Very early on Aug. 6, 2011, a Chinook helicopter, reportedly carrying 38 warfighters including U.S. special operations forces warriors and Afghan commandos, went down in Wardak province, Afghanistan. The largest contingent aboard was composed of 22 Navy SEALs, according to several sources – by far the greatest single loss in SEAL history.
“No words describe the sorrow we feel in the wake of this tragic loss,” said ISAF Commander Gen. John R. Allen. “All of those killed in this operation were true heroes who had already given so much in the defense of freedom. Their sacrifice will not be forgotten. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families who are now waiting for their loved ones to return home. We will do everything in our power to support them in this time of need.”
A Department of Defense press release that confirmed the heavy loss of life stated that a “coalition CH-47 Chinook” rather than a SOAR MH-47, crashed, and that the crash was being investigated. While some press reports said the Chinook was being used to carry a quick reaction force dispatched to aid other ISAF troops in a heavy firefight, other reports stated that the Chinook was hit while departing at the conclusion of a raid going after a high value target (HVT). Likewise, some reports state that the Chinook was just lifting off and was struck by an RPG round; others say that the helo was hit by a man-portable (MANPAD) SAM while inbound. More information is certain to come to light over the coming days that will fill in many, though of course not all, of the details of what happened. That information will matter very much to those who need to adjust to possible new enemy capabilities and work out tactics, techniques, and procedures to counter them, but to most members of the families of the fallen, it is academic.
Chinooks are workhorses in Afghanistan, able to operate at higher altitudes with useful loads than other helos in theater, and their very capacity to carry so many troops (up to 55) means that when one is shot down it is bound to mean a great loss of life. There is no question that this is a huge blow to the NSW community, but it won’t alter the effectiveness of the teams, because losses, though never this great, have been weathered before. If anything, it will be a spur to strike back even harder.
What will be more difficult to overcome will be the effects the loss of these warriors will have on their friends, their families, and their loved ones. This is not to downplay the grievous losses suffered by so many families during the course of this war, but in such a small, tightly-knit, elite community, the losses are that much more difficult to weather.
These were Americans from ordinary backgrounds but gifted with extraordinary abilities; not supermen, but men of unrivaled physical capabilities as well as mental and psychological strength who had added a collection of skills through their training that equipped them to be the tip of the spear. They were the best of us. These were Americans who believed in their country enough to repeatedly risk their lives for it, putting their very existence on the line day after day, night after night.
The higher level of risk taken on by special operations forces sometimes results in tremendous achievements, such as the elimination of Osama bin Laden, but that level of risk also means that SOF are usually outnumbered and outgunned and often very vulnerable, a fact that is brought home when something like this happens.
It is a testament to the skill of our armed forces and especially our special operations forces, which have been employed so extensively, that the casualty rates have been so incredibly low. By comparison with any other war in this nation’s history, our casualties are minuscule.
But that really doesn’t matter to the mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters, the wives and sons and daughters of those who died aboard that helicopter. Some of those left behind will never be able to move on from this tragedy, and they will be casualties as surely as anyone wearing a uniform. Others will manage to glue the pieces of their lives back together, though likely thinking about what and who they’ve lost every single day for the rest of their lives. As the years pass, the pain might fade to an ache, but it will always be there.
So as you go to sleep tonight, think about the people, maybe not so far away, who have just suffered the most grievous loss that anyone in this life can imagine, who have seen their hopes for the future replaced by the cold comfort of some happy memories that only hinted at what their lives might have been.
And consider, too, that other men just like those in that Chinook are going back out tonight, one more night in this long war, hanging it all out on the line for you and me.
If you would like to help, the Navy SEAL Foundation directly aids the families of fallen SEALS. The Special Operations Warrior Foundation supports the families of fallen special operators, including funding the education of their children.