Sunday, January 18, 2009

Helicopter downing

Helicopters do get shot down in Afghanistan. It was the mujahideen’s proficiency in destroying helicopters that really ended up chasing the Soviets out of Afghanistan back in the ‘80s. We’ve certainly lost our fair share of helos in the time we’ve been over in Afghanistan (maybe ten a year), though honestly, we have not lost nearly as many as you might think we would, given how many helicopters we have flying around and the predictability of the routes they run.

On January 17, 2009, I got the opportunity to witness what predictability can do for you against a thinking adversary. But let me explain first how it is that we get our supplies out here in the Korengal Valley. Given the topography of eastern Afghanistan, building a road is no easy task, especially a road that can support the large and armored vehicles we use. As you can imagine, building a road is even tougher when you can’t get any local support or labor for the project due to poor security. A road into the Korengal does exist, but it’s not often used due to its poor condition and the aforementioned poor security situation. I can actually recall an evening when a convoy was on its way out this way to deliver supplies, when a well placed boulder brought the convoy to a halt. The road being carved out of the side of a mountain, there was surely no way to go around the boulder. Apparently, it could not be easily moved either, so someone decided to blow it up. Naturally, the decision being made to blow up the boulder led to the boulder (and the road) being blown up. And the convoy returned from whence it came.

Ground resupply being intermittent and inadequate (Actually, effectively non-existent during the latter part of our tour.), we’re forced to rely on air resupply. Sometimes it comes in the form of C-17s flying overhead and dropping parachuted pallets of water out the back. These CDS drops as they are called, are always interesting, not just for the aftermath involving the recovery of all that water as it’s landed in the village, on homes, or down the mountainside, but also for the fact that the C-17s are often shot at as they fly by, which is comical given that the plane if flying far outside the range of the weapons systems being employed “against” it.

The C-17s help, but most everything comes in via helo. The sensitive stuff (people, classified materials, etc.) stays in the belly of the bird, but the rest of the supplies are “slung” beneath the helicopter. The process of how those supplies are attached beneath the helicopter is pretty interesting to watch. Getting the supplies in their slings attached to the bottom of the helicopter involves the helicopter hovering close to the ground, while some intrepid soul braves the winds and dust underneath the helicopter to attach the sling to the hooks on the bottom. I’ve heard it’s not easy to hover a helicopter; I know I sure couldn’t do it when I tried it in a simulator once. But these guys manage to do it and keep it steady night or day until the slings (up to 3 at a time) are attached. The floor of the helicopter opens up to provide the place where the slings are attached, and surely also makes it easier for the crew to talk to the pilots to give them some idea of how the process is going. Conceivably, the open floor of the bird could provide a place for the guy underneath to go if the helo came down on him since he’s standing right there, but luckily I never saw this happen.

At any rate, we’ve got helicopters flying out here regularly, often making multiple trips to the same location, hovering while the slings are dropped, and then “parking” briefly while the people on board get off and others get on board. All of this takes some time, and since these operations have been going on during the daytime, you would not be crazy to see some danger in the process. The presence of Apaches providing armed escort may deter some would-be attackers, but for some, the sight of a CH-47 (which is about as big as a city bus) must present an inviting, if not irresistible target, if the shooters can manage to get themselves situated in a position close enough to make taking the shots worthwhile.

The hillsides upon which the bases and outposts are situated in this tightly confined valley are rocky and sparsely vegetated at the lower elevations, but the terrain itself provides enough undulations for someone or a group of people, moving carefully, to get reasonably close to some of our outposts. This fact is proven on a nearly daily basis at OP Restrepo. Though OP Restrepo is situated on the high ground with pretty good visibility, it comes under fire constantly, sometimes from fairly close in. Those guys up there at Restrepo have it pretty tough, and tougher still since they can’t seem to kill the guys constantly taking potshots at them. A reporter came out and was shot in the head on his first day there at Restrepo (His helmet saved him and he stayed up there for several days afterwards.). We’re thankful for them there though, as their position on that hill helps protects our base from being attacked from that high ground. That, and the insurgents in the area seem to spend a lot of their time and energy taking it to the guys at Restrepo, which makes for a more relaxed experience down here at Vimoto. Not that we mind a firefight that much, but our position is potentially a bit more precarious than the other outposts in the area since we have no standoff from the village below and depend on our ANA to do much of the fighting, with only a handful of Americans onhand here.

On the morning of the 17th, I headed over to the main base in the area, Korengal Outpost (KOP), to meet up with my team leader who happened to be flying in for a brief face to face meeting with some of us out here. We don’t often get to see each other, and this was the first time he’d come out to the Korengal. The plan was for him to get off the helicopter, stop and talk to us for a short while, during which time the helicopters would be making their supply runs to the outposts in the area, and then re-board the aircraft and fly back to our headquarters base, Camp Blessing. He was only supposed to be with us for maybe 30 minutes. But it didn’t end up working out that way…

After the copter stopped at KOP, it picked up some slings while still there at KOP, as well as a passenger, and then headed up to Restrepo to drop it all off. I was not really paying attention to the whole operation until I heard a long burst of machine gun fire, which we all quickly determined was directed at the helo on approach to the Restrepo landing zone. The burst of machine gun fire was quickly followed by the sound of a small explosion (later determined to be caused by an RPG), and the back portion of the cabin of the helicopter bursting into smoke and flame. Seeing the helicopter on fire after being shot was certainly one of the more disheartening moments I've experienced out here to this point. Despite the smoke and flames, the bird kept hovering there in the same place for what seemed like an eternity, until the crew was able to drop the three slings hanging underneath. I suppose you could say that we were lucky the helicopter was shot where it was, since Restrepo is situated at a much higher altitude than the other bases around. Having that extra altitude I’m sure was useful to the pilots as they pushed the helo down into the valley to pick up speed in order to keep the aircraft flying. They attempted to fly all the way over to Firebase Vegas, which is several miles away and probably 1000 feet lower in altitude than Restrepo. They darn near pulled off a great recovery as the helicopter made a ‘hard landing’ (as it was called in the news) near the LZ at Vegas. The helicopter quickly became a smoking ruin, but 6 of the 7 passengers on board were able to make it off alive and with apparently mild injuries.

Bullets and mortars were flying around the valley for probably 30 minutes after the helicopter was brought down, but there was nothing remarkable about any of that - well, at least nothing that was apparent to me at the time from my vantage point over at the KOP, but more on that later.

Once it was determined that one individual did not make it off the helicopter and was missing, my guys back at Vimoto mounted up a group of a couple of Marines (all we had at Vimoto with me being at the KOP) and a few ANA soldiers to search the mountainside to see if the final soldier had somehow fallen off the helicopter as it got shot. No one was found, and it was later determined that the last soldier had not been able to get off the helicopter at it landed and had died. I never did get word whether he was killed by the initial hits the helicopter took or later, but at any rate he did not make it, which marked the first death of any of our forces in the Korengal during my time out there. (The Korengal would claim the lives of 42 US servicemen before we finally pulled out for good in April 2010.)

Once I got back over to Vimoto, I was informed that our ANA had been more concerned with collecting brass and getting to shoot the 240 machine gun than they had been about actually fighting the guys that were shooting down into our base from up the hill toward Restrepo. I will mention that it was quite unusual for us to take fire from that area...Restrepo's presence did effectively (usually) prevent people from shooting down into Vimoto from the high ground to our west. In this case, the insurgents who were able to get close enough to Restrepo to bring down the helicopter likely figured they may as well get a few good shots in at Vimoto since they had the field of fire to do so. Knowing the forces at Restrepo would never assault out of their redoubt to come after them, they could sit in the dug in position for plenty long enough to get some rounds into Vimoto.

At any rate, the ANA performed quite poorly and worse, did not appear to even be taking things seriously, in the opinion of the senior Marine who was present during all of this. This would lead to the first time I would severely chastise the ANA, telling them essentially, "Hey, here we are out here helping you guys, bringing in your supplies, supporting you, and one of our helos get shot up and a man killed, and you guys just screw it away." Of course, this brought denials and recriminations from the senior sergeant on the base, as the platoon leader sat idly by listening to what turned into a brief argument. (I like that particular platoon leader, and he will get better, but assertiveness and taking command are not his best qualities at the moment.) Rather than argue with them, I attempted to let them know we were disappointed and expected better of them, which appeared to soothe them a bit. We'll move on.

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