Why (and How?) Did a Navy SEAL Die in Afghanistan?

Perhaps the Pentagon didn’t tell the whole story.

MH-47 (Chinook) landing.  If SEALs properly planned their operation, aircraft could be strafing, rocketing, and bombing within minutes of enemy contact.
  • MH-47 (Chinook) landing. If SEALs properly planned their operation, aircraft could be strafing, rocketing, and bombing within minutes of enemy contact.

More than 1200 people attended a memorial service in Little Creek, Virginia, on Monday, March 11, for Petty Officer First Class Neil Roberts, the first SEAL to die in Afghanistan. Several retired SEALs who had fought in Vietnam joined the dignitaries, relatives, and active-duty SEALs at the service. Although I didn’t make the trip to Litde Creek, I had attended my share of such services that marked the first SEALs to die in other conflicts: Billy Machen (Vietnam); A1 “Spanky” Schaufel-berger (El Salvador); Ken Butcher, Bob Schamberger, Steve Morris, and Kevin Lundbergh (Grenada); John Connors, Don McFaul, Chris Tilghman, and Isaac Rodriguez (Panama).

Neil Roberts, first SEAL to die in Afghanistan. The original account: “Roberts fell out of the helicopter as it hurriedly left the scene of a grenade attack."

Neil Roberts, first SEAL to die in Afghanistan. The original account: “Roberts fell out of the helicopter as it hurriedly left the scene of a grenade attack."

Burning topics of conversation at every gathering were how these men died and what could have been done to prevent their deaths. We spoke of how “Spanky” never should have gone day after day to pick up his Salvadoran girlfriend at the same place at the same time; how the officer in charge of the parachute jump that killed Ken Butcher and his mates never should have launched them off the ramp of a CI 30 into gale-force winds and a nighttime sea, running far too high and fast; how this same officer never should have ordered his men on a midnight dash up a backlighted runway without a reconnaissance to discover and prevent what lurked at the end of that runway: an ambush that killed the four SEALs and gravely wounded six others. Unforgiving Vietnam SEALs called this officer — perhaps unfairly—“Mr. Oh-for-Eight” because of the men who died under his command in Grenada and Panama.

MH-53 helicopter

MH-53 helicopter

Within a few days of Neil Roberts’s memorial, old SEALs from the Vietnam War were predictably talking of how Roberts died and what — if anything—could have been done to prevent his death. The SEALs had learned details of Roberts’s death from sources well placed to know what had happened that frozen night, 10,000 feet up among the mountains of Afghanistan. The story these sources told was quite different from official versions. I heard the first official story uttered during a press briefing in the clenched speech of the Pentagon’s “Queen of Mean,” Victoria Clarke. According to Clarke’s truncated account, a Navy SEAL had tumbled from a helicopter at 0300 on 4 March as the helo touched down to insert special-operations forces during Operation Anaconda. The SEAL fell as the helicopter abruptly lifted off when it received small-arms fire and was struck by a rifle-propelled grenade, or RPG. No one missed the SEAL until sometime later, after the damaged helo crash-landed a mile or so away. Clarke said an unmanned Predator spy plane had transmitted realtime video that showed the SEAL being dragged away by three enemy soldiers and executed.

"Queen of Mean" (Victoria Clarke): unmanned Predator spy plane had transmitted realtime video that showed the SEAL being dragged away by three enemy soldiers and executed.

"Queen of Mean" (Victoria Clarke): unmanned Predator spy plane had transmitted realtime video that showed the SEAL being dragged away by three enemy soldiers and executed.

The next day, at another press briefing, General Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, contradicted Clarke. The general said the SEAL fell several feet from the helo, which never touched down but maneuvered up and out of the landing zone when the RPG struck. According to this version of the official story, the SEAL probably died from the fall, or enemy fire could have been what killed him in the helo. In either case Franks emphasized the SEAL was deal when he hit the ground and was not dragged away and executed by al-Qaeda. A specter of Mogadishu appeared to be haunting the general.

Another incomplete version of Roberts’s last moments emerged in a New York Times article on March 7 under the headline “Combat Mystery: Last Moments of Navy Man Still a Puzzle.” And four days after Roberts’s widow received his posthumous award of a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in Little Creek, the AP carried a short article based on information provided by a Navy spokeswoman, Dawn Cutler, which returned to the original account: “Roberts fell out of the helicopter as it hurriedly left the scene of a grenade attack. Video from a remote-controlled spy plane showed him being dragged away by al-Qaeda fighters.”

But at the March 11 memorial service, a much different story emerged in quiet conversations among groups of active-duty and retired SEALs after Neil Roberts’s casket had been piped from the chapel and driven away. Here is that story.

Roberts had been point man for an R&S (or reconnaissance and surveillance) team of SEALs. This team and others were to insert ahead of the main ground force from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Their mission was to construct the kind of clandestine observation posts much publicized by the army during the Gulf War. General Schwarzkopf praised the small groups of Special Forces men who for days occupied these “hides” and acted as his “eyes and ears” to guide the advance of lethal armored columns. Roberts and his fellow SEALs were to act as the eyes and ears of the 10th Mountain and, of course, our bombers. Terrain and threat would dictate the size of the team, but it had to be small enough to avoid detection. As point man, Roberts had positioned himself on the rear ramp of the MH-47 Chinook helo to lead his team out of the bird upon touchdown. Roberts was next to a crewmember on the ramp who manned a machine gun to cover the insertion.' Unlike Roberts, the machine gunner was tethered to the deck of the helo. Just before touchdown, automatic-weapons fire raked the helo, and not one but three RPGs struck the bird. None, however, detonated, but one shattered the helo s Plexiglas cockpit. The pilot instinctively jerked the 47 sideways and veered up into the night.

All was chaos in the troop compartment: the enemy gunfire had ruptured hydraulic lines, and fluid sprayed across the SEALs and over the deck. On the ramp, Roberts grabbed for the machine gunner as the helos sudden moves flung the gunner into space at the end of his tether. This heroic act, coupled with the treacherous footing and wild maneuvering of the helo, sent Roberts tumbling onto the hot LZ (landing zone) some ten feet below.

Men inside the helo noticed Roberts was missing almost immediately— not several minutes later when the helo crash-landed. But the damaged hydraulic system prevented any immediate return for their mate. In fact, an empty second helo in the area for just such an emergency had to rescue the remaining SEALs and crew before it could do anything for Roberts. The helo was further delayed because it had to refuel.

In the meantime, Roberts had survived the fall without serious injury. He scrambled under fire into the rocks and activated his beacon—a transmitter SEALs carry preset to an emergency frequency. Aircraft in the area monitor this frequency. When the aircraft receive a signal, they suspend all activity and execute a plan to res-* cue the downed SEAL. The SEAL can guide the rescue and call in close air support with the same radio that contains the beacon.

A reaction force is on standby whenever a special-operations team inserts. The force this time was a helo loaded with Army Rangers, but the force landed several kilometers from Roberts, and al-Qaeda ambushed the Rangers. The enemy killed six men, and the survivors fought for their lives. They could do nothing for Roberts.

A SEAL rescue force finally reached Roberts’s body after a battle that left three SEALs seriously wounded. Real-time video and evidence the rescue force discovered revealed Roberts had died fighting. Although shot several times, Roberts had nevertheless assaulted a machine-gun nest using grenades and his nine-millimeter SIG Sauer pistol. Roberts did not lose the SIG during his fall because SEALS wear the weapon holstered and strapped to their legs.

Rather than attempting to hide or surrender, Roberts had attacked the machine-gun crew because of the threat they posed for any rescue helo. In all, the SEALs estimated Roberts engaged a force of some 50 terrorists and killed or wounded several until he ran out of ammunition and was himself killed. The SEALs were certain of one fact: Neil Roberts went down fighting; he was not dragged away and executed.

Retired SEALs had hard questions for whoever provided intel and planned such a flawed mission — indelicately known as a “goatfuck” among Vietnam vets. Why, these SEALs wanted to know, couldn’t staff officers at Central Command or elsewhere discover such a large enemy force planted precisely at the insertion point? What good are all the infrared, thermal imaging, and realtime video devices that the DOD and the CIA have loaded onto Predators, satellites, and God knows what else if the devices can't discover a horde of al-Qaeda about to ambush our men?

Other questions focused on the choice of helicopters for the mission. Why use a relic of the Vietnam War like the Chinook, which SEALs had seldom if ever relied on to insert? The Chinook was used in Vietnam primarily to ferry troops and supplies in noncombat areas. When the bird was used in combat, it carried 40 or more men of a larger fighting force, such as a company or battalion, and rarely approached an LZ without massive prepping fire from artillery and air strikes — the sort of action portrayed in the film We Were Soldiers. The clandestine nature of SEAL missions prohibits the use of such firepower until after contact with the enemy.

What makes the choice of the Chinook particularly puzzling is that two much newer helos are available that are more maneuverable and present less of a target: the HH-60 and MH-53. These helos, unlike the Chinook, were designed for special operations. Perhaps the planners chose the bigger, clumsier Chinook because they believed a single HH-60 or MH-53 at 10,000 feet could carry too few SEALs and they did not want to lay on more of these special-ops helos. Perhaps the planners wanted to insert more R&S teams during one landing or make multiple insertions. Whatever the reason, the choice was disastrous. A wire-service story appearing the day after Roberts’s death noted what it called a “sad milepost: the Chinooks have accumulated the highest casualty toll of any piece of military materiel in the war so far.”

One old SEAL warrior asked me, “Where the fuck was the CAP?” CAP stands for combat air patrol and usually applies to fighter jets that carriers launch to protect a task force from enemy air attack. When SEALs from Vietnam use the term, they mean the on-call air support that runs high racetrack patterns near but not over the insertion point to maintain secrecy. In Vietnam, helicopter gunships and Black Ponies (propeller-driven fighters) usually provided this support. If SEALs properly planned their operation, aircraft could be strafing, rocketing, and bombing within minutes of enemy contact. If radios failed, SEALs could bring in helos and Black Ponies with pyrotechnics. SEALs still rely on helo gun-ships such as the Cobra and the newer Apache, but they favor a modernized equalizer that first appeared in Vietnam — a four-engine, turboprop monster called the AC130U “Spooky II” gunship. Spooky is a close-air support marvel packed with ammunition it cycles through a 25-millimeter Gatling gun, a 40-millimeter rapid-fire cannon, and a 105-millimeter howitzer. A computer aims and fires the howitzer automatically from a side door. Low-light TV and infrared sensors identify friend and foe at night and in bad weather. But all this technology and weaponry is useless if not timely. Where, indeed, was the CAP when Neil Roberts fought his lonely and fatal fight?

Another aging SEAL observed that our success depends on three enduring factors: accurate, timely intelligence; the element of surprise; and overwhelming, on-call fire support. Certainly the first two factors and perhaps the third were absent from the mission that killed Roberts.

Despite the intelligence and operational failures, however, Neil Roberts demonstrated the courage of a hero, the kind of courage SEALs believe should be recognized with more than a Bronze Star. They are heartened by talk that Rear Admiral Eric Olson, the SEAL commander, may have directed his staff to gather information in support of a much higher award. Whatever comes of this effort, a stretch of hallowed ground high above the Shah-e-Kot valley in Afghanistan already bears the name of yet another fallen warrior in that tortured land: Roberts Ridge.

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