By Mark Mazzetti
here weren't supposed to be fresh tracks in the snow. Intelligence had told them that the landing zone, a snow-capped, 10,000-foot peak in eastern Afghanistan, was free of enemy forces. So when a reconnaissance team of Navy SEALs approached the Takur Ghar mountaintop hours before sunrise on March 4 and detected tracks, goatskins, and other signs of al Qaeda activity, they considered aborting the mission.
It was too late. A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) lit up the night and struck the side of the MH-47 Chinook helicopter carrying the SEAL team and an Air Force combat controller, Tech. Sgt. John Chapman. Machine gun fire ripped through the helicopter's fuselage, damaging its hydraulic system and spilling fuel throughout the cabin. The Chinook's pilot (who asked that only his first name, Al, be used) pulled up on the throttle and began searching for a safe place to land the battered aircraft.
As Al remembers that night, the bad news came from the back of the helicopter: One of the SEALs, Petty Officer First Class Neil Roberts, had slipped on the fuel and fallen a short distance to the ground. "I turned around to get him, but the controls locked up," he recalls. His radio malfunctioning, the pilot was unable to make contact with a second Chinook in the area and was forced to touch down his helicopter 4 miles from the original landing zone. Neil Roberts was now on his own.
Takur Ghar was just a spot on a battlefield mapa patch of rocky high ground strategically important for Operation Anaconda, the battle to clear the Shah-e Kot valley in eastern Afghanistan of al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers. Yet it turned out to be the most expensive ground in the United States' war in Afghanistan. After Neil Roberts (part of a black operations unit known as Task Force 11) fell from the Chinook, the 17-hour rescue attempt that ensued drew U.S. troops into their most intense firefight since Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, when 18 Army Rangers were killed. At the end of the day, Roberts and six soldiers who tried to rescue him lay dead in the thin air.
Everybody knew the odds of Roberts's surviving were not good, yet nobody thought twice about attempting a rescue. After the SEAL team and the crew of the Chinook were picked up and ferried to a U.S. base in nearby Gardez, Chapman and five SEALs then set out again for Takur Ghar. "There was a frantic decision to go back and get this guy," says one special operations officer. "They figured that every minute it took to get back there was an extra minute for Roberts to be killed." What they didn't know was that Roberts was already dead.
The final moments of the Navy SEAL's life are still clouded by the haze of war, although video taken by an unmanned Predator aircraft shows that Roberts survived the fall and was surrounded by al Qaeda forces. The grainy video is inconclusive, yet Pentagon officials believe that Roberts began engaging enemy soldiers with his automatic weapon but was soon overpowered by the larger al Qaeda force. He was shot at close range.
It was still dark when the rescue team of Chapman and the SEALs stepped off the helicopter into 3 feet of fresh snow. The group immediately drew withering fire from several bunkers the al Qaeda fighters had fortified on the mountaintop. In the subfreezing chill, the small team fanned out around the mountaintop in search of Roberts. They clambered around in the darkness while dodging enemy fire, with several members of the team unaware that they were walking right by Neil Roberts's slain body.
Seeing no sign of Roberts, the rescue team believed he was likely being held in one of the al Qaeda bunkers on the exposed hilltop. John Chapman, under a hail of machine gun fire, decided to launch a frontal assault on one of the gun emplacements. As Chapman advanced, he was killed by an al Qaeda gunman. His body was found inside the bunker.
As the sun crested the mountains surrounding the Shah-e Kot valley, a quick reaction force of Army Rangers was dispatched to Takur Ghar to rescue the rescuers. A communication breakdown had left the Rangers out of contact with the SEAL team, and they didn't know that the SEALs had already moved off the high ground at Takur Ghar. As the Chinook carrying the first Ranger team approached the site of the earlier fighting, an RPG slammed into one of the helicopter's engines. The crippled Chinook hit the ground amid relentless machine gun fire.
During the hours that followed, the Ranger team in the downed Chinook and a second Ranger unit fought a pitched battle only yards away from al Qaeda forces who had swelled in number since the earlier firefight. When the bullets stopped flying, five American soldiers lay dead. "It was very up close and personal," says Army Chief Warrant Officer "Don," the air mission commander of the downed Chinook who watched his friends die on the mountaintop. "By the grace of god I was barely wounded."
By sunset on March 4, the Rangers had secured the critical mountaintop but only after the bloodiest day for the American military in nearly a decade. For his heroism on Takur Ghar, Chapman is set to be posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, the service's most prestigious award and the highest medal earned during Operation Enduring Freedom. Yet to Chapman's commander, Col. Craig Rith, none of this is surprising. "For Chappy, it wasn't about heroism," says Rith. "It was about taking care of the guy next to you, and he died doing exactly that."
For Neil Roberts, there is recognition of a different sort. The rocky patch of ground on which he and his comrades gave their lives has come to be known as Roberts Ridge.