Authors: Don Brown
Call Sign Extortion 17
The Shoot-ÂDown of SEAL Team Six
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Don Brown
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Information Available
Library of Congress Cataloging-Âin-ÂPublication Data
Brown, Don, 1960-
Call Sign Extortion 17 : the shoot-down of SEAL Team Six / Don Brown.
1. Afghan War, 2001âAerial operations, American. 2. United States. Navy. SEALsâHistoryâ21st century. 3. United States. Naval Special Warfare Development GroupâHistory. 4. Chinook (Military transport helicopter) 5. Special operations (Military science)âUnited States. 6. Afghan War, 2001âCampaigns. I. Title. II. Title: Shoot-down of SEAL Team Six.
ISBN 978-1-4930-1732-4 (e-Âbook)
The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information SciencesâPermanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992.
Chapter 1:Forward Operating Base “Shank”
Chapter 2:Aboard Extortion 17
Chapter 3:Base Shank
Chapter 4:SEALs Called to Action
Chapter 5:Ninety-ÂSeven Days from Quintessential Glory to Unexplained Disaster
Chapter 6:Background on the Colt Report
Chapter 7:The Colt Report: A General Overview
Chapter 8:The Colt Report 101: Points to Keep in Mind in Examining Evidence
Chapter 9:The Pink Elephant Escapes
Chapter 10:CENTCOM Handcuffs Colt's Investigation
Chapter 11:The Seven Missing Afghans Discovered by Happenchance
Chapter 12:“Green-Âon-ÂBlue” Violence: “Friendly” Afghans Killing Americans
Chapter 13:An Ambassador's Blunt Warnings
Chapter 14:A Forced Suicide Mission
Chapter 15:Extortion 17 Pilots: Underequipped and Untrained for Special Ops
Chapter 16:The Deadly Record of CH-47D in Afghanistan
Chapter 17:Task Force Commander Concerns: Conventinal Aviation with Special Forces
Chapter 18:Pre-ÂFlight Intelligence: Taliban Targeting US Helicopters
Chapter 19:Chaos in the Air: The Lost Minutes
Chapter 20:The Chopper's Last Call
Chapter 21:The Odd Request for a “Sparkle”
Chapter 22:The Final Seconds: Who Is “Them”?
Chapter 23:Extortion 17's Bizarre Behavior
Chapter 24:The “Two-ÂMinute Burn” and the “One-ÂMinute Call” That Wasn't
Chapter 25:Was Bryan Nichols Trying to Tell Us Something?
Chapter 26:A Three-Minute Burn? The Copper in the Spotlight?
Chapter 27:Fallen Angel: The Final Seconds of Extortion 17
Chapter 28:Taliban Access to NVGs and Other Weapons
Chapter 29:A Point-ÂBlank Shot: Clues from Exhibit 60
Chapter 30:Testimony of Apache Pilots and Pitch-ÂBlack Conditions
Chapter 31:Extortion 17 and the Earlier Ranger Mission
Chapter 32:The Rules of Engagement: Groundwork for the Death of Thirty Americans
Chapter 33:Enemy “Squirters” on the Ground Prior to Shoot-Down
Chapter 34:Hypocrisies and Inconsistencies in the Rules of Engagement
Chapter 35:Indefensible Inconsistency: Pathfinders Get Pre-ÂAssault Fire but SEALs Don't
Chapter 36:The Disappearing Black Box: Further Evidence of Inconsistencies and Cover-ÂUp
Chapter 37:Disconnect: The Pathfinders vs. the Task Force
Chapter 38:The Black Box Absent from the Executive Summary
Chapter 39:The Crash Site: Before the Pathfinders' Arrival
Chapter 40:The Mystery Unit First on the Ground
Chapter 41:The Executive Summary: Whitewashing the Real Chronology
Chapter 42:The Little Creek Briefing and Other Reports: More Questions on the Box
Chapter 43:February 27, 2014: The Congressional Hearing
Chapter 44:The Military's Changed Tune: “There Was No Black Box”
Chapter 45:Black Box Black Magic: The “Analog” Ruse
Chapter 46:Chaffetz on Fox: The Pink Elephant Lives
Chapter 47:Cremation and Destruction of DNA Evidence
Chapter 48:British Press Reports: The Taliban Knew
Chapter 49:Afghan President Karzai: First to Announce the Shoot-Down
Chapter 50:NATO Special Operations Forces Kill President Karzai's Cousin
Chapter 51:Karzai and the Taliban Playing Footsie for Years
Chapter 52:Another Dirty Secret: Afghans on Every American Mission
Chapter 53:Shocking Discovery: Bullets in the Bodies
Chapter 54:Autopsies Versus “No Identifiable Remains”
Chapter 55:All Signs Point to a Cover-Up
Chapter 56:Final Thoughts
About the Author
logar province, afghanistan
august 6, 2011
Under the moonless sky in Logar Province, at just before two o'clock in the morning local time, thirty Americans, including seventeen members of the elite SEAL team that had killed Osama Bin Laden fourteen weeks earlier, were scrambled aboard a Vietnam-Âera US Army National Guard Chinook helicopter, code name Extortion 17. Sixty-Âsix years earlier to the day, the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
The old Chinook was not the type of helicopter typically used by the SEALs. Special Forces units typically attack with specially equipped, highly armed Special Operations helicopters with highly sophisticated electronic and jamming systems, flown by Special Operations pilots trained to insert the SEALs with swiftness, speed, and surprise.
But the Chinook was not an assault helicopter. It did not have significant offensive capabilities, and it was not designed for high-Âspeed assaults carried out by US Special Forces. The Chinook was a transport chopper and was not designed to fly into a hot combat zone. Its crew was a National Guard crew, trained to transport troops and equipment, but not trained or equipped for Special Operations in hot battle zones.
The Americans boarding the chopper ranged in age from the youngest, twenty-Âone-Âyear-Âold Specialist Spencer C. Duncan of Olathe, Kansas, to the oldest of the group, forty-Âseven-Âyear-Âold Chief Warrant Officer David Carter of Aurora, Colorado.
Two of the men, Lieutenant Commander Jonas Kelsall, the SEAL commander, and Chief Petty Officer Robert Reeves, had been best friendssince their high school days in Shreveport, Louisiana, and even played on the same high school football team.
Sixteen of the men had wives back home in the United States, and thirty-Âtwo American children called these men “Daddy.”
Three of the men, Navy Senior Chief Craig Vickers of Hawaii, Navy Chief (SEAL) Matt Mason of Kansas City, and Senior Chief Tommy Ratzlaff of Arkansas, had wives who were expecting their third child.
Vickers was on his last tour with the Navy and planned to retire and return home to his family in May 2012. Like Craig Vickers, forty-Âfour-Âyear-Âold Senior Chief Lou Langlais, one of the most highly decorated and experienced SEALs in the Navy, was also on his last combat deployment and planned to return to a stateside job as a trainer where he would reunite with his wife, Anya, and their two boys in Santa Monica.
Seven mysterious Afghan commandos, along with one Afghan interpreter, joined these remarkable Americans on the helicopter that night. The presence of the unknown Afghans, whose names were not on the flight manifest, breached all semblances of military and aviation protocol.
Within minutes of takeoff, every American on board Extortion 17 died a horrific, fiery death in a crash that would mark the deadliest single loss in the eleven-Âyear-Âold Afghan war, and the single-Âlargest loss in the history of US Special Forces.
Why did these men die?
Their children and wives deserve to know. Their parents and their country deserve an answer.
Powerful evidence now suggests there was a cover-Âup to prevent the truth from ever getting out.
What is being covered up?
Several signs suggest that the Taliban were tipped off as to the Chinook's flight path and were lying in wait with rocket-Âpropelled grenades as it approached the landing zone. Invaluable forensic evidence has been inexcusably lost, negligently or intentionally destroyed by the military, or conveniently glossed over to obfuscate the truth as to why these men died.
Even if the Taliban had no inside information, which appears unlikely, the decision to order a platoon of US Navy SEALs and supporting troops onto a highly vulnerable and largely defenseless Vietnam-Âera NationalGuard helicopter, a CH-47 Chinook piloted by a noble crew of National Guard aviators who were ill equipped and untrained in the Special Forces aviation techniques necessary to prosecute this mission, effectively sealed the death warrants for each and every American on board that night.
For the sake of the thirty-Âtwo children who lost their fathers, for the sixteen wives who lost their husbands, for the sake of sixty parents who lost their sons, and for the sake of a nation that deserves better from its leadership in protecting its treasured sons in times of war, hard questions need to be asked.
This is the story of the last flight of Extortion 17 and the cover-Âup that followed.
Forward Operating Base “Shank”
logar province, eastern afghanistan
august 5, 2011
late evening hours
The crescent moon hung low over the horizon, dipping below the mountains off in the distance to the west.
It was 10:00 p.m. local time, and the night was not yet half gone. But soon, the moonless sky would yield to the faint blinking of the stars against the jet-Âblack canopy of space, a placid contrast to the bloody jihad raging in the dark hills and valleys and riverbeds beyond the mountains.
Down below the starry firmament, in this forward-Âdeployed military base occupied by Western forces in the ten-Âyear-Âold “War on Terror,” a buzz of activity arose from units of several US Special Forces, namely from US Army Rangers and the elite US Navy SEALs.
Here, in the midst of the Afghan night, they called this place “Base Shank,” or officially, “Forward Operating Base Shank.” And at first glance, with its wooden buildings and Quonset tents, concrete barriers and big green and sand-Âcolored jeeps and dirt graders, FOB Shank could pass for 1950s-Âvintage from the Korean Warâperhaps even the backstage of a Hollywood set constructed in the foothills of snow-Âcapped mountains.
But technologically, and militarily, there was nothing Fifties-Âvintage about this place, nor was there anything about it that was Hollywood.
At this remote outpost 46 miles south of the Afghan capital at Kabul, and 100 miles west of the Pakistani border, the SEALs and the Rangers were deployed to the tip of the American military spear, poised touse their superior training and weaponry to take the fight straight to the Taliban in rugged and treacherous mountain peaks, in crags, and in rocks and valleys and remote riverbeds. Much of the SEAL unit was from the prestigious SEAL Team Six, the unit that ninety days earlier had killed the world's most notorious terrorist, Osama Bin Laden.
Their mission was to kill Taliban, and they were deadly effective at it.
On this night, as the SEALs and Rangers prepared their weapons of war, two US Army National Guard Chinook helicopters, call signs Extortion 16 and Extortion 17, prepared to transport two platoons of Army Rangers to the edge of the battle front, in this case in the Tangi River Valley in the mountainous Wardak Province a few miles to the west. Their job âto engage Taliban forces and hunt down a Taliban terrorist leader named Qari Tahir, whose code name was Lefty Grove.
Between ten and eleven o'clock, two platoons of Army Rangers, weapons loaded and in full combat gear, moved single-Âfile toward the giant helicopters, their running lights blinking on the heliport, their twin engines shrieking loudly into the night.
As they boarded the choppers, the Rangers ducked their heads under twin rotary blades whirling in a wind-Âfilled roar. Some probably covered their ears to block the noise and the wind. Within minutes, they had strapped themselves into their jump seats, and they were cleared for takeoff.
Like two giant locusts, with twin-Âengines spinning, the lumbering war birds lifted into the dark skies, dipped their noses, and set a course for the northwest.
Their destinationâan area approximately 2 kilometers outside the battle zone in the Tangi River Valley in neighboring Wardak Province. The Tangi Valley cut across the border between Wardak and Logar Provinces and was an area where security had deteriorated over the past two years, bringing the insurgency closer to the capital, Kabul. It was a largely inaccessible area that had become a haven for insurgents.
In command of Extortion 17 was thirty-Âyear-Âold CW2 Bryan J. Nichols, a member of the Kansas Air National Guard.
Bryan Nichols enlisted in the Army in 1996 as a ground soldier. He was deployed as an infantryman twice in Iraq, once in 2002 and againin 2003, and once in Kosovo in 2004, all of which occurred before he became an Army pilot.
Following his dream to become a US Army aviator, Bryan graduated from flight school in 2008; most of his flight training had taken place back in the United States.
But tonight marked a first for Bryan.
Base Shank, Afghanistan, marked his very first tour as a pilot in combat. For although he was experienced as a combat soldier, he had no experience as a combat pilot. Not yet, anyway. The dark, deadly skies of Afghanistan were about to change all that.
Bryan was on his second marriage when he deployed to Afghanistan, and left behind a ten-Âyear-Âold son named Braydon. Braydon lived with his mother, Jessica Nichols, in Kansas City.
He had arrived in Afghanistan less than a week earlier, and as his chopper thundered to the northwest, full of elite US Army Rangers, perhaps his mind returned for a moment to Braydon. Bryan and Braydon were close, and though Bryan remarried, he and Braydon remained thick as thieves. When Bryan remarried and exchanged his vows with Mary in his service dress blue Army uniform, he had a miniature version of the uniform tailored for Braydon, who stood proudly beside his father during the ceremony. In the days since Bryan left Kansas, he and Braydon had frequently communicated by Skype and could not wait to see each other again.
In a few weeks, when he returned home, he planned to fulfill a promise to Braydon to take him to a Royals game. As his chopper sliced through the dark of the deadly night, perhaps his thoughts, for a flickering moment, turned to home, and to baseball, and to his boy.
Theirs was a reunion that would never take place.
As Extortions 16 and 17 flew over the rugged, snow-Âcapped Hindu-ÂKush mountain ranges, jagged peaks stretching from central Afghanistan to northern Pakistan, the American pilots charted their route to the initial drop-Âoff point.
The battle for military control of these mountains, and the crags and valleys and riverbeds around them, had been wrapped in a long andancient history of warfare. Darius the Great, the great king of Persia, once maintained an army here. Later, Alexander the Great explored these mountains.
But the exploits of Darius and the explorations of Alexander had come hundreds of years before the birth of a man named Muhammad, whose life and death would mark a geopolitical shift in the world. In the hundred years following Muhammad's death in AD 632, Islam would sweep by military conquest from the Arabian Peninsula to the west, all the way across the rim of North Africa and crossing Gibraltar into all of Spain. At the same time, the meteoric expansion of the Muslim empire stretched to the north and east, with Islamic warriors from Arabia capturing the cities of Damascus, Baghdad, and Kabul, and all the lands around them.
By the end of the Umayyad Caliphate in AD 750, the great Muslim empire had grown by military conquest into the largest empire in the history of the world. The land and mountains below these helicopters had been under Islamic control for twelve hundred years.
The ghosts of ten thousand fallen sons of a former superpower haunted the frozen snowcaps, crags, and cliffs of the harsh mountain terrain. Some had been shot. Others had been chopped apart or brutally decapitated. All spilled their blood for the lost cause of Soviet communism the last time a great power tried invading Afghanistan.
The Russians had defeated Napoleon, and the Soviets defeated the Nazis. But at the zenith of their strength as a nuclear superpower, with missiles and MIG jets and arsenals of sophisticated weaponry, the great Red Bear of the uttermost north could not defeat the Islamic mujahideen lurking behind the rocks of these unforgiving mountains. Afghanistan became the most humiliating defeat in the history of the Soviet Union.
Now, as two American helicopters closed in on their landing zone just two clicks (kilometers) from the battle zone, the sons of another superpower would try their hands at war in this harsh terrain that belonged to Islam. Perhaps if the ghosts of the Russians could speak, they would cry loudly into the night to warn the Rangers and the pilots of the danger lurking ahead. Perhaps that warning would have come out of respect for an old ally, a former ally that once joined Mother Russia in her fightagainst Nazism. Or perhaps their voices would have remained silent, content to hope that radical Islam would bring down their bitter-Ârival superpower, the Americans, just as their defeat in Afghanistan had jumpstarted the downward spiral of the Soviet Union.
Even if the Russian ghosts could have warned him with their loudest voices, Bryan Nichols was too focused on the task at hand to hear anything they would have said.
Using GPS instrumentation and night-Âvision goggles, Nichols slowed the Chinook over the landing zone and brought it down to a feathery landing just outside the Tangi River Valley, outside the “hot” combat area, in Afghanistan's Wardak Province.
Off to the side, his sister chopper, Extortion 16, also had set down. From the load area of both Chinooks, flight engineers and crews stepped out under the whirling rotary blades to open the cargo ramps. Rangers, wearing flak jackets and night-Âvision goggles, and carrying automatic rifles, began filing out in quick precision. The chopper had landed outside the fire zone, as Nichols and his crew had been trained to do, for the Chinooks were big and slow and unable to effectively defend themselves against any kind of sustained antiaircraft fire. Under the battle plan, the Rangers would depart the choppers and move by foot into the battle zone, to attack Taliban and capture or kill the target, Qari Tahir.
Having once been a ground soldier himself long before he became a pilot, Nichols could identify with the mission of the Rangers.
So far, so good.
In a few minutes, Nichols got an “all clear,” most likely from his friend, Staff Sergeant Pat Hamburger, another National Guardsman who was from Nebraska, and served as the helicopter's flight engineer and gunner. The “all clear” meant that all the Rangers had cleared the cargo bay.
It was 11 p.m. local time.
“Thumbs ups” were exchanged, and the choppers' rotary blades, which had been spinning during the short drop-Âoff of the Rangers, revved up. From the cockpit of Extortion 17, Nichols pulled up on the collective, the stick controlling vertical ascent, causing the big helicopter, sometimes described as an “airborne school bus,” to lift off the ground. Using his cyclic to turn the chopper back to the southeast, Nichols set a course forBase Shank and the Chinooks began their return journey through the air, over and around the mountains, back to the plains of Logar Province.
We will never know what was said by the five National Guardsmen on their return flight to Base Shank. Perhaps they discussed their families. Perhaps they discussed their mission. Perhaps they were buried in thought, silently contemplating their fate. Perhaps some had a premonition that they were about to die.
They knew they might be called back in a matter of hours to bring the Rangers back from the battle zone. Or, the Rangers might not be back for a day or more. Or the Rangers might never come back.
The only thing certain about war was the uncertainty.
They had no clue that shortly after returning to Base Shank, they would be called upon to fly another missionâthis time with the super-Âelite SEAL Team Six.
They never knew that their next mission would be the last mission they would ever fly.
Aboard Extortion 17
somewhere over the hindu kush mountains heading southeast
destination: base shank
august 5, 2011
shortly after 11 p.m. local time
As the old Chinook helicopter flew through the night along a course heading back to Base Shank, thirty-Âone-Âyear-Âold Staff Sergeant Patrick “Pat” Hamburger, the chopper's flight engineer and gunner, sat strapped in his position at the back of the aircraft.
A well-Âliked soldier with closely cropped hair and an infectious smile, as flight engineer, Pat was the senior enlisted member of the crew, or the “crew chief,” in military helicopter vernacular. This made him the most important crewmember behind the pilot and co-Âpilot.
Pat, a National Guardsman from Nebraska, was in charge of all logistical aspects of the helicopter's operations, including loading and offloading cargo, and loading and offloading passengersâand was in charge of loading and unloading the Ranger team that had just deployed. From that standpoint, the most important of his tasks for this mission was over once that last Ranger stepped out the back of the helicopter.
But loading and unloading cargo and personnel wasn't Hamburger's only duty aboard Extortion 17. He also served as the gunner, putting him in charge of firing any of the three M-240 lightweight machine guns aboard the aircraft.
The M-240's effectiveness was limited to close range, against enemy ground forces firing light weapons. For the 240s to work, the Chinookwould need to be in a hover position, just above the ground, not much above treetop level, firing at enemy ground troops with rifles.
But against incoming rockets, antiaircraft fire, surface-Âto-Âair missiles, or rocket-Âpropelled grenades, the machine guns were as effective as a peashooter in a gunfight at the OK Corral, a reality of which Pat Hamburger was all too aware.
Hamburger had practice-Âfired the weapons many times, but he had never fired the weapons in combat. Like his friend Bryan Nichols in the cockpit, this marked his first combat deployment to Afghanistan, his first foray into a war zone. Four of the five members of this Air National Guard flight crew were green from lack of experience.
The two young Air Guardsmen sitting with Hamburger in the cavernous cargo bay, twenty-Âfour-Âyear-Âold Corporal Alexander Bennett of Tacoma, Washington, and twenty-Âone-Âyear-Âold Specialist Spencer C. Duncan of Olathe, Kansas, were also green when it came to combat.
Only the co-Âpilot, Chief Warrant Officer David Carter of Denver, who sat in the cockpit alongside Bryan Nichols to help guide him on this first combat mission, had any type of substantial flight experience.
Thankfully the Army had the good sense to draft an initial flight plan for this young crew to keep this bird away from known enemy antiaircraft positions. The initial flight plan would keep the Chinook away from the Tangi River Valley, where the Rangers were headed by foot and that had been the site of three attacks on American helicopters within the last ninety days. US military intelligence reported that in the last three months, the Taliban had deployed over one hundred fighters, armed with rocket-Âpropelled grenades, solely for the purpose of shooting down a US helicopter.
Sending a Chinook over that valley, at least tonight, would be the equivalent of serving a sitting duck up at a point-Âblank target in front of a double-Âbarrel twelve-Âgauge for target practice with lottery proceeds rewarded to the winner for the kill.
Thus, the initial flight plan, when deploying the Rangers, kept them from flying over that valley. In contrast to the later flight involving US Navy SEALs, the choppers would initially take the Rangers to a relatively safe zone, which had been pre-Âcleared of enemy insurgents. As will be seen, the second flight plan, involving members of SEAL Team Six, wouldprove to be irresponsibly dangerous, and indeed foolish given the level of training of the National Guard flight crew, the antiquated equipment, and poor rules of engagement that were guaranteed to get all the Americans killed. If the Taliban knew or even suspected that the Chinook was transporting Special Forces, their helicopter would become a significant target.
At 96 feet in length, the Chinook, an older Vietnam-Âera helicopter pawned off to the National Guard, had a maximum capacity of thirty-Âthree in the cargo bay. But on the way back to Base Shank, under the dimmed cabin lights and the sonorous roar of the choppers' twin engines, and thethwock-Âthwock-Âthwockof the sixty-Âfoot rotary blades slicing the night air, Hamburger and his young subordinates sat alone in the cavernous cargo bay, perhaps alone in their thoughts, perhaps wondering what would come next.
The guardsmen knew what they were getting into when they enlisted. America was at war. Her opponent in this “War on Terror” was a nebulous enemy, without conventional uniforms, without conventional tactics. The enemy was willing to kill, maim, and destroy without regard to any semblance of the civilized rules of war. The Geneva Conventions meant nothing to this enemy. These guardsmen knew this. None of them had been drafted. None had been forced to sign up.
Soldiers enlist in the Army for different reasons. Some enlist out of patriotic duty. Some enlist because they need jobs. Others join with a thirst for adventure.
The young guardsmen in the back of the chopper that night, Hamburger, Bennett, and Duncan, all knew that Afghanistan might one day call their names. From the relative safety of the Midwestern plains, or the foothills of the Rockies where their units trained, they all knew that from a faraway land, half a world away, American soldiers and sailors and marines were coming home in body bags.
Yet they were prepared to serve, voluntarily, every one of them.
Now they were here, in this war-Âtorn place that had been a theoretical figment of their collective imaginations for years, knowing that some of the Rangers they had dropped off might never come home, knowing that for their own flight crew, survival was no guarantee, and knowing that their own deaths lurked around the corner.
Perhaps the flight back to Base Shank was like a cold, wet washrag to the face, reminding them that Afghanistan was no longer a vague notion, but a sobering reality where even the smallest mistake could be your last.
It has been said that a man thinks of family as death approaches.
At some point during the flight from the landing zone back to Base Shank, it's likely that thoughts of family flashed through Pat Hamburger's mind.
Pat's brother, Chris, was back in Nebraska. Pat had telephoned Chris on July 26th, only eleven days before. His family members had been nervous about Pat leaving the safety of the corn-Âplains of Nebraska for the deadly, war-Âtorn mountains of Afghanistan. Pat loved to joke around, reassuring his brother with humor, and didn't even mention anything about his mission, only telling Chris that he had “stuff to do.”
Anyone who knew Pat Hamburger knew of his loving kindness and tender heart as a father. As he flew in the back of the chopper through the dark passes of the Hindu Kush range, it is inconceivable to believe that he did not, at least for a moment, turn his thoughts to the two younger girls in his life. The tough National Guardsman had a marshmallow-Âof-Âa-heart for them both.
Thirteen-Âyear-Âold Veronica, his girlfriend Candie's daughter, was not his daughter by birth. But Pat had for six years treated her as if she were his own. When he came home, she would hug him and squeeze him and kiss him as if he were her own daddy. And Pat was the principal father figure in Veronica's life. Then, two years earlier, in 2009, Candie had given birth to Pat's daughter Payton, and suddenly, Veronica had a baby stepsister. Oh how Veronica doted on her baby sister, and the thought of them together would bring a smile to Pat's face!
But it was Candie Reagan, the girl he'd met while he was working as a plumber at the Village Inn in Lincoln, who had changed Pat's life. Candie was “the girl behind the desk,” and the initial attraction was instant, although a few months would pass before they solidified their relationship. Candie was an all-ÂAmerican girl, and she had made him a better man.
There can be little doubt that under the roar of those engines, Pat thought of Candie, for the last six years had been the sweetest of boththeir lives. Pat had shared his secret with his brother Chris. When he returned home to Nebraska, he would ask Candie to marry him. They would live together as husband and wife, and raise their daughters in a loving home.
Now, on his very first deployment overseas, Pat had everything to live for.
But first, he would have to find a way to survive the night.
logar province, eastern afghanistan
2115 zulu time; 1:45 a.m. local time
saturday, august 6, 2011
The United States Military typically operates according to what is known as “Zulu time.” This means that reports of military operations, worldwide, are given at whatever the current time is in Greenwich, England, at the moment the operation occurs. Therefore, the military, in the coordination and execution of its operations, is not a respecter of time zones. This practice can at first blush cause confusion to laypersons and civilians not familiar with military procedure, as there is a natural tendency to always think in local time. In addition, the practice of converting Zulu time to local time can often become more confusing in parts of the world where daylight savings time is sometimes in effect.
However, in order to best understand the events of the night of August 6, 2011, it is necessary to understand Zulu time and the relationship of Zulu or military time to the local times in the affected parts of the world.
Kabul, Afghanistan, the largest city in the area in question, is always four-Âand-Âa-half hours ahead of Zulu time. Therefore, noon Zulu time would be 1630 hours, or 4:30 in the afternoon local time in Afghanistan. Likewise, midnight Zulu time would translate to 0430 hours, or 4:30 in the morning local time in Afghanistan. On August 5, 2011, at 21:15 Zulu time it was already 1:45 the next morning at Base Shank in the Logar Province of Afghanistan. Extortions 16 and 17, the helicopters that earlier in the evening had dropped off two platoons of US Army Rangers in neighboring Wardak Province, had returned safely to base.
Bryan Nichols, Pat Hamburger, and the other Army National Guardsmen of Extortion 17 had gone to standby status, probably trying to grab some shut-Âeye, in the event they were called out on another mission.
Not far away from the Air National Guard members, members of the US military's most famous and elite fighting force, the internationally acclaimed SEAL Team Six, the group that ninety days earlier had killed the world's most notorious terrorist Osama Bin Laden, maintained a state of readiness, just in case.
SOC (SEAL) Aaron Vaughn, a six-Âfoot-Âfour-Âinch Tennessean with sandy-Âcolored hair and radiant blue eyes, and a seasoned combat veteran, was among the members of the SEAL team's “Gold Squad” deployed at Base Shank that night.
A former SEAL instructor, Aaron was among the bravest and most decorated of America's warriors. But no matter how focused he became or dangerous his mission was, Aaron Vaughn's heart was never far from home.
As SEAL Team Six maintained its readiness in the dark hours of the Afghan morning, it was 5:15 p.m. back home in Virginia Beach, where Kimberly Vaughn was caring for the couples' two small children, Reagan and Chamberlain.
Kimberly Lineberger and Aaron Vaughn met in Guam in 2005, where Aaron was deployed as part of a rapid-Âaction force to the Arabian Gulf region. He stood tall and handsome, a superhero, an American Navy SEAL.
Kimberly had been a Washington Redskins cheerleader on a mission to the South Pacific with the USO to entertain the troops about to deploy to the Middle East. Glamorous and beautiful, her instant chemistry with Aaron proved magnetic. Their story became the fairy-Âtale meeting of which romance novels are writtenâan NFL cheerleader and an elite American warrior. The initial attraction on a faraway island grew into an abiding and nourishing love, cemented across time and distance by a mutual commitment to their Christian faith.
Aaron and Kimberly were married in May of 2008, and shortly after that, Kimberly gave birth to their son Reagan. They made their home in Virginia Beach, and made plans to build their dream house. Three weeksbefore his final deployment to Afghanistan, Kimberly gave birth to their second child, a little girl named Chamberlain.
On the afternoon of August 5th, 2011, hours before the final flight of Extortion 17, as Kimberly drove along the interstates in Virginia Beach, with Reagan and Chamberlain strapped in their car seats, the cellphone rang. Aaron's voice came over the Bluetooth, and his family would hear him for the last time. For the final time, Aaron and Kimberly, separated worlds apart, on different continents across thousands of miles of ocean, would proclaim their love for one another.
At 2130 (9:30 p.m.) Zulu Time, or 0200 (2:00 a.m.) local time in Afghanistan, several hours after Aaron and Kimberly spoke by phone, all hell broke loose at Base Shank.
According to one version of the story, word came down that the two Army Ranger units were pinned down by the Taliban. These were the same units, apparently, that had been transported to the Tangi River Valley by the two Chinooks hours earlier the same evening.
We use the phrase “according to one version of the story,” because the national and international press reported, in the days following the shoot-Âdown, that the SEALs had been deployed to rescue the Rangers, who were supposedly “pinned down” by enemy Taliban forces. Later, the military seemed to back away from the “Rangers were being rescued” story, and reported that the SEALs were being deployed to capture the well-Âknown terrorist Qari Tahir.
In what will later be described by a US Navy SEAL as one of the fastest and chaotic “spin ups” to a mission that he has ever seen, seventeen members of SEAL Team Sixâthe informal name given to the Navy's elite Special Forces Developmental Group (DEVGRU) based out of Virginia Beachâsprang into action. The SEALs gathered their weapons and rushed to the airstrip, where the two old Chinook helicopters, the same choppers that had transported the Rangers to the edge of the battle zone, were waiting, with engines running.
In recounting the chaotic minutes leading up to the launch, certain facts are clear, while other factors remain unclear. Perhaps the ambiguity surrounding this launch is a simple consequence of the fog of war. Perhaps the unanswered questions will linger for other reasons.
SEALs Called to Action
Unfortunately, the only thing that was clear about the launch of Extortion 17 was the identity of the American servicemen being scrambled.
The SEAL team was at the core of this mission, which was at first portrayed as a “rescue” mission for the Army Rangers.
Lieutenant Commander Jonas Kelsall, SEAL Commander
The SEALs were under the command of thirty-Âthree-Âyear-Âold Lieutenant Commander Jonas Kelsall, of Shreveport, Louisiana. Commander Kelsall was the only naval officer on board the flight, and was the senior commissioned officer aboard the aircraft. Kelsall was one of the original members of SEAL Team Seven, which was formed in San Diego, before being transferred to SEAL Team Six in Virginia in 2008. A rising star in the special warfare community, he had already been awarded the Legion of Merit and two Bronze Stars for combat valor. He had been married to Victoria for three years, whom he met while a student at the University of Texas. The couple had no children.
Master Chief Lou Langlais, Second-Âin-ÂCommand
Kelsall's next-Âin-Âcommand was forty-Âfour-Âyear-Âold Master Chief Lou Langlais, of Los Angeles. Langlais, a Canadian-Âborn rock climber and twenty-Âfive-Âyear Navy veteran, was married with two young sons. This was his last deployment to Afghanistan. After this deployment, he planned to return to the United States as a SEAL team instructor, and then retire and spend time with his wife and boys. Master Chief Langlais was one of the Navy's most experienced SEALs and one of its most valuable members.
The team under Kelsall and Langlais was an experienced fighting unit full of combat veterans. Eleven of the seventeen SEAL team members were chief petty officers or above. To get an idea of the experience of these men, in the Navy it takes an average of about fourteen years to reach the rank of Chief. Next to Langlais, the highest-Âranking of the chiefs was Senior Chief Petty Officer Thomas Ratzlaff.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Thomas Ratzlaff
Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Thomas A. Ratzlaff, sometimes called “Tom,” and more often referred by those closest to him simply as “Rat,” was a thirty-Âfour-Âyear-Âold family man who had wanted to be a Navy SEAL ever since he was a young boy.
In the prime of his life, Tom Ratzlaff was living his dream, as a husband, as a father, and as a warrior. With a list of combat ribbons and medals across his chest that would make most warriors envious, Ratzlaff had already earned four Bronze Starsâwith the Combat “V” device for valorâand had served in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Tom and his wife had two sons back home, and they were expecting their third child after Tom completed his tour in Afghanistan.
Timemagazine reporter Eric Blehm wrote about Ratzlaff as both a family man and a man of faith in his article “The Navy SEALS' Dying Words,” published on August 6, 2012, the one-Âyear anniversary of Extortion 17:
Tom shared that whenever he boarded a helicopter for a mission, he said the Lord's Prayer silently, once he got seated, and then prayed for protection. “I don't ask for protection myself because that's in his hands. I ask him to look after my wife and kids. Then I ask him to protect all my buddies and forgive them of all their sins and me of my sins. Then I move straight into thinking about what I'm about to doâthe target, the map study, making sure I know which way's north so I can call out things correctly on the target.”
Chief Petty Officer Robert J. Reeves, USN
One of the experienced chiefs serving under Kelsall and Langlais was thirty-Âtwo-Âyear-Âold Robert Reeves. Like Commander Kelsall, Chief Petty Officer Reeves was from Shreveport, Louisiana. Lieutenant Commander Kelsall and Chief Reeves had been best friends from childhood. They went to school together, and at Caddo Magnet High School in Shreveport, they were just “Jonas and Rob.”
Jonas Kelsall had been described in high school as a “jokester” and a “prankster.” With an athletic physique and mischievous grin, Jonas was a kid who always had girls hanging around his locker.
Rob, meanwhile, had been a star athlete in high school, excelling on the school's lacrosse and soccer teams, where Jonas, also an outstanding athlete, was his teammate. Rob had a kind side to him. Once Rob surprised his high school English teacher by giving her a book signed by her favorite author. As a young man, he was both driven and thoughtful.
From the time they were boys, Jonas and Rob were inseparable. The two best friends joined the Navy together, and made a pact to become SEALs together. When Jonas was picked up for the prestigious SEAL officer program, their paths diverged, but only for a short time. And while his best friend acclimated to the officer ranks, Rob Reeves forged his own heroic mark within the SEAL community, having been deployed to war zones more than a dozen times, and winning an impressive four Bronze Stars for combat.
Between the two of them, they came into this final mission as the pride of Caddo Magnet High School, with a Legion of Merit and six Bronze Stars for combat valor between them. Few modern high schools in America can boast such collective heroism as did Caddo Magnet.
Now they were both Navy SEALs, together on a mission, placed by fate in the very same elite fighting unit, at the very same moment in history on a continent thousands of miles from their childhood home. This was a coincidence that only fate could have dictated.
Jonas Kelsall had once said, “If I die on a mission, I'll die happy, because I'm doing something for my country.”
Before the sun would rise, Jonas would die for his country, and he and Rob would die together. They would be close in life, and even closer in death.
In addition to Kelsall, Langlais, Reeves, and Vaughn, there were thirteen other SEALS on the mission, bringing the number to seventeen members of SEAL Team Six who boarded the choppers for Wardak Province.
The seventeen SEALs were supported by five other US Navy members, including a cryptologist, a master-Âat-Âarms, two explosive ordnance experts, and an information systems specialist. Also scrambled were three US Air Force servicemen, working in support of the SEAL team, along with five members of the National Guard aircrew. Two of the three Air Force crewmen were Special Operations rescue operators, whose job would be to rescue and bring home any Americans downed in combat. The third was a Special Operations combat controller.
Thirty Americans scrambled into action aboard that old chopper in the dark, early hours of that fateful Afghan morningâthat much is clear. But what happened after that, even at the very beginning of the flight, before the shoot-Âdown, is murky at best. Questions have arisen that call into question the actions of the military and which to date the proper authorities have failed to credibly address.
Question 1: Why Not Board Two Choppers?
Remember, two old helicopters were sitting on the tarmac. Both Extortion 16 and Extortion 17 had flown in the earlier mission that evening to deliver the Rangers to the edge of the battle zone. Both were operational. Both were going to fly in support of this mission. But rather than splitting the SEAL team into two groups and flying them to the battle site on two helicopters, all the SEALs were ordered onto one chopper, Extortion 17, making the whole team vulnerable in case of a single disaster. Extortion 16 will take off and fly with Extortion 17, but Extortion 16 will serve as an aerial decoy.
Four-Âstar retired Navy admiral James “Ace” Lyons, the former commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, commented on this issue at apress conference on May 9, 2013, in Washington. Regarding the decision to cram the SEALs onto one helicopter, Admiral Lyons stated:
“Why and who decided to put twenty-Âfive elite SEAL Team Six warriors in a single helicopter? That was my first question to myself when I heard about this tragedy. Sending them on a mission that was compromised? As you all know, we had to vet all our Special Operations plans, basically with all the Afghans. We might as well have turned them over to the Taliban.”
Indeed, Admiral Lyons is correct in that the Afghans were informed in advance of this mission, and, in fact, every mission that the SEALs and Rangers have flown in Afghanistan. Obviously this raises a huge concern about mission integrity and avoiding compromising the safety of US forces, a topic discussed with greater detail later.
There still has been no satisfactory answer to the question of why all the SEALs were crammed onto one chopper when a second was available.
Chronology for August 6, 2011: Day of Shoot-ÂDown
The official United States military investigation of the shoot down of Extortion was conducted in Afghanistan by a team headed by Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Colt, who had been an Army helicopter pilot. Brigadier General Colt had a team of officers and experts working at his disposal, with a goal of producing a report explaining the reasons for the shoot down.
More background on this report, referred to by the author as the “Colt report,” will be presented in later chapters of this book, with a full background on the Colt Report beginning at Chapter Six, below.
For the time being, however, it is important to understand that the chronology of the shoot-down has been assembled from documentary evidence taken directly from the Colt Report.
At 0200 a.m. local time in Afghanistan, per “Enclosure H” of the Colt Report, the Tactical Operations Center directed Extortion 17 to move to the staging area at Base Shank to pick up twenty-Âfive Special Operations personnel, including the US Navy SEALs. The SEALs are part of what is called an “Immediate Reaction Force.” They are a contingency unit,designed to back up the US Army Rangers already on the ground, if the Rangers find themselves in need of help.
Seconds before Extortion 17 was directed to pick up the SEALs, a decision was made to increase the number of personnel in the Immediate Reaction Force from seventeen to twenty-five.
Five minutes later, at 0205 a.m., despite the fact that two helicopters were available for the mission, all twenty-five Special Operations American personnel were ordered onto a single helicopter, cramming the chopper to its maximum capacity, and endangering all souls aboard in the event of a shoot-Âdown. The old chopper was about to be ordered to fly over an area heavily armed with Taliban, with RPGs and rockets capable of attacking allied helicopters, over a valley in which three Coalition helicopters had been attacked in the last ninety days.
Based upon the order to board a single chopper, the SEALs, under Lieutenant Commander Kelsall, rushed to the tarmac where both choppers awaited. Operational prudence and safety considerations dictated that the SEAL team be split, with Kelsall taking twelve team members on one chopper and Langlais taking the rest on the other. Remember that five of the thirty Americans were flight crew members. The other twenty-Âfive were the SEAL team and its support crew.
But that's not the way it happened. Instead, every member of the American SEAL team, and every Navy and Air Force enlisted man, piled onto one of the choppers, Extortion 17. So all the risk was concentrated in one chopper at takeoff. But the strange decision to concentrate the entire SEAL team onto Extortion 17 was the first in a string of oddities that would plague the mission from start to finish.
By 0209 a.m., the SEAL team was on the chopper. Pilot Bryan Nichols reported that the Immediate Reaction Force was composed not of thirty-Âtwo, but of thirty-Âthree members, nearly doubling the originally planned contingency of seventeen. Extortion 17 was now fully loaded, in fact almost overloaded, sitting on the tarmac at REDCON level 1, awaiting the order to take off.
Extortion 16, the other Chinook chopper that would fly this mission, and that earlier in the evening had infiltrated US Army Rangers into far less dangerous airspace alongside Extortion 17, was also ready for takeoff.
But Extortion 16, this time, is only manned by its aircrew. No SEALs are aboard. No Rangers are aboard. No ground forces are aboard. Aside from its aircrew, Extortion 16 is empty.
At 0222 a.m., local time, Extortion 17 lifted off for the last time, carrying the thirty Americans aboard to their eternal destiny.
From the time they lifted off, until they time they were shot down at 0239 a.m., seventeen minutes later, their flight was marred by inexplicable delays, losses in communication, and very odd movements by the helicopter.
At one point, a near panic set in at flight control, as controllers, planners, and officers fretted over why Extortion 17 appeared to be stalled in the air, seemingly hanging there as a sitting duck, as if making itself a target.
At one point, back at flight control, there was self-Âassured speculation that perhaps the chopper was hovering in the air, and some controllers speculated that perhaps the SEAL team was rappelling down to the ground.
But the SEALs were not rappelling to the ground. Instead, per reports coming out of flight control, the chopper was stalled in the air. What was going on inside that helicopter?
Yes, it was being piloted by a relatively inexperienced young National Guard pilot, CW2 Bryan Nichols. But his co-Âpilot, CW4 David Carter, was far more experienced.
Still, in this day of GPS navigation, there was no logical reason for Extortion 17's seeming difficulty finding the landing zone. Nor was there any reason for it to be stalled in the air.
All parties involved seem to agree that Extortion 17 was only 100 to 150 feet above the ground when it was shot down.
The Colt Report: August 7, 2011âSeptember 13, 2011
The thirty-Âeight days or so immediately following the shoot-Âdown, from August 7, 2011 to September 13, 2011, were crucial because of what the Army did and did not do and said and did not say during this period.
As soon as Extortion 17 was shot down, the commander of US Central Command, Marine general James Mattis, ordered Army brigadiergeneral Jeffrey Colt to conduct an investigation of the shoot-Âdown. That investigation, which involved twenty-Âthree military investigators as part of the Air-ÂCrash investigating team, analyzing evidence collected from the site, interviewing witnesses, and reviewing photographs, resulted in a 1,250-page report, originally classified as Top Secret. For reasons that are still unclear, it was largely declassified and later turned over to certain surviving family members of the SEAL team.
For ease of reference, the investigative report will be referred to herein simply as the “Colt Report.”
The timing of the Colt Report's release in September 2011 was critical. That's because the initial report, which came in the form of an “Executive Summary” from Brigadier General Colt back to General Mattis, with numerous exhibits and recommendations, left out crucial information.
For starters, here are three relevant dates to keep in mind concerning the report itself, which raised grave suspicion of a cover-Âup.
The first date is August 7, 2011, the day after the crash. On this date, four-Âstar US Marine general James Mattis, Commander of United States Central Command, sent a written directive to Brigadier General Jeffrey Colt to conduct a sweeping investigation as to the cause of the shoot-Âdown of Extortion 17. Mattis gave Colt thirty days to complete his investigation.
The second date is September 9, 2011. By this time, Brigadier General Colt had completed the investigation ordered by General Mattis. Colt had some twenty-Âtwo military officers, mostly from the US Army, but a few from the Navy and Air Force, all subject-Âmatter experts in various relevant fields, assist him in his investigation.
In addition to the twenty-Âtwo officers working directly on Colt's investigation team, a Joint Combat Assessment Team (JCAT) from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, using aviation crash experts, conducted a piece-Âby-Âpiece, visual and forensics examination of the shot-Âdown helicopter. They supplied Colt's investigation team with their own JCAT report, and their own conclusions about what happened.
Colt and his team had taken all this into consideration, had interviewed dozens of witnesses under oath, and by September 9, 2011, Colt was ready to report back to General Mattis.
So on September 9, 2011, Colt signed his Executive Summary to General Mattis, attaching more than one hundred exhibits and enclosures, with his (Colt's) written thoughts on the reason for the shoot-Âdown.
Four days later, on September 13, 2011, General Colt issued his final report, hoping to close the chapter on any questions concerning the shoot-Âdown of Extortion 17.
General Mattis's final report, perhaps not surprisingly, summarily concluded that no one was at fault, that the military made all the correct decisions, and that the shoot-Âdown of Extortion 17 could not have been prevented.
Colt's summary and Mattis's report and conclusion will be contradicted by internal evidence on multiple fronts. It will be more than a year before all the report's glaring omissions come to light, in what can be explained only as an attempt by the military to sweep crucial and highly embarrassing information under the rug.
Aside from the report's failure to discuss the military's inexplicable inability to locate or otherwise account for the black box that was supposedly on board the helicopter, the reports ignore an even greater pink elephant in the room: On the night of the shoot-Âdown, just minutes before Extortion 17 lifted off for the final time, the chopper was boarded by seven unidentified Afghans, in blatant violation of US military procedure and protocol. The Afghans' names were not on the flight manifest for Extortion 17.
In an era of disconcerting “Green-Âon-ÂBlue” violence in which Afghan soldiers and security forces, purporting to be US allies, had been shooting Americans in the back for nearly a decade, one would think that thefinalreport on the shoot-Âdown of Extortion 17 would reveal and address such a big-Âtime security breach.
But the report contained no explanation of how the Afghans violated US security procedures to get on the aircraft. There was no mention of their names. There was no assurance that their intentions were not sinister. In fact, not one single word was even mentioned about the incident by either Colt or Mattis.
On January 11, 2013, some fifteen months after the shoot-Âdown, a brave and gutsy sergeant major in the US Army alerted Billy and KarenVaughn, parents of SOC Aaron Vaughn, that the Afghans were on the chopper, and that their security breach was a “very big deal.”
The military's omission of this crucial breach raised all kinds of unanswered questions, and the military almost got away with covering it up.
Question Number Two: The Seven Unidentified Afghans
A second oddity, one of the biggest red flags of the entire mission, and one largely ignored by the press and even the US military itself, also occurred during the boarding process of Extortion 17.
This question, unless answered, will haunt the mission and will linger throughout the ages.
As the Navy SEAL team, which included Navy support personnel, rushed to the chopper along with the five-Âman Air National Guard crew, seven unidentified members of the Afghan military also boarded the chopper.
That fact is worth repeating, because it is crucial. Seven unidentified Afghans boarded that chopper. Their names are not known. They have not been identified, and we don't know what they were up to.
The identity of the Afghans is one of the great, looming questions unanswered by the military, as if it is of peripheral unimportance. But their identities are vitally important in fully understanding what happened.
Yet, the fact that unidentified Afghans infiltrated this chopper at the last second has been largely brushed over by the official military investigation and virtually ignored by the US press. The military investigation headed up by Brigadier General Colt in August of 2011, producing the 1,250-page report with testimony, photographs, real-Âtime transcripts of air-Âtraffic control, and a plethora of other information, barely even mentions the huge pink elephantâthe mysterious Afghans, except in one testimonial exchange on page 118 of Exhibit 1.
But understand this. That testimonial exchange at page 118 of Exhibit 1, was a needle-Âin-Âa-haystack buried in a thousand-Âplus-Âpage report. As previously stated, nothing is mentioned about the Afghans in either Brigadier General Colt's Executive Summary of September 9, 2011, orGeneral Mattis's final report of September 13, 2011, showing a finding of no-Âfault.
Yet, the questions remain constant, like an eerie, beating war-Âdrum, on each page of the 1,250 pages: Who were these Afghans, and why were they on board a United States Army helicopter without proper permission or authority? Why does nobody account for them and why did nobody stop them from boarding?
Yet the Colt Report brushed over the existence of the seven unidentified Afghans, and made no substantial effort, at least no effort that is reported, to identify them, or to even acknowledge the existence of the severe security breach that allowed them to infiltrate Extortion 17 before it took off.
And as will be seen later, the cremation of the unknown Afghans, if that indeed happened, looms large in suggesting a cover-Âup, because cremating their bodies destroys DNA evidence, making it impossible to identify their remains.
In fact, their bodies were brought back to the United States and apparently cremated by the US military, thereby effectively destroying any chance to ever identify them. If this is truly the case, no one will ever know if they were terrorists. No one will ever know if they were Taliban collaborators.
The fact that Afghans boarded the US military transport helicopter was not in and of itself unusual, given the politically correct climate between the United States and Afghanistan in 2011. In fact, this Immediate Reaction Force of Navy SEALs had seven Afghan army personnel assigned to it.But the oddity in this instance came when the seven Afghans who boarded were not the seven Afghans assigned to the team, but seven unidentified Afghans whose names were not on the flight manifest.
There was a switch-Âout.
The unexplained presence of the seven unidentified Afghans was a violation of flight protocol, procedure, and security.
The official military investigation of the shoot-Âdown of Extortion 17, conducted in the weeks following the shoot-Âdown and overseen by Brigadier General Jeffrey Colt, did not even make a credible effort to identify these seven unidentified Afghans, nor did it even peripherally raisetheir non-Âidentity as a security concern. Nothing was said at all about the Afghans in the initial report following the military's investigation. Their presence would be discovered, by happenchance, well over a year after the shoot-Âdown.
It would seem reasonable to ask why. But only the military can answer that question, which they have failed to do to date. So these questions remain unanswered, looming like a mysterious fog over the graves of SEAL Team Six members of Extortion 17 at Arlington National Cemetery, and haunt the memory of this mission in perpetuity:
Who were these armed Afghans? And why were they allowed to board the helicopter in violation of US military protocol? And what did they do once the flight took off?
Before examining who these Afghans might have been, it is crucial to understand the backdrop of this missionâthe international climate and instability in the ninety-Âseven days leading up to this fateful mission, beginning with the killing of Osama Bin Laden by members of SEAL Team Six on May 1, 2011.
Ninety-ÂSeven Days from Quintessential Glory to Unexplained Disaster
may 1, 2011âaugust 6, 2011
The announcement that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. The moment Germany surrendered. The Japanese surrender at Tokyo Bay. The assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The moment Armstrong stepped on the moon. The explosion of the Space ShuttleChallenger. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The day the twin towers fell to the ground.
Moments like these are burned into the consciousness of a nation.
Most Americans, alive and alert enough to understand the issues threatening the nation at the time of these events, can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when news came of these compelling moments in US history.
For many Americans, Sunday evening, May 1, 2011, would become one of those moments. They would always remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the newsâwhen President Barack Obama announced the death of the world's most hated terrorist, Osama Bin Laden.
The massive manhunt unleashed by President George W. Bush a decade earlier, seeking revenge against the man blamed for the most bloody, painful, and humiliating act of terror and mass murder ever perpetrated against the United States, was ended by an announcement from President Obama on national television from the White House that Sunday evening at 11:30 p.m. Washington time.
The announcement set off celebration and jubilation, and rightly so. On the afternoon of August 9, 1974, moments after President Nixon had resigned and was in flight back to San Clemente, President Gerald Ford said that “our long national nightmare is over.” Though President Obama did not reference Ford's words in his address to the nation, there was a collective feeling that another long national nightmare had ended on May 1, 2011, one that had begun a decade earlier with horrific images of Manhattan's tallest buildings collapsing from a blaze of fire to a mountain of destroyed concrete and rubble, had finally come to an end.
All presidents are remembered by their greatest achievements, and many by their most profound failures, whether they fully deserve those achievements or whether they are fully responsible for those failures. Herbert Hoover is blamed for the Great Depression; Lyndon Johnson for the Vietnam War. John Kennedy is remembered for his bold vision of putting a man on the moon. Jimmy Carter gets credit for Camp David. Ronald Reagan is credited for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
For President Obama, politically beleaguered on many fronts, the death of Bin Laden is likely to go down in history as his crowning achievement, the one moment the nation was wholly unified by a grand decision he had made.
Yes, there would be some who would argue that President George W. Bush set the military apparatus in place for Bin Laden's final demise, and that it was SEAL Team Six, and not Obama, who actually killed Bin Laden.
All that is technically true. But it was Obama who gave the order to send the SEALs into Pakistan to kill Bin Laden, and the heroic mission occurred on his watch. And for that, he deserves credit.
But as history would have it, a mere ninety-Âseven days would separate the most glorious achievement in all of Seal Team Six's history from its deadliest disaster. That disaster would not be the fault of the SEALs, but rather, would rest squarely on the shoulders of those above them in the chain of command who ordered them into battle in tenuous and questionable circumstances, on an old helicopter built before most of them were born, in a hot fire-Âzone in the skies that would completely neutralizetheir ability to do what they do better than anyone in the worldâfight on the ground and in the sea.
For the families of thirty Americans, mostly US Navy SEALs, the glory of May Day, 2011, would within three months and one week fade into unimaginable pain, heartbreak, and personal loss. The loss and pain these families, and indeed the nation would soon suffer, in part because of a series of curious and foolish actions by certain members of the Obama Administration who would insist on reckless public blabbing, in violation of a vow of silence, and also because of certain inexplicable actions by the US military, who would execute a battle plan wholly lacking in common sense.
The Planning of Neptune Spear
On May 1, 2011, US Navy SEALs, attached to DEVGRU Red Squad, formerly known and still colloquially known as Seal Team Six, executed Operation Neptune Spear, slipping into Pakistan aboard Special Ops helicopters and killing Osama Bin Laden. Prior to execution of the mission, an internal debate had gone on inside the White House.
Among those in on the pre-Âmission planning were President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, CIA director Leon Panetta, members of the National Security Council, and thenâVice Admiral William McRaven, the three-Âstar Navy SEAL who led the US Joint Special Operations Command. (Admiral McRaven, perhaps somewhat ironically, would later receive his fourth star on August 9, 2011, the same day that the bodies of the SEAL Team Six members who died on board Extortion 17 were brought back from Afghanistan and honored at Dover Air Force Base.)
Active planning for Neptune Spear had begun in March 2011, with the operational details in the planning phase masterminded by Vice Admiral McRaven, who briefed President Obama regularly.
The National Command Authority knew by this time that Bin Laden was holed up in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a highland town north of Islamabad. By all accounts, an internal debate ensued within the Administration on what to do about it. The execution of the plan would involve sending the SEAL team from Afghanistan across the border into neighboringPakistan, sending US forces into a foreign country, a country that on paper was a US ally, without first notifying the host government.
Various options were discussed, including striking the Bin Laden compound with drones. Vice President Biden was opposed to the mission altogether, concerned that it was too risky. But President Obama favored the option presented by Admiral McRaven that would send the SEAL team directly into Bin Laden's compound.
Obama wanted to make sure that they killed their man, and that they got the body. He overrode the vice president, and the order to execute Neptune Spear quickly moved down the chain of command to the SEAL team, waiting in eastern Afghanistan for presidential orders.
The next point is important. At the White House on the night of the raid, a group including the president, the vice president, and other senior Administration officials and military officers privy to the Top Secret plans accepted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's suggestion not to reveal the identity of the unit that would kill Bin Laden. There was collective agreement that revealing the specific unit that ultimately killed Bin Laden would endanger the unit's members, and possibly their families as well.
When President Obama announced to a national television audience that Bin Laden was dead, he was criticized in some corners for appearing to take too much personal credit for the operation. That sort of criticism happens in the rough-Âand-Âtumble world of politics.
All that aside, to his credit, President Obama was careful not to publicly announce the name of the unit that killed Bin Laden, honoring the commitment made in the White House Situation Room not to provide specific information on the unit carrying out the mission.
President Obama, in his initial comments, announces only that “a small team of Americans” had killed Bin Laden. The president made no other comments that could be used to identify the team. A “small team of Americans” could have been CIA, or Army Rangers, or Navy SEALs, or US Marines, or Delta Force, or regular military. The specific identity of the unit would be anybody's guess.
Immediately after the shoot-Âdown, other senior White House and military officials also declined to provide specific information on unit identity or numbers. Former national security advisor (now CIA director)John Brennan, his former deputy Denis McDonough, and senior military spokesmen at the Pentagon all, when asked, specifically declined to divulge unit identity or unit numbers.
Despite the failure of US authorities to divulge the identities of the assassins, the Taliban did not take long to vow revenge.
On May 2, 2011, the day after Neptune Spear, a Taliban commander in Afghanistan, identified as “Qudos” and claiming to operate in the northern province of Baghlan, vowed that the Taliban would avenge Bin Laden's death. The commander said his fighters planned to launch an operation called “Operation Badrto to avenge the killing of Osama” and claimed many other similar operations would be launched to avenge Bin Laden.
May 3, 2011: The Vice President's Breach of Promise
On May 3, 2011, two days after Neptune Spear, and following a slew of Taliban retaliation vows, Vice President Biden, visibly giddy over the Administration's crowning achievement, appeared at Washington's Ritz-ÂCarlton Hotel to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Atlantic Council. For reasons that still cannot be explained, Biden violated the sacred Situation Room agreement not to identify the units involved, and twice mentioned the SEALs as the Special Forces unit responsible.
Biden began by recognizing James Stavridis, a highly decorated four-Âstar admiral who had served as Commander of US European Command, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and Commander of US Southern Command. The vice president addressed Admiral Stavridis with these comments: “Let me briefly acknowledge tonight's distinguished honorees. Admiral James Stavridis is the real deal. He can tell you more about and understands the incredible, the phenomenal, the just almost unbelievable capacity of his Navy SEALs and what they did last Sunday.”
Those remarks, if that's all the vice president had said, were enough to immediately send a shockwave throughout the Administration and the SEAL community. But Biden was not finished with his remarks about the SEALs.
Later in his speech, he returned to the topic of the SEALs again. “Folks, I'd be remiss also if I didn't say an extra word about the incredibleevents, extraordinary events of this past Sunday. As vice president of the United States, as an American, I was in absolute awe of the capacity and dedication of the entire team, both the intelligence community, the CIA, the SEALs. It just was extraordinary.”
Biden's inexplicable breach of trust would stun the SEAL community and cause SEAL families to fear for their safety. The SEALs, who pride themselves on operating in secrecy and shun the glory that the world thrusts on them, had been “outed” by the vice commander-Âin-Âchief.
Indeed, the concern and dismay over Biden's remarks spread swiftly. On May 4, 2011, the day after the vice president announced that Navy SEALs had taken out Bin Laden, and four days after Operation Neptune Spear, Aaron Vaughn, who would later be killed in Extortion 17, telephoned his parents and informed them that SEAL Team Six now had a “target” on its backs.
Vaughn instructed Billy and Karen Vaughn to remove all their presence from social media, for fear that they were now in danger. Aaron Vaughn reported that this fear was a pervasive concern throughout the unit. According to Karen Vaughn, Aaron said, “ âMom, you need to wipe your social media clean . . . your life is in danger, our lives are in danger, so clean it up right now.' ”
On May 6, 2011, three days after the Biden speech, the Taliban again vowed public revenge against the unit that killed Bin Laden. For the first time, Al Qaeda also vowed revenge.
May 11, 2011: Taliban Positions Forces to Shoot Down US Helicopter in Tangi River Valley
It appeared that the Taliban was serious about carrying out retaliation, and was determined to do, specifically, by shooting down a US military helicopter carrying US Special Forces. On May 11, 2011, US military intelligence received information that more than one hundred Taliban fighters were being moved into the Tangi River Valley (where Extortion 17 was shot down) for the express purpose of “shooting down an American Helicopter.”
At this juncture it was known that the war against the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan was being largely and effectively prosecuted by USSpecial Forces. President Obama had made a tactical decision to step up Special Forces Operations in 2009. It was also known that those US Special Forces fighting the war were primarily either US Navy SEALs or US Army Rangers.
On May 12, 2011, Defense Secretary Gates, speaking at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, expressed concern over Administration leaks identifying Navy SEALs as the Special Forces unit that killed Bin Laden. Gates indicated that he was dismayed that an agreement made in the Situation Room that officials would not talk about any operation details of the Bin Laden raid “lasted only fifteen hours.” In corroborating the veracity of Aaron Vaughn's call to his parents, Secretary Gates confirmed that Navy SEALs involved in the operation were concerned about the safety of their families.
Gates was about to step down and be replaced by Leon Panetta. In a response to a question from a Marine Corps medical logistics officer at a meeting with Marines at Camp Lejeune on May 12, 2011, Gates expressed frustration that the agreement to maintain secrecy for the protection of the SEALs had fallen apart. When asked in this open meeting with the press present, the Marine, obviously concerned about the safety of the SEALs' families, asked: “What measures are being taken to protect the identities and the lives of the SEAL team members, as well as the lives of military forces deployed that might have to face extreme retaliation from terrorist organizations that want to have those identities known?”
Here's how Secretary Gates responded: “Frankly, a week ago Sunday, in the Situation Room, we all agreed that we would not release any operational details from the effort to take out Bin Laden. That all fell apart on Mondayâthe next day.” He went on to say that “there is an awareness that the threat of retaliation is increased because . . . of the action against Bin Laden.”
Secretary Gates also talked about meeting with members of the SEAL team, who expressed concern about the safety of their families as a result of Biden's betrayal of confidence. On May 12, 2011, he was quoted by ABC News as saying, “when I met with the team last Thursday, they expressed a concern about that, and particularly with respect to theirfamilies . . . I can't get into the details in this forum, but we are looking at what measures can be taken to pump up the security.”
Clearly, Gates was not happy about the vice president's inexplicable blabbing and breach of trust, and was frank in his comments to that effect. Unfortunately, Biden was not the only senior Administration official to violate the no-Âdetails agreement reached in the Situation Room.
On June 24, 2011, while he was still CIA director, and four days before he would succeed Robert Gates as secretary of defense, Leon Panetta went even further than Vice President Biden, and specifically disclosed both Secret and Top Secret information concerning the SEAL team's operation against the Bin Laden compound to filmmakers working on the movieZero Dark Thirty, which would chronicle the attack by the SEALs on the Bin Laden compound.
Panetta revealed details to the scriptwriter Mark Boal, who had been invited to CIA headquarters for a briefing that Panetta was giving on the details of Operation Neptune Spear. How coincidental that the Hollywood writer of the movie that would chronicle the event, thus placing the Obama Administration in a positive light, would happen to have been invited to a briefing given by the CIA director on Top Secret operational details of the event.
Information concerning Panetta's breach was discovered through Freedom of Information Act requests served by the Washington-Âbased watchdog group Judicial Watch, the same group that would later uncover previously unreleased details from the White House about those responsible for the “it's a video” meme that would be trumpeted by the Administration in the wake of the Benghazi terror attacks against the US consulate.
On June 15, 2013, the Pentagon inspector general reported that Panetta also discussed classified information designated as Top Secret and Secret during his presentation at an awards ceremony honoring the SEAL team, according to a draft of the inspector general's report published by the Project on Government Oversight.
With the inspector general confirming the improper release of classified information by Mr. Panetta, leaving no doubt that it actuallyhappened, Mr. Panetta had little choice but to respond. His stated excuse was that he did not know that Mr. Boal (or anyone else lacking the proper security clearance) was in the room.
Even if Panetta was telling the truth, that he “did not know” that Boal was in the room, that sort of error would still be an inexcusable act of sloppiness in protecting national security. For Panetta to reveal Top Secret information to an audience without knowing who was listening showed an incredible sloppiness in protecting state secrets designed to save American lives, and was an incredible lapse in professionalism. It was a mistake that the CIA director, of all people, should never have made. For the CIA to be so sloppy as to give someone like Boal access to Top Secret information, and then to hide behind the claim that he somehow slipped into a briefing without proper clearance, looms as an even scarier event than Mr. Biden's loose lips.
Regardless, by the time Biden, Panetta, and others were finished with their talking, at the end of June 2011, SEAL Team Six had an Administration-Âenhanced target on its back, because the vice president of the United States and the director of the CIA (soon to become secretary of defense when Secretary Gates stepped down) could not keep their lips closed.
In the summer of 2011, the Taliban, following up on promises for retaliation, and following the babbling sessions by Biden and Panetta, opened up hunting season on US helicopters flying over the Tangi River Valley in Afghanistan.
On June 4, 2011, just three weeks after US intelligence discovered that the Taliban was moving one hundred insurgents into the valley, and thirty-Âone days after the vice president's gaffe, the Taliban opened fire on a United States UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter. The chopper survived, but barely, as “rounds burned out within 1 rotor disk of the aircraft.” In other words, the Black Hawk escaped by virtue of a near miss.
Two days later, on June 6, 2011, the Taliban unloaded against a Chinook CH-47D, firing fourteen rocket-Âpropelled grenades, along with small arms fire, from five different points of origin on the ground. Fortunately, the Chinook in this case, unlike Extortion 17, was not at point-Âblank range, and the pilot was able to maneuver it to safety.
Yet again, on July 20, 2011, only seventeen days prior to the Extortion 17 shoot-Âdown, a Special Ops MH-47 chopper was fired at from Taliban ground forces over the Tangi River Valley. The Special Ops chopper was hit by small arms fire, but survived the attack and completed its mission.
The Taliban Response
So in the midst of babbling by Biden and Panetta, in the summer of 2011, the Taliban launched three attacks against helicopters flying over the Tangi Valley. Fortunately, they were 0 for 3 at this point, but it was very clear that the Taliban was determined to shoot down an American helicopter, both from their threats and their actions.
The military was aware of heavy antiaircraft fire on the ground in the Tangi River Valley, and was aware of the vulnerability of the CH-47 to ground fire only days before, but still dispatched the SEAL team on a CH-47, without pre-Âsuppression fire.
On August 5, 2011, a crescent moon hung over Afghanistan. The moon set at 2200 hours (10:00 p.m.), leaving the skies over Pakistan dark in the hours after midnight.
On the ground, the men of SEAL Team Six, their backs now targeted by the sloppy negligence of their own vice president and secretary of defense, sat and waited for duty to call.
Because of a sloppy inability or unwillingness to maintain public secrecy by two of the highest-Âranking officials in the Obama Administration, the SEALs would go into this, their last mission, knowing that they had been singled out and effectively painted as targets by Washington politicians eager to take political credit for their unit's heroic performance in Operation Neptune Spear.
Background on the Colt Report
The official military investigation of the shoot-Âdown produced the Colt Report. The report collected information gathered during a quickly assembled investigation conducted over a period of approximately thirty days, from August 7, 2011, the day after the shoot-Âdown, to September 7, 2011, the day Brigadier General Colt submitted the report to General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, then commander of CENTCOM (US Central Command).
Colt, a one-Âstar US Army general who had been a helicopter pilot, ran the investigation and delivered his report to four-Âstar general James Mattis, because it was General Mattis who ordered Colt to conduct the investigation to begin with.
To better understand the chain-Âof-Âcommand structure under which this investigation was ordered, it is important to know that CENTCOM is one of nine different “Unified Combatant Commands.” All these Unified Combatant Commands are commanded by a four-Âstar officer, either a flag officer (Navy) or a general officer (Army, Air Force, Marine Corps).
The commanders of these Unified Commands report directly to the secretary of defense, who reports to the president. These commanders have actual warfighting capabilities as opposed to some other four-Âstar officers, such as the officers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who serve as military advisors to the president but are not in the chain of command for issuing orders for military operations.
Six of the nine unified commands are geographically centered, giving the flag/general officer warfighting command in a certain part of the world. These include African Command (AFRICOM), CentralCommand (CENTCOM), European Command (EUCOM), Northern Command (NORTHCOM), US Pacific Command (PACCOM) and Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).
This means that if conflict breaks out in any given part of the world, the four-Âstar officer in charge of that Unified Command issues operational orders to US military forces in that region. For example, in recent discussions of the 2012 terrorist attack on the US consulate in Libya, focus centered on Army general Carter Ham, who was the general commanding AFRICOM, because Libya is located in Africa, and the commander of AFRICOM is the general with actual warfighting authority in the chain of command in Africa. Likewise, CENTCOM, headquartered at MacDill Air Base in Florida, also has a geographic responsibility for theater and wartime operations that includes the Middle East, Central Asia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Because Extortion 17 was operating in Afghanistan, it fell under CENTCOM's area of responsibility, which is why General Mattis gave the investigation assignment to Brigadier General Colt, who in turn reported back to Mattis.
The 1,250-page report included eighty-Ânine multi-Âpaged exhibits, ten enclosures, and covered the sworn testimony of numerous witnesses, including the aircrews of Apache gunships and an AC-130 that were in the air when Extortion 17 was shot down.
The Mysterious Release of the Colt Report
How did the Colt Report get released to the public to begin with?
The report was immediately classified as Secret, and how it would end up being largely declassified and released to certain SEAL family members in October of 2011 is not clear. But shortly after the report's release to a limited number of family members, high-Âranking Pentagon brass discussed a plan to try to get it back, but ultimately did not pursue that strategy, perhaps for legal reasons, or perhaps because trying to get the report back might have proved disastrous for public relations reasons.
Most likely, its declassification was the work of senior enlisted men and mid-Âgrade officers in the military who wanted to get the truth out about the mission. Indeed, a number of senior enlisted Special Forces members and mid-Âgrade officers have provided crucial off-Âthe-Ârecordinformation about this mission, showing a dogged determination to get the truth out to the American people. Their willingness to talk may have been a product of the apparent tension between the lower-Âlevel soldiers and the Pentagon's upper brass and Administration officials over the foolish rules of engagement set forth by the Obama Administration, which many with personal knowledge of this mission believe were responsible for the deaths of the Extortion 17 crew.
There is no way to be certain about why the report was declassified. But one thingiscertain: Certain evidence revealed in the Colt Report leads to concerns about the military's official position, and contains numerous contradictions and omissions that point to a cover-Âup of the truth about the SEALs.
Only a few copies of the report are in the hands of the public. A handful are in the possession of Extortion 17 family members, although, based upon the author's discussion with several family members, because of the extreme pain of coming face-Âto-Âface with the circumstances of their loved ones' deaths, it appears that very few have actually read the 1,250-page report, at least not in its totality.
One copy is in the hands of theWashington Times, which has run several stories on the shoot-Âdown, some based on the report.
One copy of the report is in the hands of the author.
The following chapters examine the report with a view toward forensic, testimonial, and other evidence, approaching the shoot-Âdown as a prosecutor would conduct an initial investigation to determine exactly what happened, based on a total overview of all the evidence available, and to determine who is responsible for the shoot-Âdown of the SEAL team.
The Colt Report: A General Overview
The internal evidence in the Colt Report on the shoot-Âdown of Extortion 17 reveals numerous inconsistencies and contradictions that suggest a cover-Âup to prevent the American public from knowing the truth.
The military, and civilian Pentagon officials, claimed that the death of these men was “just one of those things,” or words to that effect, and “could not have been prevented.”
But the evidence will show that nothing could be further from the truth.
Colt Report Undermines Military's Previous Position
The Colt Report's limited release, in October of 2011, effectively undercut public positions taken by the military a month earlier, in September of 2011.
A similar approach was taken one year later in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi terror attacks. Initial reports released by the Executive Branch noted that the US consulate was attacked when an angry mob gathered around it was incited by a video. In the weeks and months to follow, additional evidence surfaced leading to the conclusion that the “it was a video that incited a demonstration” narrative was inaccurate. Much in the same way, the military and the government would make initial claims about the shoot-Âdown, which later proved to be false in the face of clear evidence leaked by the Colt Report. For example, the military claimed that the rocket-Âpropelled grenade that brought down Extortion 17 was fired from a building 220 meters away, but evidence in the Colt Report proved that claim to be inaccurate.
Just three days after the shoot-Âdown on August 9, 2011, the military stated that none of the bodies of the SEALs and Afghans on Extortion 17 could be identified because they were so badly burned. But once the Colt Report leaked out, along with the results of independently released autopsies, that claim was proven to be false.
Not only would contradictions within the Colt report debunking the military's self-Âserving claims about the shoot-Âdown prove to be significant, but conspicuous and inexplicable omissions from the report would prove to be just as if not more significant.
Spin After the Shoot-ÂDown
Essentially, much like the inaccurate “it was a video” meme played over and over again after Benghazi, the military tried desperately to spin a “we did nothing wrong” narrative to absolve itself of the death of thirty Americans.
But from the foolish rules of engagement that provided these men of Extortion 17 with no pre-Âsuppression fire, to the selection of a defenseless, Vietnam-Âera helicopter with a National Guard flight crew that flew the SEAL team into a “hot zone” where the Taliban had vowed to shoot down an American helicopter, to the incredibly irresponsible decision by the vice president and CIA director to publicly “out” the identity of the SEAL team that killed Bin Laden, both the military and the Obama Administration did virtually everything wrong in the ordering, planning, and execution of this mission.
If Operation Neptune Spear, the mission that killed Bin Laden, was perfectly and sublimely executed, then Operation Lefty Grove, the name of the operation underway when this chopper was shot down, was the epitome of negligent callousness, a textbook example of how to get men killed.
The contradictions and omissions in the Colt Report, and evidence from outside sources, including the autopsies of SEALs that revealed bullets in their bodies, and British press reports citing the Afghan government's claims that the Taliban knew the exact flight path of Extortion 17, all served to undermine the government's claim that they did nothing wrong.
Allowing seven unidentified Afghans to board that aircraft, without authority, and allowing that aircraft to take off and fly into a hot zone to face hostile fire was a major security breach by both the military and civilians at the Pentagon.
Keep these dates in mind:
Extortion 17 was shot down on August 6, 2011. The bodies of all thirty Americans plus the bodies of eight Afghans (seven unidentified Afghan commandos plus an interpreter) were flown back to Dover Air Force Base three days later, on August 9, 2011, where grieving and distraught families were met by President Obama.
That same day, August 9, 2011, the military publicly took the position that “Given the nature of the attack, there were âno identifiable remains' of the 30 troops.” Those senior military officers publicly reporting that there were “no identifiable remains” had no way of knowing that less than three months later, the Colt Report would be released to families and would contradict the strange “no identifiable remains” claim.
These and other public claims made by the military, including conclusions made by Brigadier General Colt himself, would later be contradicted by internal evidence shown in the report, which was somehow released, to the probable surprise of senior military officials.
Why would the military release clearly false information that there were “no identifiable remains”? Again, no one knows except the Pentagon. But given that some family members had been told by US military officers that the bodies had been cremated, the “no identifiable remains” line could have been placed out there to either (a) justify cremation of the bodies, or (b) justify cremation of some of the bodies, or (c) create the impression that bodies had been cremated, whether they had or had not been cremated.
Why would the military want to create such an impression?
If the bodies had been cremated, or if the public thought the bodies had been cremated, there would be no way to determine who the Afghans were who boarded Extortion 17. And if there was no way to determine who the Afghans were, then there was no way to say, one way or the other, whether they were Taliban sympathizers who played a role in bringing that chopper down.
A senior Navy JAG officer, Captain Al Rudy, long since retired, once said, “The mark of a good lawyer isn't his ability to give all the answers, but rather, to ask all the right questions.”
The following chapters scrutinize the evidence from the Colt Report and other sources, including autopsies, witnesses, credible press reports, and the House National Security Subcommittee's February 2014 hearing on Extortion 17, exposing numerous contradictions and omissions that undermine the official story.
Perhaps most important, as Captain Rudy once suggested all those years ago, this book will ask a lot of questions, questions the Colt investigation and the National Security Subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee should have asked, but failed to ask, questions that the families have demanded, and even a number of questions that the families haven't demanded because they don't yet know enough about the evidence to ask them.
The preponderance of evidence points to the conclusion reported by the British pressâthat the Taliban was tipped off and knew where Extortion 17 was flying, and lay in wait, ready to ambush the chopper as it approached the landing zone.
The evidence will also show that if pre-Âsuppression fire had been allowed by the American rules of engagement and had been employed, the thirty Americans on board Extortion 17 would still be alive today.
The Colt Report 101: Points to Keep in Mind in Examining Evidence
With two exceptions, the Colt Report never used real names. This was for security purposes and for the protection of the military personnel involved. If, for example, a Lieutenant John Doe from Pamlico was named in the report, that would potentially put a target on the back of the fictitious officer, making the officer or his/her family vulnerable to Al Qaeda or the Taliban. We can't have that. (Excuse the irony here.) Therefore, the only proper names that appeared in the Colt Report were the names of Brigadier General Colt, the one-Âstar general conducting the investigation, and General James Mattis, the four-Âstar general who ordered the report.
Everyone else identified in the Colt Report was identified by military acronyms. Those acronyms denote what job or mission the person speaking carried out. For example, on the night of the shoot-Âdown, two US Army helicopter gunships accompanied Extortion 17 into the landing zone. The pilots and flight officers from those Apaches were interviewed, under oath, about what they saw and what they knew in connection with the shoot-Âdown of the Chinook. However, the testimony of those witnesses (pilots and flight officers) did not include their actual names or ranks.
The interpretation process isn't that complicated; it's sort of like reading the key of a map. Just as a map might have a star denoting the capital city of a state, there is an acronym for the pilots of the Apache helicopterswho were interviewed (PB65BS). There's another acronym for the co-Âpilots (PB65FS) and still other acronyms for additional military personnel testifying.
At first blush, some of the acronyms might look a bit strange for those not versed in military matters, and some are translated into layman's terms to eliminate ambiguity as to who is speaking in the record.
In many ways the Colt Report was extremely detailed, providing candid testimony from US military officers and enlisted members about the downing of the chopper, and showing detailed photographs and diagrams.
In many other ways, however, the Colt Report was incredibly lacking, not even addressing areas critical to an accurate determination of what happened to Extortion 17, such as the blatant failure to pursue the identity of the Afghans who boarded that chopper without authority. The reason for this failure will be covered later in the book, and it has to do with General Mattis's charging order to Brigadier General Colt, which, frankly, tied Colt's hands in many ways.
But for now, the Colt Report can be best understood, broadly, as both a wealth of crucial, detailed information about the crash and, at the same time, a big, black gaping hole, as if someone took a shovel and deliberately dug out crucial data and information absolutely essential to a determination of the truth, tossing that data into a secret abyss.
These inexcusable gaping black holes in the reportâincluding the failure to interview any Afghans familiar with the mission, the failure to even have a meaningful discussion about the identity of the seven unidentified Afghans who broke all protocol and entered the chopper moments before takeoff, and the failure to report on any forensics testing of small arms carried by those Afghans or by any of the SEALsâsimply raise more questions and raise suspicion that the military was hiding something that if released, could prove highly embarrassing.
This leads to another question: How did the Colt Report get out of the hands of the military to begin with?
What really happened remains unclear. By stark contrast to the wealth of information provided in the Colt Report, as of early 2014, virtually no inside information had yet been released by the government on the Benghazi terror attack. In a conversation between an Extortion 17parent and Mr. Charles Woods, the father of former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, who along with former SEAL Glen Doherty was murdered in Benghazi attempting to defend Ambassador Chris Stevens against a mob that greatly outnumbered them, Mr. Woods is reported to have said that the Benghazi families have, in contrast, received virtually no information from the government on what occurred.
But in the case of Extortion 17, the Colt Report, originally classified as Secret, was declassified and given to various family members of the fallen SEAL team upon their requests by certain Navy officials.
Once the report had been released, some high-Âlevel officer apparently asked to get it back from several family members, but did not receive the families' cooperation. As of early February of 2014, the report had been provided to theWashington Times, and to this author. However, before publication of this book, it still had not been widely disseminated nor analyzed.
The Pink Elephant Escapes
The biggest pink elephant in the room was the identity of the seven unidentified Afghans who rushed aboard the chopper prior to its shoot-Âdown.
Flight Manifest Testimony
A portion of the Colt Report transcript included testimony about the flight manifest, the official list of all personnel aboard the aircraft. Military regulations require the list to be accurate.
In an interview conducted on August 15, 2011, nine days after the fatal crash, officers testifying under oath offered the Colt Report's only glimpse into the key questions surrounding the seven unidentified Afghans in Exhibit 1, at page 118. Remember, as a roadmap has keys, so does the Colt Report.
IO-ÂDEPwas the deputy investigating officer, the principal officer assisting General Colt in the investigation of the shoot-Âdown. General Colt was the investigating officer. The deputy investigating officer was the guy doing a lot of the “heavy lifting,” so to speak, by asking a large number of questions on the record.
JSOTF J3was the joint/combined operations officer for the Joint Services Theater of Operations. This title was often shortened to “J3,” or the “operations officer.”
JSOTF CDRwas the commander for the Joint Services Theater of Operations. This officer was ranked above the JSOTF J3. Put another way, this officer was the J3 or the operations officer's boss. This officer is also not specifically named in the report.
Note how the operations officer (J3) brings up the topic of the unidentified Afghans, and note how quickly his boss, the JSOTF commander, cuts him off and changes the subject:
IO-ÂDEP:Was there a manifest for that aircraft back at theâ
JSOTF J3 (Operations Officer):Yes, sir. And I'm sure you know by now the manifest was accurate with the exception of the [Afghan] personnel that were on. So the [Afghan] personnel, they were the incorrectâall seven names were incorrect. And I cannot talk to the back story of why, butâ
JSOTF CDR:But the bottom line is: We knew the total number that were on the aircraft. We knew the total number that we were trying to account for on the ground.
In the interest of full disclosure, the word “Afghan” had been redacted from the initial written report as shown above when originally released by the Navy to the families, perhaps to reduce the types of questions about be asked in this book and by others wanting answers. The word has been reinserted for our purposes here, to make the testimony easier to follow. But junior- and senior-Âlevel US Navy and Army officials as well as others have repeatedly admitted to Extortion 17 family members that seven unidentified Afghans boarded the aircraft.
Now in analyzing the portion of the testimony on the unidentified Afghans, note how the J3, the operations officer, basically said that the manifest was accurate except for the seven Afghans. The names were incorrect because seven other Afghans had been assigned for the mission, but were mysteriously switched out at the last second.
Note too, how the JSOTF commander abruptly cut off the operations officer midsentence when the operations officer started talking about possible reasons for the switch-Âout.
Again, the operations officer said, “So the [Afghan] personnel, they were the incorrectâall seven names were incorrect. And I cannot talk to the back story of why, butâ”
The commander then cuts him off midstream, interjecting his own “but” midsentence, and goes on to give his “bottom line” analysis.
JSOTF CDR:But the bottom line is: We knew the total number that were on the aircraft. We knew the total number that we were trying to account for on the ground.
The commander clearly wanted no part of an extended conversation on the record about the Afghans, and immediately changed the subject.
But the cat was now out of the bag, and the needle was now in the haystack. It would take a while before that needleâthe fleeting reference to the Afghan infiltratorsâwas found, but later, with the help of a senior sergeant major in the US Army who cared about the truth and who apparently didn't care much about political correctness, it would be found.
Consider just how important the issue of passenger manifest accuracy is to the military. The requirement for accuracy is clear, as set forth in the Defense Department Transportation Regulation of October 15, 2012.
Consider first the mandated requirement set forth in Paragraph J, entitled PREPARATION AND USE OF DD FORM 2131, PASSENGER MANIFEST. The Defense Department's instructions are clear, and set forth as follows:
J. PREPARATION AND USE OF DD FORM 2131, PASSENGER MANIFEST
1. Use the DD Form 2131, Passenger Manifest, Figure V-21, to list the names of the deploying personnel. Units may use a typed list in place of the DD Form 2131 if the form is not available.
However, the typed list must include all the information required on the DD Form 2131. The troop commander signs the anti-Âhijacking statement (shown below) on the passenger manifest, regardless of the form used.
First off, we see from the above that the names of the deploying personnel must be listed.
Looking down to Section J (2)(a), the requirement is even more specific. The troop commander is required to “Prepare Form 2131 as follows:” At paragraph “g,” the manifest must be completed as follows:
g. Block 7: PASSENGER INFORMATION
(1) Block 7a: NAME. Last, First, Middle name of passenger.
(2) Block 7b: RANK. Military/DOD civilian passenger grade (e.g., 0-3, E-4, W-2, GS-11).
(3) Block 7c: SSN. Enter Social Security Number of passenger.
(4) Block 7d: STATUS. Enter status of each passenger (e.g., Active, Civilian, Guard/Reserve).
(5) Block 7e: ULN. Enter ULN.
(6) Block 7f: LINE NO. Enter Line Number. Defense Transportation Regulation â Part III 15 October 2012 Mobility III-ÂV-11.
(7) Block 7g: SVC. Enter Service.
(8) Block 7h: CHECKED BAGGAGE. Enter number of pieces of checked baggage and total weight.
(9) Block 7i: CARRY-ÂON WEIGHT. Enter weight of carry-Âon baggage.
(10) Block 7j: PAX WEIGHT. Enter actual weight of passenger.
(11) Block 7k: EMERGENCY CONTACT INFORMATION. Enter Name (Last, First, Middle).
(12) Block 7l: EMERGENCY CONTACT INFORMATION. Enter telephone number (Include area code).
The Department of Defense very clearly requires not only the names of every member boarding a US military aircraft, but much more information, including twelve specific subcategories here alone.
In addition, there is also a requirement that the commander sign an “anti-Âhijacking statement,” as set forth in section J (1), requiring the commander to certify as follows:
The troop commander signs the anti-Âhijacking statement (shown below) on the passenger manifest, regardless of the form used.
“I certify that no unauthorized weapons/ammunition/explosive devices, or other prohibited items are in the possession of those personnel for whom I am the designated manifesting representative or troop commander, and that their authorized weapons have been cleared.”
Note that the anti-Âhijacking statement requires a certification that no unauthorized weapons or explosives have been brought on the aircraft. Note also the certification that “their authorized weapons have been cleared.”
Clearly, the manifest process and the manifest procedure is in place, to ensure flight security, and to ensure that no unauthorized persons or weapons enter the aircraft. The ultimate goal is to keep the aircraft and the American military personnel onboard secure.
Why, then, did the task force commander change the subject when his subordinate was asked about the manifest, and when asked about the unidentified Afghans?
Why is there no concerted effort in the Colt investigation to figure out who they were? Why shut this down and ignore it?
Was the Army not concerned that the unidentified Afghans could have been Taliban infiltrators? Wasn't the Army concerned about whether the unidentified Afghans brought unauthorized weapons aboard? The manifest requirement from the Department of Defense mandates a certification that “authorized weapons have been cleared.”
Yet the Colt Report blew this off as if it was a nonissue. Why?
Billy Vaughn and the Discovery of the ManifestÂ Discrepancy
Although the issue of the seven unidentified Afghans has never been substantively reported by the press, perhaps because they have not yet realized its importance, it was first discovered outside the confines of the military by Billy Vaughn, father of deceased Navy SEAL Aaron Vaughn.
Mr. Vaughn discovered the issue in a review of the 1,250-page Colt Report when he read the very same passage at Page 118 of Exhibit 1 that is cited here. In other words, Mr. Vaughn discovered the “needle in the haystack.” But because so very little was said about the unidentified Afghans on the flight manifest in the transcript, he initially assumed that the presence of the Afghans on board must not have been significant.
Mr. Vaughn first raised this issue with military officials on January 11, 2013, fifteen months after the shoot-Âdown, when he and his wife Karen were visited in their home by then-ÂAdmiral William “Billy” McRaven,and the admiral's senior enlisted advisor, a senior sergeant major in the Army.
Both at the time of the Bin Laden raid and the Extortion 17 shoot-Âdown, Admiral McRaven was the commander of Joint Special Operations Command, a post he held until August 8, 2011. Only two days after the Extortion 17 incident, he was promoted to commander of US Special Operations Command, with that Command being headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.
In his position as commander of Joint Special Operations Command, McRaven ultimately oversaw and commanded the logistical operations of Operation Neptune Spear, and although he did not fly with that mission, he was often referred to as the “mastermind” of the mission that got Bin Laden.
Both Operation Neptune Spear, the SEALs' greatest triumph, and Extortion 17, the SEALs' greatest tragedy, occurred on McRaven's watch.
As a result of his leadership both as commander of Joint Special Operations Command, and then as commander of Special Operations Command, and due to the fact that he was also a Navy SEAL, Admiral McRaven often had communications with family members of the fallen Navy SEALs of Extortion 17.
On or about Friday, January 11, 2013, Admiral McRaven traveled to the Florida home of Billy and Karen Vaughn, parents of deceased SEAL Aaron Vaughn.
During the meeting, Billy Vaughn mentioned that he had read in the transcript of the investigation that seven unidentified Afghans had boarded Extortion 17, and Mr. Vaughn casually made the comment that, “This must not be a big deal.”
But the admiral's aide, the sergeant major, spoke up and corrected Mr. Vaughn's assumption. “Mr. Vaughn, it's a very big deal. [Speaking of the unidentified Afghans infiltrating the aircraft.] Because it was passed over. It's a very big deal. That should never happen.” The sergeant major then added, “In fact, after the crash, we had to notify the men we thought were on the chopper. We had to notify them and tell them their sons were okay.”
The sergeant major, whose name is being withheld here for his own protection, was taking it upon himself to alert the Vaughns about a major issue that had been overlooked. His words were heard by both Billy and Karen Vaughn, and it is important to note, by Admiral McRaven, who was sitting in the Vaughns' living room beside the sergeant major. According to the Vaughns, McRaven sat silently and did not say a word.
The timing of this revelation was significant. The Vaughns were alerted to this breach as being “a very big deal” on January 11, 2013, some seventeen months after the shoot-Âdown. Up until this point, the military had been successful in keeping people's attentions off the security break, in part because it was buried in a very brief exchange, at page 118, in which the subject was quickly changed.
That's how close the military came to burying this information altogether.
So why were they hiding the mysterious Afghansâif they were even mysterious? Why weren't they admitting their error and trying to find out who the Afghans were? And why did the Joint Task Force commander so abruptly cut off his subordinate (the J3 operations officer) when the subject of the unidentified Afghans on board Extortion 17 came up?
It isn't hard to figure out that they had something to hide, and that whatever they were hiding about those unidentified Afghans was probably very embarrassing to the military.
But it is just as interesting to consider the great lengths that General Mattis (four-Âstar general in command of CENTCOM) went to in order to ensure that the Colt investigation stayed away from the topic of the seven missing Afghans.
Put another way, the cover-Âup about the seven Afghans begins much earlier, with the initial instructions given by General Mattis to Brigadier General Colt.
CENTCOM Handcuffs Colt's Investigation
Billy and Karen Vaughn were informed about the issue of the seven unidentified Afghans being of concern for the first time at the meeting with Admiral McRaven and his enlisted aide on January 11, 2013. This revelation came some sixteen months after Brigadier General Colt finished his investigation.
Some may believe it odd that Colt's report failed to attempt to identify the seven Afghans who boarded Extortion 17. Such concern is well placed. But looking further into Colt's marching orders, it seems evident that the restraints placed on him by General Mattis were designed to whitewash the investigation from the beginning.
The order from Mattis to Colt was an odd mix which, on the one hand, appeared to give General Colt all the authority he needed to conduct an investigation to get to the facts of what happened, but on the other, tied Colt's hands and ensured that the final findings would amount to a whitewash designed to suppress the truth about what happened to Extortion 17.
Why is this? Because Mattis's order included contradictory parameters and placed legal shackles on Colt's hands that prevented him (Colt) from even asking all the questions he needed to ask to get to the truth.
The order commissioning Colt to conduct the official military investigation of the crash of Extortion 17 was handed down by written directive from Mattis on August 7, 2011, the day following the crash.
Mattis's order entitled “Memorandum of Appointment” was attached to the Colt Report as “Exhibit A.” Brigadier General Colt was given one month, up to and including September 7, 2011, to complete the investigation.
Sweeping Powers but Contradictory Orders
In the three-Âpage directive, Mattis instructed Colt to “conduct your investigation in whatever matter you believe necessary and proper.” At first blush, nothing was constrained, at least not in the report. General Mattis provided that “you [BGEN Colt] may request any additional individuals or subject matter experts be appointed to accompany you or assist you in your investigation.”
So Colt, at least it appears at first glance, was given the broad, sweeping power to ask anybody anything about the details of this tragedy. General Mattis told him, specifically, “You may order any witness to provide a statement, if you believe that they have relevant information that would not incriminate themselves.” And Mattis went on to write, “you may consider any evidence that you determine to be relevant and material to the incident.”
Mattis further ordered Colt to provide (a) an executive summary with both classified and unclassified versions, (b) an index of all exhibits, (c) a chronology of the investigation, and (d) a list of persons interviewed and those from whom no statement was taken.
Mattis directed that “if it is impracticable to obtain a written and/or sworn statement from a particular witness, you will swear to the accuracy of any transcription or summary of such witness testimony in whatever form it appears within your report of investigation.”
So at face value, Mattis's instructions seem like an order to look under every rock, behind every corner, to illuminate every shadow, and to leave no stones uncovered to get at the truth about Extortion 17.
Did Colt not consider the possibility that Extortion 17 had been infiltrated by seven Taliban sympathizers, something that might be relevant to the investigation? Perhaps not, because his 1,250-page report treated the Afghans' identity as a nonissue.
One thing is for sure. It is absolutely impossible to believe that Colt did not at least consider the possibility of Taliban sympathizers infiltrating that aircraft prior to takeoff, given the serious breach of protocol and the very serious history of “Green-Âon-ÂBlue” violence in Afghanistan.
Perhaps, based on Mattis's instructions complete with Article 31 self-Âincrimination restrictions, Colt considered the topic of the seven mysterious Afghans to be a kettle of worms that he knew better than to stick his shackled hands into.
Mattis gave Colt an out if he felt that relevant evidence might incriminate someone. Rather than issuing an order to Colt to investigate the shoot-Âdown and get to the truth of what happened no matter what, Mattis issued a half-Âbaked order designed in part to protect the legal rights of US service members who might give incriminating statements during the course of the investigation.
For example, consider the following statement signed off by Mattis to Colt in the order to start investigations: “You may order any witness to provide a statement, if you believe that they have relevant information that would not incriminate themselves.”
Putting that in layman's terms, General Mattis was really saying, “If you think any of our guys messed up in any way, don't ask them any questions and especially if they could get court-Âmartialed for messing up.”
Could this explain why the seven missing Afghans' identity is not inquired about? Was there a possibility that someone could be prosecuted for dereliction of duty in allowing those infiltrators on the helicopter?
Of course this looks to be the case. Somebody messed up, big-Âtime, on the American side by letting those Afghans board that aircraft.
Colt had an out, because his superior, General Mattis, essentially ordered him not to include relevant information, at least not in the form of any statements that might lead to self-Âincrimination. If he had been given statements by anyone who knew, or should have known, that the seven Afghan infiltrators were not friendly to American forces, there was a possibility that those statements could have led to criminal prosecution under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, colloquially referred to as the “UCMJ.”
It is hard to envision any scenario under which those seven unidentified Afghans slipped onto that American helicopter just before the shoot-Âdown without someone being at fault, and potentially subject to prosecution for dereliction of duty under the UCMJ.
Suppose, for example, an American military member failed to double-Âcheck the manifest. Such an admission would be a criminal offense under the UCMJ. Suppose someone was in charge of making sure the right Afghans, the ones whose names were actually on the manifest, boarded the helicopter, but failed to do so. Again, such an admission could be a criminal offense under the UCMJ and subject the one committing the offense to court-Âmartial for a crime known as dereliction of duty.
Dereliction of duty under US military law is not the functional equivalent of a misdemeanor speeding ticket. Quite the contrary. It is a very serious offense, especially in times of war.In fact, during times of war, the UCMJ provides, at Article 92, that dereliction of duty is punishable by the death penalty.
It cannot be disputed that somebody dropped the ball by allowing the Afghan infiltration into that chopper. Even if those unidentified Afghans were as sweet and as kind as the seven sisters of the poor, there is absolutely no doubt that certain persons within the US chain of command failed to ensure the security of that aircraft. There can be little doubt that under Article 92, someone could be prosecuted if the right questions were asked.
An officer of Colt's experience and professionalism should have been able to see the relevance of identifying those Afghans in seeking the full explanation of what went wrong.
But when we look at his marching orders from CENTCOM and General Mattis, it is clear that Colt was actually prohibited from ordering witness statements that might lead to a criminal offense. At paragraph 7, he is told by General Mattis, “no military or civilian witness can be ordered to provide information that may incriminate him or herself.”
In that same paragraph, General Mattis goes even further in shackling Brigadier General Colt's investigative parameters. Mattis tells Colt,“If in the course of your investigation, you suspect any specific person may have committed a crime, you will promptly consult with your legal advisor, and then inform me. You should not attempt to elicit any information from any suspect without first discussing the matter with your legal advisor and then provide the requisite advice and warnings required by Art. 31, UCMJ or other applicable US law or regulation.”
In other words, Mattis is saying, “Hey BGEN Colt. If you suspect somebody screwed up, you don't say a word to anybody until you talk to me first.”
Talk about a chilling effect on the investigation! General Mattis's caveat is just that. Just as significant to these instructions is what was left unsaid: “Tell me if someone violated the UCMJ.”
Here is what was unsaid between the lines of these instructions. “Look. We all see the pink elephant in the room. The pink elephant is those seven unidentified Afghans. We all know that somebody screwed up here when those Afghans, who weren't in the flight manifest, entered that chopper. It was a big-Âtime mistake and a big-Âtime breach of procedure. Heads could roll for having allowed this. We have to conduct an investigation. We have no choice. But it could become highly embarrassing to the military and highly embarrassing to the administration if the public's attention is riveted on this issue.”
By the way, “warnings required by Art. 31, UCMJ,” are the military's equivalent of what are typically referred to as “Miranda warnings.” Anyone over fifty years old who ever saw the TV showDragnetis intimately familiar with Miranda warnings.
Likewise, those Miranda warnings are codified in the UCMJ, whereby a military member suspected of a crime under the UCMJ is told he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him, that he has a right to speak with an attorney, and have an attorney present during questioning.
So Mattis in his order went overboard, again and again, to discourage Colt from investigating anything, or asking any questions that might lead to a criminal offense under the UCMJ.
In General Colt's defense, his hands were strapped from the beginning. There was no way Colt could get into the question of the identitiesof the Afghans without asking questions such as, “Who had a duty to check the manifest?” or “Who had had a duty to make sure they matched the manifest?” or “Who had the duty to make sure the right crew was on board?” or “Who had a duty to vet the Afghans who boarded Extortion 17 to make sure they were not dangerous?”
Each and every one of these questions leads to the possibility of a dereliction-Âof-Âduty charge, which is potentially a criminal offenseâwhich, based on General Mattis's order, meant that Colt could not go there, not of his own accord, no matter how relevant the issue, or how pink the elephant.
So what started as a written mandate for a factual investigation into the cause of the shoot-Âdown morphed into a mandate filled with cautionary legal restraints, forcing Colt to proceed with one hand behind his back.
The unsaid implication is clear. “Don't ask those questions, period.” This is classic “don't ask, don't tell” put into action, in this case to protect exposing a major breach that might never have gotten out if not for a sliver of commentary by the J3 officer at page 118 of Exhibit 1.
All this points to a bigger strategic and policy consideration: Which was more important? Protecting a potential military defendant's Article 31 Rights, or getting to the truth about why thirty Americans, including members of the military's most elite fighting force, were unnecessarily dead?
Mattis's instruction to Colt made it appear that Mattis was just as concerned about protecting personnel from making potentially incriminating statements as he was with finding the truth.
Mattis did not have to clamp Colt's hands with all the Article 31 warning language.
To understand why Mattis had another option, one must examine the basic fundamentals of how a prosecution works within the military.
US Military Law 101
To understand why General Mattis did not have to muddle the waters with these Article 31 warnings, it is first important to understand the purpose of the military justice system.
On one hand, the military justice system mirrors and is identical to, although generally much more efficient than, its civilian counterpart. For example, a military murder charge might have exactly the same elements as a civilian murder charge. The military rules of evidence substantially mirror the federal rules of evidence, and thus, military judges often make the same type of evidentiary rulings as civilian federal judges.
But on the other hand, the military justice system is substantially different from its civilian counterpart in this regard:The military mission is more important to the military than the criminal justice system operating within the military. That's because the principal purpose of the military is to win wars.
General Norman Schwarzkopf, who gained fame as ground commander in Operation Desert Storm, once said that “The job of the military is to go to war and win, not to be instruments of social experimentation.” The former Navy SEAL and author, John Carl Roat, has been quoted as saying, “war is about killing people and breaking things.” A variation of Roat's quote was later rendered by General Colin Powell, who said, during the First Persian Gulf War, that “an army is for killing people and breaking things.”
The great Third Army commander, Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr. said that, “An army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of bullshit.” One of the greatest of all Marines, Lieutenant General Chester Puller said, “Paper-Âwork will ruin any military force.”
The point in citing these great military men is to underscore the point that the dominant purpose of any American military force is first and foremost to win in battle, not to protect the legal and constitutional rights of its troops. Not that the legal and constitutional rights of military members aren't importantâthey are vitally important. But they take a position of secondary importance to battlefield victory and to winning wars.
The purpose of the military justice system is first and foremost to support the war-Âfighting purpose of the military, by maintaining good order and discipline. Sometimes, but not always, that involves prosecuting military members who have violated the UCMJ.
But there are priorities. Protecting a service member's rights under Article 31 of the UCMJ does not rise to the same level of importance as preserving the warfighting and the war-Âwinning capability of the US military, nor should it.
To promote good order and discipline to assist American forces in winning at war, theManual for Courts-Martialexemplifies three types of courts-Âmartial that military commanders may use in this goal. And remember, because this too is unique, it is the military commander, and not some lawyer or some prosecutor in the JAG Corps that decides to bring charges. These three courts-Âmartial are:
A summary court-Âmartial is for the most minor of offenses, applies to enlisted members only, and caps its punishment at thirty days confinement. It's often used by commanders for typical squabbles, fights, and other minor disciplinary problems.
A special court-Âmartial is used for most misdemeanor-Âlevel criminal charges, either unique military charges such as unauthorized absence, or traditional criminal charges that you would find in civilian courts, such as assault, battery, and petit larceny. Punishment at a special court-Âmartial is capped at one year's confinement.
A general court-Âmartial is the highest and most serious level of court-Âmartial under the UCMJ.
Remember again, the purpose of the US military is to win wars, not to serve as a laboratory for social experimentation or a safe haven for the full implementation of one's constitutional rights. Certain constitutional rights that one enjoys outside the military are checked and left at the door once an individual enters active duty. For example, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. But if you decide to openly criticize your commanding officer in the military, you could wind up prosecuted.
Here's the point to understand. While the military justice system in some ways is almost identical to its civilian counterpartâit uses an evidence code virtually identical to the federal rules of evidence, for example, and certain crimes such as murder, rape, and larceny for the most part have the exact same elements of the same crime in civilian courtsâit is also in many ways very different from civilian courts and has crimes that are unique to the military.
In many cases the military justice system criminalizes conduct that would not be criminal outside that system. For instance, being late for work or being absent from work can be criminalized. Negligence, a civil tort in the civilian world, is criminalized in the military.
The crime of dereliction of duty is unique to the military. Dereliction of duty basically takes the civil tort of negligence and turns it into a criminal act. If you make an innocent mistake in civilian life, you might get sued for negligence, but you don't potentially go to the brig.
If you make a mistake in the military, even if you did not mean to or simply forgotâsay if you fail to check a flight manifest to keep intruders off an aircraftânot only could you possibly go to jail, but in times of war, in theory, you could potentially be executed.
That's a big difference.
Other crimes unique to the military with no civilian counterparts include unauthorized absence, desertion, missing movement, and conduct unbecoming an officer. Understand that all these crimes that are uniquely military are designed to support the mission and effectiveness of the military, which first and foremost, is to win wars, and not to serve as a laboratory for social experimentation.
Against this backdrop, here's another aspect of the military justice system that makes it unique and different from the civilian system. In the civilian system, criminal charges are initiated by prosecutors. Usually, it is the district attorney at the state level or the US attorney at the federal level who initiates the process by which charges are filedâwhether by seeking a grand jury indictment or presenting affidavits to a magistrate. The prosecutor has the discretion to charge or not to charge.
In the military, neither the JAG officer serving as the prosecutor nor any other prosecutor has the discretion to bring criminal charges against a military defendant.Instead, it is the military commander and only the military commander who has authority to bring charges or not to bring charges.The decision to charge anyone with a crimeâsay with the crime of dereliction of duty for failure to ensure that seven Afghans illegally boarded an American aircraftâis left up to the commander.
For a general court-Âmartial, the military commander with the discretion to bring charges or not is a flag or a general officer, meaning a general or admiral, just like General Mattis. A general officer who brings charges is known as a “convening authority” in the military.
A convening authority, that is the military commander in the chain of command, asks this question and makes a decision: “Which is more important? Is it more important to the mission of the military to get to the facts, so that we can take corrective action and save lives in the future? Even if that means possibly forgoing criminal prosecutions because the method of gathering evidence might preclude it?
“Or is it more important for me to protect the rights of a defendant so that defendant is protected at a potential court-Âmartial, even if protecting the civil rights of a defendant means I might not get to the bottom-Âline of what happened, even if not getting to the bottom-Âline might cost the lives of more of my men in the future, because I might not have the evidence that I need to take corrective action?”
General Mattis ultimately had to, at some level, make this value judgment in setting forth his marching orders to Brigadier General Colt to convene the investigation of Extortion 17. Though he probably would not admit it, Mattis had to decide whether to focus on protecting the rights of a potential criminal defendant in the event of a court-Âmartial or getting to the bottom of why Americans died that day in Afghanistan.
That value judgment, at some level, went into the crafting of General Mattis's order to Colt, and all the “Article 31” warning instructions that shackled Colt's hands.
If Mattis were determined to get to the bottom line at all costs, he did not have to include “Article 31” instructions in his letter to Colt. But for whatever reason, he made a decision to do so.
The results of that unfortunate decision are obvious throughout the 1,250-page Colt Report.
The question “who were the Afghans on that chopper?” was never asked.
The question “who was responsible for checking the flight manifest and making sure unauthorized intruders didn't enter the aircraft?” was never asked.
The question “who was responsible for vetting the Afghans who entered that aircraft?” was never asked, not by Brigadier General Colt, or by a single expert working under his command.
An even more pressing question is this: Why wouldn't General Mattis want to know the names of those Afghans? Why wouldn't the Army want to know if they were Taliban sympathizers? Why wouldn't they want to know if, perhaps, those Afghans had any role in bringing down ExtortionÂ 17?
Could it be because the information, if revealed, might be embarrassing to the Army or to the mission? Could it be because revealing their identities might lead to questioning the wisdom of sharing sensitive military information with Afghan forces? Even if it means not prosecuting someone at a court-Âmartial, surely getting to the absolute truth and absolute facts in a case like this would be far more important to national security and to protecting and safeguarding future missions. From a standpoint of good order and discipline, there are other ways of dealing with dereliction of duty short of military prosecution.
Moreover, getting to the actual facts of what happened and why might shed some additional insight on the wisdom, or lack thereof, of forcing US Special Operations forces to operate with Afghan forces, or any other foreign military forces for that matter, who have shown violent tendencies toward allied forces.
No one put a gun to Mattis's head and forced him to give a written directive to Colt instructing him to Mirandize anyone who may have committed an offense, or to avoid even asking questions that might lead to prosecution. This instruction placed a huge chilling effect on the investigation.
Had Mattis left all the instructions about Article 31 out of his order to Colt, and had he not ordered Colt to avoid asking questions that might incriminate someone, then Colt would have had the freedom, at least legally, to ask whatever questions he wanted to ask to find out why Extortion 17 was infiltrated by unauthorized and unidentified Afghans.
Suppose some junior-Âlevel officer or enlisted man said, “I'm the one who screwed up. I forgot to double-Âcheck the manifest to make sure the right Afghanis were on board.”
Or suppose a senior enlisted man said, “I'm sorry, I forgot these guys that got on the chopper, and it turns out that two were Taliban sympathizers.”
If that junior-Âlevel officer made that admission, and Article 31 rights had not been read, here's what that means. It means that the military might not be able to prosecute those guys in a court-Âmartial. It would probably mean that the statements given could not be used in a court-Âmartial, because the military's version of the Miranda warnings had not been read.
But consider the upside. Sure, you may or may not be able to prosecute. But at least you might know exactly what went wrong, and if you know exactly what went wrong, maybe you can take painful efforts to prevent the same mistake from happening again in the future.
General Mattis wanted sworn testimony, and he got it. But he got no sworn testimony about the Afghans, other than the J3's slipup, or perhaps his intentional slip-Âin, that they weren't accounted for on the manifest. It appears that Mattis did not want, for whatever reason, the full truth, including the “good, the bad, and the ugly” of what really happened. At least he didn't want the full truth on the record. All the precautionary language on Article 31 ensured that this would not happen.
In General Mattis's final conclusion that followed the Colt report, he did not mention the seven unidentified Afghans, nor did he address the odd loss of the helicopter's “black box,” nor did he address the odd question of why the military apparently cremated all bodies, thus destroying DNA evidence and making it forever impossible to positively identify the missing Afghans, nor did he touch on the issue of why several autopsies of US service members who died on Extortion 17 revealed that bullets had been found in their bodies.
Isn't it odd that Mattis's memorandum, approving Colt's report, like Colt's report itself, again, conveniently ignores the pink elephant in the room, namely the seven unidentified Afghans?
The general's conclusion simply whitewashes the findings in a neat, tidy, conclusive memorandum, not pointing the finger anywhere, and not raising the issue of the seven unidentified Afghans, and certainly not attempting to determine, one way or the other, whether they were friendly to the Taliban or friendly to America.
The Seven Missing Afghans Discovered by Happenchance
The apparent decision to try to de-Âemphasize and stay away from a discussion about the Afghans on the aircraft almost worked.
It isn't clear whether the brief revelation by the J3 was intentional, to try and get the truth out, or accidental. All we know is that he was shut down by his boss, the Joint Special Operations Task Force commander, who kept him from saying another word about it.
This much we know. Mid-Âgrade officers, who are not so influenced by political considerations, and senior enlisted men, who have seen it all, and often do not give a rat's derriÃ¨re about political bull, are the heart and soul of the US military.
These are the men and women who make the US military engine run. They generally care about truth, duty, honor, and country. They aren't interested in B.S. rules of engagement or official cover-Âups, and they especially aren't interested in protecting a cover-Âup if a cover-Âup is intended to minimize responsibility for loss of life. They know that they, or their buddies, could be next on the short-Âend of some politician's decision to use the military in a foolish way.
So given this, it would not be surprising if the J3 officer intentionally allowed just enough of a slip about these Afghans to get the truth out. That's speculation, based on the author's knowledge of the heart of the military. But if he did, God bless him.
But the truth always finds a way of percolating to the surface. They could not hide the pink elephant forever.
How did this J3 officer finally see the light of day? Remember that Extortion 17 was shot down August 6, 2011. It was not until January 11, 2013, seventeen months later, that a senior enlisted soldier in the Army, the sergeant major who accompanied Admiral McRaven into the Vaughns' home, alerted families that failure to account for the seven missing Afghans was “a very big deal.”
Here's the way this came down the pike.
Billy Vaughn, the father of slain SEAL Aaron Vaughn, was one of the few family members who actually received and read the Colt Report.
Seventeen months had now passed since his son's death, but Mr. Vaughn recalled a small sliver of testimony that stuck out in his mind concerning Afghans on board his son's helicopter before it crashed. That testimony was the testimony of the J3 officer.
Again, here's that sliver of testimony, from Exhibit 1, page 118, that Mr. Vaughn remembered:
IO-ÂDEP:Was there a manifest for that aircraft back at theâ
JSOTF J3 (Operations Officer):Yes, sir. And I'm sure you know by now the manifest was accurate with the exception of the [Afghan] personnel that were on. So the [Afghan] personnel, they were the incorrectâall seven names were incorrect. And I cannot talk to the back story of why, butâ
JSOTF CDR:But the bottom line is: We knew the total number that were on the aircraft. We knew the total number that we were trying to account for on the ground.
Mr. Vaughn had kept that exchange of testimony in the back of his mind, but had not paid much attention to it, because the testimony was so short, and unlike the issue of the missing black box and other matters, the military had said nothing about it.
Because nothing had been said about it by the military,because it was not included in the final Executive Summary of the Colt Report, and because so very little had been said about the issue (of the seven Afghansinfiltrating the chopper), Mr. Vaughn assumed that the issue must not have been important.
But as Admiral McRaven and his senior enlisted advisor sat across from him in his home in Florida on that January day in 2013, the sliver of testimony floating around in the back of Mr. Vaughn's mind popped to the forefront.
Eyeing the two highly decorated military men sitting across from him, Mr. Vaughn, as related in his book (co-Âauthored by Monica Morrill and Cari Blake) entitledBetrayed: The Shocking True Story of Extortion 17 as Told by a Navy SEAL's Father,asked the question, almost as an afterthought, about those seven Afghans getting on that chopper right before they took off.
“I guess it wasn't a big deal, right? Because that was all that was said about it and it was then just passed over,” Mr. Vaughn asked the men, referring to the J3 officer's testimony.
A moment passed. Admiral McRaven sat still and said absolutely nothing. But then, when it became obvious that McRaven was not going to answer, the sergeant major spoke up.
“It was a very big deal, Mr. Vaughn,” the sergeant major said. “That should never have happened. In fact, all of the Afghan families who had previously been notified of their loved ones' death had to be re-Ânotified that they were, in fact, alive. What actually happened was, at the last minute, the commander wanted to swap out those listed for the seven Afghanis who were actually on the chopper.”
Again, even after the sergeant major spoke up, Admiral McRaven still did not address the subject.
Bear in mind that at the time of this conversation, the Colt investigation had been out for sixteen months, and the Executive Summary had been issued, wrapped in a tidy conclusion that the military had done nothing wrong, and conveniently omitting any reference to this “very big deal.”
Bear in mind also the earlier observation that mid-Âlevel officers and senior enlisted generally aren't interested in B.S. rules of engagement or official cover-Âups, and they especially aren't interested in protecting a cover-Âup if a cover-Âup is intended to minimize responsibility for lossof life. The whitewash was on, and the pink elephant, thanks now to the sergeant major who had the guts to speak up, had barged onto the scene.
After the men left, Mr. Vaughn became more bothered about all this, his stomach more twisted than ever.
Cover-Âups lead to more questions, and the first question in Mr. Vaughn's mind was “what commander authorized the swap-Âout?” Was the sergeant major talking about an American commander? Or was he talking about an Afghan commander who may have authorized the swap-Âout?
With the question nagging him and sticking in his gut, Mr. Vaughn picked up the phone and called an Army lieutenant colonel at Special Operations Command who had been involved in the investigation.
Mr. Vaughn posed the question to the colonel.
“Can you tell me who that commander was [who authorized the swap-Âout of the Afghans]?”
The lieutenant colonel hesitated momentarily then spoke with a quiet, but clearly perplexed tone, “Mr. Vaughn, we [the crash investigative team] weren't told about that [the last-Âminute swap, which left the manifest incorrect].”
Mr. Vaughn also recounts this conversation in his bookBetrayed: The Shocking True Story of Extortion 17 as Told by a Navy SEAL's Father.
In other words, as a follow-Âup to the J3's testimony, then the sergeant major's revelation, we now have a lieutenant colonel, a member of the team investigating the crash, saying that members of the investigating team were not even informed about this unauthorized infiltration by the Afghans.
Why was information concerning the infiltration by these unauthorized Afghans withheld from the investigating team? Who is trying to hide what?
The issue of the seven unidentified Afghans was whitewashed in at least four instances: It was ignored in the 1,250-page Colt Report, the Executive Summary of that report, and in General Mattis's memorandum approving the report, and information was even kept from members of Colt's investigating team.
The issue also was not addressed in a ninety-Âminute congressional subcommittee hearing held on February 27, 2014, discussed in moredetail later, a fifth lost opportunity. All this raises more questions pointing to a cover-Âup. Why, for example, would General Mattis not give Brigadier General Colt the full authority, not restricted by self-Âincrimination issues of potential military defendants, to get to the bottom of what happened?
And going back to the testimony at Exhibit 1, page 118 of the Colt Report, why, during that testimony, did the commander cut off his subordinate, to prevent any discussion on the record about the seven unidentified Afghans? Is the commander trying to hide something by cutting off the topic and changing the subject?
What was the operations officer about to say that necessitated the cut-Âoff by his commander?
Was he going to say, “But their presence was unauthorized”? Or “but . . . their presence was a breach of safety protocol”? Or “but . . . our men have concerns that seven unidentified Afghans may have compromised the safety of this mission”?
What were they trying to hide?
There is no way to know, because the brusque interruption by the Task Force commander kept the operations' comments off the record, and successfully changed the subject.
The Joint Special Operations Task Force commander who cut off his subordinate's thoughts on the unidentified Afghans was the same person who ordered the SEAL team into that chopper to begin with. This was revealed at page 99 of Exhibit 1, when Brigadier General Colt asked who ordered the ill-Âfated mission. Here's that exchange:
BG Colt:At 2130 Zulu, the IRF was directed to infill by whom?
JSOTF J3:Sir, Task Force Commander was the guy that controlled the immediate reaction force. We actually haveâdiscussing it before; there've been reports about the ground force commander, asking for the immediate reaction force to handle, to interdict those orders. Actually, it was from Task Force. They recommended to call over to the ground force commander and said, “Hey, we have got the immediate reaction force that we can employ against this thing, and that's where it came from.”
There is no way to know if the Task Force commander allowed the seven mysterious Afghans on board, because the Afghans have their own commander.
After the Joint Special Operations Task Force commander cut off his subordinate's testimony midstream, the subject of the investigation changed to testimony about how the bodies were extracted from the crash site. Nothing else was mentioned about the unidentified Afghans, of any substance, in the entire 1,250-page reportânot even a peep. Nor is there any suggestion in the Colt Report's recommendation or in General Mattis's final conclusions that the military did anything wrong in the deaths of thirty Americans.
Why no attempt to at least identify these guys? Why conduct days of investigation on flight approach, rescue operations, ground movement of enemy forces, and gloss over the identity of seven unidentified intruders on the aircraft?
It's as if the unidentified Afghan infiltrators were the big pink elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.
Why is this question significant?
The answer has to do with the concept of “Green-Âon-ÂBlue” violence.
“Green-Âon-ÂBlue” Violence: “Friendly” Afghans Killing Americans
The phrase “Green on Blue” refers to the dangerously widespread practice of Afghan forces masquerading as American allies, yet then shooting Coalition elements in the back and subversively cooperating with the Taliban. The Colt Report's failure to even address the potential security concerns the Afghan “Mystery Seven” might have presented was nothing less than shocking.
Why won't the military deal with the question of their identity? Why ignore this inexcusable breach of security in the Colt Report as if it's a nonissue?
The failure to address the identity of the “Mystery Seven,” and the apparent cremation of their bodies so as to destroy DNA evidence, was one of the linchpin failures in this investigation that points to a cover-Âup. This failure is so important that it's crucial to pause and consider the problem of Green-Âon-ÂBlue attacks.
The Background on Green-Âon-ÂBlue Violence
Ever since the United States inserted forces into Afghanistan in 2001, there has been an effort to work with the government of President Hamid Karzai, beginning in 2001 when the United States toppled the Taliban-Âcontrolled Afghan government at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Karzai was not Taliban, and had been installed as interim president of Afghanistan at a conference in Bonn, Germany, in December of 2001,with said conference operating under the approval of the United Nations. Karzai was chosen first as head of the Afghan Interim Authority, and later was elected president of the country. Karzai, when he became president, appointed anti-ÂTaliban leaders into high positions in his government.
The United States, and other NATO forces, for political and other reasons, now sought to have an ally on the ground in the “host” country in which it was prosecuting the “War on Terror.”
That host government on the ground was now the government of Hamid Karzai. This alliance would lead to a military alliance, at least on paper, in the “War on Terror,” in which Afghan Army and other military forces would be pitted alongside US forces to go after and kill Taliban.
That type of arrangement might have looked good on paper. But there was a practical problem with it. In many cases, pro-ÂKarzai Afghans in the Afghan Army who were ordered to fight alongside the Americans, for religious and political reasons, felt a stronger alliance with their stated enemies, namely Afghan Taliban, than with their politically mandated military allies, namely the Americans. Put another way, many Afghan Army members in Karzai's army felt a much stronger allegiance to fellow Muslim Afghan Taliban members than to the members of the US military who had orders to kill Muslim Afghan Taliban members. For religious reasons, and for nationalistic reasons, the Afghan ArmyâTaliban tie was often much stronger than the Afghan ArmyâNATO tie.
The results of this strong and often natural alliance between regular Afghan military and police forces and their Afghan Taliban brethren often proved deadly and disastrous for American forces in Afghanistan. Numerous reports surfaced of Afghan Army and police forces shooting and murdering Coalition forces, which were composed primarily of American forces. Thus, the phrase “Green-Âon-ÂBlue” attack was born.
It should be noted that the phrase “Green-Âon-ÂBlue” has nothing to do with the color of uniforms or anything else other than the standardized military symbols used to designate different forces on maps. In the military's system, the color blue is used for friendly forces, red for hostileforces, green for neutral forces, and yellow for unknown forces. Thus, Blue-Âon-ÂBlue shootings are incidents in which members of the same force fire on one another. Green-Âon-ÂBlue, technically, would refer to neutral forces firing on friendly forces. The phrase in this context means Afghan forces firing on ISAF Coalition (primarily NATO) forces.
2011: A Bloody Year for Green-Âon-ÂBlue Violence
In 2011 alone, leading up to the shoot-Âdown of Extortion 17 on August 6, 2011, there had already been at least twelve reports of such Green-Âon-ÂBlue attacks, or murders, or attempted murders of Coalition forces by Afghan forces who were supposed to be US allies. This is according to statistics compiled by theLong War Journal, in an article by Bill Roggio and Lisa Lundquist, first published August 23, 2012, and updated October 26, 2013, which documented the following Green-Âon-ÂBlue attacks in 2011, leading up to the Extortion 17 flight.
Attack 1: January 15, 2011:
An Afghan soldier argued with a Marine in the Sangin district in Helmand, threatened him, and later returned and aimed his weapon at the Marine. When the Afghan soldier failed to put his rifle down, the Marine shot him.
Attack 2: January 18, 2011:
An Afghan soldier shot two Italian soldiers at a combat outpost in the Bala Murghab district of Badghis province, killing one and wounding the other before escaping.
Attack 3: February 18, 2011:
An Afghan soldier opened fire on German soldiers at a base in Baghlan province, killing three German soldiers and wounding six others. The attacker was killed in return fire.
Attack 4: March 19, 2011:
An Afghan hired by Tundra Security Group to provide security at Forward Operating Base Frontenac in the Argandab Valley in Kandahar Province shot six US soldiers as they were cleaning their weapons, killing two and wounding four more. The attacker was shot and killed in return fire by three other US soldiers.
Attack 5: April 4, 2011:
An Afghan Border Police officer guarding a meeting between a Border Police commander and US military trainers in Maimana, the capital of Faryab Province, shot and killed two US soldiers, then fled.ISAF reportedon April 7 that the attacker was killed when he displayed hostile intent after being tracked down in Maimana; two other insurgents were arrested during the raid.
Attack 6: April 4, 2011:
An Afghan soldier opened fire on ISAF vehicles in Kandahar Province; no casualties were reported.
Attack 7: April 16, 2011:
A newly recruited Afghan soldier who was a Taliban suicide bomber detonated at Forward Operating Base Gamberi in Laghman Province near the border with Nangarhar Province, killing five NATO troops and four Afghan soldiers. Eight other Afghans were wounded, including four interpreters.
Attack 8: April 27, 2011:
A veteran Afghan air force pilot opened fire inside a NATO military base in Kabul, killing eight NATO troops and a contractor. According to theWashington Post,the shooter, a two-Âdecade veteran of the Afghan air force named Ahmad Gul, jumped out a window after the attack, injuring his leg.
Attack 9: May 13, 2011:
Two NATO soldiers who were mentoring an Afghan National Civil Order brigade were shot and killed inside a police compound in Helmand Province by a man wearing an Afghan police uniform. The gunman was wounded by return fire and taken to a hospital.
Attack 10: May 30, 2011:
An Afghan soldier killed an ISAF soldier in southern Afghanistan.According to an Australian Department of Defense press release, an Australian soldier from the Mentoring Task Force was shot while manning a guard tower at patrol base MASHAL in the Chorah Valley in Uruzgan province by another guard, a soldier from the Afghan army, who fled.
Attack 11: July 16, 2011:
An Afghan soldier killed an ISAF soldier in southern Afghanistan.According toThe Telegraph,a NATO soldier was shot by an Afghan soldier not far from Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province during a joint patrol. The attacker ran away after the shooting.
Attack 12: Aug. 4, 2011:
An Afghan soldier killed an ISAF soldier in eastern Afghanistan.According to theTurkish Weekly, someone wearing an Afghan police uniform killed an ISAF soldier in Paktika Province.
So based on these reports, as set forth in theLong War Journal, a total of twenty-Âsix NATO/Allied were murdered in Green-Âon-ÂBlue attacks in 2011 alone, leading up to the flight of Extortion 17. This was a problem that the military was well aware of. Yet, the fact that seven unidentified Afghans infiltrated the flight was mentioned only peripherally in the report, substantially brushed over, and no time or resources were spent on trying to identify who these men were.
TwoNew York TimesArticles on Taliban Infiltration
New York Timesreporter Ray Rivera published two articles examining the problem of Taliban infiltration into supposedly friendly Afghan forces. The first article, entitled “Taliban Fan Fears of Infiltration in Afghan Forces” and published on April 20, 2011, began by recounting a November 29, 2010, incident on the Pakistan border in which an Afghan border policeman, who was “well thought of by his superiors suddenly opened fire on American soldiers, killing six.” The article went on to cite another incident in April of 2011 in which insurgents, dressed in Afghan uniforms, attacked “three heavily secured government locations.” Even though the Rivera article reported intelligence officials as saying there was “no evidence the infiltration is widespread,” it concludes that “concern over sleeper agents still run high among NATO and Afghan officials.”
On June 27, 2011, andonly forty days before the Extortion 17 shoot-Âdown, Rivera wrote a second article on the subject of Taliban infiltration into the Afghan military. This article, entitled “Afghans Build Security, and Hope to Avoid Infiltrators,” featured the story of a Taliban insurgentnamed Akmal, who very easily infiltrated the Afghan army, and later took part in two suicide bombings. At the time of the article, Akmal was facing the death penalty.
Rivera reported that, “In the past two and a half years, 47 NATO soldiers have been killed by Afghan soldiers or police officers. Many of those deaths were the result of arguments that turned violent. But infiltrators are suspected in some of the cases, including one in which an Afghan soldier detonated a vest at an Afghan military base and another when a police officer killed the police chief at the Kandahar police headquarters.”
Green-Âon-ÂBlue violence was nothing new to the US military, and they were clearly aware of the issue of Taliban infiltration of the Afghan military. Indeed the mainstream press was picking up on it, as evidenced by both of Mr. Rivera's articles.
One Extortion 17 parent relayed the words of his late son, a member of SEAL Team Six. “It's hard to get the Afghans to fight. Sometimes they won't move. Sometimes they want to stay in the chopper.” The father related his son's concerns that the SEALs were “far more worried about getting shot in the back by the Afghans we have to take on these missions than by the Taliban we're fighting against.”
Indeed, the overwhelming evidence of Taliban infiltration into the regular Afghan militaryâthe same military that NATO forces were forced to work with as “allies”âwas so disconcerting that General John Allen, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan and former commander of the combined International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), estimated that 25 percent of all Green-Âon-ÂBlue attacks were carried out by Taliban infiltrators. General Allen's conclusions were reported by Mike Mount of CNN on August 23, 2012. Allen, who was the top NATO commander at the time, indicated that the 25 percent infiltration was significantly higher than an earlier 10 percent infiltration estimate put out by the Pentagon.
In an interview from the Pentagon, Allen was quoted as saying, “So if it's just pure Taliban infiltration, that is one number. If you add to that impersonation the potential that someone is pulling the trigger because the Taliban have coerced the family members, that's a different number,” he said.
An Ambassador's Blunt Warnings
In a September 17, 2012 speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently retired US ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker estimated infiltration to be higher than 25 percent, the estimate given by US military commanders.
In an article on the well-Ârespected military.com website, dated September 18, 2012, and entitledCrocker: Taliban Infiltration Worse than Estimated,reporter Richard Sisk quoted part of former US Ambassador Ryan Crocker's remarks to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on the previous day, September 17, 2012.
We've talked about security and security forces simply to say the threats as we have seen are very much there, whether it be that coordinated attack on Camp Bastion that destroyed a number of aircraftâonly 15 or so gunmen, but they clearly knew what they were doingâthe high profile attacks, which haven't worked that well, by and large, as headline grabbers, after the attack on the embassy last year and again in April, and the very troubling green-Âon-Âblue attacks.
You know, I'm not there. But I would put the percentage of attackers who have some affiliation with the Taliban rather higher than the percentages I have seen [referring to the 25 percent estimate from military sources]. I think they're finding that a relatively easy [thing] to doâand our own vetting in the US military is not that great, let's face it. We've got a lot of prison barracks at military facilities for people who never should have gotten in the first place and didn't get out of boot camp housed in Afghanistan. I think the Taliban have founda niche. Obviously not the whole story; I don't discount the personal grudge, the cultural insensitivity and the rest of it. But I think we underestimate at our peril a resilient enemy finding a newâa new mechanism with effect.
Ambassador Crocker was no rookie to the US Foreign Service. He had served as US ambassador to Afghanistan from July 25, 2011 through July 13, 2012. Prior to that, he had served as ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Pakistan, and Iraq.
Note several salient points from Ambassador Crocker's speech.
First, Crocker thought the problem of Taliban infiltration might be even worse than General Allen thought it was. And of course General Allen thought it was worse than the official Pentagon estimates, in part because Allen was taking into account “Taliban influence” even if the Green-Âon-ÂBlue attackers might not always technically have been Taliban members.
Second, the ambassador refers to the Green-Âon-ÂBlue attacks as being “very troubling.” If these attacks were “very troubling” to the former US ambassador to Afghanistan, then why didn't the official military investigation, in the 1,250-page report, make any effort to account for the names or the identities of the seven unidentified Afghans, if for no other reason than to rule out possible Taliban infiltration of that mission? Was there no concern that they could have been hostile to the American forces, given the clear history of Green-Âon-ÂBlue violence?
Third, when Ambassador Crocker estimated that Taliban infiltration might be higher than the military has first estimated, he went on to say, “âand our own vetting in the US military is not that great, let's face it.” So Crocker was openly questioning the military's ability to effectively vet Afghan forces to root out Taliban membership and Taliban influence.
That dangerous problem was manifestly evident on August 6, 2011, as twenty-Âsix NATO forces had already been murdered in Greenâon-ÂBlue attacks in 2011 alone. Why not even make an attempt to identify the seven unidentified Afghans? Or at the very least, why not address the possibility that the seven unidentified Afghans could have been Talibaninfiltrators or sympathizers? Or why not at least try and eliminate the possibility that Extortion 17 had been infiltrated from the beginning by seven Taliban infiltrators or sympathizers?
The military's silence on the question is telling.
The failure to even address this question marks either inexcusable negligence or a sleight-Âof-Âhand cover-Âup.
A Forced Suicide Mission
It is important to understand a bit about the “platform” for Extortion 17's mission. In military-Âspeak, a “platform” usually is the type of ship, plane, or vehicle that is being used to advance a military mission.
For example, there could be multiple platforms for launching a Tomahawk cruise missile: a B-52 bomber, a US naval cruiser, or a submarine, just to name a few.
Likewise a helicopter is a type of platform used to advance a military mission. As platforms, helicopters are often designed primarily for particular types of missions.
The CH-47D Chinook helicopters, code-Ânamed Extortion 16 and Extortion 17, were old helicopters, whose primary mission was and remains troop and cargo transport. The Chinooks were designed to carry troops to the edge of a battle zone. That's exactly what Extortions 16 and 17 had done earlier in the evening on August 5, 2011.
But the Chinooks were vulnerable if ordered into a hot zone with substantial antiaircraft fire, especially if they had to fly into those zones unprotected.
Unfortunately, both the Colt Report and General Mattis's conclusions failed to address this issue, and in fact, General Mattis's conclusion was misleading in several respects on the issue of mission planning and execution.
The selection of this particular aircrew, to fly this particular mission, in this particular area, despite the “we did nothing wrong” claim set forth by the military, amounted to nothing less than sending American forces on a suicide mission. The National Guard aviators were not adequatelytrained nor experienced enough to fly this mission, which should have required Special Forces aviators from the 160th Special Operations Airborne Regiment out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the unit the SEALs usually fly with.
In other words, even if we assume that there was no Taliban infiltration aboard the aircraft, the mission planning was still very foolish. They sent pilots trained for one thing, in an aircraft designed for one thing, on a mission demanding pilots trained in another area, and on a mission requiring another type of aircraftâthat is if the military commanders wanted their men to have the best chance of surviving.
But the military tried whitewashing this foolish mission planning, as shown by the Colt Report's Executive Summary (September 7, 2011) and General Mattis's approval of that summary (September 13, 2011), which included many misleading statements claiming that the selection of the flight crew and the aircraft were appropriate.
On September 13, 2011, General Mattis signed the Memorandum for the Record approving the factual conclusions of the report, finding no fault with the Army pilots and concluding that Extortion 17 had not been “shot down “ as “the result of a baited ambush.” This Memorandum for the Record, was attached to and made part of the 1,250-page Colt Report as Exhibit B.
One example of a misleading finding appeared at Paragraph 3 of that Memorandum:
3. I specifically agree with the conclusions that the Army aviators were fully qualified to perform all required tasks, that the aircraft was fully mission capable, and that loading the Immediate Reaction Force (SEAL Team and SOC operators) onto one aircraft was tactically sound. The aircrew, having flown into the valley only hours before to insert the initial force, was the most familiar aircrew available to effectively carry out this mission. I believe that the shoot down was not the result of a baited ambush by the enemy; instead the enemy was in a heightened state of alert due to 3 1/2 hours of ongoing coalition force operations in the area prior to the CH-47's arrival.
On the surface, this claim might be just accurate enough to deflect questions at a superficial level. But under the surface, paragraph 3 was manifestly misleading.
Pilot Bryan Nichols and co-Âpilot Dave Carter certainly were trained to fly the Chinook, and Carter was in fact a very experienced Army pilot. There is no evidence that either aviator did anything wrong during the course of this mission.
But here's what was misleading. Nichols and Carter were National Guard pilots. They were not Special Forces aviators, had not been trained as Special Forces aviators, and were not flying in a Special Forces aircraft. Moreover, although it's technically true that they had already flown a mission earlier in the evening, it is not true that the mission they flew took them into the same, dangerous, Taliban-Âinfested airspace that their final, fateful flight did.
In the earlier mission, the aviators had dropped the US Army Rangers two to three clicks (kilometers) outside the edge of the battle zone. On the final mission, they were ordered to fly a different course, this time over the Tangi River Valley into an airspace in which there had been three attacks on US helicopters, even Special Forces helicopters, within the previous ninety days.
Why didn't the general's report make this distinction between the dangerous airspace over the Tangi River Valley where the Seal team was shot down, and the original landing zone from the earlier mission, which did not have any known Taliban forces?
Instead, it implied that the earlier mission that inserted the Rangers outside the hot zone was just as dangerous as the subsequent mission that flew the SEALs over the hot zone, which simply was not true.
To better understand how these conclusions were misleading, it is important to understand some basic concepts about US Special Forces.
Each branch of the military has a Special Forces component. For example, the US Army has the Rangers and the Green Berets. The Marines boast their Combat RECON and Scout Sniper units. The Air Force has its para-Ârescue teams, Combat Rescue and Combat Control. The Navy has its EOD (Explosive Ordnance) Teams. The vaunted Navy SEALs have become the most famous Special Forces unit of all.
On board Extortion 17 that fateful night, every American who was not a part of the five-Âmember National Guard flight crew was a Special Forces operator. The SEAL team was the best known, but even the three Air Force men who died were also Special Forces.
In each branch of the service, Special Forces members are chosen from a highly competitive field. They are trained to carry out missions with speed, stealth, and deadly precision that give them a role that is often distinct from the regular members of the US military. Quite often Special Forces units carry out the most dangerous missions in the military, and the most potentially deadly missions.
The National Guard pilots who flew that helicopter were not Special Forces aviators. That does not mean that they were any less important or less patriotic. Nor does it mean that they were not brave or willing to carry out their mission or give their lives for their country. They were all these things. This simply means that their military roles were typically very different from the Special Forces aviation units.
It should be noted that Special Forces, such as the SEALs, typically train with and fly on helicopters that are part of Special Forces Aviation. The best-Âknown command for Special Forces Aviation is the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR). The 160th SOAR is often referred to as the “Night Stalkers.” Based out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the Night Stalkers are part of the US Special Operations Command, meaning they transport Special Forces from all branches, including the Navy SEALs. Their pilots are specially trained, for example, to fly in quickly, low, to avoid enemy radar, to attack at high rates of speed, to insert ground troops quickly, and to get out quickly. The stated role of the Night Stalkers is to “provide aviation support to special operations forces.” Night Stalkers typically do not operate aircraft as antiquated as the CH-47 Chinook, but rather, operate the more advanced MH-47G Chinook, the MH-60 Black Hawk, and the MH/AH-6M Little Bird.
US Special Forces will typically be inserted into hot battle zones by helicopter. But Special Forces, including the SEAL units, typically operate with helicopters that are faster, and are “souped up” with more armament, heavier weaponry, electronic-Âwarfare gadgetry, and jamming mechanisms.
As an example, in Operation Neptune Spear, the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden on May 1, 2011, the SEAL team was paired with the Army's Night Stalker pilots, who flew the SEAL team into Pakistan on a modified version of two MH-60 Black Hawks.
The Night Stalkers are trained to fly into hot zones, at low altitudes, at fast rates of speed to avoid detection, with sophisticated weaponry and electronic jamming mechanisms on their aircraft. Put another way, the Night Stalkers are specifically trained for the type of highly dangerous mission that the SEALs were attempting to execute, and they fly souped-Âup, sophisticated aircraft capable of carrying out those missions.
The National Guard aircrew simply was not trained in the same way, nor were they flying Special Operations helicopters designed for these types of missions.
Extortion 17 Pilots: Underequipped and Untrained for Special Ops
Army Chief Warrant Officer 4th Class David Carter was forty-Âseven years old at the time of the Extortion 17 mission. Described as a pillar of his community of Centennial, Colorado, and as a man of great faith, he was a full-Âtime National Guardsman. The father of two daughters, had he lived, David and his wife Laura would have celebrated their twenty-Âfifth wedding anniversary in December 2011.
A rock of stability who was trusted by all who knew him, David was the type of man that most people, under ordinary circumstances, would want in the cockpit. Indeed, he had logged over seven hundred hours flying, and enthusiastically served as a flight instructor for younger pilots.
So on the surface, General Mattis's conclusions about the experience of the Chinook's aviators beared a superficial semblance of truth, at least with regard to Carter.
However, these were not ordinary circumstances, and as experienced as he was as a general forces military pilot, Carter was not trained as a Special Operations aviator. Also, Carter was not the lead pilot in command of the aircraft.
That job fell onto the shoulders of Carter's younger counterpart of seventeen years, thirty-Âyear-Âold Bryan Nichols.
Nichols was a brave American who, as a combat soldier, had been deployed to three different combat zones before he became a pilot in 2008, twice to Iraq and once to Kosovo.
He had enlisted in the Army in 1996, so at the time of his death, on August 6, 2011, he had fifteen years of service under his belt. Nichols was a credit to his country and a credit to the Army, and later to the National Guard. He was also a fabulous father, and was the ultimate hero, and rightly so, to his ten-Âyear-Âold son, Braydon.
But when one looks at how Bryan Nichols's fifteen-Âyear history in the military was allocated, we discover that twelve of those fifteen years had been primarily as a foot soldier, and only three of those years (from 2008 to 2011) had been served as a pilot.
And when one considers the fact that like David Carter, Bryan was not a Special Forces pilot, and on top of that,he was the lead pilot in command of the aircraft, General Mattis's conclusion about the aviators' so-Âcalled “experience” becomes even harder to swallow.
David Carter was an experienced pilot, but was not experienced as a Special Forces pilot. Bryan Nichols, the lead pilot, was an experienced infantryman, but was not overly experienced as a pilot, and in fact, had never before flown into any type of wartime environment before this deployment.
Once again, there is no apparent evidence that either Carter or Nichols did anything wrong on this mission. They simply followed orders that led to their deaths.
But why were they ordered to fly this mission? Why weren't Special Forces aviators ordered to fly the mission in Special Forces helicopters?
Putting an experienced National Guard pilot on a mission that should have required a Special Operations pilot was manifestly unfair, not only to the National Guard pilot, but also to every man, including the Navy SEAL team, that the National Guard pilot was flying with.
Would it have made a difference?
Most likely, a Special Ops flight crew would have flown at a different flight trajectory and would have approached the target more quickly,flying with weapons and equipment that gave them a superior ability to fight back.
Pat Hamburger is reported to have told family members that he would be flying with Special Forces, but that National Guard helicopters would drop Special Forces off several clicks (kilometers) from the battle lines, as happened with the Ranger unit earlier in the evening.
In other words, it did not appear, at least from Hamburger's comments, that National Guard aviators were going to be required to fly directly into ultra-Âdangerous aviation hot zones, like the airspace over the Tangi Valley that normally would be assigned to Special Forces aviators. Indeed, despite the insinuation in the Colt Report that the National Guard helicopters flew the same type of mission with the Rangers as they did with the SEALs, this is not accurate. The National Guard helicopters earlier in the evening did not fly the Rangers directly into the teeth of Taliban RPGs as later happened with the SEALs. The Rangers, earlier on, were flown over far less dangerous airspace, and not straight down the gut of the Tangi Valley, where Taliban insurgents were known to be waiting to shoot down an American helicopter. Put another way, there was a reason that the highly trained Night Stalkers were chosen for the Bin Laden raid over a National Guard crew with a Vietnam-Âera helicopter.
Again, this in no way degrades the bravery or the professionalism of the National Guard crew or its pilots. They were forced into a mission for which they, through no fault of their own, were neither fully trained for nor equipped to prosecute.
National Guard Pilots a Bad Choice for Mission
The inadequate training and inadequate capabilities of National Guard pilots to fly Special Forces missions was set forth clearly in sworn testimony in the Colt Report.
At Exhibit 49, General Colt and his assistants interviewed the commander of the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB) in Afghanistan concerning the readiness of the National Guard pilots (as opposed to Special Forces Aviation) to fly night missions in combat. Extortion 17 and other National Guard air units were assigned to the 10th CAB.
Part of the problem was that the National Guard pilots were ill equipped to fly combat missions at night.
The parties involved in the testimony at page 60 of Exhibit 49 include: (1) the SME-ÂNGB, which stands for Special Missions ExpertâNational Guard Bureau. This officer was assigned to General Colt's staff for his expertise in National Guard matters; (2) 10th CAB, which stands for Commander of the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade This officer was a full-Âbird colonel in the US Army Aviation Corps, typically a helicopter pilot; and (3) the BDE, who is the brigade serial commander for the CH-47s. That means that this officer was the regular Army officer (not National Guard) who was in charge of all the CH-47s who were in the air for this particular mission, which included Extortions 16 and 17.
SME-ÂNGB (Special Missions ExpertâNational Guard Bureau):Sir, just one last question: The reserve component guys, are they coming in fully RL1 qualified, day/night NVG? Are there any training issues when they get here, orâand, I guess, equipment shortages. Are [that are] equipment shortages that are significant?
10th CAB (Commander 10th Combat Aviation Brigade):Let me ask ESP to go ahead and talk about the training readiness.
BDE (CH-47 Serial Commander):This is kind of a prickly subject for us. But for the most part, they bring crews in who are day/night NVG RL1 on paper. However, if you look at the numbers they have as far as experience level, goggles, the killer for usâI don't want to use that term lightly. But the worse part here is the fact they have very limited NVG experience.
Notice the CH-47 Serial Commander here expresses very frank concern about the National Guard pilots' ability to fly night missions.
On one hand, the National Guard pilots were technically qualified on paper, which gave General Mattis cover for his questionable conclusion that, “the Army aviators flying this mission were fully qualified to perform all required tasks.”
On the other hand, despite technically qualifying on paper, the National Guard pilots were not up to speed with sufficient night flyingexperience to make regular Army aviators confident in their abilities to fly dangerous nighttime combat missions. The serial commander's testimony is disconcerting. “But the worse part here is the fact they have very limited NVG experience.”
Again, questions arise. Why send pilots with “very limited NVG” experience into the cockpit, in a dangerous hot zone, on night missions, when crucial consequences of life-Âor-Âdeath are at hand?
The foolishness of choosing this particular flight crew for this very dangerous mission was further evidenced in this same document, Exhibit 49 of the Colt Report, in an exchange between the deputy investigating officer and the brigade commander. Note that the deputy investigating officer, denoted as “IO-ÂDEP” below, formed his question by acknowledging that the experience level of the pilot of Extortion 17 was not only “low,” but was in fact “very low” [author's emphasis].
IO-ÂDEP:The skill set or experience level of the pilot and co-Âpilot. Do you know that handy?
10th CAB:Yes, sir.
IO-ÂDEP:I just want your opinion, if you think that'sconsistentâbasically, the PC is very low experience;however, it looks like there's potentially some risk mitigation by a very, very experienced co-Âpilot on this particular mission. I want to determine if this is getting at the core of what you are discussingâ
IO-ÂDEP:âabout on paper versusâor in qualifications or currency versus proficiency.
10th CAB:This particular aircraft, the pilot in command was three years out of flight school, 672 hours of total time, 99 hours of combat time, 588 CH-47 Delta time. 156 hours of goggle time, and only 46 hours of TC time.He was, essentially, a brand new PZ appointment within the last 30 days or so.
In considering the very frank testimony concerning Bryan Nichols's low experience level as a pilot, with the deputy investigating officer describing him as Pilot in Command (PC) with “very low experience,”and saying that there is “potentially some risk mitigation” by having an experienced co-Âpilot, and with the Combat Air Brigade commander testifying that Bryan was, “essentially, a brand new PZ appointment within the last 30 days or so,” the foolishness for selecting this particular crew for this particular mission is magnified.
Now this constant refrain about the inexperience of the lead pilot, sprinkled throughout the testimony from various witnesses, was curiously and inexplicably minimized by General Colt in his final Executive Summary to General Mattis, of September 9, 2011.
Recall that in his charging order of August 7, 2011, Mattis charged Colt with providing for him an “Executive Summary of the evidence” concerning the shoot-Âdown of Extortion 17.
Colt did comply with that order, and signed his Executive Summary back to General Mattis, on September 9, 2011. This five-Âpage report was attached to the Colt Report as Enclosure C.
There was also another document, signed by Colt on September 9, 2011, entitledInvestigation Findings and Recommendations.That document was attached to the Colt Report as Enclosure B, and is discussed later in the book.
In Enclosure C, the Executive Summary, Colt appears to inexplicably whitewash the concerns expressed by various witnesses about the inexperience of the lead pilot.
Clearly, Colt was trying to suggest that David Carter, the co-Âpilot, might have been piloting the aircraft at the time of the shoot-Âdown. While admitting that the evidence is “not conclusive,” which is an understatement, the suggestion is perplexing.
Not only was the evidence “not conclusive” that David Carter “may have been piloting the aircraft,” the evidence was nonexistent. In fact, there is not one shred of evidence in the Colt Report even remotely suggesting that the more experienced co-Âpilot was at the controls of the aircraft. Not a single witness even suggested that anyone other than the pilot in command, Bryan Nichols, was piloting that aircraft. In fact, multiple witnesses, as shown above, expressed concerns about Nichols's experience level.
Remember the question posed by General Colt's own deputy investigating officer, who described the PC with “very low experience,” and noting that having an experienced co-Âpilot might help. And remember the Combat Air Brigade commander's testimony that Bryan was, essentially, “a brand new PZ appointment within the last 30 days or so.”
Why would Colt suggest such a thing in his Executive Summary (that the more experienced co-Âpilot “may have been” piloting the aircraft) when there is absolutely no evidence of that?
Colt's unfounded comments here appear designed to whitewash and or mitigate the serious mistake in judgment of assigning such a young pilot command of a very dangerous and deadly mission with thirty American lives at stake.
Recall that in the ninety days prior to August 6, the three American helicopters had already been attacked in the Valley. All escaped, but barely. American helicopters at low altitudes had become red-Âhot targets in the region. The Taliban had become obsessed with shooting down American helicopters since the killing of Bin Laden because the Taliban knew Special Forces were likely to be aboard those choppers.
The military threw an inadequately trained young pilot in an old, defenseless helicopter into a hopeless situation.
Inexperienced Pilots Thrown into a Hot Zone
Keep in mind that Extortion 17's first flight that night, to drop off the US Army Rangers, did not follow a route consistent with its second flight, over the more dangerous Tangi Valley.
This marks another misleading statement by General Mattis in his conclusion, when he states, again, at paragraph 3, “the air crew, having flown into the valley only hours before to insert the initial force, was the most familiar aircrew available to effectively carry out this mission.”
One would think, by General Mattis's statement, that the National Guard crew flew the very same route on the second mission as they did the first. But this was simply not the case. Why make that type of misleading statement?
How green were these Air National Guard Units?
Recall that there were two Chinook choppers involved in the mission that night, both Air National Guard choppers. Their code names were Extortion 16 and Extortion 17.
The Choppers carried men from two Air Guard regiments back home. These units were the 7th Battalion (General Support), 158th Aviation Regiment Air National Guard Unit, headquartered out of Fort Hood, with a number of its members from the Kansas City area, and the 2nd Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment, out of Colorado. Bryan Nichols, Spencer Duncan, and Alex Bennett came from the 7th/158th, while David Carter came from the Colorado-Âbased 2nd/135th.
After the shoot-Âdown, General Colt, as part of his investigation, interviewed members of both units. Their testimony does not match with Mattis's assertion in the Colt Report that “the Army aviators flying this mission were fully qualified to perform all required tasks, that the aircraft was mission capable.”
On August 18, 2011, as part of his official investigation, Colt and his team took testimony from the crew of the other National Guard CH47-D Chinook helicopter flying alongside Extortion 17 that night, Extortion 16. This testimony appeared in its entirety in Exhibit 46 of the Colt Report, and reflects the startling lack of experience of the National Guard crews. The testimony below begins at page 2 of Exhibit 46.
BG Colt:Okay. Can you tell us how many Team missions you have done up to this point approximately.
FLT AMC (Flight Air Missions Commander):Yes, sir. That was my first one that night.
PC (Pilot in Command):A handful, sir. I would have to go back to getâ
BG Colt:How long have you been on a mission doing this particularâ
PC (Pilot in Command):About four to six weeks.
BG Colt:Four to six weeks?
BG Colt:Okay. Doing about two missions ever [sic] three days or so?
PC:For a while, it was every third day.
RAMP (Remote Access Missions Planner):Roughly, the same amount, sir.
FLT AMC:I think I've been doing it for about two weeks. And I've done about four to eight missions, something like that.
Right Door:It was my second mission.
These units were not very experienced. One air missions commander was on his very first mission. A pilot had been flying every third day for four to six weeks. Another air missions commander responded that he'd “been doing it for about two weeks.” For the right door gunner, August 6, 2011 was only his “second mission.”
At page 49 of the interview, the National Guard subject matter expert, who is questioning the witnesses, asks the surviving pilot point-Âblank if he expected to be flying direct support of Special Forces missions prior to his arrival in Afghanistan. The pilot's response is eye-Âopening.
SME-ÂNGB:Were youâdid you have in mind that you would be direct support to special operations type support?
PC:Not until we got here, sir.
Thus, the National Guard pilots were not even expecting to fly in support of Special Operations until they had arrived in Afghanistan. Clearly, and despite General Mattis's conclusions, these pilots were not qualified to fly this type of mission. These pilots were thrown into the lion's den, and not only were they not adequately trained for it, but they weren't expecting it.
The Deadly Record of CH-47D in Afghanistan
One of the many things the report did not cover was the very deadly record of the CH-47D Chinook in Afghanistan. Recall that Extortion 17 was a CH-47D Chinook. Nearly half the shoot-Âdowns suffered by American choppers in the Afghan war prior to the Extortion 17 incident involved the CH-47D.
One such shoot-Âdown, oddly not disclosed in the Executive Summary of the Colt Report, occurred justtwelve days before the Extortion 17 shoot-Âdown.
National Guard Chinook
twelve days before extortion 17
It was unfair to put these general aviation National Guard aircrews into the midst of a Special Forces operation. In fact, just twelve days before the Extortion 17 shoot-Âdown on July 25, 2011, a Chinook from the 7th Battalion (General Support), 158th Aviation Regiment, the National Guard regiment that supplied three out of five aircrew members of Extortion 17, was involved in a hard landing so severe that one of its crew members nearly died.
This incident was reported in theKansas City Staron March 22, 2012, in an article by Lee Hill Kavanaugh entitled “After a Grim Year in Afghanistan, Chinook Unit Is Home at Last.” After recapping theExtortion 17 shoot-Âdown, the article reveals a near-Âdeath incident with a Chinook in the month prior to the shoot-Âdown:
The month before, a Chinook had a hard landing, injuring Ezekiel Crozier and Kirk Kuykendall. The men were told at one point Crozier probably wouldn't live. But both men were waiting in this crowd, too, to welcome home their buddies.
A guardsman named Staff Sergeant Ezekiel “Zeke” Crozier of Gardner, Kansas, a native of Spring Hill, Kansas, nearly died in the incident, which Congressman Yoder referred to in the congressional record as a “violent crash.”
Sergeant Crozier received a severe traumatic brain injury and miraculously dodged death, spending the next two and a half years rehabilitating in the United States. Incredibly, this brave young American, in a story that is shamefully repeated over and over again in America, was wrongly denied medical coverage by heartless bureaucrats from the Veterans Administration, despite receiving the Purple Heart for being injured in combat.
The National Guard Chinook that Staff Sergeant Crozier was in did not just suffer from a “hard landing” as was later spun. Staff sergeants in the US Army do not receive the Purple Heart for injuries suffered in a “hard landing.” The Purple Heart is awarded for injuries in battle, in times of combat. In fact Staff Sergeant Crozier's Purple Heart was awarded because his National Guard Chinook was actuallyshot downby Taliban RPGs.
Although no deaths occurred from this July attack, this shoot-Âdown was reported in at least two sources at the time, yet was conveniently omitted from the Colt Report.
The military press covered the July 25th shoot-Âdown of the other Chinook from the same squadron, so it is not as if the military commanders were unaware of the earlier incident when they sent Extortion 17 into harm's way. Consider, for example, the article in Defense-ÂUpdate.com, written by Tamir Eshel on July 26, 2011, entitled “Chinook Downed by Taliban RPG Fire in Eastern Afghanistan.” The exact wording of the opening of that article was as follows:
ACH-47Chinookhelicopter [was] downed by TalibanRPGfire in EasternAfghanistanon Monday. The helicopter was hit by anRPGfired by Taliban, as it was descending, approaching to land at âCamp Joyce' Forward Operating Base (FOB) in EasternAfghanistan. According to theStars and Stripes,The [sic] helicopter was carrying about 20 US and Afghan troops, two suffered minor injuries from shrapnel. The helicopter was hit shortly after midnight, when the rocket hit the rear of the helicopter on its descent into Nangalam Base in the Pech River Valley of Kunar province.
The report of the July 25th shoot-Âdown also appeared in other publications, including the respectedLong War Journal,which published an article by reporter Bill Roggio on July 26, 2011, the day after the shoot-Âdown.
The US military confirmed that the Taliban shot down a helicopter in the contested province of Kunar in eastern Afghanistan.
The International Security Assistance Force Chinook helicopter was shot down by the Taliban yesterday and “crashed about 100 yards outside” of a military base in Kunar, a spokesman for Regional Command EasttoldThe New York Times. The attack took place just outside of the Nangalam Base in the Pech River Valley,according toStars & Stripes. Nangalam is an Afghan Army base that used to be known as Camp Blessing.
ISAF reported the crash of the Chinook yesterday, but did not indicate it crashed due to enemy fire. No US military deaths were reported; two soldiers were lightly wounded in the attack.
The Taliban ambushed a rescue force that moved to the crash site, ISAF reported yesterday. “As coalition rescue forces approached the crash site, they came under enemy fire,”ISAF stated in a press releaseon the incident. “Coalition forces returned fire, with small arms, while working to secure the site of the crash. All passengersand crew members have been secured and safely transported to a nearby base.”
In a statement released on their website, Voice of Jihad, the Taliban claimed credit for the shoot down, and said two of their fighters were killed during the operation. The Taliban fighters “shot off rocket propelled grenades from a close distance to bring down the enemy helicopter last night at approximately 1:00 am local time,” the statement on Voice of Jihad said.
On the day of the shoot-Âdown, the principal newspaper for the US Armed Forces,Stars and Stripes,reported the incident as follows:
FORWARD OPERATING BASE JOYCE, AfghanistanâMinor casualties were reported after a rocket-Âpropelled grenade downed a Chinook helicopter carrying US and Afghanistan soldiers as it attempted to land at a coalition forces base in eastern Afghanistan early Monday.
The crash happened shortly after midnight when the rocket hit the rear of the helicopter on its descent into Nangalam Base in the Pech River Valley of Kunar province.
At least two soldiers suffered non-Âlife-Âthreatening shrapnel wounds. Some 20 people were on board, including soldiers and crew.
A rescue team that responded to the crash came under small-Âarms fire, drawing return fire from US and Afghan soldiers. No further coalition casualties were reported.
Then, on August 4, 2011, less than forty-Âeight hours before the Extortion 17 mission, theStars and Stripespublished yet another article about the July 25th shoot-Âdown, which was eerily prophetic and bone-Âchilling considering what was about to happen to Extortion 17. In fact, the approach, the time of day, and the danger from the ground in the July 25th attack were all similar to what Extortion 17 was about to face.
To understand the similarities in their missions and degrees of danger, it is first important to understand the mission of the National Guard Chinook on July 25, 2011.
It should be noted that many of the injuries to US forces referenced in these articles were minor, although Crozier's were not minor at all.
The point, however, is not so much about the severity of the injuries in these missions leading up to Extortion 17, but rather to show that (a) the military was on notice that the antiquated CH-47D was a dangerous platform in which to fly these special forces missions, and it should have used modified Special Forces aviation helicopters like the MH-47, and (b) the Colt Report did not reveal these pre-ÂExtortion 17 mission shoot-Âdowns, making it tougher for the reader to realize that the military knew, or should have known, of the unnecessary fatal danger it placed upon Extortion 17 by ordering the SEALs to board the old Chinook, unless someone bothered to do the research on similar missions with the CH-47D.
In the Vietnam era, American forces would spill blood to take a hill, then abandon a hill, and then spill blood to take the hill all over again. US forces were employing a similar tactic in July of 2011 in Kunar Province on the Pakistani border, approximately 80 miles northeast of Kabul.
The Kunar Province, in the northeastern corner of the country, had been a US stronghold against the Taliban since the beginning of the war. But by February 15, 2011, six months before the Extortion 17 shoot-Âdown, US forces had begun the process of withdrawing from the once-Âstrategic Pech Valley in Kunar Province that was central to the American campaign against the Taliban.
TheNew York Timesreported on the pullback in an article published on February 24, 2011, by C. J. Chivers, Alissa J. Rubin, and Wesley Morgan, entitled “US Pulling Back in Afghan Valley It Called Vital to War.” TheTimesarticle revealed the military's intent to fully withdraw from the region within a period of two months to turn the area over to the Afghan military and police forces to fight the Taliban on their own.
US forces did substantially withdraw from the province, leaving the region under Afghan control. The problem arose, however, when Afghan military and security forces proved so inept and hapless in fighting against the Taliban that the United States was forced, at least temporarily, to re-Âenforce the area.
The mission flown by the National Guard Chinook on July 25, 2011, was part of the effort to temporarily re-Âinsert American forces into the area after the Afghans had made such a mess of it.
The article published inStars and Stripestwo days prior to the Extortion 17 shoot-Âdown vividly describes that Chinook's approach into the Taliban-Âinfested Kunar Province.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE JOYCE, AfghanistanâMinor casualties were reported after a rocket-Âpropelled grenade downed a Chinook helicopter carrying US and Afghanistan soldiers as it attempted to land at a coalition forces base in eastern Afghanistan early Monday.
The crash happened shortly after midnight when the rocket hit the rear of the helicopter on its descent into Nangalam Base in the Pech River Valley of Kunar province.
At least two soldiers suffered non-Âlife-Âthreatening shrapnel wounds. Some 20 people were on board, including soldiers and crew.
A rescue team that responded to the crash came under small-Âarms fire, drawing return fire from US and Afghan soldiers. No further coalition casualties were reported.
There was no immediate word on who was responsible for the attack.
The Pech River Valley and several adjoining valleys, including the Korengal and Shuryak, are considered Taliban strongholds, and attacks on coalition forces remain a regular occurrence as the Afghanistan war approaches the 10-year mark.
A battalion of the Afghanistan National Army is stationed at Nangalam Base, formerly known as Forward Operating Base Blessing. The US military handed over control of the base to Afghan forces earlier this year.
All three of these articles, and others like them, are significant, because they prove that another Chinook from the same National Guard unit was shot down just twelve days prior to Extortion 17, flying a mission that wasnot nearly as dangerous as the deadly mission the Extortion 17 Chinook was ordered to undertake.
Moreover, the July 25th shoot-Âdown, it turned out, was flown in circumstances similar to the Extortion 17 shoot-Âdownâinto a Taliban-Âinfested region, on a high, slow, loping approach to landing in the dark, after midnight, by a National Guard flight crew not trained for special air operations.
Despite knowing about this shoot-Âdown, which fortunately did not result in any loss of life, but which occurred only twelve days prior to August 6, 2011, someone ordered the SEAL team on board the Chinook for a highly dangerous mission to the Tangi Valley.
As will be shown below in more detail, the Colt Report revealed three separate Taliban attacks on helicopters in the Tangi Valley area in the ninety days prior to August 6, 2011. The Colt Report claimed that the last known helicopter attack was purported to be against a Special Forces MH-47, seventeen days before August 6, 2011. Nothing was mentioned in the Colt Report about the shoot-Âdown of the National Guard Chinook on July 25, 2011, in eastern Afghanistan, the shoot-Âdown that nearly killed Staff Sergeant Zeke Crozier.
Why was the report of the July 25th shoot-Âdown involving the same type of chopper piloted by a National Guard crew from the same unit left out of the Colt Report? Could it be because revealing the information in the Colt Report might have made the decision to send the SEALs on an even more dangerous mission aboard Extortion 17 indefensible?
In an ironic twist of fate, it may be that the near-Âdeath experience suffered by Staff Sergeant Crozier may have eventually saved his life. After the July 25th shoot-Âdown, Sergeant Crozier was sent back home to begin his long and arduous journey toward rehabilitation. Were it not for his near-Âdeath experience that day, he might very well have been aboard Extortion 17 in the fateful dark hours of the morning of August 6, 2011.
Again, the question here has nothing to do with the bravery or professionalism of our Chinook crews. Given the designed limitations of those crews and those aircraft, why were they forced to fly what in effect were suicide missions?
CH-47D Chinook: Documented Death Trap
A review of the section of the Colt Report that discussed the use of the CH-47D Chinook shows that General Mattis whitewashed the real danger and ignored real data showing that these choppers had been the principal deathtraps among all Coalition aircraft in Afghanistan.
As of February of 2014, more CH-47D Chinooks had been shot down in Afghanistan than any other Coalition aircraft, not to mention that the total shoot-Âdown numbers for the CH-47D Chinooks accounted for almost half of all aircraft shot down! Colt and Mattis did not reveal any of these shoot-Âdown statistics in the Colt Report.
On September 9, 2011, as a follow-Âup to the 1,250-page Colt Report, Brigadier General Colt prepared a memorandum for General Mattis, with the subject line, “SUBJECT: Investigation Findings and Recommendations (Crash of CH-47D Aircraft in Wardak Province, Afghanistan on 06 August 2011). That memorandum, attached to the Colt Report as Enclosure B, was used, at least in part, as a basis for General Mattis's final findings of no-Âfault by the military.
Even though Mattis hid certain bits of evidence, such as the infiltration of the Afghans on board the chopper, certain factors were obvious and needed to be addressed.
One of these factors was the “threat assessment,” and thus, the wisdom of sending a highly trained SEAL team on board a defenseless Air National Guard chopper into a hot zone where there had been multiple recent attempts to shoot down Coalition helicopters, with a hundred Taliban operatives in the area vowing to shoot down Coalition choppers, and with rules of engagement that prohibited pre-Âassault fire.
At page 6 of Colt's memorandum, the general authors a section entitled “Threat Assessment.”
As that “Threat Assessment” is reprinted here, with the dates of most recent attacks bolded, bear in mind that an Army Air National Guard aircrew, with a lead pilot who had never flown in combat before and who had been a pilot only three years, was being asked to fly a highly trained US Navy SEAL team into a high-risk zone. Again, this language is directly from the Colt Report [author's emphasis]:
The Tangi Valley was assessed as a moderate to high threat to coalition forces based on reported enemy activities, historical surface-Âto-Âair fire reports by coalition forces aircraft, and the lack of coalition forces presence in the valley. On 5 August 2011, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade (10th CAB)intelligence analysts assessed the threat in the valley as high riskdue to: historical enemy activities including RPG and small arms fire, an assessed early warning network, the lack of coalition force presence in the valley, the significance of the target (Qari Tahir) and the corresponding actions the Tangi Valley Taliban would likely take to prevent his capture.
Taliban insurgents operating in the Tangi Valley maintain an early warning network in order to detect coalition forces' ground and air movements within the valley.Forty-Âfive days prior to the EXTORTION 17 shoot-Âdown, coalition forces aircraft reported three surface-Âto-Âair incidents within the Tangi Valley. On 06 June 2011, two CH-47D Chinook helicopters aborted a missionto insert a strike force into Tangi Valley after they were engaged with multiple RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) from several locations in the valley, the helicopters returned to Forward Base (name redacted) without further incident.Later that evening, an MH-47F Army Special Operations Aviation (ARSOA) Chinook helicopter was engaged with RPGsfrom multiple locations while inserting the same strike force for the same mission; no damage to the aircraft was reported.
Seventeen days prior to the shoot-Âdown of EXTORTION 17, another MH-47G was engaged by small arms fireand two RPGs and reported small caliber bullet damage to the aircraft. These surface-Âto-Âair fire events indicated insurgent capability and intent to engage coalition forces operating in the Tangi Valley.
Note that these three incidents were shoot-Âdownattempts. Nothing was mentioned about the shoot-Âdown of the Chinook on July 25th, 2011.
Each omission from the Colt Report raises yet another question. Why was the nighttime shoot-Âdown of the Chinook CH-47D on July25th not mentioned in the risk assessment? Because it technically wasn't over the Tangi Valley but was 100 miles away? If that's the case, the reasoning for omitting this shoot-Âdown is poor. The July 25th shoot-Âdown was further evidence of how vulnerable these big, slow, poorly defended CH-47Ds were to RPG attack from the ground.
The Colt Report also failed to acknowledge that the Chinook CH-47D had been by far the most vulnerable aircraft in the American fleet during the Afghan war, a popular shoot-Âdown target for the Taliban.
While the Colt Report did note that three helicopters had been shot at by Taliban forces in the forty-Âfive days prior to the Extortion 17 mission, and it also reported that the Task Force commander assessed the risk in using the CH-47 and this flight crew as being a “high risk,” the report still does not go far enough in revealing the real danger, of using the CH-47 Chinook on missions such as the one demanded of the SEALs and the flight crew of Extortion 17.
Statistically, in Afghanistan, the CH-47 Chinook was by far the most dangerous chopper to fly in, and there's not even a close second. This was especially true when it was misused as it was in the Extortion 17 mission, when someone came up with the idea of using the CH-47 with a National Guard crew as a platform for delivering US Navy SEALs on a dangerous and covert mission.
As of February 2014, Coalition forcesâprimarily from the United Statesâhad seen a total of twenty-Âseven helicopters shot down during the Afghan war.
Of those nearly half, a total of thirteen, were CH-47D Chinooks. Bear in mind that Coalition forces had used at least twenty-Âthree different types of helicopters in the war effort.
In fact, three and a half times as many CH-47 Chinooks have been shot down than the next largest total, the UH-60 Black Hawk, of which five have been shot down. Other shoot-Âdown losses in the ten-Âyear span include 3 OH-58 Kiowas, 2 HH-60 Pave Hawks, 1 AH-1W Supercobra, 1 CH-53 Sea Stallion, 1 Mil Mi-24, and 1 Westland Sea King. None of these statistics appear in the Colt Report.
And here is yet another statistic that was also notably absent concerning the MH-47 Special Forces chopper, the type of Special OperationsAviation chopper that the SEALs use for training purposes. As of February 2014, not one single MH-47 had been shot down in Afghanistan.
A retired US Army Ranger who was at the Extortion 17 crash site in Afghanistan but who for his own personal safety asked that his name not be used, made this comment about Special Forces being forced to fly in the CH-47: “We were scared to death every time we had to go out in those choppers. Everyone knows they're not safe. They can't avert attack like the MH-47Gs. We knew our lives were in danger every time we stepped into one . . . The MH-47 flies low and fast, like a roller coaster ride, due to its quick, agile abilities in air. The conventional CH-47Ds fly really high and slow with no evasive maneuvers. They're a huge target up there, like a train coming in for landing. They do 6â8 push-Âups before landing, while the MH-47 burns straight in.”
The words of this Ranger are poignant in describing the CH-47's flight path into the landing zone. “CH-47Ds fly really high and slow with no evasive maneuvers. They're a huge target up there, like a train coming in for landing.”
Given this, is it any wonder that the CH-47 accounted for virtually half of all the Taliban shoot-Âdowns since the beginning of the Afghan war?
Why weren't the SEALs allowed to carry out this mission in the chopper they were trained in? And why were no MH-47s pre-Âdeployed at Forward Operating Base Shank? Had the order been given to use an MH-47, instead of a CH-47, based upon the statistics alone, there's a good chance that those SEALs and the Extortion 17 flight crew would have lived.
Here is the unfortunate historical timeline of CH-47 shoot-Âdowns in Afghanistan, most of which was left out of the Colt Report, and unfortunately, which did not deter the very foolish decision to order the SEAL team aboard the CH-47D Chinook in the early morning hours of August 6, 2011:
September 11, 2012 (same day of Al Qaeda attack on US embassy in Libya):A NATO official said that three members of the Afghan National Security Forces have been killed after aCH-47 Chinookhelicopter was hit by munitions fired into Bagram Airfield. An investigation was under way to establish the details of what happened.
August 6, 2011:A NATOCH-47 Chinook(Extortion 17) helicopter being flown by the7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regimentand2nd Battalion, 135th Aviation Regimentwasshot downby the Taliban using an RPG with thirty American and eight Afghan casualties (seven unidentified commandos and one interpreter), as well as a dog.
Documented Shoot-ÂDowns Prior to Extortion 17
July 25, 2011:ACH-47F Chinookwas shot down by an RPG near Camp Nangalam in Kunar Province. Two Coalition service members were injured.
October 12, 2010:A US ArmyCH-47 Chinookhelicopter had just landed and had been off-Âloading when an RPG was fired into the cargo bay. An Afghan interpreter was killed and seven ISAF service members and an Afghan Border Police officer were injured.
August 5, 2010:A CanadianCH-47D Chinookwas shot down in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. It made a hard landing and burned out on the ground, wounding eight soldiers.
August 20, 2009:A BritishCH-47 Chinook(S/N ZA709) was shot down in the Sangin area of Helmand Province. The crew survived.
January 17, 2009:A US CH-47 made a hard landing in Kunar Province after being hit by small arms fire and an RPG. CH-47 was struck in the left main fuel tank by an RPG causing left side to become engulfed in flames and #1 engine failed due to fuel starvation. Upon landing, A/C rolled onto its right side and was destroyed in post-Âcrash fire.
May 30, 2007:A USCH-47 Chinookwas shot down, in the upperSanginValley, killing five American, one British, and one Canadian soldier.
December 4, 2005:ACH-47 Chinookhelicopter 91-00269 was struck by small arms fire. There were two injuries and the aircraft was consumed in the post-Âlanding fire.
September 25, 2005:Five US soldiers were killed when aCH-47 Chinookhelicopter crashed inZabul Provincewhile returning from an operation. Though initially reported as an accident, the crash was later confirmed to have been caused by hostile fire.
June 28, 2005:A USCH-47 Chinookhelicopter was shot down inKunar Provinceby Taliban commanderQari Ismail, killing all sixteen US Special Operations servicemen on board. The US military says it was shot down by a rocket-Âpropelled grenade.
March 4, 2002:TwoCH-47 Chinookhelicopters were hit by RPGs and gunfire duringOperation Anaconda. Two were killed in the first helicopter, which was dropping off a SEAL team. The second Chinook came in later that day to try to rescue the crew of the first CH-47, and subsequently was shot down, killing four.
Of the thirteen CH-47 shoot-Âdowns documented above, all by the Taliban, eleven occurred prior to Extortion 17. While the three incidents in the Tangi Valley were cited in the Colt Report, not a single one of these eleven pre-ÂAugust 6th shoot-Âdowns were cited, including the July 25th shoot-Âdown of the National Guard Chinook in Kunar Province that nearly killed Staff Sergeant Crozier.
The Colt Report did not come even close to painting the full picture of the CH-47's dangerous record in combat situations. But it's no wonder that the Task Force commander deemed the use of the CH-47D and this aircrew to be a “high risk.”
Note also some of the very pointed language from the one-Âstar general (Brigadier General Colt) to his four-Âstar boss (General Mattis), in which Colt uses phrases such as “the threat in the valley as high risk,” andwarns of three shoot-Âdown attempts of American helicopters in the last ninety days, and “intent to engage coalition forces operating in the Tangi Valley” (Colt Report, Enclosure BâInvestigation Findings and RecommendationsâThreat Assessment Section).
But Brigadier General Colt was not finished with his assessment. At page 7 of the same document, Colt begins another assessment under a subcategory entitled “Risk and GPF Aviation Support.”
GPF in this case stands for “General Purpose Forces” Aviation. In other words, aviation that is not designated as “Special Forces,” would fall under “General Purpose Forces.” The Chinook and the National Guard aircrew fall under this category. Once again, the threat was clearly high. Here are Colt's warnings to Mattis [author's emphasis]:
The TF (meaning “Task Force”) Commander was responsible for the initial risk assessment for the CH-47Ds (Extortion 17 was a CH-47D) and AH-64Ds in direct support of [redactedâbut referring to Special Forces]. He assessed all missions with ahigh risk based on the compressed planning timeline required to support their high pace of operations.
His TF (Task Force) helicopters had conducted missions in support of [redactedâbut referring to Special Forces] over the previous 10 months,all of which were assessed as high risk for CH-47D aircrews.
Now we see a specific warning ofhigh risknot only because of the dangerous area in which the CH-47 would be flying, but also because of the very high tempo of the operations. Put another way, general forces aviators simply are not trained to operate at the same quick tempo of air operations, nor with the same speed and daring approach.
But General Colt's revelation gets even more pointed. Again, in the same document, in the next section entitled “Risk Assessment, Risk Management,” Colt reveals the much greater risk that this mission was to the ill-Âfated Chinook helicopter than it was to the Apache attack helicopters. Consider this warning [author's emphasis]:
The CH-47D Air Mission Commander completed an Electronic Risk Assessment Worksheet (ERAW) and determined the mission to be highrisk based on low illumination condition and one crew chief's relatively low experience level.
So how does the mission commander's assessment (high risk based on low illumination levels and on crew chief's relatively low experience level) square with General Mattis's conclusion that “I specifically agree that the Army aviators flying this mission were fully qualified to perform all required tasks, that the aircraft was mission capable”?
It doesn't square well at all with the mission commander's deep concerns about using this old helicopter, and using this Air National Guard crew with US Navy SEALs on such a high-Ârisk mission.
Chinooks versus Apaches
In the same paragraph as the warnings about the Chinook, Colt reports that the Apache (AH-64D) helicopters were better equipped for this dangerous mission because of superior aircrew experience and superior equipment. Here is the risk assessment for the Apaches presented to General Mattis:
The AH-64D Air Mission Commander also completed an independent risk assessment for his element and determined their risk to be moderate because of crew experience, and because the AH-64D aircrews used the Modern Target Acquisition and Detection system, which mitigated the low illumination.
Now note the contrast in risk levels given to the different helicopters on the mission. For the old Chinook, which was shot out of the air and on which thirty Americans died, the pre-Âplanning risk assessment was “high risk.” For the more modern Apaches, with more experienced crews and superior equipment on the aircraft, the risk assessment was deemed to be only “moderate.”
Think about this. A “high risk” assessment from the very beginning, based upon an inferior aircraft and a flight crew not trained for this typeof mission, meant that the SEAL team, and indeed, the entire complement of Americans, including the flight crew, were in danger the moment they embarked on their mission.
That's worth repeating. With the high risk assessment assigned to this mission from the beginning, based upon inferior aviation equipment and a crew not adequately trained for this type of mission, the SEAL team and flight crew were probably doomed to die before Extortion 17 ever lifted off the ground.
Someone higher in the chain of command was playing Russian roulette with a US Navy SEAL team and the entire flight crew. Even if the unidentified Afghans were not Taliban sympathizers, the calculus for this mission meant probable death for every American serviceman aboard Extortion 17 from the beginning.
General Mattis may have chosen to whitewash the story, to author a conclusion chock-Âfull of revisionist history, making it appear that the mission planning was sound, that the aircraft was adequate, and that the flight crew was adequately trained for this highly risky and dangerous mission. However, his local commanders on the ground and Special Forces operators, that is the men whose necks were actually on the line, begged to differ.
Task Force Commander Concerns: Conventional Aviation with Special Forces
As part of his investigation, General Colt heard some blunt and compelling testimony about the perils of using general aviation pilots and antiquated aircraft on Special Forces missions.
These excerpts of testimony began at page 41, Exhibit 48 of the Colt Report, in which Colt and his team were interviewing the Task Force commander, a Special Operations officer who oversaw deployment of the SEAL team from Base Shank.
In this exchange, the serviceman being primarily interviewed was the Special Forces Ground Force commander, whose name was not identified for security reasons, but who was most likely a US Navy SEAL or an Army Ranger. The Task Force commander is noted below as “TF-ÂCDR.”
In this exchange, the acronym SME-ÂGFA stands for “Subject Matter ExpertâGround Forces Army Advisor.” So this officer, again whose name is not identified for security purposes, was an Army officer, assigned to Colt's team as an expert, asking questions of the Special Forces Task Force commander about the SEAL's comfort level in working with general, as opposed to special aviation crews.
The acronym “ARSOA” below is crucial, because it refers to Army Special Operations, or the Night Stalkers that Special Forces such as the SEALs are accustomed to operating with.
SME-ÂGFA:What's your comfort level of flying with these guys? Is there any friction points, or issues that come to mind besides just thenormal three-Âhour timeline, and trying to get out the door quickly and they can't do it still?
TF CDR:I would say, you know, we train in everything always with ARSOA. So comfort level is low because they don't fly like ARSOAâThey don't plan like ARSOA. They don't land like ARSOA. They will either, you know, kind of, do a runway landing. Or if it's a different crew that trains different areas, they will do the pinnacle landing. So we are starting to understand different crews landed differently and needed different set ups for exfils and pick-Âups.
TF SEA:It was a popular topic of discussion.
TF CDR:It's tough. I mean, and I gave them guidance to make it work. And they were making it work. But it limited our effectiveness. It made our options and our tactical flexibility [sic]. Our agility was clearly limited by our air platform infillâwhere we could go. How quickly we could get there. So when I talk about it, I briefed the boss and he knew it that, Hey,[sic] we're missing the enemy sometimes because we just can't get there. We can't adapt fast enough.
The Task Force commander goes on, at page 45 of Exhibit 48, to explain that the Special Forces comfort level in flying with conventional helicopters was “very low.” Consider this equally blunt testimony, in which he said that the SEAL's comfort level in flying with conventional helos was “low”:
TF CDR:But the bottom line is their comfort level is low. If we don't train with conventional helos, we learn to plan with conventional helos here. They brief us in on the process. It's very different than any SOF process that we've been in. Because it's not a SOF process. It's conventional planning to a SOF mission.
Again, one must ask how this very blunt testimony squared with General Mattis's hunky-Âdory conclusion that the general aviation Army National Guard aviators were fully qualified to conduct the mission.
The testimony speaks for itself. There was evidence that the Chinook was at high risk because of its lack of equipment and crew experiencelevel, and because of the frequency of attacks against choppers over the Tangi Valley, and there was very clear evidence that US Special Forces operators were only comfortable operating with Army Special Operations aircraft.
As a matter of fact, Extortion 17 was executing one of those slow “runway landings,” as described by the Task Force commander, when it was blown out of the skyâcoming in slowly, with no pre-Âassault fire, like a sitting duck floating upon a pond.
One SEAL officer at DEVGRU (SEAL Team Six), Commander Howard, made this comment to family members: “If the MH-47 had been hit in the same spot, the results would have been the same. The question is . . . would it have been hit?”
The question remains unanswered, and thirty-Âtwo children who lost their fathers deserve this answer: Why was CENTCOM (General Mattis) trying to whitewash the very clear defects in the poor mission planning that led to their deaths, and why did they not acknowledge the very clear warnings of Special Forces in the field?
But the facts raise more questions. Why subject the SEAL team to a high-Ârisk aviation situation that was probably going to fail from the beginning? Why not paint a full and accurate picture in the Colt Report of the risky history involving the CH-47? Why include only three reports of helicopter attacks over the Tangi Valley, none of which actually brought choppers down, but leave out documented reports where the CH-47s were actually shot down by Taliban RPGs?
And why, when this was clearly not the case, would General Mattis conclude that “I specifically agree with the conclusions that the Army aviators were fully qualified to perform all required tasks, that the aircraft was fully mission capable, and that loading the Immediate Reaction Force [SEAL team and SOC operators] onto one aircraft was tactically sound”?
Only the general or others higher in the chain of command can answer this question.
Whoever insisted on this mission combination signed the death warrants for the SEALs, the Air Force SOC operators, and the National Guard flight crew.
Pre-ÂFlight Intelligence: Taliban Targeting US Helicopters
Colt Report testimony revealed that the Taliban was specifically targeting US helicopters in the Tangi Valley, and that in the ninety days prior to the Extortion 17 flight, and since the death of Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban had moved an additional one hundred fighters to the Tangi Valley, specifically for the purpose of shooting down Coalition helicopters.
Whether this increased determination to shoot down a US chopper was in retaliation for the death of Osama Bin Laden was unclear. What was clear, however, was that US military intelligence knew about these maneuvers ahead of time, which made the decision to order the SEALs on board the National Guard chopper even more foolish.
This stunning testimony was in Exhibit 89, pages 6 and 7 of the Colt Report, taken during an August 16, 2011, examination of the Task Force chief intelligence officer, a US Air Force Officer whose name was withheld for security purposes. The Air Force officer was being questioned by only one person in this case, the lead intelligence investigator for General Colt's investigatory team.
On page 6 the intelligence investigator asked about the threat to Coalition aircraft over the Tangi Valley in the ninety days leading up to the Extortion 17 shoot-Âdown.
Q.Okay. Now, let's go even further back and, kind of, describe what the threat to aircraft or even coalition forces was in the Tangi Valley. Give us a snap shot of that up to the last six months or so.
A.Exactly. The last six months or you want to go 90 days?
Q.About 90 days. If you have got anything more past that, we will see where we are at?
A.And that actually puts some truth to this. It says Din Mohammad, so we are just talking about Din Mohammad, who is objective Dunlap, was killed on 6 June  in Tangi Valley, Sayyidabad District, by coalition forces after he was trying to attack coalition force helicopters in the Tangi Valley. So that's what we had coming out at that IIR.
At least one Taliban commander was killed on June 6, 2011, sixty days before Extortion 17 and five weeks after Bin Laden's death, for trying to lead attacks on Coalition helicopters.
But the intelligence reveals even more danger to US helicopters on page 7, stating that the Taliban had put increased effort into achieving its goal of shooting down a Coalition helicopter, by bringing in an additional one hundred fighters into the valley specifically for that purpose [author's emphasis].
A. The next piece of reporting that I have that fits within that timeframe comes from May 11  and it [sic] late May [sic]  . . . . It's very brief. Again, it's out of Task Force.And it says something to the effect that over 100 Taliban plan to travel from Province through Tangi Valley to possibly shoot down the coalition force aircraft.
Ten days after the Bin Laden killing, the Taliban seemed bent on retaliation in the Tangi Valley, so much so that they brought in an additional one hundred insurgents with weapons into the valley to go hunting for an American helicopter.
The Army had the intelligence about the one hundred insurgents at its disposal, and it was aware of the concerns expressed by Special Forces operators about general forces aviation. The Joint Command knew about the other aforementioned CH-47 shoot-Âdowns in the months leading up to the Extortion 17 disaster. They knew pilot Bryan Nichols wasinexperienced in combat situations, and yet Colonel Mattis called him “fully qualified” in the aftermath of the Extortion 17 incident, ignoring the kind but candid words of Nichols's former commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Richard Sherman, who told the Associated Press that Nichols was a “young pilot” who was “getting better all the time” and was “going to improve.” And yet someone still ordered that SEAL team on board a National Guard helicopter for their mission, putting them into an unconscionably dangerous environment.
Chaos in the Air: The Lost Minutes
The CH-47D Chinook helicopter is a valuable tool in the US military arsenal and has been for over fifty years. It has been called the “helicopter version” of the workhorse C-130 fixed-Âwing cargo plane, and when operating within its proper role, the CH-47 has proven to be an invaluable asset.
The CH-47 is a twin-Âpropeller, heavy-Âlift chopper that first saw action in 1962. It has been around a long time, and of course, has gone through upgraded designs over the years, increasing tremendously the chopper's lift capability, but the basic air platform remains the same, going back to the early 1960s.
The chopper can, for example, haul 19,500 pounds of cargo, or two Humvees, or thirty-Âthree battle-Âready soldiers for deployment. Its versatility as a cargo, heavy-Âlift, and transport chopper is invaluable.
The chopper was not designed, however, and never has been designed, for flying troops into a heated battle zone full of antiaircraft rockets or small weapons capable of taking it out, and especially not without pre-Âassault fireâa topic covered in later chapters.
But that is exactly what this CH-47, call name Extortion 17, was asked to do the night the SEAL team members died.
On the night that it was shot down, Extortion 17, with thirty Americans and eight Afghans aboard (seven Afghan commandos and one interpreter), was loaded to the max, and was flying into a very hot airspace, with no real antiaircraft protection.
The CH-47 was flying into “hot” airspace, meaning airspace where hostile rockets and RPGs were likely to fly, and one of the problems withthe Chinook CH-47 as a battle wagon is that it is thunderous and loud upon approach. If the enemy is in the area, there is no surprise. Even in the dark of the night, the noise level alone provides a target for RPGs, small arms fire, and missiles. A Taliban insurgent, even if he cannot see the chopper, need only point toward the noise and fire. It is that simple to shoot it down, if the Taliban can get close enough, which is one of the many reasons Special Forces choppers should be selected for missions in high-Ârisk areas.
In the dark morning hours of August 6th, as Bryan Nichols attempted to guide Extortion 17 toward the landing zone to unload, or “exfil” the SEAL team, there was a period of fourteen lost minutes in the air, when communication was lost with the chopper, when it did not call in to air traffic control on time, and when it was late for landing. The fourteen-Âminute period ended with the chopper being blown out of the air.
Had the mission been executed to razor-Âsharp precision by a Special Operations flight crew, the chopper would have been on the ground, would have unloaded the SEAL team, and would have been on its way back to Base Shank with fourteen minutes to spare.
But on the night of its destruction, there was an unexplained delay in the air and an unexplained lapse in radio communications.
And no one knows why.
The confusion in communications between the aircraft and military air traffic control started when Extortion 17 moved to within six minutes of landing. At that point, the chopper called in and announced that it was six minutes out from the designated landing zone, meaning that it should have been on the ground within six minutes from that call.
This recitation of the chronology of Extortion 17's last minutes will use Zulu time, because that is what was used in the Colt Report, but will also include local (Afghanistan) time to make it easier for civilian readers to follow the timeframe and sequence.
By protocol, the pilot was to call in at the six-Âminute mark before landing. As shown by Exhibit 50 of the Colt Report, that call came infrom the chopper at 2156 Zulu time (2:26 a.m. local time). The mission appeared clearly on track, headed toward its last minutes before landing.
Based on the timing of that call, Extortion 17 should have been on the ground unloading the SEAL team at 2202 Zulu time (2:32 a.m. local time).
By protocol, another call was due from the helicopter at the three-Âminute mark before landing, at 2159 Zulu time (2:29 a.m. local time).
But there was no call from the chopper. Air traffic control could not raise the chopper by radio.
One minute passed. Still no three-Âminute call in.
Another minute passed. It was now 2201 Zulu time (2:31 a.m. local time) and still, there was no three-Âminute call.
By now, concern was setting in at military air traffic control. Why wasn't Extortion 17 calling in? What was going on up there?
The chopper was due to be on the ground in one minute, at 2202 Zulu time (2:32 local time), but in the early, moonless hours of the morning, over airspace where a hundred extra Taliban fighters had come to shoot down an American helicopter, it had not called in to announce “three minutes to landing.”
Something wasn't right.
Another minute passed. Where was the three-Âminute call-Âin?
At this point, the tension level at base command rose to near-Âpanic levels. The chopper appeared to be simply hovering in the air.
The slow speed and delay was a major concern. The chopper was simply hanging out there in the air too long, thundering in the night for the enemy to hear, making itself a target with its slow hover and high noise level.
Finally, at 2203 Zulu time (2:33 a.m. local time) the three-Âminute call came in.
It was still hovering in the air, at least three minutes from landing, when it was supposed to already be on the ground. The recalculated landing time would now be 2:36 a.m. local time, four minutes after the originally projected landing time of 2:32 a.m. local time.
Four minutes overtime in a loud, thundering helicopter is a long time, and, like an alarm clock going off early, gives the enemy extra reactiontime to gather weaponry and be ready, eliminating any semblance of an element of surprise.
Extortion 17 was now in a dangerous race against the clock. For the mission planners back at flight control, monitoring the progress of the chopper and the SEAL team, the tension-Âfilled atmosphere was not all that different from what had occurred at Mission Control in Houston, Texas, some forty-Âtwo years earlier, when NASA controllers nervously monitored theEagle's descent to the lunar surface. On that night, with the tension already thick in the air, a sick feeling of near catastrophe had set in when Neil Armstrong suddenly overrode the lunar module's automatic pilot and took control when it became obvious that the spacecraft was about to land in an unsafe area with dangerous boulders.
Just as mission controllers in Houston in July of 1969 understood that delay in landing a spacecraft could mean certain death for their crew, the military controllers in Afghanistan tracking Extortion 17 knew that every second's delay in landing increased the chance the Americans aboard the chopper would never return alive.
In their battle against the clock, the enemies facing Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, lunar boulders and evaporating fuel, were lifeless, natural conditions. But from the surface of the Tangi Valley, the enemies facing Extortion 17 were angry and belligerent. Every second of delay in the air would swing the momentum in favor of the enemy on the ground, giving them time to recover, giving them time to prepare, giving them time to load their rocket-Âpropelled grenades and train them on the approaching chopper.
Perhaps the Taliban still wasn't aware of their presence. Despite the delay, perhaps the Taliban was not hearing the thundering rotors from the ground.
Now, t-Âminus three minutes and counting. Tensions back at flight control riveted up a notch, and then another notch, as controllers monitored their instruments and followed the progress of the aircraft.
Remember that the new updated landing time was 2206 Zulu (2:36 a.m. local). Under pre-Âestablished protocol, the chopper was to call in once more, at the one-Âminute mark before landing, at 2205 Zulu (2:35 a.m. local time).
As controllers nervously monitored the clock and the radar position of Extortion 17, one minute passed. It was now 2204 (2:34 a.m. local), two minutes from the readjusted landing time.
No one knew exactly what was going on aboard, but on radar, at times the chopper seemed to be in a hovering position.
Military flight controllers and mission controllers were anxiously watching the clock on the wall. There was no call from the chopper at the one-Âminute mark, 2205 Zulu time (2:35 local time). Moreover, the chopper was still hovering, making no meaningful move toward an actual landing.
The clock continued to tick, and now a feeling of panic was beginning to set in at flight control. Mission planners anxiously monitored their headsets, awaiting the one-Âminute call, hoping to hear news that Extortion 17 was on its final descent, that it would be setting down in a matter of seconds, unloading the SEAL team as planned.
Once again, there was nothing.
What's going on? Why the delays?
Another minute passed. Now the new readjusted landing time of 2206 Zulu Time (2:36 a.m. local time) approached. Remember that the originally designated landing time was 2:32 a.m. The chopper had now hung in the air four minutes after it should have been on the ground.
The next communication from the chopper, the one-Âminute call, would come thirty-Ânine seconds later, at 22:06:39 (2:36:39 a.m. local time). This call was not a “one-Âminute” call at all, but rather, was a request for one of the Apache helicopters to provide a “sparkle,” that is to illuminate the ground with light. Testimony from the Task Force senior enlisted advisor (acronym TF-ÂSEA) in Exhibit 48, page 23, gave insight into the state of mind of the flight controllers:
TF SEA:Sir, I specifically remember going and I'm pointing with this green [Afghan military member], XO [executive officer] was there. I go, “That's the HLZ,” [helo landing zone] he said, yes. And they were scanning the area. And I was like, it looks pretty quiet. We got the three-Âminute call, and then they were justâsix minutes later, I was going, what's up with the infill, did they go in already.
Some mission controllers wondered if the SEALs were rappelling down to the ground with ropes after the three-Âminute call, which might explain why the chopper had been hovering so long. The rappelling theory was a hopeful theory which, of course, turned out not to be true. But it does show how flight controllers were grasping, almost desperately, for a belief that something positive was happening aboard the chopper in its final few minutes.
In reality, delay and confusion marked the flight's final minutes. The request for a “sparkle” was Extortion 17's final transmission.
The Chopper's Last Call
22:06:39 (2:36:39 a.m. local time)
Recall that the one-Âminute call did not take place on time and was delayed another one minute and thirty-Ânine seconds. The last communication from the helicopter, which came at 22:06:39 (2:36:39 a.m. local time) was not really a “one-Âminute” call at all.
It was not a “one-Âminute” call, because, alarmingly, the chopper still did not report that it was one minute from landing. As will be seen from the taped air traffic with one of the Apache helicopters accompanying Extortion 17, the old Chinook seemed confused, and made a premature request for a sparkle of the landing zone. That request raised questions with the Apache crew.
Simply put, to “sparkle” a landing zone, or to “put a sparkle” on a landing zone, means that one helicopter, generally an accompanying helicopter, will fire a laser beam from the sky, down to the ground, into the landing zone. Crudely defined, it's like turning on a giant laser flashlight to fire a light beam down into the landing zone. Sometimes, this process is referred to as “painting” the landing zone.
This is done for the purpose of helping the main helicopter, in this case, Extortion 17, to find the landing zone on the ground, and to fly to that landing zone.
Part of the problem is that if the sparkle comes too early, or if the sparkle lasts too long, it can alert the enemy on the ground of the visual position of the approaching helicopters. Even though an enemy might hear the thunder of chopper rotors, in the pitch-Âblack of night, it is still difficult to always know from what direction that noise iscoming. But the sparkle, if seen, can change that dynamic in favor of an enemy.
To see a laser sparkle, the enemy must ordinarily be equipped with night vision goggles, or a camera, and must be looking at the right time. So the sparkle should be used, if at all, very conservatively, in very short bursts, and ordinarily within one minute of landing, which is important to keep in mind in examining the final transmissions of Extortion 17.
The following dialogue was taken from the Full Motion Video (FMV) feed, known as “Gun Tape 5” and it comes from one of the two Apache helicopters that accompanied Extortion 17. The “Gun Tape,” attached to the Colt Report as Exhibit 54, provided a twenty-Ânine-Âpage verbatim transcript of communications between the two-Âman Apache crew and the ill-Âfated CH-47 crew.
Extortion 17's flight from base camp to the landing zone should have taken no more than eight minutes. The full gun tape begins at 21:44:33 Zulu (2:14 a.m. local time) and ends at 22:24:27 Zulu time . So the gun tape ran approximately one hour, basically from the launch of the mission.
The excerpt in question occurs on page 17 of 29, beginning at the 22:06:39 mark (2:36:39 a.m. local time).
Approximately two minutes later, on page 18 of the transcript, at 22:08:34 (2:38:34 a.m. local time) Bryan Nichols's voice is heard for the last time, with the words, “One minute. One minute.” At least, it seemed to be Bryan Nichols's voice.
Then, seventy-Âtwo seconds later, the real-Âtime description of the shoot-Âdown begins at page 19 of 29, at the 22:09:46 (2:39:46 a.m. local time) mark.
Note the difference in time between these call-Âins made by Extortion 17 and the actual time of the reported shoot-Âdown. The Apache witnessed the shoot-Âdown some three minutes after the odd request for an early sparkle, or some four minutes and forty seconds after the one-Âminute call was supposed to have been made.
What was going on inside Extortion 17? Why the delay?
Was the chopper hovering dangerously in the air?
The Odd Request for a “Sparkle”
The next few chapters analyze the final three minutes of Extortion 17, beginning with an examination of the gun tapes referenced in the Colt Report at page 17 of Exhibit 48.
In the transcript, “EX17 PC” is the Extortion 17 pilot in command, Bryan Nichols. BS is the “back seat” pilot in the Apache, who is the lead pilot of the apache. “FS” is the gunner and navigator, in the front seat of the Apache helicopter.
For purposes of analysis, the final three minutes of the flight are broken up into three segments over a final three-Âminute period. The first forty-Ânine-Âsecond segment involved Extortion 17's odd request for a premature sparkle of the landing zone.
The second segment, coming two minutes later, was the final “one minute” call from Extortion 17.
The third and final segment, coming approximately one minute later, featured the Apache pilots' description of witnessing the shoot-Âdown, with the sad declaration of “Fallen Angel,” the universal, emergency, call sign that a US military aircraft has gone down.
Final Segment 1 (49 Seconds)âThe Request for the Sparkle (2:36:39 a.m. Local Time)
Could you guys sparkle, please?
And roger. You one minute?
Negative, but our lane direction isn't matching up just give them a little better idea where we're landing.
, could you sparkle LZ?
23/2 burn is on [INAUDIBLE][author's emphasis here and below]
Do we have burn in sight?
Not even a minute out and you're requesting a damn sparkle.
The first communication, “could you guys sparkle please,” was from the pilot in command of Extortion 17, Bryan Nichols. Although there is nothing to positively identify the voice as Bryan's, the transcript designated the caller to be “EX17 PC.”
When he asked “Could you guys request a sparkle please,” he was asking that the Apache helicopter, one of two Apaches escorting Extortion 17 to the landing zone, make a request to the US Air Force AC-130 gunship flying 7,000 to 8,000 feet above them.
The Extortion 17 was accompanied through the dark night skies by three US aircraft with tons of offensive firepower that was never used, until after the fact. The two Apache attack helicopters code-Ânamed Gun 1 and Gun 2 and the US Air Force AC-130 gunship had been circling almost directly overhead.
As will be discussed later, the AC-130, prior to the shoot-Âdown, had requested permission to attack enemy insurgents on the ground in the vicinity of the Extortion 17 shoot-Âdown, but was denied permission to fire ahead of time. These insurgents, according to the aircraft commander, were only about 600 meters (just over 630 yards) away fromthe CH-47, and one of them could very well have fired the RPG that minutes later would bring down the helicopter. Had the AC-130 been allowed to pour fire into that area, there is a good chance that the area would have been cleared of enemy insurgents and Extortion 17 could have landed safely.
As a side note for those not familiar with military aircraft, an AC-130 is a fixed-Âwing aircraft, with four propellersâtwo on each wing. It can be used primarily as a heavy-Âload cargo plane, the C-130 variant, or it can be configured as an attack aircraft, heavily armored to provide fire support for troops on the ground.
Having been denied permission to conduct any pre-Âassault fire prior to Extortion 17's landing, the AC-130's mission, circling high overhead, was now to coordinate communications with the aircraft in the area, and to track enemy positions on the ground and report on those positions. It also had the capability to deliver devastating firepower to the ground if permitted by the rules of engagement.
Furthermore, it had the ability to “paint” the landing area with high-Âpowered laser beams. So when Extortion 17 opened this exchange by asking “Could you guys request a sparkle please,” they were asking the Apache helicopters to relay a request up to the AC-130 gunship to hit the landing zone with a powerful laser beam.
That gathers this response from the lead pilot of the Apache helicopter (BS for “back seat”âremember the pilot sits in the back seat of an Apache helicopter and the gunner sits in the front). “And roger. You one minute?”
The Apache pilot was asking Extortion 17 if they were one minute away from landing for two reasons. First, Extortion 17 had already made its three-Âminute call, and its one-Âminute call was now overdue by a minute and thirty-Ânine seconds. Second, as was emphasized in earlier communications to Extortion 17, the request for a sparkle should come at the one-Âminute mark, in part to keep the enemy guessing for as long as possible about where the chopper will be coming in. Moreover, the burn or sparkle should be as short as possible to avoid the possibility of being seen by the enemy utilizing night vision.
With all this in mind, the Apache pilot was trying to verify with the Extortion 17 Pilot that he was now one minute from landing, and presumably, the sparkle would be short.
Note, however, the surprising reaction from Extortion 17, when asked if they were one minute out. “Negative, but our lane direction isn't matching up just give them a little better idea where we're landing.”
First off, Extortion 17 was saying that hewas not one minute from landing.So this sparkle was being requested prematurely.
Second, the words “lane direction not matching up” and “a little better idea where we're landing” suggest that there was confusion aboard Extortion 17. At a time when they were supposed to be making their one-Âminute call on final approach, they couldn't seem to find the correct “lane direction” and they didn't seem to even know where they were landing.
The Final Seconds: Who Is “Them”?
The Extortion 17 pilot said he was requesting the sparkle to “givethema better idea of where we're landing.”
Who was “them?”
Perhaps “them” was the SEAL team inside the chopper. But the statement is odd. It's odd in part because the SEAL team would be sitting in jump seats, inside the cargo bay, facing inward, waiting for exfil. The SEAL team would not be crowded around the three windows on each side of the back of the chopper, looking out to see what's down there. First off, there aren't enough windows in the back of the CH-47, and there's not enough room for that sort of thing. It's not like there are windows by every seat, like a commercial airliner. The SEAL team would be at this point facing inward, readying their weapons to storm out the back of the Chinook once it touched down.
Perhaps “them” was someone else. Could “them” have been the seven unidentified Afghans who illegally infiltrated the chopper, and whose bodies were later apparently cremated, thus destroying DNA evidence to make their identification next to impossible?
Was the Extortion 17 pilot, Bryan Nichols, trying to tell us something here? Could “them” have been someone on the ground? Could there have been another “them” with an interest in knowing where that chopper was about to set down?
Maybe the use of “them” was not significant. But given the odd circumstances already surrounding this mission, from the infiltration of seven unidentified Afghans, to Extortion 17's seemingly strange and odd confusion over finding the landing zone, something thatshould not be that difficult, the very odd word choice here should be examined.
Overhead, the AC-130 pilot realized that Extortion 17 was confused. In Exhibit 40 of the Colt Report, the AC-130 pilot said (on page 22), “it seemed from our perspective a little confusion on exactly where the HLZ [Helo Landing Zone] was going to be.”
After Nichols asked for the “sparkle,” he explained that he was off-Âcenter and was asking for the sparkle to “show them the landing zone.”
Why did Extortion 17 seem to have such a hard time finding the landing zone? Why all the delays? Why the confusion? In this age of GPS technology, there should have been absolutely no confusion as to the precise location of the landing zone.
If we have that kind of precision in commercial airliners, then why couldn't Extortion 17 find the landing zone?
Neither the Apaches nor the AC-130 had any problems locating the landing zone. Why, then, was Extortion 17 having the problems that it was having?
Yes, Bryan Nichols was a young pilot. But he had been flying for three years, and even a young pilot should be able to find a landing zone using GPS navigational systems. Besides, he had a more experienced co-Âpilot, David Carter, sitting beside him in the cockpit, and they were certainly able to find the landing zone earlier in the evening, when they dropped off the Ranger team several clicks outside the battle zone.
Pinpointing the landing zone should have been the simplest of tasks. The confusion aboard Extortion 17 does not seem like pilot error; it smacks of something else going on in the aircraft. The question is, “what?”
In the transcript the Apache co-Âpilot and gunner, designated in the transcript as “FS” for “Front Seat,” asks, “could you sparkle LZ?”
Here, LZ is, of course, the acronym for landing zone, and the co-Âpilot of the Apache helicopter is radioing up to the AC-130, requesting that the “sparkle,” that is the high-Âpowered laser beam, be flashed down into the landing zone.
Next we hear, “23/2 burn is on [INAUDIBLE].” This was a communication from the AC-130 overhead, and the phrase “burn is on” means that the laser is now burning, and the sparkle has begun.
It's important to note the time that the sparkle begins. It's 22:06:56, or 2:36:56, just four seconds before 2:37 a.m.
By this time there had already been a considerable delay in landing, and officers at flight control were concerned that the helicopter was stalled in the air. One of the Apache pilots flying alongside Extortion 17 was also perplexed, as detailed in the next chapter.
Extortion 17's Bizarre Behavior
The Apache pilot seemed disgusted that Extortion 17 was requesting the sparkle prematurely. He chided the Extortion 17 pilot in no uncertain terms: “Not even a minute out and you're requesting a damn sparkle.”
Based upon a review of the flight transcript, there seemed to be a certain disgust in the Apache pilot's tone here, because he understood that a sparkle requested prematurely and outside of a minute from landing could alert the enemy on the ground and prove unnecessarily dangerous.
Even Brigadier General Colt raised this question himself, at Exhibit 53, in the transcript of his team's interview with both Apache pilots after the shoot-Âdown. The general's comments were captured at page 32 of Exhibit 53, as follows:
BG COLT:. . . sparkle? I believe that there was commentary about “I don't know why he's asking for it so soon.”
. . . it sounded like [it] was an incredulous comment that he just asked for the burn at three, why did he do that? I mean normally, he calls at one. We're not even clear if there was even a one-Âminute call, or if that was the moment that he was struck.
The AC-130 pilot, in his testimony at Exhibit 40, page 22, noted that, “We had coordinated with the Helos that we were going to the burn down at H minus one so we had one of our sensors on the HLZ.” This testimony confirmed the original plan to do a brief burst or “burn down” at less than one minute before landing.
Why does Extortion 17 request the premature sparkle, more than one minute from landing? Perhaps to help the pilot visibly find the landing zone if, in fact, he was not able to find it. But that doesn't make a lot of sense, because with GPS navigation, Extortion 17 should have been able to fly directly to the landing zone, without confusion. The AC-130 overhead was able to sparkle it with a laser beam with no problem. In fact, per the testimony of the AC-130 aircraft commander, it was able to keep sensors on the landing zone the whole time.
The next chapter explores the second segment of the final three minutes of the life of Extortion 17, with the next transmission coming some two minutes later.
The “Two-ÂMinute Burn” and the “One-ÂMinute Call” That Wasn't
Extortion 17's confusing and contradictory actions in the air were compounded not only by the odd request for a sparkle, when that was never part of the battle plan, but also in continuing to make targeted timeline calls that never materialized. There was apparently an odd and long two-Âminute burn from the AC-130, perhaps even longer. If that happened in response to the sparkle request, and it apparently did happen, the chopper could have been painted, or “lit up” with ultraviolet light, making it a target for any Taliban within range with night vision goggles. That odd, “two-Âminute burn” was followed up by a “one-Âminute call,” from the chopper, indicating that it was one minute from landing.
But Extortion 17 was not one minute from landing. It still hung in the air beyond the one-Âminute call, when it should have been on the ground, and was then blown out of the sky by the enemy.
The sequence on the gun tape is as follows [author's emphasis]:
, 1 minute. 1 minute.
Copy 1 minute. 1 minute.Burn's out.
[INAUDIBLE] â the grid you can get it from or .
. LZ is still ICE.
âCurrent LZ looks like it's still on the green zone. I do see little fields. It's probably new crops in, looks like mild to light dust and winds at altitude are currently
At thirty-Âfour seconds past 2:38 a.m., local time, Bryan Nichols (or someone pretending to be him) said “One minute. One minute.”
The actual one minute call, which was the call saying, essentially, that “we are one minute from landing,” was over three minutes delayed. The last communication from the chopper had been over two minutes before the one minute call, at 22:06:39 (236:39).
Once the one-Âminute call was made, the pilot of the Apache, Gun 1, acknowledged with, “Copy 1 minute. 1 minute.”
The next transmission was the most significant in the sequence.
At 2:38:37, three seconds later (three seconds after the one-Âminute call), the Apache pilot said “burn's out.”
That's significant, because this apparently marked the end of the duration of the infrared burn that had been shooting down on the landing zone from the AC-130.
Remember in the first of the three transmissions, the announcement that “burn's on” came at 22:06:56. Now at 22:08:37, “burn's out.”
That meant that for a period of one minute and forty-Âone seconds, there was not only a sparkle, buta continuous burn on the landing zone.
Understand the difference. A sparkle is a brief nighttime flash that is turned on for a second, and then turned off. But a burn is more of a continuous illumination, like taking a giant flashlight and leaving it on for almost two minutes, and then turning it off.
However, despite the Apache pilot announcing that “burn's out” at the 22:08:37 mark, there was testimony from the AC-130 gun crew, circlingoverhead, that the burn was not out before the shoot-Âdown, but in fact, that the burn was still on at the time of the shoot-Âdown!
There was a bright burn from the sky to the ground, illuminated from the AC-130 overhead, which was nineteen seconds short of two minutes, if the “burn's out” call by the Apache was accurate. Or if the testimony of the AC-130 gun crew, the aircraft initiating the burn, was accurate, the burn was still on at the time of the shoot-Âdown, making the Apache's announcement that “burn's out” apparently in error.
If the burn was still on at the time of shoot-Âdown, this would mean that the burn actually exceeded two minutes, and put Extortion 17 in the enemy spotlight, making it an easy, visible target, up to the very moment of the shoot-Âdown.
So just how large of an area was being illuminated? And just how bright was the burn?
Colt and his team examined these questions when they interviewed the four Apache pilots from Gun 1 and Gun 2 on August 18, 2011, Exhibit 53 in the Colt Report.
At page 18 of Exhibit 53, the co-Âpilot of Gun 1 explained the difference between a short-Âburst sparkle which illuminated only for a brief second or so, and a longer-Âterm burn.
The co-Âpilot went on to explain that a burn was better for a landing zoneâas opposed to a sparkle to follow enemy combatants on the groundâbecause “a burn is better because it allows them to see a whole lot more.”
General Colt then asked about the size of the ground area being illuminated: “And how big is the box when they are doing that?”
To that, the co-Âpilot of Gun 2, the second Apache, replies, “A football field.” And then the pilot of Gun 1, the first Apache, chimes in. “I would say 500 meters or so. It's pretty big.”
So both the co-Âpilot of one Apache and the pilot of the other Apache testified that a very large area of ground was being illuminated on the ground at the landing zone.
Moreover, at page 33 of the same exhibit, Colt came back to the difference between the use of short-Âburst sparkles and the “burn that is placed on the landing zone.” Both co-Âpilots explained that the AC-130was using periodic sparkles to illuminate the movement of enemy insurgents, called “squirters,” on the ground.
General Colt then asks if a sparkle had been placed on the landing zone where Extortion 17 was trying to set down. The answer given by the co-Âpilot of the second Apache helicopter, Gun 2, is significant. The co-Âpilot's acronym is “PB70FS.”
PB70FS (Co-ÂPilot Gun 2): I couldn't tell you if the sparkle hit it. The burn was so bright.
In other words, the co-Âpilot of the second Apache was saying that the two minute burn was “so bright”âi.e., blindingâthat it would have flooded out any sparkle that was shot into the landing zone.
So an area the size of a football field or larger was lit for an extraordinarily long period of two minutes, showing the precise spot that the chopper was about to land, right before it landed.
The length, duration, and size of that illumination were more than enough to scream to the enemy, especially if the enemy had NVGs, “get ready, here we come.” In the weeks after the shoot-Âdown, military briefers told family members that the Taliban might have seen dust that was being blown up from the ground, dust generated by the Chinook's powerful twin rotary blades. Under the theory proffered by the military briefers, as the dust was blown up off the ground on approach to landing, a dust cloud swirled up around the rotary blades, which could have cast a glow, making a visual target for the Taliban firing RPGs.
This theory is plausible, but most likely, the “glow” from the dust swirling around the blades came from the burn being lit from the AC-130 circling 7,000 feet above.
With the landing zone having not been cleared out by pre-Âassault fire, dust or no dust, anyone in the area with night goggles and an RPG, and within range, needed to do nothing more than wait and aim, because the long, bright burn marked the exact spot where Extortion 17 was about to land. And that is exactly what happened.
It appears that when the request for “sparkle” was initiated by Extortion 17, the AC-130 thought the chopper was about to land, and consequently flooded the area.
When the actual “one-Âminute” call came almost two minutes later, the gunship realized that the chopper was still in the air and cut the burn.
This brings us back to the question: Why did the request for the sparkle come so prematurely, and not within the one-Âminute timeframe according to the plan? Also, why did the AC-130 burn the landing zone, instead of only briefly sparkling it?
The air traffic transcripts between the Apaches, the AC-130, and the Chinook (Extortion 17), in the minutes leading up to this request for a “sparkle,” repeatedly made it clear that the operational plan called for a burn and not a sparkle at the one-Âminute mark prior to landing.
A sparkle is a brief flash, far more difficult for an enemy to track to its source than a longer burn.
The transcript for Exhibit 53, page 17 showed that all pilots, including the Extortion 17 pilots, had been briefed to expect a burnânot a sparkleâand this was drilled into them during pre-Âflight briefings.
Here, the questioning was being conducted by an officer on Colt's staff who was part of the Airworthiness Directive Support Action Team. The acronym for this officer in the transcript was “ADSAT4.”
This officer was an expert whose job was to explore any airworthiness issues, or lack thereof, of the aircraft. Although the military obviously is not part of the FAA, this officerâone of at least four expert advisors Colt usedâwas on the team to ask questions similar to what the FAA mandates during investigations of crashesâi.e., was something wrong with the aircraft? Or was there pilot error? Or both?
The ADSAT advisor questioned the Apache pilots about whether they expected a pre-Âlanding burn or a pre-Âlanding sparkle.
Remember that PB70FS was the co-Âpilot of Gun 2, the second Apache, and PB65FS is the co-Âpilot of Gun 1, the first Apache:
ADSAT4:Going into, what was the interpretation between your crews and 17? How were they expecting the LZ to be marked?
PB70FS (Co-Âpilot Gun 2):is the one [inaudible] going to the crash. It marked by burn.
ADSAT4:I understand what it was marked by. What did they believe how it was going to be marked?
PB65FS: (Co-Âpilot Gun 1):Every brief we do, now that we'veâwith being able to burn, we have always told them that we had preferred they take burn rather than illume. So we have talked to them every time.
It seems from this excerpt, that for nighttime landing ops involving the CH-47 that the Apache pilots prefer to see a final burn on approach to landing rather than an illume [sparkle], and that they had communicated this preference to the CH-47 flight crew. Remember that Extortion 17 was not requesting a burn, but was requesting sparkles, which meant that the doomed chopper was, oddly, in contradiction to the normal, preferred procedure. This is one of several factors suggesting that something abnormal was happening aboard the CH-47 prior to its shoot-Âdown.
Was Bryan Nichols Trying to Tell Us Something?
Based on the clear testimony of the two Apache co-Âpilots who were in the air with Extortion 17, the plan all along was not to sparkle, but to burn the landing zone within the one-Âminute mark.
Why did Bryan Nichols ask for a sparkle instead of a burn? He very clearly knew that the plan was to burn within the last minute of landing, because he had been briefed on it.
Was it possible that Nichols simply got confused, and mixed up the terms “sparkle” and “burn,” and the AC-130 commenced the burn because that was the predetermined battle plan?
That is possible, but because there is a double-Âoddity about this request, that is, both the premature timing of the request and the request for the sparkle instead of the burn, the “Bryan Nichols was confused” theory does not seem plausible. Nichols may have been a younger National Guard pilot, but it seems unlikely that he would make such a (1) premature timing mistake and (2) a nomenclature mistake, all wrapped together, and especially not with a more experienced pilot, CW04 David Carter, sitting in the cockpit beside him.
We do not hear a follow-Âup call from Extortion 17 stating, “correction requesting burn not sparkle.” Nor do we hear a follow-Âup call even when the Apache pilot seemingly chided Extortion 17 with his comment of incredulity, “Not even a minute out and you're requesting a damn sparkle.”
Could it be that (a) Bryan Nichols actually wanted a sparkle instead of a burn, because of information he had received from someone inside the chopper that the chopper would be targeted on the ground, knowing that the sparkle would make him a more elusive target?
Could it be that (b) he was being ordered by someone inside the chopper to prematurely request the burn so that the landing zone would be pinpointed by the enemy?
Could it be that (c) someone else had taken control of the helicopter and was flying it at this point, and that whoever was flying the chopper as it approached the landing zone did not know that all pre-Âflight briefings had repeatedly called for a burn and not a sparkle?
Could it be that (d) someone else had taken control of the helicopter and was flying it at this point, and that whoever was flying the chopper did not know the difference between a sparkle and a burn?
Could it be that (e) by requesting such a premature illumination of the landing zone and by using the wrong phrase, which didn't match the pre-Âmission planning, that Bryan Nichols was trying to tell us something?
The questions being raised herein are not to suggest one scenario over the other. Rather, these questions are being raised because General Colt's team should have raised them, and did not raise them.
One thing seems indisputable. Something odd was happening inside that helicopter.
The third and final segment of the transcript breaks down the last three minutes of the flight of Extortion 17.
In this section, there weren't any broadcasts from the helicopter.
Still, timing is crucial in analyzing this section. Remember the “two-Âminute burn” from the second segment, referring to the beam flashed down onto the landing zone from the AC-130 gunship, which actually lasted 22:06:56 to 22:08:37, or a period of one minute and forty-Âone seconds.
Pay attention to the ending time of the burn in the second segment 22:08:37 (2:38:37 a.m.), and the beginning of the shoot-Âdown at 22:09:46 (2:39:46).
There was a period of one minute nine seconds (22:08:37 to 22:09:46) between the ending of the “two-Âminute burn” and the beginning of theshoot-Âdown sequenceâthat is if the “burn's out” call from the Apache was correct at the 22:08:37 mark. But if the burn was not out, as was suggested by the AC-130 gunship crew in testimony at Exhibit 40, this effectively means the chopper was spotlighted from the burn initiation point, at 22:06:56, all the way up to the shoot-Âdown, at 22:09:46.
In that case, if the burn did not go out until after the RPGs started flying, then the burn would have lasted ten seconds short of three minutes, illuminating the chopper all the way up to shoot-Âdown! This would in effect have made it a three-Âminute burn instead of a two-Âminute burn.
A Three-ÂMinute Burn? The Chopper in the Spotlight?
Although not directly addressed in the Executive Summary of the Colt Report, the danger of using a burn instead of a sparkle was that Taliban with night vision goggles could potentially see exactly where the chopper was flying, simply by following the burn down to the ground, and be ready with their RPGs.
In looking at the air traffic transcripts (also called “gun tapes”) in conjunction with the testimony of the AC-130 crew, there appears to be some confusion as to the actual length of the burn.
The air traffic transcripts alone suggest a burn lasting approximately two minutes. The air traffic transcripts combined with the AC-130 testimony suggest an even longer burn, of approximately three minutes.
Either way the infrared burn was entirely too long, giving the Taliban ample time to put the CH-47 in their crosshairs on the ground, and then simply wait.
So which is the more credible explanation? That the burn was cut at the 22:08:37 mark (as reported by the Apache and supporting the two-Âminute burn theory), or that the burn lasted up through the shoot-Âdown and was cut only after the firing started (as reported by the AC-130)?
The more credible explanation seems to be that the burn illuminating the chopper lasted through the moment of shoot-Âdown, and was not cut at the 22:08:37 mark, but, rather, continued until after the RPGs started flying. But why? There are several reasons.
First, multiple witnesses on board the AC-130 testifiedthat the burn lasted through the shoot-Âdown, versus only one co-Âpilot who called “burn's out.” So the greater weight of the evidence suggests that the burn lasted through shoot-Âdown. Remember also that the recording on the gun tape was not sworn testimony, only a spontaneous observation of the co-Âpilot's perceptions at a given moment in time. In this instance, the weight goes to the sworn testimony.
Second, the AC-130 was the aircraft actually initiating the burn. That flight crew was in the very best position to know whether they were initiating the burn, or not. They testified that the burn lasted through the shoot-Âdown.
How, then, do we reconcile the Apache co-Âpilot calling “burn's out” at the 22:08:37 mark? Remember that there were four different aircraft moving in the sky, probably not in exactly the same direction: the two Apaches, the AC-130, and Extortion 17. It is possible that the Apache co-Âpilot may have temporarily lost track of the burn and inadvertently called, “burn's out.” Also, bear in mind that the burn was only visible through night vision goggles, which increases the possibility that the co-Âpilot may have momentarily lost track of it. Either way, there seems to be an indisputable inconsistency on a crucial point here, notably the time at which the burn actually went out.
Interestingly, the Colt Report does not even acknowledge the inconsistency in the evidence on the time of “burn's out,” let alone attempt to resolve it. But this is an area that needs to be looked at, and needs to be resolved, because elongated burn times can pose a threat to US helicopters seeking to insert troops.
One thing seems certain. With the confusion demonstrated by the chopper in the minutes before the shoot-Âdown, including the delays, the inexplicable ability to find the landing zone, the strange request for a sparkle minutes before landing, and the conclusion by some individuals at flight control that the Chinook was stalled in the air, Extortion 17 was acting like an aircraft whose crew may not have had full control over it. This brings us back to the original question about the pink elephant.
Who are the seven Afghans, and why won't the military talk about them?
Fallen Angel: The Final Seconds of Extortion 17
In reading the transmission describing the shoot-Âdown in real time, keep two things in mind. First, Extortion 17, per the testimony of the Apache pilots at Exhibit 53, page 37, was between 100 and 150 feet off the ground when hit by an RPG. At page 52 of that same exhibit, the transcript noted that the chopper had slowed her airspeed to “80 knots or less.”
Eighty knots is 92 miles per hour. We don't really know what “or less” means, except that it's less than 92 miles per hour. But it seems doubtful that the chopper would be flying 92 miles per hour as it entered the landing zone. Helicopters slow and feather as they are about to set down. So that part (92 mph) is not believable. The “or less” part is believable. The question is, “How much less?” Probably considerably less.
Also keep in mind reports from flight control that the chopper was not moving at all. So the chopper was very low at this point, was truly about to land, and was so close to the ground that the RPG shot had to have been a point-Âblank shot.
Remember that on the tape at thirty-Âfour seconds past 2:38 a.m. local time, Bryan Nichols (or someone impersonating him) said “One minute. One minute.”
Sixty-Âeight seconds later, at 22:09:46 (2:39:46 local time), the aircraft had already been delayed, eight seconds behind the pilot's latest estimate. But strangely, it's still apparently hovering in the sky, just hanging there as a target, for reasons that remain a mystery.
In this portion of the transcript, “BS” is the backseat pilot in the Apache helicopter, or the lead pilot of Gun 1. “FS” is the front seat pilot, or co-Âpilot, of Gun 1.
The sequence begins with the lead pilot of Gun 1 (BS) announcing, “I just saw a flash.”
Note the tragic announcement of “Fallen Angel,” the military distress code announcing that a US military aircraft has gone down.
Final Segment 3
I just saw a flash. Did you see a flash?
Yeah, they're being shot at.
H17 traffic. CH-47 transitioning south [INAUDIBLE]
What is that?
Dude, I think they just got shot.
Are you shot?
Are you on that?
I'm on it, sir! [Extortion 17] is down.
Coalition traffic; we have a Fallen Angel. Fallen Angel. It's [Extortion 17].
s go ahead.
Roger. We have a Fallen Angel. [Extortion 17] was shot down in the Tangi Valley [INAUDIBLE]
Coalition traffic, anybody out there? We have a Fallen Angel CTAF
[Gun 1], H-17. Say location.
Location Tangi Valley. Tangi Valley and we're up on 338.45 on in the green plain text.
Roger, what we're remaining [INAUDIBLE]
Roger. Roger. Right now, currently it's one Chinook down. How copy?
Roger. [Extortion 17] is down.
That's a good copy. We're already made on SATCOM [INAUDIBLE].
1 this is 2. Do you have anything?
We got nothing at this time. We got a wreckage on fire.
Alright, the calls been made to X.
I have [Extortion 17] right now down in the Airborne Valley by Hotel coming in on CTAF.
Right, I'm going stay up here and develop things. Where are you at?
Roger, we are circling overhead. I saw where the [EXPLETIVE] explosion came from, man. I'm searching the buildings. If I see [EXPLETIVE] anybody with a weapon, I'm firing.
. Helo common.
[Call sign deleted], it's . Go.
[Call sign deleted], this is [Call sign deleted] on Helo common. Go.
Did you see any survivors down there?
I'm not seeing any.
No, I'm not seeing anything right now. It is a ball of fire. It looks bad.
I got secondary's. Are they shooting them still?
No. I got secondary. I think that's fuel.
The sudden, almost panic-Âlike reaction in the voices of the Apache pilots marked a very sad and dramatic moment for the Americans aboard Extortion 17. Their deaths, here, are recorded in real time. Indeed, this was a difficult passage to read. It's at this point, as precisely reflected on the gun tape, in a horrible flash at a moment frozen in time, that lives, American lives, were changed forever.
Braydon Nichols lost his father and Kimberly Vaughn lost her husband. Billy and Karen Vaughn lost their son. The two Vaughn children, Reagan and Chamberlain, in the horrible instant of a blinding moment, were forever fatherless.
Charles Strange, a blue-Âcollar worker from Philadelphia, lost his son Michael, who was a Navy cryptologist supporting the SEAL team, and Candie Reagan lost her longtime fiancÃ©, Patrick Hamburger.
Young Payton Hamburger, just two years old, would never see her father again.
Before dissecting specific timeframes, it's important to note that this shoot-Âdown was not just witnessed by the Apache pilots, who were discussing it here in real time. It was also witnessed by the AC-130 pilot, along with several of his crewmembers. The pilot testified that three shots were fired, and that either the first or the second shot appeared to strike the chopper.
Meanwhile, another member of the AC-130 Crew, the Left Scanner, testified that the second RPG hit the chopper.
The first excerpt, taken from Exhibit 40, page 25, was the aircraft commander's testimony describing that he saw three shots fired at Extortion 17. Remember that the AC-130 was circling 7,000 to 8,000 feet overhead.
AC-130 Aircraft Commander:Shortly after the burn came on we sawâI saw three RPG shots, kind of just rippleâone, two, threeâcoming from the south to the north, I was in the southern part of the orbit and I saw, what I saw was either the first or second one make an initial hit, and just a massive explosion, and it just seemed to be stationary and it just dropped.
Now here is the Left Scanner's testimony, at page 27 of Exhibit 40:
LEFT SCANNER:I was sitting left scanner, I have a single monocle that I look out ofâNVGs so I had like one eye that's just lookingnormal, and one eye looking through the NVG. From my perspective the second RPG did hit directly. It made direct contact with the helicopter.
IO-ÂDEP:The first RPG?
LEFT SCANNER:The second RPG.
IO-ÂDEP:The second RPG; I'm sorry.
LEFT SCANNER:I think the first RPG went underneath the helicopter, from my perspective. The second one did make a direct hit with the helicopter and there was a fairly large explosion in the air, but it was split seconds between the time the helicopter was hit. There was that explosion, and then it hit the ground and then there was an explosion.
This testimony was highly relevant for two reasons. First, the aircraft commander revealed that three shots were fired at Extortion 17. But the second revelation, as alluded to earlier, is significant. The commander said, “Shortly after the burn came on we sawâI saw three RPG shots, kind of just rippleâone, two, threeâcoming from the south to the north.”
Note the testimony here was not “shortly after the burn went out,” but rather “shortly after the burn came on, we saw three RPG [rocket propelled grenade] shots.” So the pilot of the AC-130 testified that the burn wasonat the time of shoot-Âdown. This is inconsistent with the Apache gun tape recording of “burn's out” at the 22:08:37 mark.
Now, remaining for the moment in Exhibit 40 of the Colt Report (interviews of AC-130 crew), take a look at a series of questions asked by the deputy investigating officer, beginning at page 27. These questions were directed at two AC-130 crewmembers, namely the television sensor operator and the left scanner.
On the question of how long the burn lasted, the television sensor operator's testimony was most crucial, because he was the airman who actually operated the burn.
TELEVISION SENSOR OPERATOR:When he called that he saw RPGs come up, I turned off the burn, slid over to him, and that'swhen I saw the third RPG. And, the third RPG had already started coming out of the tube when the Helo was already on the deckâit was already on the groundâimpacted with the ground. And, at that point, I mean, the first or second one had to have hit it, and it was a massive fireball. I mean, it just lit up.
On the question of when the burn ended, the television sensor operator's testimony is compelling. “When he called that he saw RPGs come up, I turned off the burn, slid over to him, and that's when I saw the third RPG.” He turned the burn offafterthe RPGs were launched. This means that the landing zone, and perhaps even the chopper, were being spotlighted by the bright, wide burn at the moment of shoot-Âdown. This also means that the enemy on the ground, with a relatively inexpensive set of night vision goggles (NVGs) had plenty of time to focus on the spot-Âlit landing zone, to ready his RPG, and to fire as the helicopter descended through the ultraviolet light.
It's clear that the possibility of the “burn” illuminating the chopper and making it a more visible target became a concern, at least to members of the AC-130 gun-Âcrew.
The navigator of the AC-130, at page 48, testified and verified other testimony that the burn size was roughly the size of a football field, but also noted that he didn't believe the burn could have highlighted the aircraft.
NAVIGATOR:“Our burn is probably roughly the equivalent to the size of a football field and we're down here to the south on HLZ. I don't believe there's any way that our burn could have highlighted the aircraft.”
A couple of points about the navigator's comments. First, it's clear, at least at this point, that there was a concern about the burn lighting the helicopter. That's why the navigator says, “I don't believe there's any way that our burn could have highlighted the aircraft.”
Of course, it really doesn't matter whether the burn highlighted the aircraft, because the burn put a big bright spot, the size of a football field,on the ground at the exact spot that the helicopter (Extortion 17) was flying to. All the Taliban had to do was get their RPGs, run to the edge of the big bright spot on the ground, stay back just behind the bright lights, wait until the helicopter flew in toward them, then point in the air, and aim toward the noise.