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The Battle of Roberts Ridge

As Mack flared the Chinook and prepared to land, he saw at his 1 o’clock position an unmanned Russian DShK anti-aircraft machine gun. As the helicopter began its vertical descent, Mako 30 prepared to deploy. Suddenly the helicopter gunners began calling out warnings – they saw people and other signs of human activity. The next thing everyone knew, a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) shot past the Chinook. It was followed a moment later by a second RPG that ripped through the helicopter’s fuselage and exploded, rendering the mini-guns useless. Now a gigantic, hovering, defenseless bull’s-eye, Razor 03’s fuselage was perforated with automatic weapon and machine gun fire.

Aviation Boatswain's Mate-Aircraft Handler Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts

U.S. Navy SEAL (SEa, Air, Land) Aviation Boatswain’s Mate-Aircraft Handler Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts. Roberts was killed on Takur Ghar on March 20, 2002. U.S. Navy photo courtesy of the family of Neil Roberts

The Chinook slewed in the air as Mack fought to keep the crippled helicopter airborne and fly it out of harm’s way. Sgt. Dan Madden, the rear right ramp gunner and crew chief, tried to raise the ramp that had been lowered in anticipation of touchdown, but the shot-up hydraulics, drained of fluid, refused to respond.

Suddenly the Chinook lurched and Petty Officer 1st Class Neil C. Roberts, a 12-year veteran, lost footing and started sliding down the metal ramp made slippery by spilled hydraulic fluid. Madden, secured to the helicopter by a flexible harness, managed to grab the SEAL by a boot, but when the Chinook violently shuddered, the crew chief lost his grip. Roberts, carrying an M249 machine gun and 80-pound pack and weighing a total of about 300 pounds, fell 10 feet before landing on his back in the snow.

When Mack heard what had happened, he tried to guide the helicopter back to rescue Roberts, but with control fading fast, he had to abandon that effort. Mack managed to crash-land Razor 03 in the valley about 4 miles away from Takur Ghar.

Everyone who was not injured in the bone-jarring landing rushed out and formed a defensive perimeter. Thirty to 45 minutes later, Razor 04, after having inserted its SEAL observation team and alerted to Razor 03’s plight, arrived with the rest of Mako 30.

After a quick discussion, the group decided that Razor 04 would take Mako 30 up to the summit, rescue Roberts, and pick up the Razor 03 crew on the return leg. But reconnaissance from an Orion P-3 countermanded that plan. An enemy force of about 40 was rapidly approaching. The combination of helicopter weight limits and thin atmosphere meant that Razor 04 had to take everyone back to Gardez, drop off the Razor 03 crew, and then return with Mako 30 to Takur Ghar. Razor 04 flew as fast as it could, but each minute felt like an eternity for everyone aboard.

Staff Sgt. Kevin Vance

Staff Sgt. Kevin Vance, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller, engaged the enemy with his M4 carbine and worked with Army Capt. Nate Self and Staff Sgt. Gabe Brown to bring close air support into the battle. Vance made critical recommendations on how close to bring in the airstrikes. U.S. Air Force photo

During Razor 04’s transit, an AC-130 gunship arrived to reconnoiter and identified what the crew thought was Robert’s body leaning against a tree. But they couldn’t determine if he was alive or dead. Not long after that, a Predator drone carrying two Hellfire missiles took position above Takur Ghar. By the time Razor 04 returned to the mountain, every headquarters on the net from Bagram in Afghanistan to the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in Florida was monitoring the visual feed.

At 0458, Razor 04 began its final approach. When the Chinook was about 40 feet above the ground, the pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Jason Friel, saw the DShK about 75 feet away at his 11 o’clock position take aim. Ignoring the stream of heavy machine gun fire striking his helicopter, Friel dropped the Chinook into a protecting swale near the summit. The ramp went down, Mako 30 dashed out, and Razor 04 raised its ramp and banked out of range. Friel remained nearby only a few minutes. Low on fuel, he flew Razor 04 back to Gardez, where it was declared non-mission capable.

Meanwhile, Mako 30 found itself pinned down, its air controller, Tech. Sgt. John “Chappy” Chapman, dead. The rescuers were now themselves in need of rescue.

As Mako 30 fought for its life, air assets were assigned for CAS – close air support. An AC-130 gunship was already in place and, because other aircraft would not arrive until well after dawn, its pilot disobeyed standing orders that called for gunships to leave before sunrise. For 30 minutes in the early morning light, the gunship fired on enemy positions before breaking away.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...