Afghanistan, March 2002. In the early morning darkness on a frigid mountaintop, a U.S. soldier is stranded, alone, surrounded by fanatical al Qaeda fighters. For the man's fellow Navy SEALs, and for waiting teams of Army Rangers, there was only one rule now: leave no one behind. In this gripping you-are-there account-based on stunning eyewitness testimony and painstaking research-journalist Malcolm MacPherson thrusts us into a drama of rescue, tragedy, and valor in a place that would be known as... ROBERTS RIDGE For an elite team of SEALs, the mission seemed straightforward enough: take control of a towering 10,240-foot mountain peak called Takur Ghar. Launched as part of Operation Anaconda-a hammer-and-anvil plan to smash Taliban al Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan -the taking of Takur Ghar would offer U.S. forces a key strategic observation post. But the enemy was waiting, hidden in a series of camouflaged trenches and bunkers-and when the Special Forces chopper flared on the peak to land, it was shredded by a hail of machine-gun, small arms, and RPG rounds.
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August 30, 2005
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Excerpt from Roberts Ridge by Malcolm MacPherson
Chief Warrant Officer Al Mack sat behind the left controls of a Chinook helicopter, heading southeast along a crest through a brilliant moonrise. As he flew through the night, the terrain reminded him of Mordor and Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. He told people, "Imagine landing on that at night without a light. And if a landing zone isn't big enough, what you do is set the aircraft's aft gear down, hover, and several thousand feet below you is the bottom, with no visual reference. Put the ramp down. Guys get out."
Take away some of the bluster and that was what Mack was about to do on the 10,240-foot peak of Takur Ghar.
He was happy to be moving again after frustrations that aggrieved even a sixteen-year Army veteran. Earlier, he had ferried his Chinook, code-named Razor 03, down from Bagram Air Base near Kabul to a temporary special operations airfield. He was working Operation Anaconda, the largest military offensive thus far in America's fight against al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan, which had kicked off, depending on who was doing the counting, either the previous day or two days before. He'd been dropping off special operations teams in the mountains on both sides of the Shah-i-Kot valley, often relying for guidance on outdated maps and imagery.
Since before midnight, he had been trying to deliver MAKO 30, his "customers," to a landing zone at the base of Takur Ghar, the highest mountain in the area. On his first try, only six minutes away from the LZ, he had asked a nearby Spectre gunship circling over the valley to take a look with its sensors at the landing zone to see if it was clear of hostile forces.
"I can't look at your LZ," the Spectre's fire control officer told him. "There's a B-52 strike coming in," and the gunship, with a wide, looping orbit, had to push off until it was safe to return, probably in less than an hour.
"OK," Mack had replied, with no real good choice but to suck it up and return to where they had picked up the SEALs. He was aware of the importance of delivering his customers to their offset LZ in a timely manner, and what it could mean for the revised plan for Operation Anaconda. In mission preparation, he'd been vested in the ground/air tactical plan and knew exactly what his customers--and his higher commanders--needed from him. That was why his frustration peaked when a glance told him that he was running low on gas. He always planned his missions with precision, calculating a gas supply sufficient to get him through a task with fifteen minutes to spare for emergencies, and nothing more.
Over all the hours Mack had flown Chinooks, he had achieved a nearly perfect spiritual fusion of man with machine. It came as no surprise that he admitted to a deep fondness for the bird. He saw charm and personality in its homely design. Veterans like him sometimes compared the helo to a "Winnebago with rotors," and indeed it was little more than a rectangular box with big fans in front and back, about 50 feet long and weighing in at around 40,000 pounds. To anyone else's eye, it was not sleek and it was not pretty. It had bumps and a weak chin, spindly legs, and a hay stalk sticking out the corner of its "mouth." Mack's version of the Chinook was a model (the MH-47E) made by Boeing and specifically configured at a significant cost for special operations missions. Several enhancements helped the twenty-four copies ever made to fly where and when other helos could not.