|On a rugged Afghan mountain, a rescue mission
turned into a fight for survival for Kentucky Air Guardsman Keary Miller
and other U.S. Special Forces.
Four months ago today, two helicopters lifted off in the cold pre-dawn -- on a lifesaving mission that turned into the deadliest battle for American servicemen in nearly a decade.
The 52-foot-long Chinook copters were bound for a mountain named Takur Ghar in eastern Afghanistan. Tech. Sgt. Keary Miller, a pararescueman from the Kentucky Air National Guard, rode aboard the first chopper.
Miller, who is in his early 30s, is an 11-year veteran with the look of a defensive back and the demeanor of an apprentice undertaker. His job is to save lives. Traditionally, National Guardsmen are called ''weekend warriors.'' But Miller is like many other pararescuemen: The Guard is his only job. And it's more than fulltime.
Two weeks before, Miller had helped save the crew of a C-130 that crashed into a mountainside 10,000 feet up.
''Part of the reason those people lived is that Keary was on the scene,'' says Col. Craig Rith, deputy commander of the 720th Special Tactics Group, the Florida-based parent of Miller's unit.
Miller, a Californian, belongs to the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron based at Louisville International Airport. As a pararescueman, he is trained -- among other things -- to jump out of an airplane two miles high, free-falling until it's safe to open his chute. In high-tech mode, he might carry a defibrillator onto the battlefield. In low-tech mode, he can survive on rabbits and mice.
He usually works in darkness -- and secrecy. His job is so specialized that the Air Force has only about 300 pararescuemen. It has 10,000 pilots.
Riding in the dark chill on March 4, Miller and the others aboard the first helicopter -- including eight crewmen and 10 Army Rangers -- could scarcely have guessed the havoc that awaited them -- or that by day's end seven would be dead, four seriously wounded, out of an overall American contingent of more than 50.
They simply knew that at least one U.S. serviceman was stranded on the mountain.
'We immediately received fire'
A couple of hours earlier -- about 3 a.m. -- a helicopter attempted to deposit a team of Navy SEALs on the mountain, for reconaissance. AlQaida forces fired on the helicopter. Bullets ripped through oil and hydraulic lines, splashing liquid on the floor.
One of the SEALs, Petty Officer Neil Roberts, slipped on the slick floor and fell out the back, five to 10 feet, into the snow. The chopper crash-landed about 4 1/2 miles away. Eventually another copter took Roberts' teammates back to rescue him.
The team encountered al-Qaida gunfire. John Chapman, an Air Force tech sergeant, was killed, and two SEALs were wounded. By then, Roberts had been shot to death too. The rest of the Americans retreated down the mountainside.
As dawn approached, Keary Miller and the others aboard the copter received their six-minute warning and started getting ready to land. They knew little, if anything, about the mayhem below. A radio malfunction kept the pilot from receiving new landing instructions, away from the hot spot. As the Chinook approached, it was in the line of fire.
Before it could touch the ground, Miller says, ''we immediately received fire.''
The second chopper veered off and landed about 2,000 feet down the mountain. There it deposited a team of Rangers who would face an arduous climb to join their comrades.
Farther up the mountain, al-Qaida forces were firing at the Chinook. Some rocket-propelled grenades ripped into the copter. Others ricocheted off its skin. Miller heard relentless small-arms fire.
''The Rangers . . . peeled out of the helo (helicopter) and immediately returned fire,'' Miller recalls.
He saw that two American soldiers were already dead. (The first to die, apparently, was Sgt. Phil Svitak, a gunner from Missouri. He had been stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky.)
Both pilots were seriously wounded. Miller pulled one of them to the rear. There he treated the wounded, in the weak light of dawn. Up front, an Army medic and another Air Force pararescueman, Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, attended other casualties.
''We were pretty much taking continuous fire,'' Miller recalls. ''But we were returning fire. . . . The Rangers did an awesome job. The platoon leader really performed. . . . They just basically kicked ass.''
(Official reports are mute on the number of enemy fighters. They simply refer to the Americans' facing superior numbers.)
'Definitely engaged in close combat'
Miller had been shot at before -- while riding in helicopters. But this was the first time he faced hostile fire on the ground.
''You could hear the rounds crackling,'' he says. ''You could hear the pop of them going by you. Every once in a while, you could see the snow pop up in front of you.''
The Rangers were shooting back, and soon a combat controller -- Miller calls him only ''Sgt. Brown'' -- started calling in close air support.
''They were under 50 meters from us,'' Miller says of the enemy. ''I mean, we were definitely engaged in close combat.''
|A U.S helicopter flew over Afghanistan on March 5, after a deadly battle with al-Qaida fighters. Tech. Sgt. Keary Miller, a pararescueman from the Kentucky Air National Guard, was aboard the first copter in that mission.|
|Photos By Michael Clevenger
So close that Miller fretted that some of the wounded might be hit by friendly fire from American jets. But he does not remember worrying about himself.
''You're not so much concerned about yourself as you are about your buddy,'' he says. ''You never think you're going to be the one that gets hit. . . . I just kept on doing my job.''
Early in the firefight, Miller says, four Americans were dead and perhaps six wounded -- three critically.
''Some of our wounded were still functioning,'' he says. ''Some of the guys hit by shrapnel were still moving and shooting, doing their job.''
The seriously wounded were strapped to stretchers.
''They couldn't see what was going on,'' Miller says. ''So I always thought they had it worse than I did, just because I could be up and I kind of knew my surroundings, and guys were lying on their backs strapped to a litter. And really, you could just hear, they had lost some of their senses.''
'The trees were crackling' with bullets
The Rangers attempted an assault on the al-Qaida mountaintop bunkers but were repelled. Down the mountain, Rangers from the second chopper were advancing slowly in the kneedeep snow. To go faster, they took off weighty body armor -- then bashed it, lest it fall into the hands of the al-Qaida. They joined forces with the other Rangers and eventually knocked out the bunker.
Five hours after their arrival, the place seemed secure. Miller began walking one of the casualties up the slope, through the snow. At the same time, he was looking for a suitable landing zone for a rescue chopper.
''All of a sudden,'' he recalls, ''we get lit up from the south. Literally, an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) right over our heads. I could have caught it with a baseball glove.''
More small-arms fire filled the air.
''The trees were crackling,'' he says. ''Pine needles were falling on us.''
The remaining al-Qaida forces, he says, ''started shooting at the casualties. . . . The Army medic got hit, and Cunningham got hit trying to move the casualties.''
Cunningham had received a grievous wound to the pelvis. Miller and a Ranger medic began attending to the two wounded medics.
More air support was called in against the al-Qaida forces.
''Rocked their world,'' Miller says.
''It's awesome when you can put a bomb on target . . . and they put the bombs right on target, so I thank God for that.''
With the immediate danger finally over, Miller could turn his full attention to the patients. (He generally calls them patients, not casualties.)
''Temperatures were dropping because the sun was starting to work its way down,'' he says. ''Hypothermia was starting to set in. Every time I exposed a patient, hypothermia would kick in even more. . . .
''We start ripping insulation -- everything we could -- out of the helo and . . . put it under the patients.''
'We took a lot of casualties'
At some point during the 15-hour ordeal, Miller had a moment to reflect on the picture he carried in his left breast pocket.
''I always flew with a picture of my kids,'' he says. ''There was a point where I was like, we're in a little bit of deep --- right now. You never truly know the outcome -- you don't think you're going to get hurt, but obviously . . . we were in an awkward situation. . . . They hit us hard. . . . We took a lot of casualties at the beginning, so there was definitely . . .''
The doubt slipping into his voice gave way to resolve.
''We weren't leaving the hill, and we weren't going anywhere . . . without all of our buddies.''
As the sun began to set, word came that ''exfiltration'' helicopters would arrive in a couple of hours to take the Americans off the mountain.
Finally, around 8:15 p.m., four helicopters arrived.
''The first bird took out the most seriously wounded -- four wounded -- and we removed all seven of the KIA (killed in action) on the second chop,'' he says.
'Certain things mean a little bit more'
The firefight on Takur Ghar made March 4, 2002, the deadliest day of combat for an American unit since 18 Rangers and Special Operations soldiers died in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.
Three weeks after the firefight, Miller was back in Louisville. He had spent about four months in Afghanistan.
His feelings upon being reunited with his wife and children: ''It was almost a luxury, I would say. Cunningham left . . . he left his own family. All the deceased did. So, I just felt like it was a luxury for me to have . . .''
His voice trails off, and he does not finish.
Miller's boss at the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, Senior Master Sgt. Patrick Malone, says: ''His performance under fire was impeccable. Even for me, as a 20year guy who's seen it all and done it all, he defines what a pararescueman is.''