Army Chaplain: "Heavenly Father, we read in sacred scriptures that there is an appointed time and place for everything under the heavens. Today is a day for war... Soon the coalition of nations will send forth troops to find those who seek terror over peace, and hatred over love. Lord, I ask your blessing on this aircraft. May all these helicopters soar as on eagles’ wings and bring us safely to your rendezvous with destiny, a world secure in peace."
Prayers were not enough to keep a helicopter from being shot out of the sky by al Qaeda fighters. The wreckage left behind on a his mountain top in a remote corner of Afghanistan — now known to the U.S. army as “Roberts Ridge” — is a reminder of the young soldiers who died, keeping their promise to “never leave a fallen comrade.”
Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor: Leave no man behind.Former Ranger Captain Nate Self: No question.
Former Ranger Captain Nate Self was aboard that helicopter, leading his men deep into enemy territory to rescue a missing soldier.
Phillips: Big price in this case.Self: A lot of people don’t understand it, they don’t think it’s worth it. It’s worth it.
Nate is back home now in Texas with his wife Julie and their two sons. But what happened on that distant ridge top is never very far away.
Phillips: You’ve been thinking about it a lot and dreaming about it?Self: I dream every night that I’ve always got a gun in my hands. There’s always something that has to be done, there’s always somebody shooting at me. And, you know—I kill people every night. It’s been almost three years since it happened.
Three years since a series of command failures and tragic miscommunications, sent Nate and a team of Army Rangers into an al Qaeda ambush.
Wounded during the battle, Nate was among the lucky ones who made it out alive. If only his psychological wounds healed as quickly.
Julie Self, Nathan’s wife: Nathan has told me that, in one of his times of being upset, that maybe he should have just died that day. And for me, that’s hard to understand and you know, “How can you think that? You have two kids, and me and for him to say that he should’ve just died, what do you say to that?
A graduate of West Point, Nate became a ranger, and in December 2001, received his captain’s bars. He was 25 years old, one of the army’s youngest at that rank.
Julie Self: He’s known as being, I don’t want to say perfect, but he strives to be excellent at everything he does. But very humble. He just always seemed to know what path he wanted to take. And if there was something he wanted he was gonna go get it.
Julie had never worried much about Nate’s safety until 9/11. When the U.S. launched its war on terror, Nate knew the Rangers would play a key role.
Phillips: So that you would soon be on a plane headed for Afghanistan was not a big surprise.Self: No. Not at all. I don’t think there are many places in the army, at least prior to 9/11, many places in the army where the use of force, the sense of killing, is more palpable than it is in the Ranger regiment. I mean it’s apparent, on even the youngest guys’ faces.
Specialist Oscar Escano was one of those young guys.
Specialist Oscar Escano: Nate Self is sort of like, his toughness was understated, he was like the calm in the storm.
He was under Nate Self’s command and fought beside him in Afghanistan.
Phillips: Why did you join the army?Escano: It was almost like an obligation. Just a moral obligation. Just the fact that I live in this country where we enjoy so many luxuries and so many benefits of American citizenship.
The oldest of three brothers, Oscar grew up in New York, and later New Jersey. His parents, both immigrants from the Dominican Republic, worried about their son’s decision to enlist.
Phillips: How did they feel about it?Escano: They were definitely opposed to it. And they tried by whatever means parent use to try and change their children’s minds.Phillips: To dissuade you?Escano: To dissuade me, yeah.
His mother, Juanita Jenyons, a physician, was especially concerned about Oscar’s safety.
Juanita Jenyons, Oscar Escano's mother: We were very surprised. We did everything we could to try to prevent that. I remember his dad actually prohibited the recruiting officer to come into this home, you know. And we were very upset.Escano: I made the decision after high school that this is what I wanted to do and damn it, I was gonna do it.
After 3 years of intense training, Oscar completed Ranger school. His last day was memorable for another reason.
Escano: That morning I woke up and our instructors at Ranger school told us—“Listen, men—two planes just crashed into the World Trade Center.”Phillips: 9/11 happened?Escano: Right. And my reaction to that emotionally was very, very, very quietly and subtly intense. Because not only I’m a native New Yorker, but also I was a Ranger. Phillips: You were ready to go?Escano: We were ready to go.
In December 2001, his ranger regiment shipped out to Afghanistan. Oscar Escano and Nate Self were joining the hunt for al Qaeda targets including Osama Bin Laden.
Julie Self: We said our good-byes, and he left at 5 a.m. And I just sat there with Caleb, and by myself, and cried, and I went to put Caleb back down in his crib, and he had left a note for Caleb [crying] with a Ranger tab and his Captain’s bars. And it just kind of struck me right then, that it’s possible that he won’t come back.
Julie had little contact with Nate during the next four months. As a special operations soldier, his missions were classified, his whereabouts secret.
In January 2002, Nate and his unit were deployed to Bagram airbase. One month later, they were tapped to join “Operation Anaconda,” a major offensive to capture or kill Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.
Julie Self: I remember sitting there, watching the news, and they were talking about Operation Anaconda, and they had mentioned Special Ops. And I just had this feeling that he was involved in that.Jenyons: I had a network of friends that were helping me pray for Oscar, and for everyone that was around him. That’s what kept me going, because it was very very stressful for me to think that Oscar was in harm’s way.
For Captain Nate Self, Specialist Oscar Escano and the other Rangers, it would soon be time to fulfill their creed, come to the aid of fallen comrades, and for some, to make the ultimate sacrifice.
The mission, known as Operation Anaconda, was set to launch in early March 2002, less than six months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
It was time for American forces, both conventional ground troops and Special Ops, to take the fight to al Qaeda.
Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck: The mission of “Operation Anaconda” was to attack and defeat foreign al-Qaeda that were located in the Shah-i-Khot Valley in Afghanistan.General Franklin “Buster” Hagenbeck was the two-star general in command of the operation.Stone Phillips, Dateline correspondent: What did U.S. intelligence tell you about the numbers you should expect to encounter out there?Gen. Hagenbeck: There was an expectation there would be between 150 and 250 foreign al Qaeda in the Shah-i-kot Valley and that that’s what we would fight. And it was clear that there were some high value targets, if you will, on our “hit list” that we wanted to go after. Phillips: Some fairly high level people? Gen. Hagenbeck: That’s right, Osama bin Laden had basically gone silent since Tora Bora. And we did not know if he was if he was alive. And if he was, if he was in Pakistan or potentially in the Shah-i-Khot Valley.
The valley is located in the southeastern corner of Afghanistan. For the last 2,000 years, Afghan fighters there had successfully resisted some of the world’s most formidable armies—from Alexander the Great in 330 B.C., to the British in 1800’s, to the Soviet Army in 1980.
Now, 1,400 American troops, joined by coalition forces from Canada, Australia and Europe, were about to enter the valley.
It was to begin with a ground attack by friendly Afghan militia, accompanied by a small group of U.S. Special Forces.
Gen. Hagenbeck: If the al Qaeda chose to stand and fight, we would support them from firing positions and air support. If al Qaeda chose to run, we would cut em off literally at the pass. We were going to strangle them in the valley, hence the name “Anaconda.”
“Anaconda” for the giant snake that kills by strangling its prey. That was the plan. But the field of battle presented major obstacles.
Gen. Hagenbeck: The Shah-i-Khot Valley is one of the nastiest pieces of terrain on the face of the earth. We were asking our soldiers to go into excruciatingly difficult terrain in just unimaginable weather.
In the weeks leading up to Anaconda, Nate Self, Oscar Escano and the Rangers trained intensely.
Pictures show their unit conducting a live fire exercise just days before the battle.
The rangers would not be going in with the rest of the forces. Their role was to stay back, ready to respond, if soldiers were in trouble.
Phillips: In Operation Anaconda you led a “Quick Reaction Force.” Tell me about that unit and what you were prepared to do if called upon.Nate Self: For the most part the connotation is they’re going in to fix something that’s gone wrong. Or to make a bad situation better. To recover downed aircraft, personnel in the aircraft. Or hasty attacks, if necessary.Oscar Escano: You could be called up at a moment’s notice, not know what you were going into, but still be expected to perform. Which, as it just so happens, is exactly what rangers are trained to do.Phillips: Rapid response. Rescue. Whatever the mission called for.Escano: Just the classic go, swoop in, kick in the door, take care of business and get your people out as quickly as possible.
Less than 24 hours into Operation Anaconda, that’s exactly what the rangers would be called upon to do. And it would plunge them into the bloodiest fight of the battle.
March 1st, 2002: The day before launch. This was the staging area, Bagram airfield. 150 miles from the Shah-i-Khot valley.
This base would serve as headquarters for commanders and a launching pad for the troops.
Brigadier General Frank Wiercinski was a colonel during Anaconda and one of Hagenbeck’s key architects of the battle plan.
Phillips: This was a pretty complicated operation, You had to plan for a lot of different contingencies.Brig. Gen. Frank Wiercinski: Absolutely—weather and terrain were also the enemy. The temperature ranges could go from minus zero to about 50 degrees in no time. And from great visibility to zero visibility.
In the final hours leading up to the mission, memories of the 9/11 attacks were fresh in the minds of the troops.
Sgt. Michael Peterson: All we could think about was, “Get a little payback, and stop those folks from hurting any more Americans.”
Among those heading into the fight was a mortar team from New York’s 10th Mountain Division.
Peterson: We all had a mission. And our mission was to stop clowns from killing Americans. To do the best we can to knock these guys off the face of the earth. Sgt. David Hruban: We were a unit from Fort Drum, New York. So, it was a bunch of New Yorkers really pissed off at what happened to our city. And we’re coming to get you.
The men were prepped and morale was high, despite the heavy casualties their platoon leaders warned them to expect.
Joseph Cook: Our PL told us we had a big fight. And he didn’t expect a lot of us to come back.Phillips: What was your reaction?Cook: was ready to go.
They felt ready, but the reality was the troops were all pretty green. Most of the soldiers were just out of boot camp, many barely out of high school.
Phillips: Have you ever been in combat before?Cook: No, never.Phillips: How much combat experience had your unit had?Self: Not a whole lot. I had never been shot at before, and I had never shot at anyone before
Even the men in Captain Nate Self’s Quick Reaction Force, all elite Army Rangers, had not been battle tested.
Self: We had participated in a few missions at that point in time, but we had never been shot at. I don’t think anyone in the platoon had shot at anyone up to that point.
Half-a-world-away in Texas, Julie Self could not imagine what her husband was about to face. But she knew when he left for Afghanistan that he had spent the last seven years preparing for this moment.
Julie Self, Nate’s wife: I was a little uneasy. Afghanistan seems so foreign, you know? You just picture him in these mountains, and I’m like, “How do you fight these people—that’s their terrain, and how do you train for that?” And he didn’t tell me a whole lot about it, but I felt secure in that he was prepared to go, and he was ready to go.
On the eve of the battle, Colonel Weircinski rallied the troops.
Wiercinski Speech: Every one of our generations, has been called on to do something for it’s country. We are no different. We’ve been called on to fight the war on terrorists. You are part of that fight.
Phillips: What do you remember about that speech?Mauzy: Jumped up on that Humvee and started talking to us. Everyone was pumped and ready.
Wiercinski Speech: A lot of us have two questions, always going through our minds. Why, and how will I do? For me it’s 9/11. For those families that watched as their loved ones never came home. It’s for them. We do this for them.”
Phillips: What did you see when you looked in their faces? Brig. Gen. Frank Weircinski: I actually saw thoughtfulness. I did not see fear. And I thought at some point I would see a few scared faces. I did not see any of that.
“We have two missions tonight: One is to defeat an enemy. The second one is a goal, to bring everybody home! Never leave a fallen comrade.”
Brig. Gen. Weircinski: They had confidence in themselves. It wasn’t braggadocios, and it wasn’t overly confident. But it was a sense that we’re soldiers, we’ve got a job to do. This is our moment.
“Do not be afraid to squeeze that trigger, you will know when, you will know why. Take care of one another. Today is your climb to glory. Today’s our rendez-vous with destiny. Y’all be proud of yourself. God bless each and every one of us. I’ll see you when we come back. Remember our motto: Let valor not fail! Rakassan!!”
Weircinski: We live by our warrior ethos. Mission always comes first. Do not accept defeat. Never quit. And never leave a fallen comrade. If our soldiers can’t believe that that’s gonna happen, I don’t see how men could go into combat.Cook: All I remember is after he got done speaking, like he said, I was never more proud and ready to go than I had been in my life.Escano: You just live the creed. You will risk your life to bring back, even if he’s dead, the body of one of your comrades, even if you haven’t met him before.
At 4 a.m. on March 2nd, 250 soldiers from the Army’s 101st airborne and 10th mountain divisions boarded their helicopters.
In less than two hours they would face an enemy far greater in strength and numbers than any of them suspected, despite a late intelligence warning that al Qaeda had reinforced its positions.
Phillips: A CIA report is said to have indicated, a few days before the operation began, that there were, “triple the number of al Qaeda fighters in the area. That they were well armed, well trained, dug in at higher elevations and ready to fight.” Did you see that report?Gen. Hagenbeck: I did see that report. In fact, we ended up sending in people to try to verify and confirm this. We could not verify those. It turned out to be the CIA report was closer than I was on that.Phillips: A lot more than you thought?Gen. Hagenbeck: Yeah.
U.S. forces lifted off into the night sky, the first wave of the assault. The soldiers headed into battle, most for the first time, believing they could handle whatever lay ahead.
Peterson: It was just quiet. There was no boasting. There was no pounding your chest and, “I’m just gonna go whack a bunch of al-Qaeda guys.” No, it’s just, “Let’s get it done.” Everyone wanted to get it done.
From the start, the battle did not go according to plan. As the Afghan allies and a handful of U.S. Special Ops advisors entered the valley, they came under heavy machine gun and mortar fire.
A U.S. airstrike was called in. It proved disastrous.
Gen. Hagenbeck: In that chaotic time in which the Afghan militia were coming under fire, strung out somewhere, somehow misorientation. It resulted in some friendly casualties.
The aircraft mistakenly targeted and killed friendly forces, including Special Operator Stanley Harriman—a 34-year old husband and father of two from Missouri.
Gen. Hagenbeck: Unfortunately, these things happen. They should never happen, but they do.
The leader of the Afghan militia, General Zia Loden of the Northern Alliance, was stunned by the mistake.
Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor: What effect did that have on Zia and his forces.Gen. Hagenbeck: I mean it’s devastating. You’re under attack from the enemy and then you’re uncertain of how you’re shot up from the air.
The Afghans withdrew from the fight. It was a major blow to the battle plan.
The helicopters carrying American infantry forces into the valley were now the sole targets for al Qaeda’s guns.
Sgt. Major Frank Grippe: I remember flying in through the valley. I remember our door gunners being a little nonchalant. So I had to give them a little nudge, y’know, “Get behind your weapon systems. Start aiming at known likely and suspected enemy areas.” ‘Cause you just never know when you’re gonna be engaged.
Phillips: Because things looked pretty calm, as far as they were concerned.
Sgt. Major Grippe: Well, exactly. But you know, calm is only a second in time.
At all of the landing zones, or LZs, in the foothills above the valley, the American choppers came under attack. Especially in the southern most LZs, where the helicopters were hit with automatic weapons fire, mortars and RPGs rocket-propelled grenades.
Cook: We were taking fire as we were jumping out of the back of the chopper.Mauzy: As soon as we got off that ‘bird’ you could just look over and just see the tail streams of all the RPG’s, just flying in our direction.
Defense Department video from that morning shows U.S. soldiers pinned down by al Qaeda fighters hidden in caves and bunkers, better armed and as that CIA report had warned, in numbers far greater than commanders had anticipated.
Gen. Hagenbeck: Listen, their weapons were in pristine condition. This was not a pickup team. These guys were wearing outfits, uniforms as good as U.S. soldiers or better. Right off the Internet stuff, the Gortex and all the rest.Menard: It seemed like everywhere I looked, you know, there’s a guy bleeding from his head, his leg, people yelling.
Dropping troops into enemy strongholds was never the plan. All of the landing zones were supposed to have been checked out in the hours before launch. But according to an Air Force report, the plane scouting the LZs was unable to complete its mission “due to a maintenance problem.” For field commanders like Frank Wiercinski, that was critical information.
Phillips: Were you aware that troops were being sent in to landing zones that had not been checked out with aerial reconnaissance?Brig. Gen. Frank Weircinski: No. I was not. I did not know that we did not have coverage of that southern area.
From their battle positions in the valley, radio operators transmitted urgent requests for “close air support”— military jargon for low-flying attack aircraft.
But getting through to these attack helicopters became almost impossible. There were too many calls and too few radio frequencies, another glitch in the Anaconda battle plan.
Warrant Officer Rich Chenault: Sometimes they would step on each other because multiple units were under attack at the same time.
Warrant Officer Rich Chenault was flying an Apache attack helicopter that day.
Chenault: All hell did break loose. Pretty much everybody on the ground needed apache support all at one time. It was completely overwhelming.Gen. Hagenbeck: Did I feel like I had a hand around my throat for the first few hours? The answer is absolutely, I did.
Not far from General Hagenbeck’s headquarters, the ranger Quick Reaction Force was ready to move out at a moment’s notice.
Oscar Escano did what he could to remain focused but relaxed.
Escano: We kept our weapons and gear maintained. We kept our minds sharp. I remember I read biology and played a little PlayStation in the tent.Juanita Jenyons, Oscar Escano's mother: From his point of view, it’s like y’know, he wanted some action. And from my point of view, I’m saying, “No, no action. So keep it boring, keep it boring, y’know?” [Laughs]
For Captain Nate Self, it was a time to reflect.
Nate Self: In a fight like that, in a place like that, the vast majority of Rangers turn to God for courage, for peace, for direction.Julie Self: His strength mainly comes from God. And for his soldiers, he just deeply cared for them. He looked at it as their lives are in his hand. And he didn’t take that lightly.
In a few hours time, the rangers would be called into action and Nate’s leadership tested.
For the men in the valley, neither bullets nor bombs could lessen the al Qaeda onslaught.
Grippe: We took everything that could be thrown out of those mountains at us, about the only thing they didn’t do was roll any boulders down on us.
By late afternoon U.S. commanders in Bagram called in bombers to pound enemy positions.
To maximize accuracy and minimize the chance of another friendly fire accident, Special Ops commanders decided to send a team of Navy SEALs to one of the highest mountains overlooking the valley. It’s called Takur Ghar.
Al Mack, pilot: That was a key piece of terrain, and it’s called key terrain for a reason. It’s key to everybody.
Al Mack, a pilot with the 160th special operations aviation regiment, nicknamed the night stalkers, was assigned to the mission. The plan called for him to chopper the SEALs to the mountain, undercover of darkness.
Phillips: It was high. It gave you a good vantage point and getting eyes up there would be helpful calling in close air support?Mack: Extremely important. The mission came down to me to put this special reconnaissance team in.
It was about 3 a.m., March 4th, when they approached the landing zone. As a NBC news animation shows, everything was quiet. But not for long.
Mack: About that time somebody popped up, and fired his RPG, you know, from 50 feet away at most.Phillips: 50 feet?Mack: It was very close. I saw him just outta the corner of my eye, hit the aircraft. You hear a big, y’know, big boom, and—all the generators go out. It set the inside of the aircraft on fire. The team was in the back trying to put it out.Phillips: And what was going through your mind?Mack: Well, the thing that was going through my mind was, “What’s the team gonna do? Are they staying on or they gettin’ off?” And, about that time the right rear gunner, yells, “We’re taking fire in the rear. Go, go, go, go.”
Mack struggled to keep the damaged chopper in the air. Just 10 feet off the ground, it was flyable, but just barely.
Mack: The aircraft was shaking like a washing machine out of balance. You know it was obvious we were gonna have to put it down somewhere. And then I started thinking, “Well, where are we gonna put this? I mean there’s a big battle going on right—just out my right door.”
Minutes later, the helicopter crash-landed in the valley. Everyone on board was okay, but a quick head-count told them something was wrong.
Mack: The crew told me, they said, “Hey, we lost a man. We lost a man in the LZ.” And at first it was disbelief. You know it was like—“You can’t be serious. Do another head count.” They said, “No, we saw him go out. He on the LZ right now.”
Maybe he was shot or maybe he just slipped. But it was clear 32-year-old Navy Seal Neil Roberts was alone on a mountain, surrounded by al Qaeda fighters.
His fellow SEALs were rescued by another chopper. They quickly regrouped and headed back to the mountain to find their comrade.
Phillips: A second chopper was dispatched to save Neil Roberts, and SEALs got out, chopper got away. But they came under heavy fire. Were you able to watch any of this as it unfolded?Gen. Hagenbeck: Yes I was.
General Hagenbeck watched the scene unfold live—the video transmitted from an unmanned spy plane called a predator, flying overhead.
Phillips: Can you describe it for us?Gen. Hagenbeck: I just, I mean it tears your heart out.Phillips: What did you see?Gen. Hagenbeck: A couple of guys were shot. We couldn’t tell how badly at the time. And then you saw these guys go through, it looked like, waist-deep snow toward the objective and it was a relentless fight.
By now, two helicopters had been ambushed on Takur Ghar. A Navy Seal was missing, others shot trying to save him.
Soon two more choppers would head to the mountain that would come to be called “Roberts Ridge.” Leading this next rescue mission: Captain Nate Self.
A radio warning not to land in the same place would be sent, but never received. Nate and his young Rangers were headed into a killing zone.
32-year-old Navy Seal, Neil Roberts, had fallen out of a helicopter on Takur Ghar mountain. The chopper had come under heavy fire as it tried to land. the open area of snow-covered ground seen in this reconnaissance photo is where roberts went missing.
When his seal unit, called Mako 3-0 went back to rescue him, it too came under heavy fire. One of those hit was 36-year-old airforce special ops sergeant John Chapman. The remaining soldiers were forced to retreat down the mountain.
Back at headquarters in Bagram, word of the ill-fated missions to Takur Ghar crackled over the radio. Listening in was ranger captain Nate Self.
Capt. Nate Self: I was in the operation center planning for some kind of contingency. And I hear a little bit of traffic come over the radio about one of our helicopters being forced to land, or that it went down.
Details were sketchy. But moments later the ranger “Quick Reaction Force” under Nate’s command was told it had a job to do.
Specialist Oscar Escano: Our platoon Sergeant comes in and says, “Get your gear on. There’s more information to follow. Just get out the door.”
The 20 man ranger unit headed to the tarmac, where two choppers were “spinning up.” The rangers split into two squads. Half with Nate boarded the lead chopper supported by three air force special operators. Oscar Escano and the remaining rangers gathered behind the other.
Escano: I remember boarding this aircraft. And we were, kind of, boarding in single file. And these jet engines, they spew exhaust. And just going from the cold air into this exhaust. The exhaust was just blowing on my face. And I felt the warmth. And the aircraft is almost alive and breathing. It’s, it was really incredible.Within minutes the birds were airborne, for the 150-mile flight to the battle zone. The rangers were well-armed with everything except information about their mission.Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor: As you’re making your way over there had you ever heard the name Takur Ghar?Self: No.Phillips: Did you know that a SEAL had fallen out of an aircraft up there?Self: No.Phillips: Or that another chopper full of SEALs had dropped in and taken heavy fire.Self: No.Phillips: So you didn’t know exactly where you were going, what you were going to be doing.Self: No, our initial plan was we didn’t want to waste any more time in Bagram deciding what we were going to do. And we knew that we had about an hour’s flight. In talking to my operations officer in command in Bagram we decided to give them an hour to assess the situation and then get my orders from there.Self: I started looking out at the terrain flying into where it’s all going on. Men have been fighting here and bleeding here for a couple of days. I have not been a apart of it and I’m being inserted right into it.
Pressing headphones to his ears, listening in to radio chatter between Bagram and the battlefield, Nate heard for the first time that a soldier had fallen out of a helicopter. How and where, he didn’t know.
Self: As I was monitoring traffic on the radio, I understood and heard some call signs that I recognized. One of them being a MAKO call sign. Phillips: A unit of SEALs, MAKO 3-0.Self: Correct. And I understood from the radio traffic that they had moved to the vicinty of the man who had fallen out of the helicopter, and that they were attempting to secure him.Still, he knew nothing about Takur Ghar and the danger of landing there. And in those critical minutes, as the two choppers approached the battle zone, the communication problems that had plagued operation anaconda from the start imperiled Nate’s mission, as well. Self: We had trouble talking to anyone and we had trouble talking to each other. Both aircraft.Phillips: So the two choppers lost communication there?Self: Yeah.
Importantly, Nate’s chopper never received an urgent message being transmitted by his commanders.
Al Mack: The colonel and our commander were screaming, “No, no! Don’t go.” Too late.Phillips: The message, “Do not land on the top of that mountain” never made it to you.Self: No, not explicitly like that.Phillips: So somebody tried to get a message to them: “Don’t land there!” They just didn’t get it?Gen. Hagenbeck: Yeah that’s the confusion that happens on the battlefield. Phillips: Things fall through the cracks?Gen. Hagenbeck: Yeah. Phillips: I mean, somebody changes a landing zone and somebody doesn’t get told...Gen. Hagenbeck: Exactly right.
Though the skies that morning were clear, the fog of war and failed communications were about to place Nate and his rangers in al Qaeda’s crosshairs.
Phillips: How would you describe your feelings at that time?Escano: Well, they say “You never hear the bullet that kills you.” If you think of your life during these moments as a movie, as a story. You just hope that you’re not in the middle of the story and all of a sudden the lights go out.
The first chopper carrying Nate Self and his rangers was co-piloted by 37-year-old Kentucky native, Greg Calvert.
Greg Calvert, chopper pilot: We’re about six minutes out at that point. We start briefing the crew, “Here’s what we’re gonna do, anybody have any questions? Okay, let’s do it.
Seated just behind Calvert was his fellow aviator Don Tabron.
Don Tabron: We proceeded inbound. Now the sun is up at this point. So we’re out there in broad daylight.Calvert: Just over the horizon and so it’s blue sky now.Tabron: We’re really feeling exposed, you know. You’re a black helicopter with snow covered everything. So you really stood out.Capt. Nate Self: That was a bad place to land even at night. For us to try to do it right before daybreak was even worse.Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor: So through all of this you had no idea the two other choppers had been there?Self: No. No idea.
It was now just after 6 a.m. With the sun coming up, and radio communications down, Nate was still unaware that two choppers had already been ambushed at the landing zone where he was headed. He was still unclear on exactly what his mission was. And he’d lost track of the second chopper carrying Oscar Escano and the rest of his ranger Quick Reaction Force.
Self: Everyone kind of moved from a seated position to a kneeling position, and made sure their muscles were ready to run, to shoot, to dive to crawl, whatever they needed to do when they hit the ground.
After training and living together for months, the rangers had become a close-knit unit. Nate’s wife Julie is certain that the safety of his men weighed heavily on her husband’s mind.
Julie Self, Nate’s wife: A lot of these men are 18, 19 years old; babies you know, just out of home. And he’s thinking of their parents, and how they’re feeling, and he carried that with him.Phillips: Staff Sergeant Ray DePauli.Self: A life saver.Phillips: Specialist Marc Anderson.Self: Spirit of a Ranger.Phillips: Specialist Matt Commons.Self: Innocence.Phillips: Sergeant Brad Crose.Self: Perfect.Phillips: Specialist Anthony Masseli.Self: (LAUGHTER) A klutz. Phillips: Guess there’s got to be one of those in every outfit, huh?Self: [Laugh]Phillips: Sergeant Josh Walker.Self: Hard-nosed.Phillips: Specialist Aaron Totten-Lancaster.Self: Quiet, but peak performer.Phillips: Private First Class David Gillum.Self: Young and fearless.Phillips: Enlisted Tactical Air Controller Kevin Vance.Self: Kevin. Highly competent, highly confident. Sure. Very sure.
As Nate and his men braced for landing, he glanced at the ranger next to him in the back of the chopper. 30-year-old specialist Marc Anderson had quit his job as a high school math teacher in Florida to defend his country.
Self: I grabbed Marc on the shoulder and squeezed him, just kind of assurance that he knew that I was there and was thinking about him. And, he leaned forward to David Gillum who’s, I don’t know, 18, 19 years old, and gave him a thumbs up and said, “Today I feel like a Ranger.”Phillips: The pilots circled the mountain three times. What was going on as you readied to land?Self: Everyone in the crew was up on their feet looking out of every window they could find searching, searching for RPG launches, trying to protect the helicopter and the flight became very, very rough.Calvert: I pop over the hilltop. I’ve picked my landing point out. And I set up for my approach. And then everything just, all hell breaks loose.
Once again, commanders positioned a predator drone — like this one — above the mountain top.
General Hagenbeck watched as the spy plane’s infra-red camera sent back live images of Nate self’s helicopter.
Phillips: Can you describe the intensity of the fire that chopper came under?
Gen. Hagenbeck: I mean it, you think of the biggest action movie you’ve ever seen and replicated that at the outset.Phillips: Rocket propelled grenades, machine gun fire, tracers.Gen. Hagenbeck: Yes, it was all there.Phillips: What were you thinking about how you had come to land at that same place?Self: It seemed to me that somebody had made a pretty big mistake.
Just as Nate’s chopper was about to land, it was struck by a rocket propelled grenade.
Self: The flash is the reaction of our helicopter from an RPG being—more than one RPG being fired.
Transmitted without sound, the pictures hardly convey how ferocious the enemy fire was.
Self: Inside the helicopter—we had rounds entering from both sides of the helicopter just—really tearing up the inside of that—the aircraft.Phillips: What did it sound like? What did it—what did it feel like?Self: To me it sounded like several people hitting the side of the helicopter with sledge hammers. Calvert: Bullets are coming through the windshield. Crew members are calling targets.
Pilot Greg Calvert struggled to keep the crippled chopper upright as it plummeted to the ground. A door-gunner named Phil Svitak returned fire.
Calvert: Phil Svitak, I remember him calling, “One-o’clock, three-o’clock, engaging.” That was the last words I heard him speak. He was calling out, calling out targets and he engaged them all the way down.
Svitak also called out to medic Cory Lamereax.
Cory Lameraux, medic: He said, "Doc, move back." So I moved about six feet back from where he was at.
Lameraux and Svitak were both hit by enemy fire. Svitak, a 31-year-old husband and father of two, was killed instantly. His warning to move likely saved Lamereaux’s life.
Lameraux: The next thing I remember is waking up on my back and opened my eyes and blood had pooled in my eye socket. And just opening my eyes and going, “Hey, I’m okay.” I found out I received three rounds into my helmet. Phillips: So the force of the bullets in your head had knocked you out.Lameraux: Apparently.
After hitting the ground, the chopper became an easy mark for enemy fighters less than 50 yards away. The thin walls and windows provided little protection.
Calvert: I remember feeling getting hit in the chest, then feeling getting hit in the helmet.
Like everyone else aboard, Calvert was wearing a bulletproof helmet and vest but he was still dangerously exposed.
Calvert: I get my M4 off the side of the seat. There’s guys coming up over the rocks at 2-o’clock.Phillips: Enemy fighters?Calvert: Shooting. I pulled down, kicked the door out at the same time. I remember my hand feeling impact. And I came back to grab my weapon and my hand was gone. I missed the stock of my weapon. And I looked down and it was hanging down.
Phillips: You had taken, what, machine gun fire?
Calvert: All I knew was that my hand was bent over, there was nothing but meat and squirting blood.Lameraux: And about that time, was when Greg was trying to come out of the cockpit. I pulled a tourniquet out of my vest. And just immediately put it on his arm. And I was really wrenching it down. And he was screaming.
Also hit was ranger Marc Anderson. An air force medic named Jason Cunningham rushed to his aid.
Lameraux: Anderson was laying about halfway back in the aircraft. And Jason Cunningham yelled to me that he didn’t have a pulse.
Marc Anderson, the former school teacher, died in those first minutes of the ambush.
Now, the rangers’ only hope was to get out of the helicopter, find cover and try to take the fight to the enemy.
Self: It was just a frantic effort to get out of that situation. Because everyone in there was for all intents and purposes helpless.
What Nate saw when he reached the ramp at the back of the chopper made him realize his longest day was just beginning.
Nate Self: Almost everyone inside the aircraft had been thrown to the floor on the impact, and we’re trying to get out. Crawling and scratching. Whatever we had to do get out of the aircraft.
Their downed helicopter had become a deathtrap. Nate Self knew they had to get out; the rangers closest to the rear door led the charge down the ramp.
Phillips: Looks like, what? Four or five rangers have gotten out.Self: Yeah.Phillips: But, some did not make it out.Self: That’s right. When I got to the ramp I saw Sergeant Crose. And, I saw Matt Commons at the end of the ramp as well.Phillips: Two Rangers down.Self: Yeah.
Brad Crose was 22. Matt Commons 21. The attack on the U.S. chopper — the third in as many hours in the same location had now claimed the lives of four soldiers, two others were seriously wounded, including a pilot whose escape from the front of the chopper can be seen in the predator video.
Self: The pilot on the left side of the helicopter popped his door out, and grabbed his rifle and fell out into the snow and began fighting from the front of the aircraft.Phillips: He had been hit with enemy fire.Self: Yes.Phillips: What did you know about casualties at this point?Self: Well, I knew that we had several people that did not make it out of the helicopter. But I had no idea what the extent of it was. I could hear some people inside the helicopter in pain, so I mean, we always train that if we take a casualty the best thing you can do for that casualty is to kill the enemy.
Before they could mount a counter-attack, Nate and his fellow rangers had to find cover on the barren mountaintop. Their aircraft, as shown in pictures of that day, was exposed.
Self: You see a couple of Rangers moving up the right side of the aircraft here. That was me and Specialist Lancaster. And we moved that direction because the gunfire was coming from the left side of the helicopter was so intense.
The chopper offered some protection, but Nate and Aaron Lancaster were still vulnerable.
Self: We took fire from above, above us to our right. And an RPG was fired at us as well. It exploded somewhere on the right side of the helicopter and hit him in the calf and hit me in the thigh.Phillips: Shrapnel? Self: Yes. It hits—you feel it to the bone, like maybe a ball pen hammer with the tip of a nail at the end of it.
Despite the leg wound, Nate was able to move and maintain focus. Moments later, another problem stopped him in his tracks.
Self: As I started to shoot, my weapon jammed, the round didn’t extract. I knew that I’d seen casualties at the ramp, so I threw my weapon down and went back and grabbed Brad Crose’s weapon and moved back into the fight with his rifle. Self: Real quickly here, you’re going to see a line of Rangers here. Everyone begins to fire, pickup their rates of fire. Rangers begin to move to this rock outcropping here. Which is what we thought was a better place to fight from.
The large dark areas on the video are clumps of rock and trees up the mountain from the chopper, where the enemy was dug-in. The dot moving on the screen is an al Qaeda fighter shuttling ammo from one bunker to another.
By 6:30 a.m., 20 minutes into the fight, Nate’s men had managed to make radio contact with U.S. fighter jets overhead. Nate requested a bombing run on a large calibre machine gun beneath a pine tree just sixty yards up the mountain.
Phillips: You and the enemy were so close. I mean this was a dangerous proposition to be dropping bombs there. I mean it could easily have hit you.Self: Yeah, very easily could’ve. We were lucky enough to have pilots overhead that were experienced enough and had the courage to do it when we asked them to.
As good as the pilots were, a test run quickly proved that the bombs were too big, the enemy too close, the risk too great. Nate’s next option was a ground assault.
Self: The way I looked at it, obviously there’s three ways we could go at it: That we could go left, we could go right, we could up the middle.
With a ranger laying down covering fire, Nate and three other men advanced straight ahead toward the enemy position. They’d only moved a few yards when Nate realized how well-protected the al Qaeda machine gun was.
Self: I just said, Let’s get back. So we had to scurry back down.Phillips: You yelled....Self: Bunker! Bunker! Get back! Get Back!
On and off for the next hour, the rangers and al Qaeda took turns hurling grenades at each other.
Self: Every grenade that was thrown didn’t even make but mabye halfway there. Right down in the snow. Dead thump. And they were throwing grenades down at us, same thing, but I was a little more fearful that they would be able to Phillips: Throw it down..Self: Get it to bounce down to us. So at that point, I began thinking about, “Where is our second aircraft?”
The chopper carrying Oscar Escano and the rest of the rangers was on its way. After the radios failed, it had diverted to a nearby air base.
Now, on their way to Takur Ghar, they learned that fellow rangers had been killed up there. Above the roar of the helicopter, word was passed along from one man to the next—beginning with their squad leader.
Escano: I remember he was kind of nodding and then his face just got tense. His face became hard. He yelled to the guy next to him for a few seconds, and then that guy, his face got hard too. And then, he in turn yelled to the next guy. So all you can go on is what you see. It’s almost like watching your TV on mute. So the message was passed back, it finally got to the guy in front of me, and I was like, “Oh my god. This was a war, we were going into harm’s way.”
Three helicopters had already been ambushed on top of Takur Ghar. That mistake would not be made again. Oscar’s chopper was sent to a safer landing zone, well below the summit.
Phillips: So, at this point, you’ve heard that there are men dead—casualties. They’re under fire.Escano: When you hear something like that you think to yourself: now our boys need us. “Let’s go kick some ass right now.”
On a chopper bound for Takur Ghar, specialist Oscar Escano had just received word that three of his fellow rangers were killed in action.
Specialist Oscar Escano: I thought to myself, “There’s no way one of those KIAs was a Ranger, there’s no way! Nah, my guys don’t get hit. They’re just too good. We’re just too highly trained. There’s no way. And, they just—they mean too much to me. That can’t happen. Not now. Not here!” And, it did. But, I refused to believe it.
It was about 8 a.m., when the chopper made it’s final approach.
Escano: So, we’re flying in. And, I’m like, “Okay, this is it.” We were already on one knee, trigger finger’s outstretched, ready to go.
At home in New Jersey, Oscar’s mother couldn’t have known her son had just flown into battle. She had never approved of his decision to enlist, but like Oscar, she did everything she could to prepare.
Juanita Jenyons, Oscar's mother: I think that prayer gave me that reassurance that he was gonna be okay. I just felt like he’s protected, he’s gonna be alright. And it did give me that certainty.Escano: As soon as we got off, about just a few seconds later, that’s when we heard gunshots. Gunshots coming from that mountaintop.
Oscar and the 9 other rangers on his chopper touched down IN a safer landing zone.
But they would have to climb more than a thousand feet up steep, snow covered terrain to reach captain Nate Self and the rest of the Quick Reaction Force.
Phillips: It wasn’t nearly as close as you thought it was going to be.Escano: But we were going to get there, one way or another. Come hell or high water, we were going to get there.
Nate and his men had been pinned down for two hours. By now, the young ranger captain had more than the enemy to worry about.
Phillips: You had critical injuries?Self: Yeah, it’s hard to think straight when you have people in pain, and the men who are treating them...Phillips: They’re telling you we need to get these guys out of here.Self: Yeah. I began to believe that if there were a couple of men who were wounded so badly that they needed to get out, that we could possibly get another aircraft in there very quickly, leave and the rest of us could stay.
But just when Nate thought he’d identified a safe landing zone nearby, the rangers faced with a new threat: mortars.
Self: The first round that came in from mortar fire landed off the nose of the helicopter. It came over all of us, landed off the nose, I don’t know 40 meters off the front of the helicopter.Phillips: Incredibly close.Self: Very close.Phillips: For a first shot.Self: Especially for a first shot yeah.
Launched from a distant ridge, the mortar shells began hitting even closer. Then, at about 8:30 a.m., the shelling stopped. The al Qaeda spotters had found a new target: Oscar and the other rangers coming to Nate’s rescue.
Escano: We were hiking up this mountain and then there was this explosion way up in front of us. And then when the next round was behind us, that’s when I got worried. They were honing-in on our positions. Somebody told me somewhere, that the average time for a mortar round to hit was 15 seconds, so I started counting and like clockwork, at 15 seconds, there will be another explosion. And I started living my life 15 seconds at a time.
Fifteen second intervals: the time it took the enemy fighters to adjust their aim, reload and fire.
Escano: We just kept going and just prayed for the best. I remember I—I saw a tree in front of me. One of these nice little evergreen trees. And, I remember I got down behind it. Looking at this tree bark. There were only two thoughts going through my mind. The first one was, “Okay what if I get hit, I just pray to God as my last wish that it will just obliterate my body completely.” Because I did not want to force my buddies to have to carry, carry my body through this mission.
And I felt sorry for my mom because when I left home to join the army, my parents advised me against it. My grandmother was standing on the front steps sobbing. And, I knew I was putting my family through a lot of pain, but I had to do it for me.
Jenyons, Oscar Escano's mother: When he first told me that he was gonna do this, I was not thinking, “Oh, how courageous!” I was not thinking that. I was thinking y’know, “Oh my God!”
Escano: And as it turns out, the rounds didn’t hit anyone. They just kept getting closer and closer. And, eventually they stopped.Escano: My mom says she had easily 100 friends and family members praying for me back. I’m not quite that religious, but hey, who knows?Jenyons: He said to me, “Mom, I know I was protected. I saw a light when I was there.”
Protection came from above that day, as it did throughout Operation Anaconda. The enemy mortar positions were destroyed by thousand pound bombs called in by Nate Self.
As they waited for Oscar and the others to arrive, two of Nate’s men discovered a deserted enemy shelter just below the chopper. Nate was about to hear the name Neil Roberts for the first time.
Self: They found some of Neil Roberts' gear down there with his name on it. Found his rucksack They found his helmet which had a bullet hole in it.
Those traces of the missing Navy SEAL only raised more questions.
Self: I didn’t know at that point why that stuff was there. I didn’t know that the man who had fallen out of the helicopter had fallen out right there. I thought we had just landed in a bad place that no one knew was bad. Phillips: Because you couldn’t imagine having been sent in to land at the same place where they’d taken such heavy fire.Self: Correct.
So what had happened to Neil Roberts? Was it possible he was still alive?
The battle on Takur Ghar mountain had been raging for more than three hours. An enemy bunker housing a powerful machine gun had to be taken out. It was too close to bomb, and with the second group of rangers still scaling the mountain, captain Nate Self had too few men for a ground assault. That’s when he remembered something that could turn the tide in his favor.
Capt. Nate Self: It hit me that we had another option to bring firepower in on the bunker. And I thought about Predator.Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor: One of the unmanned drones flying around.Self: Yes.
Nate recalled that the CIA’s predator drones were often armed with precision-guided missiles. A radio call confirmed it.
Phillips: So you had two Hellfire missiles at your disposal?Self: Correct.
Nate talked it over with his tactical air controller, Kevin Vance.
Self: Initially I looked at Kevin Vance and I said, “What do you think, should we use it?” And he said, “No, y’know, it’s not safe enough.”
Nate decided to take the risk. At about 9:45 a.m., the predator was cleared to fire.
The first missile landed wide of the mark. The blast shook the mountaintop and the other rangers climbing up. Their squad leader got on the radio.
Self: He called me and said, “Whatever you’re doing you need to stop that, because it came pretty close to us.” And I think my reply was along the lines of, “It’s not as close to you as it is to us, just keep moving.”Phillips: And the second one?Self: The second one had to have been right into the bunker. When it hit. There were pieces of the tree flying everywhere.
The machine gun—hidden just beneath this tree—was destroyed. But al qaeda gunmen continued to fire on them from a trenchline nearby.
At around 10:30 a.m., Oscar and the other rangers finally reached Nate’s position.
Specialist Oscar Escano: I just remember taking those last few steps, and the scene just kind of revealed itself. There was the downed Chinook that looked so out of place. And I remember seeing some specks in the snow. mean, I could make them out to be bodies.
When Oscar spotted his captain, he could see battle was far from over.
Escano: When I first saw him he had a first aid dressing on his leg. And it was red, it was soaked with blood. And he was still fighting.
With ten more rangers joining the fight, Nate now had enough men to launch an assault. But more than two hours of climbing had taken its toll.
Self: They were totally spent physically when they got to me, and I said, “Take a couple of minutes, get everyone to catch their breath,” orient themselves. But once everyone told me we were ready to assault, I said “Okay, let’s go.” Self: The squad began to move as two fire teams and cover each other. And just a vast amount of fire power as they moved.Escano: I remember being so tunnel-visioned that I didn’t even see anything that was outside my sector. I was just concentrating on my sector, scanning it.Phillips: And if it moved, you were gonna kill it?Escano: It was gonna get obliterated, that’s how I felt. We had to keep the pressure on. We had to retake the initiative.
With superior force and numbers, the rangers overwhelmed the remaining al Qaeda fighters and, without taking any more casualties, secured the mountaintop.
Self: Now we controlled the ground that had controlled us for so long.
For the first time in more than five hours, the rangers felt relieved. But there was no celebration. A search of the enemy bunkers turned up more than the remains of al Qaeda fighters. Among the dead, were the bodies of two Americans.
Self: One guy was in the Air Force, one guy was a Navy SEAL.Phillips: In the bunker that had just been up the ridge from you.Self: Yeah, the bunker that we had just shot a Hellfire into, and that we’d been shooting at all day.
A horrible question entered Nate’s mind: had the missile attack he ordered cost two more American lives?
Self: I thought to myself, “I’ve just killed a couple of Americans today.” I don’t know who they are, but something’s gone wrong. I don’t know why they were there, I don’t know if they were hostage, I don’t know if they were trying to assault at the same time from different directions and they got caught in the middle.
The identities of the fallen soldiers were soon confirmed: Special Op’s Airman John Chapman and the man he’d gone to rescue, Navy Seal Neil Roberts, the soldier whose name would be attached to the ridge and rescue mission—whose fall from the helicopter had set in motion the entire chain of events.
Self: Then it all began to come together for me. And how they got up there. They said, “Yeah, Roberts is the one that had fallen out.” At that point, I understood what was going on.Phillips: That they had been killed and taken to the bunker? Your assault had not killed them?Self: Yeah.
Nate was told that Roberts, a husband and father from California,had been captured and executed.
John Chapman, a native of Connecticut, married with two daughters, had been killed in the firefight during the first rescue attempt.
In the quiet that followed, the rangers started moving the wounded.
Among the casualties, a grateful Greg Calvert, the chopper pilot whose hand had been nearly blown off.
Greg Calvert, chopper pilot: It’s amazing what the Rangers did that day. It just shows the dedication, their proficiency, the kind of soldiers they are. And they had a fine officer leading them that day in Nate Self.
It was now 11 a.m. Though they had paid a terrible price, the rangers had recovered the bodies of two fallen soldiers and were bringing their mission to a close. As they gathered the wounded, all that remained was a chopper flight off Takur Ghar.
Escano: And here we are on this ridge, going back and forth, with a casualty, moving at a snail’s pace through the snow. No cover whatsoever. And we just get opened up on by multiple machine guns and RPGs at the same time.Self: It was coming from the ridge that was just below us, maybe 250 meters away.Escano: Just a volley of fire.Self: And when it came in it was all we could do to find cover.Escano: And then they did something that I really, I really detested. What they did was they started to try and pick off our wounded guys who were lying in the snow. Self: They centered their attack right on our casualty collection point, which was completely exposed.
The calm on Takur Ghar had lasted only a few minutes. Al Qaeda guns once again had the rangers in their sights.
Specialist Oscar Escano: And I remember turning around and there’s tracer rounds just coming past me and just hitting the snow all around us... shew, shew ,shew... it was chaotic.
The most intense fire, focused on the most vulnerable: the wounded.
Escano: They knew we weren’t gonna leave our buddies out there. So if they would try to pick off these guys to lure us out, they could get more kills.
Medics Cory Lameraux and Jason Cunningham were with the casualties—treating their wounds and trying to get them out of the line of fire.
Escano: Jason Cunningham, he was out there completely disregarding the fact that that he was naked to any enemy contact. He just stayed out there. He was just doing his job. Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor: So did you see rounds going close to the men who were out there?Escano: Just very precise, I saw the tracers going right around where Cunningham was. And then somewhere in the middle of that burst, I heard him cry out. Cory Lameraux, medic: Jason and I were hit—pretty much at exactly the same time.
Though the medics were wearing body armor, both were hit just below their bullet proof vests.
Lamereaux: I immediately went into fetal position. And and I couldn’t move. So I thought that I was paralyzed.
Lamereaux’s bullet wound was critical. Cunningham, a 26-year-old father of two, was in worse shape.
Escano: I think everybody felt his pain at that moment. When they heard him cry out everybody felt like, they themselves, had been hit.
With two medics down, and all of the wounded exposed, rangers tried to pull as many as possible to cover. Oscar returned fire and called out to one stricken soldier lying in the snow:
Escano: Listen, just stay still. Don’t move. Just play dead. Maybe they’ll think they hit you and they won’t target you. Just play dead. And he said, ok, ok, ok.
Minutes later, the enemy fire was gone. American fighter jets, targetting the al Qaeda position, struck with devastating effect.
Escano: When the bombs were dropped and we felt that we were safe, we kind of—we came out from behind our cover. And—we just resumed what we were doing. We grabbed the causalities. And sadly now Jason was one of those casualties. He even told me, he said—“I don’t think it’s bleeding anymore. I think—I think I’m good. I think—let’s get out of here.”
With at least five soldiers critical, airlifting the wounded off the mountain was now the priority. Captain Nate Self radioed an urgent request to headquarters.
Capt. Nate Self: We were very clear that we believed that it could be done. And also the gravity of the consequences if it was not done.Phillips: What made you think you could get a chopper in there during daylight?Self: Since we had killed the enemy that was on top of the mountain, we had access to the reverse slope away from the enemy, you could land a Chinook on the side of that slope and not expose the helicopter, where the counter-attacks were coming from.
But commanders back in Bagram thought it was too risky to send any more helicopters during daylight. Darkness was at least 6 hours away.
Phillips: How excruciating was it to wait?Escano: We knew we were gonna have to wait until the sun went down to get extracted. Phillips: That you had people whose lives might be depending on somebody getting in there before nightfall.Escano: And for that reason we held out hope. For that reason, maybe they would bend the rules a little bit.
With the wounded battling shock, blood loss, and exposure, and one of them slipping away, all the rangers could do was wait.
Self: My heart sank. I still had hope that our guys could keep them alive.Don Tabron: Just before nightfall, Jason took a turn for the worse. And called over to the two medics. And they came rushing over.Escano: The commotion that I heard was not so much the medic doing CPR, but more so, the guys around him calling out to Cunningham. Phillips: Somehow will him to live?Escano: Just to will him to hang in there. “Hang in there Jason.” Y’know? “Don’t leave us. Just stay with us. Hang in there.” Y’know, “Help is coming.” You don’t know if he can hear you or not. But by God, you have to do something.Self: I’ll never forget, my medic who I was talking to most about the condition of the casualties came over to me and said, “You can tell ‘em our KIA count is now seven.”Phillips: Cunningham had died?Self: Yeah.Phillips: Because they had waited?Self: Yeah.
Jason Cunningham bled to death on the moutain. Like so many others, this had been his first time in combat. His life saving efforts, performing triage and blood transfusions under fire made his death all the more painful to Nate and his men.
It was 8:30 p.m. when the choppers finally landed to extract the rangers, their dead and wounded.
Self: I was on the last helicopter to leave with our force on it. And it also contained all of our bodies. And I think it took us over two hours to get back to Bagram. And to sit there with—our dead brothers was not easy to do.Escano: The bird was really packed. We had just had our dead friends just kind of piled onto the bird. And we got on with them. I just remember nodding off sitting on the deck of this helicopter. With my friends dead, right there in front of me.Juanita Jenyons, Oscar's mother: I remember the next day, in the evening, a call from Oscar came. And he described to me the scene. And you know, everybody here was crying. We were all on the phone. And he was very thankful to be, also alive.
When we sat down with Nate self three years after the rescue on “Roberts Ridge”, he still had only shared bits and pieces of his story with his wife Julie, then nine months pregnant.
During our interview they watched the predator video together for the first time.
Phillips: Julie, you’ve never seen it.Self: I’ve never seen it.
Nate took her through it moment by moment.
Self: Yeah, you can see the gunshots.Phillips: This is you right here?Self: I’m the second one back.Self: That was an RPG shot.Self: The left side door gunner had been shot in the leg. Both pilots had been shot.Julie Self: I can’t imagine what he even went through.[CRIES] I’m just grateful that he’s sitting here next to me.
But with seven men who didn’t make it off the mountain alive, questions remain.
Phillips: In your estimation, what was it that brought on the events up on Takur Ghar?
After the battle on Takur Ghar, the conventional and special operations forces fighting along side each other in Operation Anaconda began to take control of the Shah-i-Khot, the valley where victory had eluded so many foreign armies in the past.
The fighting continued for 10 more days until commanders were confident that all remaining al Qaeda forces were captured or killed.
Gen. Hagenbeck: The world’s a safer place then it was on the second of March when we inserted several thousand coalition forces to put their lives on the line to confront al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists.Stone Phillips, Dateline correspondent: Despite all of the things that did not go according to plan, how well did your men perform?Brig. Gen. Frank Weircinski: Magnificently. We secured our objectives, we completed our mission. That’s in my book success.Phillips: What turned the tide in this fight?Brig. Gen. Frank Weircinski: United States Army soldiers. Their ability, their discipline, their drive. Their audacity, their will to win turned the tide.
Eight Americans died in Operation Anaconda. All of them, Special Ops soldiers. Of the 1400 conventional soldiers that took part, 86 were wounded. But they all came home alive.
In the months that followed, military leaders declared the operation a major success. But others have questioned how much was actually accomplished.
Sean Naylor, writer for the Army Times: I saw nothing to suggest that hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of al Qaeda fighters had been killed.
Sean Naylor, a senior writer for the Army Times, was embedded with U.S. troops throughout the battle. He says military estimates that put the number of enemy dead at more than a thousand are an exaggeration.
Naylor: I walked the valley at the tail end of the operation. There’s no doubt that dozens, scores, probably in the low hundreds of al Qaeda fighters were killed. However, there’s also little doubt that at least an equally large number of al qaeda fighters managed to get away.Phillips: Sean Naylor estimates 150 to 300 killed and probably that many escaped. You agree?Gen. Hagenbeck: I don’t agree with his conclusions at all. I think there were more killed. And here’s what I would tell you in terms of who escaped from the valley: did some get out of there? Of course they did. But in very small numbers.Phillips: Do you think you took out any high value targets?Gen. Hagenbeck: Some that we would call upwards in the hierarchy? Absolutely. Did we take out some of the key leaders that we would have liked to have taken out? No. But, listen this was a huge success. This was an area where the Osama Bin Laden training camps were located. And we by and large dismantled that entire infrastructure they had. And we killed the largest majority of those trainers.
Still, Hagenbeck acknowleges that mistakes were made and some painful lessons learned. First and foremost, commanders violated a fundamental tenet of military leadership called “unity of command” -- the principle that one leader commands and controls all forces on the battlefield.
Phillips: So one operation, two commands, separate. You were preparing to fight the largest ground battle that the U.S. military had waged since 1991 in Iraq. And you didn’t have control over the Special Operations forces? Gen. Hagenbeck: That’s true. In the classic sense of a single commander over every soldier and agency and element on that battlefield at the outset of the fight, we did not have that. Phillips: Was that a concern to you?Gen. Hagenbeck: It was a concern.
The decision to keep Special Ops forces, like the Army Rangers and Navy SEALs, under a separate command was made by U.S. Central command, headed by General Tommy Franks. As a result, Hagenbeck wasn’t always aware of what the Special Ops side, called Task Force 11, was doing.
Naylor: The Task Force 11 tactical operations center was just down the road, but they were a world away from each other really, in terms of communication.
In fact, intelligence known to Hagenbeck about the strong enemy presence on Takur Ghar was never relayed to the Special Ops commanders who sent in that first chopper carrying Neil Roberts.
Phillips: An hour before the chopper took off with those SEALs, aerial imagery was said to come back showing that the top of the mountain was crawling with enemy fighters. But this was into your command center. Your command unit didn’t know that they were going to the top of the mountain. And so it just didn’t seem urgent or necessary to pass on that information?Gen. Hagenbeck: We did not have contact, I did not have specific contact with those choppers out in the field, so the information flow, I was unaware of it not getting to go where it needed go at that time.
A divided command, incomplete reconnaissance, failed communications. In the end, one of military’s most comprehensive reviews of the battle cited all of those problems and concluded that “the command and control organizations had faltered in small ways that added up to significant collective mistakes.”
Phillips: In your estimation, what was it that brought on the events up on Takur Ghar? Was it fog-of-war? Was it a flawed command structure? Was it a colossal problem with communication? I mean, time after time choppers were landing in the same place taking heavy fire. Gen. Hagenbeck: I think it’s a confluence of those events over time. Maybe one of those things in and of itself we could have overcome. But when you get into the chain of events that you just described—you’re begging for problems. And we encountered them there.
We may never know, for sure, how many enemy fighters were killed ... Or how many American losses could have been avoided. This much is known about Harriman, Anderson, Crose, Commons, Svitak, Cunningham, Chapman and Roberts—they fought and died with honor.
Phillips: It’s never easy sending young men into combat. What would you say to the families who lost loved ones there?Gen. Hagenbeck: Well, it is difficult. You can never regain what you’ve lost. But I would say that they can be extraordinarily proud of all these soldiers that wore this uniform and died in the cause of freedom. I am proud to be associated with them and wear a uniform like they do.
Now, four years after the rescue on Roberts Ridge, Oscar Escano and Nate Self have both left the army. One pursuing dreams, the other praying his go away.
There was one more mission to Takur Ghar. Fighter jets were called in to destroy the abandoned helicopter that had brought Nate Self and his men to the mountain.
Days later, troops scaled the mountain to retrieve whatever gear had been left behind—including the helmet of Brad Crose, the fallen ranger whose rifle Nate used when his own weapon jammed.
Soon after they returned to base, the Rangers set up an impromptu memorial in honor of the fallen.
When we last spoke to Nate, almost a year later, he could still vividly recall the helmets placed on each man’s rifle, along with their combat boots.
Former Ranger Capt. Self: As I looked at that equipment setup for Brad Crose. I saw the rifle and recognized that that was the rifle I used most of the day. My rifle malfunctioned just a couple of minutes into the fight.
And as I stood at that memorial ceremony and looked at his rifle I couldn’t help myself but just to move to his equipment and touch it, and really thank him.
And at that point a couple of other Rangers who were on the mountain came alongside me, knelt with me and embraced me. And many others did the same.
There was no shortage of heroes on Roberts Ridge that day. But looking back those who made it out alive, like chopper pilot Greg Calvert, his hand now healed, credit Nate Self’s leadership and courage under fire.
Greg Calvert: He had a tremendous amount of responsibility for being a young officer. And—he did it heroically. We all owe our survival to the decisions and the actions that him and his men made that day.
The army agreed. When Nate returned to the United States he was awarded a silver star. In January 2003, he was among those honored by president bush during his state of the union address.
For Nate, the recognition was bittersweet.
Self: I don’t know if I was prepared to handle praise. Especially when it’s given in light of death.Julie Self: Even after the battle, and the talk of him being a hero and the medals and the awards and everything. I don’t think he found that easy to accept. Self: On the 4th of March in 2002, the men that were to my left and right and my front were either killed or wounded very severely, before we even got on the ground. And it’s been difficult for me to really come to grips with why ah, it wasn’t me.
A world away from that mountaintop in Afghanistan, Nate still anguishes over the delay in sending a chopper that he believes cost Jason Cunningham his life.
Self: When I found out that Jason was not going to make it, part of me wanted to just reach through the radio and somehow, squeeze the hearts on the people on the other end, the way ours were squeezed.Julie Self: In his mind, I think he just saw the pictures of those soldiers that didn’t come home.
Nate carried the memory of those soldiers with him when he deployed to Iraq in May 2003. He was eager to go. He was also unaware of the psychological wounds that were about to overwhelm him.
Self: I found myself looking at soldiers around me who were still alive and imagining what they would look like dead. And I could see it. And I do that now. Sometimes my mind will go off, and whoever I’m talking to I can just say to myself, “I know what that person will look like dead.”
While Nate continued his service in Iraq, by the fall of 2003 Oscar Escano was enrolled at New York’s Columbia University. He’d left the army to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor like his mother. He’s now in his senior year. Though at times he has felt alone with memories his classmates cannot comprehend, Oscar came away from Takur Ghar with a remarkably positive outlook.
Specialist Oscar Escano: More than a life-altering experience, I would call it a life-affirming experience.
Oscar says remembering the rangers who sacrificed their lives has been a source of inspiration. He’s planning a career in emergency medicine.
Escano: Maybe that’s why I’ve been able to make sense of it. Because I try not to push it away. I try to accept that this happened. And it was very sad. But y’know, how does it color how I view the world now? How does it make me wiser. And I think to neglect to do that, that’s a tragedy. Because then you don’t get anything out of it.
In January 2004, Nate returned from Iraq. By the end of that year, he had retired from the army.
He and Julie are raising their two sons in Texas; 4-year-old Caleb and 1-year-old Noah. But in the years after Anaconda Nate’s emotional crisis deepened.
Self: You can’t help to still feel a little guilty when the men that I’d trained with and loved didn’t come home alive. Yet, sometimes I do think in my current state that it would have been more honorable or at least easier on me, had I not come home that day.Julie Self: It took one night of just complete brokenness, for him to tell me what he had been struggling with. Umh, the nightmares, everything. I always saw him as being such a strong person, that he didn’t want me to see any of his weaknesses.
At Julie’s urging, Nate finally sought help. He has been diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
Self: It’s gotten to where it’s hard to really get myself to do anything. Once I start something I don’t wanna finish.Julie Self: I see Nathan struggling a lot with being out of the army, and a lot of his peers still being in, a lot of them being deployed. And I think he feels like that’s still who he is, but he’s not over there. Nate Self: I’ve had times when I don’t care much about myself, my appearance or my safety or anything. Julie Self: I still ask him, “Will you open up to me, can you talk to me?” ‘Cause for awhile, I thought, you know, he just feels like he can’t talk to me. And I thought it was something with me. But, now that I’ve learned more about it he doesn’t want to burden me with what he’s struggling with.Self: And it’s always been hard and still hard for me to talk about the things that I experienced with people I love the most.
Today Nate attends both individual and group therapy sessions with a veterans administration psychologist and talks regularly with a retired army chaplain.
He also keeps busy working for a military consulting firm, providing leadership training for army officers.
Nate says he’s made progress, and has even thought of re-enlisting.
Julie Self: His suits still hang in the closet, right inside with the suits. Not that he’s gonna put ‘em on any time soon, but just for them to still be in there, hanging up, and every now and then, he’ll go in there, and look at ‘em… I think he struggles with not being able to put that on anymore. If he does decide to get back in the army, you know, I’ll support him 100 percent. I want him to do something that he’s going to get fulfillment out of.
Difficult as that decision is, Nate’s had an even harder time knowing what, if anything, he should tell his young sons about what happened on that mountain top in Afghanistan.
Self: In my current state, I don’t want my boys to know anything. I don’t want to be proud of anything. Julie Self: But I see it as, I want them to know that, I still him as that hero, and for some reason he doesn’t see himself as that.
Julie hopes that someday Nate will decide to tell their sons about Takur Ghar, not to glorify war or what he did that day, but to help them understand the meaning of leadership and brotherhood -- of service and sacrifice.
Julie Self: He was the leader that day. It could’ve been a lot worse. And I want his boys to know what kind of father and what kind of soldier he was.
The kind of soldiers they all were. For all the military might brought to bear in “Operation Anaconda”, for all the bombs and advanced weaponry that echoed through this valley, silent images tell the real story of America’s strength: tiny dots moving in the snow, soldiers who risked their lives to protect their wounded, who gave their lives to keep a promise.
Escano: In the Ranger creed, which all Rangers are required to memorize. It says, “I will never leave, I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy. And under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.” This is more than just a slogan. We Rangers live by this. Of course you can throw around thoughts about how more lives were lost in bringing back Neil Roberts. But it’s not ignorance. It it’s not stupidity. It’s just, it’s honor. It’s honor and respect for your comrades. Self: Ordinary man can do extraordinary things. When people love each other, they fight for each other like you’ve never seen before. I want the legacy to be just continuing the spirit of the American soldier.
Nate Self is exceptional in many ways, including his determination to reach out to fellow vets. He's now working through church groups to help others with post-traumatic stress disorder. He's also been doing some writing, which has helped him personally.
Oscar Escano graduated from Columbia University in May, 2007, and is headed to medical school.