. The CCT mortally.
(Unbeknownst to anyone at this time, the SEAL who had fallen from Razor03 had been killed prior to his team’s return.)
As the SEALs broke contact and moved again down the mountain, they were covered by Grim 32, an AC-130 gunship. Meanwhile, the Ranger QRF (with their live-in USAF TACP) and a small USAF Special Tactics team (including our KY boy) were en route in Razor 01 and Razor 02.
Just so we’re all keen on the fact that shit was still completely pear-shaped, Razors 01 and 02 had no idea what the hell was going on on-site. They were not informed that Razor 04’s team had already retrograded from the LZ, and that an unknown number of AQ fighters still firmly held said LZ. But that’s why they were the QRF. You don’t rip out to break shit as the Quick Reaction Force because you are fully informed as to what is happening where you are going to break shit. In the words of the QRF commander himself, “A quick reaction force is never going to know everything that’s going on. If they did, then they wouldn’t be quick.”
As they approached the LZ, Razor 02 held back. Razor 01, with the the QRF team leader, his Ranger team, the TACP, and the Special Tactics team, sped onward. Once on site, Razor 01 fell neck deep into “the shit.” One door gunner was killed instantly. The other forward gunner took a 7.62 round to the leg. As the helo spun, an RPG slammed through the window and started a fire. Razor 01 was going down.
2,000 feet downslope, Razor 02 landed and dropped its Rangers… who immediately began their movement *upslope* to the LZ.
As Razor 01 hit the deck, there were four casualties: The KIA gunner, the WIA gunner, and both pilots. Under the sheet of cyclic fire, the Rangers immediately exited the downed Chinook and returned fire. One of the Special Tactics PJs–the guy in the title of this article–also immediately went to work.
As the Rangers did Ranger shit outside the helo, this PJ began to start to take control of the casualty situation and treat the wounded. By this point, there were now four friendly KIA. Incoming and outgoing fire was continuous. (We’d say “cyclic”.) A 160th Medic, and the two PJs began pulling the pilots to the rear of the aircraft.
By the first hour of the fight, KIA maintained at four, WIA numbered six (three critical).
Enemy forces fluctuated within 50m for the first part of the *14+ hour* firefight. After digging in and maintaining fields of fire, the Rangers began to force the aggressors into retrograde. The TACP next to the Ranger PL was feeding information to the Special Tactics CCT that was nearer to the downed helo, stacking aircraft and arranging close air support. (At this range, this type of close air support, or CAS, is called DANGER CLOSE. And it fucking was close.) All the while, the four medics had stabilized the initial casualties and were caring for the further injured. The other half of the Platoon was still climbing.
The Rangers on the LZ made a push toward an AQ bunker near the mountain peak, to assault it, but were repelled. As fire was continuously exchanged, the second half of the QRF arrived from downslope. After five hours on-site, the LZ was secure. The medics began moving the wounded to safer spots and scouting out colder LZs for a rescue.
As this was going on, the LZ was yet again engaged. This time, the AQ shitbirds were specifically targeting the casualties. In the effort to protect them, both the 160th Medic and the other PJ were hit. This left the KY PJ and his Ranger counterpart, to manage all current and additional casualties…which now included the other 50% of their medical personnel.
The CAS was damn near as cyclic as the small arms fire. It continued to rain freedom on the AQ fighters upslope. The seamless work of the TACP/ROMAD–who was constantly stationed near the Ranger PL–and the CCT controlling said CAS continued to keep the AQ forces at bay, while also decreasing their numbers through little things like death and destruction.
As the sun began its slow set, the medics began ripping insulation out of the helo to keep the casualties warm. Remember: It’s March, in Central Asia, above 10,000 feet. Not exactly an appropriate venue for Jimmy fuckin’ Buffet. So the medics now had to contend not only with injuries and AQ, but also [now] the elements. Bodies bleeding lose heat fast. Neither of those things is a good thing. So the medics did what they could.
It’s important to note here that two standing orders disallowed any attempt at a rescue: no evacs in daylight, and no evacs on hot LZs. Made for a long day for everyone involved. The sun could not set any fuckin’ faster, and no one could justifiably call the LZ cold. Or even fucking “warm”… so they waited, and fought.
By dusk, exfil orders came in. By 2015 local, four helos arrived. The first evacuated the most critically wounded; four. The third and fourth birds took the men who were mobile.
All seven KIA were removed on the second helo. This included the other PJ, who succumbed to his wounds after seven hours of his brothers fighting to keep him alive. He was the first PJ to fall in combat since Vietnam.
At the time, this was the largest American loss of life in one battle since Mogadishu, nine years previous.
Many men in the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron are double-decade BTDT troops. Card carrying seen-it-all types. Not a one will deny that the ANG PJ present at the Battle of Takur Ghar is anything but the absolute definition of PJ.
*Author’s note. The “codename” for the mountaintop that these men fought and died on was “Ginger.” On the anniversary of this battle, I drink my standard pint of skuld to fallen men and fallen brothers. Then I drink another one to the motherfuckers who try to keep us all alive when shit goes sideways. RIP, brothers. Thanks, Docs.