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The Battle of Roberts Ridge

Then, an hour and 15 minutes after Mako 30 had landed, the cavalry, in the form of two Chinooks, Razor 01 and 02, containing a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) of 35 Rangers led by Capt. Nate Self, arrived. Razor 01, carrying “Chalk 1,” composed of 10 Rangers and four Air Force combat controllers, was the first to go in.

As its pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Greg Calvert, made his final approach, it appeared to him that the gunship had done its job well – he saw no sign of the enemy. But, like Razor 03 and 04, just as he was about to land, the well-camouflaged enemy sprung its ambush. Machine gun fire began stitching the helicopter. Sgt. Phil Svitak, the right forward mini-gunner, managed to fire a couple of bursts before he fell, mortally wounded. An RPG round exploded in the right engine, wrecking it. Plummeting at 500 feet per minute, Calvert somehow landed the heavily damaged Chinook in a natural bowl just below the summit.

Concentrated fire from every direction and at point-blank range rained on the helicopter, igniting its insulation and wounding Calvert and his co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Chuck Gant. While some of Razor 01’s crew battled the flames, the Rangers and Air Force controllers rushed out the rear of the helicopter. Ranger Spc. Marc A. Anderson never made it. Pfc. Matthew A. Commons and Sgt. Bradley S. Crose were cut down on the ramp.

Tech Sgt. Keary Miller, Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, and Staff Sgt. Gabe Brown

From left to right, Tech Sgt. Keary Miller, Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, and Staff Sgt. Gabe Brown about three weeks before the battle. Behind them is an MH-47E, the same type of helicopter that took them to Takur Ghar. U.S. Air Force photo

As soon as the men of Chalk 1 were outside the helicopter, they spread out, found whatever cover they could, and began returning fire at a bunker located at the top of the 55-degree slope and other enemy positions.

Meanwhile, combat controller Staff Sgt. Gabe Brown found a shallow defilade behind the helicopter. There he set up his SATCOM radio. With bullets whizzing above and around his head, he began calling for help. Moments later he announced he had two F-16 fighters armed with guns and bombs. The decision was to go with guns first.

Brown issued instructions to the two F-16s, call signs Clash 71 and Clash 72. With about 100 lateral feet separating the combatants, the F-16s’ strafing runs would be closer than danger-close. After an orienting dry run, Clash 72 roared in cleared hot and a stream of 250 rounds of 20 mm tore up the summit. In a second pass, Clash 72 emptied its guns. Flying lower, Clash 71 repeated the process. They then dropped three bombs before receiving orders to return to base.

Now it was the Predator’s turn. Guided by laser pointers aimed at the bunker, the Predator fired both its Hellfire missiles. The first missed, the second didn’t. Self immediately attempted an assault, but halfway up the slope, he aborted the attack, deciding he needed reinforcements from Chalk 2.

When Razor 02 lost contact with Razor 01, it returned to Gardez to wait for further orders. Almost two and a half hours after Razor 01 had come under attack, Razor 02 arrived and inserted the 10 members of Chalk 2 at a landing site about 2,000 feet below Chalk 1’s position. As Chalk 2 began its ascent, the men saw above and off to their right Mako 30 descending with its wounded. The SEAL with Chalk 2 left to assist his fellow SEALs. Ongoing communications problems and the fog of war had combined to prevent the Rangers and SEALs from coordinating their efforts. In fact, the SEAL presence came as a surprise to the men of Chalk 2. The result was an ad hoc decision by both groups that it was more practical for the two forces to continue operating independently.

U.S. Army MH-47 Chinook

A U.S. Army MH-47 Chinook helicopter, assigned to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), takes off as a special operations soldier from Poland provides security and overwatch during fast-rope insertion/exertion system training in Kovachevo, Croatia, as part of the Jack Stone 2009 exercise. The Chinook has become the workhorse helicopter in Afghanistan, but is a big target. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ricky A. Bloom

Two and a half hours after they had landed, the men of Chalk 2 linked up with Chalk 1. With Chalk 2 providing cover, at 10:45 a.m., Self ordered an assault of the summit. Within 15 minutes, the Rangers had overrun the enemy positions and began securing the area. During their search, they found the bodies of Roberts and Chapman. The Rangers had barely completed their search when the enemy launched a powerful counterattack. A half-hour later, after Navy F/A-18s had dropped bombs on the enemy positions, the counterattack was over. But the Rangers had to deal with a new crisis. Two men, Air Force Pararescueman SrA. Jason D. Cunningham and medic Sgt. 1st Class Cory Lamoreaux, were seriously wounded. As the other medics fought to keep them alive, repeated calls were transmitted throughout the day to headquarters requesting, demanding, finally pleading for a medevac. But with two helicopters already shot down, a fluid tactical situation, and insufficient air assets available for medevac escort, the commanders at headquarters decided the summit of Takur Ghar was too hot for a daylight extraction of the seriously wounded. At 6:10 p.m., as the sun began to set, Cunningham died from his wounds. About two hours later, four helicopters, three for Chalks 1 and 2 and one for Mako 30 in the valley, arrived to carry everyone, living and dead, away. The 17-hour Battle for Roberts Ridge was over.

The Americans had suffered seven dead and four wounded, the enemy an estimated 200 dead and an unknown number wounded. Hindsight is always 20/20, and an after-action review was able to identify communications and command problems that dogged the effort from the very beginning. The result was a revision of how such operations would be conducted in the future.

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2012-2013 Edition.

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