Two harrowing US military rescues offer haunting portrait of Afghan war
Rescue pilots in Afghanistan describe flying five to 10 combat missions a day, on constant alert. Describing one mission, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor last week, Col. Christopher Barnett says: 'It was like the Alamo.'
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For the rest of the month, the pace of fighting flagged as Taliban fighters once again became farmers intent on their work during poppy harvest season. But by the end of May, the Taliban had returned with a vengeance.Skip to next paragraph
US Special forces were operating in a Helmand region known to US troops, ironically, as the “Green Zone.” A fertile farming swath of southern Afghanistan, it is one of the most dangerous areas in Afghanistan for US forces – quite unlike the "Green Zone" in Baghdad, a generally safe area where many US troops were based during the Iraq war.
On May 18, 2009, Special Operations Forces forces took over a Taliban-dominated village market, confiscating large quantities of opium poppy. “When the Taliban woke up the next morning,” Barnett recalls, “needless to say, they were pretty unhappy to find a special forces company had assaulted and taken over their stash.”
Then began the Taliban attack, what Barnett describes as “strengthening waves of Taliban opposition” that “at times completely encircled” SOF forces, who were being attacked from three different directions.
“I mean, it literally, it was like the Alamo,” Barnett says. “After one attack would, you know, fail or peter out, [the Taliban would] get on their cellphones and start calling more guys and then, you know, a larger group would continue to show up.”
The Special Operations Forces “had no relief” – it was deemed too dangerous for any US reinforcements to go in.
Before the assault began, SOF forces had anticipated a multiday mission. But by the end of the first day, “these guys were already running low on ammunition, water, and food,” says Barnett. “The fight was so intense for these guys down there, and I honestly have never seen anything like it.”
The US Air Force CSAR forces, accustomed to combat rescue missions in the midst of heavy fighting, were running rescue missions. By their second rescue run, they were “loading up and bringing water and bringing extra ammunition down to them and dumping it with them when we’d end up going in for a casualty.”
Typically, they would not carry any of these resupplies with them. These helicopters typically fly light because they are often carrying casualties back to base and must be prepared to lift off at a moment's notice. But in this case, they made the decision to do it because they could see that these troops were in such dire straits.
For these rescue missions, Barnett and Creel were each awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor medals in a service at the Pentagon last week, a story that was largely lost amid the coverage of the NATO summit in Chicago and plans for how, precisely, the US military will begin to exit Afghanistan in 2013.
Such rescue missions are less frequent in southern Afghanistan, where US forces are now pulling out as the war winds down. They continue in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
At times, such rescue missions feel like an “uphill battle,” Barnett says. But the point, he adds, is helping comrades in arms.
“When you call that person on the radio and that ground force commander knows the voice of the rescue pilot that’s going to pick them up, you’re going to do what you need to do to figure it out,” Creel adds. “And that’s really the bottom line."