SEAL Team 6, Extortion 17 and What Really Happened on America's Deadliest Day in Afghanistan

On a moonless night, an Army Chinook helicopter swept low over the Tangi Valley, a strip of forbidding terrain in eastern Afghanistan teeming with Taliban and located just 35 miles south of the capital, Kabul.Among the 38 occupants inside the Chinook were some of the most highly trained and battle-seasoned fighters in the U.S. military, including 15 commandos from the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, the unit that three months earlier had killed Osama bin Laden. Their target was a Taliban commander responsible for ambushes and other attacks against U.S. and Afghan forces.Missions like this one to insert or remove an assault force are the military equivalent of a perfect 10 in the Olympics -- equal parts skill, experience and daring. Flying low, the pilots have to maneuver a machine weighing up to 50,000 pounds over mountains, under cover of darkness, in swirling wind and dust, wearing night vision goggles. Then they have to stick the landing. At any moment, they could come under rocket attack.Despite the risk, operations like these were taking place with such frequency in Afghanistan they only made news when they produced a spectacular success, like the bin Laden mission. Or when something went terribly wrong.On this night, Aug. 6, 2011, something went terribly wrong. And to this day, people are still debating what really happened. The Texas commanderJustin “Buddy” Lee will never forget that night six years ago. Lee is 36 now, a civil attorney in Dallas, a world away from Afghanistan. He grew up in Tyler, went to Texas A&M, joined the Corps of Cadets and stared in shock at the news that two planes slammed into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. That same day he obtained a medical waiver he needed to pursue an Army commission -- to serve an eight-year hitch before going to law school. A junior, he was ready to fight, but the war would be over, he figured, before he even got out of college.Lee earned his wings at Fort Rucker, Ala., then deployed to Pakistan, where he did humanitarian missions, learning to fly into and out of mountainous terrain.In 2006, he was called into Afghanistan, where he turned 25. He would eventually do two tours and become commander of a Chinook unit during his second deployment in 2011.Hs unit called itself “Extortion Company.” One of his Chinooks, flying under the call sign Extortion 17 (“one-seven”), was tasked with the special operations mission the night of Aug. 6. He knew the pilots and crew members aboard Extortion 17. They were part of his command. He would not have hesitated to fly with any of them.Lee had just flown the night before on a similar mission with one of the pilots, David Carter. A chief warrant officer 5, a member of the Colorado National Guard, Carter had over 4,500 flying hours, including more than 1,000 hours during combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. He taught helicopter pilots how to fly in high altitudes at an aviation training site in Colorado.“He was probably in the top 1 percent of Army aviators,” Lee said. “The guy was incredibly skilled.”The co-pilot, Bryan Nichols, was one of Lee’s closest friends in the Chinook company. They were part of the same Army Reserve unit, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment based in Gardner, Kan. Nichols, with three combat tours of duty, also had plenty of experience flying dangerous missions.  Continue reading...

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