September 11, 2001 wrought destruction in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, and sent shockwaves throughout the rest of the country, and the world, especially military communities, which knew they would soon be called to respond. Indeed, tragedy and outrage and tears turned to love and comfort and connection, but also resolve and vengeance. In fact, the sun hadn't even set on the smoldering pile of ruins that once was the World Trade Center, when the U.S., the Central Intelligence Agency, the military and U.S. Army Special Operations Command began planning a response. They would rain fire on the terrorists who had claimed thousands of innocent Americans, and on the brutal regime in Afghanistan that had sheltered them.
Task Force Dagger
It was soon clear that the initial operation, named Task Force Dagger, would involve bomb drops and small teams of special operators who would link up with local warlords and resistance fighters, collectively, as the Northern Alliance. They would train the Afghans, supply them and coordinate between the U.S and the various ethnic groups (many of which were historic enemies). The Army's 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) eagerly took on the job, despite little intelligence on Afghanistan, and despite the fact that few could speak Dari or Pashtun. They picked up a few phrases pretty quickly, and many of them spoke Arabic or Farsi or Russian and wound up doing three-way translations.
"You had all of the emotions going on from 9-11," remembered Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brad Fowers, then a junior weapons sergeant on Operational Detachment A 574. It would be his first combat deployment, and his team wound up escorting future President Hamid Karzai into the country. (Fowers still serves on an ODA.) "There was a lot of emotions, excitement, amazement. It was an extreme honor. Looking back on it now, it's humbling. ... It was a very privileged moment in our history to see how things unfolded and what so many are capable of doing."
"We went carrying what we believed to be the hopes of the American people with us," added Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, former USASOC commander, in a speech. In September 2001, he served as the 5th Special Forces Group (A) commander. "If there was any fear that we had, it was that we would be worthy of the American people ... the people of New York, the people of Washington, the people of Pennsylvania, the people of our great country and all those ... who lost people that day. So that was with us constantly, the fear that we would not be worthy of the American people."
After almost two weeks of bombings, which kicked off Oct. 7, 2011, the first insertion was set for mid-October. As with any covert, nighttime flying operation, the dangerous mission was assigned to the Night Stalkers of the 160th Special Operations Regiment (Airborne), "the finest aviators in the world, bar none" according to Mulholland. They're certainly the toughest, at the forefront of every combat action since Grenada.
But the mission to insert the Green Berets into Afghanistan, flying from Uzbekistan over the Hindu Kush mountains (which could reach some-20,000 feet and caused altitude sickness) when they had trained for maybe half that elevation, was something else. The weather, sandstorms and a black cloud of rain, hail, snow and ice, was atrocious, so bad it delayed the first insertion by two days until Oct. 19 -- an eternity for men who pledge to always arrive at their destination on time, plus or minus 30 seconds. The weather could change from one mile to the next, from elevation to elevation, and continuously caused problems throughout Task Force Dagger.
"Just imagine flying when you can't see three feet in front of you for a couple of hours, landing or hoping the weather would clear so you could refuel, and then flying through the mountains all the while getting shot at and hoping our (landing zone) was clear," recalled Command Sgt. Maj. Mark Baker, now of the SOAR's Special Operations Training Battalion. Fifteen years ago, he was a young, brand-new flight engineer on his first combat mission.
"I was proud and scared. ... There was a lot of stuff going on. There was bad weather. A lot of people compared those first missions to Lt. Col. (James) Doolittle in World War II because we were doing stuff no one had ever done before. ... We had a mission to make sure these Soldiers got in. ... It was my first time ever getting shot at. That's a pretty vivid memory. ... It was war. I don't think I've ever been any closer to my fellow brothers-in-arms than I was then. All we had was each other."
On the ground
Indeed, special operators have a famously tight bond. They have to. As the Green Berets stepped off the SOAR's highly modified MH-47 Chinooks, they stepped back in time, to a time of dirt roads and horses. They stepped into another world, one of arid deserts and towering peaks, of "rugged, isolated, beautiful, different colored stones and geographical formations, different shades of red in the morning as the sun came up," said Maj. Mark Nutsch, now a reservist in special operations, but then the commander of ODA 595, one of the first two 12-man teams to arrive in Afghanistan. The world was one of all-but-impassable trails, of "a canyon with very dominating, several-hundred-feet cliffs." It was a world of freezing nights, where intelligence was slim, women were invisible, and friend and foe looked the same.
They arrived in the middle of the night, of course, to the sort of pitch blackness that can only be found miles from electricity and civilization, at the mercy of the men waiting for them. "We weren't sure how friendly the link up was going to be," said Nutsch. "We were prepared for a possible hot insertion. ... We were surrounded by -- on the LZ there were armed militia factions. ... We had just set a helicopter down in that. ... It was tense, but ... the link up went smoothly."
The various SF teams that were in Afghanistan or would soon arrive split into smaller three-man and six-man cells to cover more ground. Some of them quickly found themselves on borrowed horses, in saddles meant for Afghans much lighter and shorter than American Green Berets. Most had never ridden before, and they learned by immediately riding for hours, forced to keep up with skilled Afghan horsemen, on steeds that constantly wanted to fight each other.
But that's what Green Berets do: They adapt. They overcome. "The guys did a phenomenal job learning how to ride that rugged terrain," said Nutsch, who worked on a cattle ranch and rodeoed in college. Even so, riding requires muscles most Americans don't use every day, and after a long day in the saddle, the Soldiers were in excruciating pain, especially as the stirrups were far too short. They had to start jerry rigging the stirrups with parachute cord.
"Initially you had a different horse for every move ... and you'd have a different one, different gait or just willingness to follow the commands of the rider," Nutsch remembered. "A lot of them didn't have a bit or it was a very crude bit. The guys had to work through all of that and use less than optimal gear. ... Eventually we got the same pool of horses we were using regularly."
Nutsch had always been a history buff, and he had carefully studied Civil War cavalry charges and tactics, but he had never expected to ride horses into battle. In fact, it was the first time American Soldiers rode to war on horseback since World War II, and this ancient form of warfare was now considered unconventional.
"We're blending, basically, 19th-century tactics with 20th-century weapons and 21st-century technology in the form of GPS, satellite communications, American air power," Nutsch pointed out.
And there were military tactics involved. Even the timing of the attacks was crucial. Nutsch remembers wondering why the Northern Alliance wanted to go after the Taliban midafternoon instead of in the morning, but it accounted for their slower speed on horseback, while still leaving time to consolidate any gains before darkness fell. (They didn't have night vision goggles.)
Supported by the Green Berets, Northern Alliance fighters directly confronted the Taliban over and over again. Some factions, like Nutsch's, relied on horses for that first month. Others had pick up trucks or other vehicles, but they usually charged into battle armed with little more than AK-47s, machine guns, grenades and a few handfuls of ammunition. Meanwhile, the Taliban had tanks and armored personnel carriers and antiaircraft guns they used as cannons, all left behind by the Soviets when they evacuated Afghanistan in the late eighties.
It took a lot of heart, a lot of courage. "We heard a loud roar coming from the west," said Master Sgt. Keith Gamble, then a weapons sergeant on ODA 585, as he remembered one firefight. "We had no clue what it was until we saw about 500 to 1,000 NA soldiers charging up the ridge line. I called it a 'Brave Heart' charge. What the NA didn't realize was that the route leading up the ridgeline was heavily mined. The NA did not fare too well, as they received numerous injuries and had to retreat. We continued to pound the ridge line with bombs until the NA took it that evening."
"They weren't suicidal," Nutsch, who worked with different ethnic groups, agreed, "but they did have the courage to get up and quickly close that distance on those vehicles so they could eliminate that vehicle or that crew. We witnessed their bravery on several occasions where they charged down our flank (to attack) these armored vehicles or these air defense guns that are being used in a direct fire role, and kill the crew and capture that gun for our own use."
One of the primary and most important functions of the Special Forces teams, supported by combat controllers from Air Force Special Operations Command, was calling in air strikes. The U.S. military had been bombing the Taliban for a couple of weeks, but in a land of caves and mountains and small villages, it was difficult to distinguish targets. To help level the field and give the resistance forces a chance, the U.S. had to get rid of those tanks, armored carriers and antiaircraft guns. Once they got on the ground, Soldiers identified enemy targets and skilled Airmen called in those targets and quickly began picking off the Taliban and Al Qaeda. They also called for resupplies and humanitarian assistance drops.
"The sole focus of that combat controller was to bring that air-to-ground interface," explained former combat controller and retired Chief Master Sgt. Calvin Markham, who received a Silver Star for the operation, "so to look for areas where we could establish an airhead, where we could land aircraft, where we could bring supplies where we could do airdrops. The other side of it was to bring that close air support expertise with our air traffic control background, having multiple stacks of aircraft ... from fighters to bombers overhead.
"It annihilated the enemy," he continued, noting that the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom was the first time B52s had been used for close air support since the Vietnam War. "I think it really broke their will to fight. You kill 10, 15 enemy combatants on the battlefield at one time, I'm sure it's a devastating blow to them, but when you're talking about hundreds of enemy combatants losing their lives from one strike, it makes the other guys think about what they're doing and that maybe they should retreat." It also encouraged other fighters, who were perhaps on the fence, to join the coalition.
"We fought for about a month and a half to two months, constantly air attacks, air attacks, air attacks on all of the Taliban positions," said Gamble, "until it got to a point where we moved forward and took their lines and they just kind of went back to the populace," much to the jubilation of the Northern Alliance soldiers and Afghan civilians. Indeed, they liberated the country in weeks, when plans called for months.
"Once we started dropping bombs on the enemy, their whole attitude changed," Gamble added. "They were loving us. A lot of (sodas) came out. A lot of really good food came out. We were their heroes."
An errant strike
There were tragedies as well as successes. Fowers' team had a communications sergeant shot in the neck as they tried to advance across a heavily defended bridge. Then, the next day, Dec. 5, came one of the worst tragedies in those first months. A new GPS system resulted in some confused coordinates and a huge bomb -- a joint direct attack munition -- dropped inside his ODA's perimeter, killing three Americans and perhaps a dozen Afghan soldiers, and wounding almost everyone, including Fowers.
"I actually thought I had been hit with an RPG," he remembered. "I thought I had taken a direct round to the chest. I thought we were getting attacked. ... I was thrown probably a good five or six feet and I think I went unconscious for a little bit. When I came to, the Afghans that had been perching near us had been killed. I remember crawling over and grabbing one of their AKs and going over by our little mortar pit. I remember just waiting for the advancing threat I thought was coming up over the hill."
Fowers and his team were eventually medevaced out of Afghanistan. (Operation Enduring Freedom was in its infancy and evacuation processeses and local medical facilities had not yet been established.) He has received multiple Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart throughout his career. Nutsch's deployment lasted about three months and earned him a Bronze Star with valor, while Gamble was in country until the end of January. He was seriously wounded on a subsequent deployment to Iraq, and plans to retire next year after a long career with multiple awards, including a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Like Markham, who has lost count of his deployments, all of the men have deployed multiple times. Nutsch has even returned to Afghanistan on charitable humanitarian missions.
Today, a 16-foot, bronze statue of an SF Soldier on horseback, named De Oppresso Liber -- the SF motto, "to free the oppressed" -- or the Horse Soldier, stands near ground zero in New York, watching over the 9-11 memorial and honoring those first special operations teams.
"Every time I go and look at it, it's pretty powerful," said Gamble. "It shows the bond between us and the first responders, the guys here in New York who went into ground zero, who rushed into the buildings to save as many people as they could, and then us, once we got the call, we were in Afghanistan taking care of the people who frigging decided to have this act of terror against us on our ground. Every time I see it, I get goose bumps, seeing the stuff we did over there, the good things we did, the response America had to what happened to us."