Shortly after the mission to death Osama bin Laden, 30 American troops and also eight Afghanis were eliminated in a solitary incident in the Tangi Valley. To this day, too small is known around their sacrifice.


U.S army soldiers from the 101st Airborne department raced to obtain out of the way of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter landing in hostile territory near the Afghan-Pakistan border in 2008, 3 years prior to a Chinook helicopter transferring special forces was shot under on Aug. 6, 2011. (File Photo/Agence France-Presse)
On a moonless night, an army Chinook helicopter swept low over the Tangi Valley, a piece of forbidding terrain in east Afghanistan teeming with Taliban and also located simply 35 miles south of the capital, Kabul.

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Among the 38 inhabitants inside the Chinook were several of the most highly trained and battle-seasoned battle aircraft in the U.S. Military, consisting of 15 commandos native the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, the unit that three months earlier had eliminated Osama bin Laden. Their target was a Taliban command responsible for ambushes and other attacks against U.S. And also Afghan forces.

Missions choose this one come insert or remove an attack force space the military equivalent of a perfect 10 in the Olympics -- equal components skill, experience and also daring.

Flying low, the pilots need to maneuver a machine weighing as much as 50,000 pounds over mountains, under covering of darkness, in swirling wind and also dust, put on night vision goggles. Then they have to stick the landing. At any kind of moment, they might come under rocket attack.

Despite the risk, operations prefer these were ensuing with such frequency in Afghanistan they only made news as soon as they developed a spectacular success, choose the bin Laden mission. Or once something walk terribly wrong.

On this night, Aug. 6, 2011, something walk terribly wrong. And also to this day, civilization are quiet debating what really happened.


U.S. Soldiers native Bravo Company, 2-87 Infantry Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team and also Afghan security forces conduct their last boarding maneuver prior to departing ~ above a Chinook helicopter in ~ Forward operation Base Pasab in Zahri district, Kandahar province southern Afghanistan on respectable 15, 2011 to conduct a an unified air and also ground attack operation.(Romeo Gacad / Getty Images)

The Texas commander

Justin “Buddy” Lee will never ever forget the night six years ago. Lee is 36 now, a polite attorney in Dallas, a civilization away native Afghanistan. He grew up in Tyler, checked out Texas A&M, joined the Corps the Cadets and stared in shock in ~ the news that two plane slammed right into the world Trade Center and also another into the Pentagon ~ above Sept. 11, 2001. That very same day he acquired a clinical waiver he required to pursue an army commission -- to offer an eight-year hitch before going to law school. A junior, the was prepared to fight, but the battle would it is in over, he figured, prior to he also got out of college.

Lee earn his wings at ft Rucker, Ala., then deployed come Pakistan, where he walk humanitarian missions, discovering to fly into and out of mountainous terrain.

In 2006, the was referred to as into Afghanistan, whereby he rotate 25. He would eventually do 2 tours and also become commander of a Chinook unit throughout his 2nd deployment in 2011.

His unit referred to as itself “Extortion Company.” one of his Chinooks, paris under the contact sign Extortion 17 (“one-seven”), to be tasked through the one-of-a-kind operations mission the night the Aug. 6. He knew the pilots and crew members aboard Extortion 17. They were component of his command. He would certainly not have actually hesitated to fly with any kind of of them.

Lee had just flown the night before on a comparable mission with among the pilots, David Carter. A chef warrant officer 5, a member that the Colorado nationwide Guard, Carter had actually over 4,500 paris hours, including much more than 1,000 hours throughout combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. He taught helicopter pilots just how to paris in high altitudes in ~ an aviation training site in Colorado.

“He was probably in the optimal 1 percent of military aviators,” Lee said. “The guy was exceptionally skilled.”


Justin "Buddy" Lee (left) enjoys a cigar with fellow Chinook pilot Bryan Nichols in ~ Forward operating Base Shank, Afghanistan. Nichols was one of the pilots paris the Chinook shot under on Aug. 6, 2011.(Justin "Buddy" Lee)

The co-pilot, Bryan Nichols, was among 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 3 combat tours of duty, additionally had plenty of suffer flying attention missions.

Joining the 15 members that SEAL Team 6, 2 pilots and three-man crew inside Extortion 17: ten other Navy and Air pressure personnel, eight Afghans and a combat attack dog named Bart.

That night, almost 10 year after the U.S. Had gone to war in Afghanistan, Lee thought they were the best team for this danger mission.

Extreme conditions

Nothing exam the capabilities of a young helicopter pilot choose flying in the extreme conditions of Afghanistan.

"So much of the war is battled in areas where this helicopters need to fly in ~ high altitudes," where the thin air deserve to strain the power of the engines and also rotor blades, stated Ed Darack, author of the freshly published book, The last Mission the Extortion 17: special Ops, Helicopter Support, SEAL Team Six and the deadliest Day the the U.S. War in Afghanistan.

A common combat mission in Afghanistan leaves tiny margin because that error, request Chinook pilots come land ~ above tiny, makeshift sites on hill slopes where any tree, shrub or rock might be hiding an opponent fighter v a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

“They’re going ~ in very hostile environments, who recognize the terrain very well, who recognize the battlescape an extremely well,” Darack said. “It calls for the highest possible level of skills from the pilots ... Due to the fact that they are few of the many dangerous operations.”

Every mission is perhaps life-threatening.

“The fact is, every time a helicopter lifts off the ground in a war zone, it can get shooting down,” Darack said. “There is still a tremendous level of possibility for a tragedy that such huge magnitude.”

Chinook workhorse

The workhorse in military aviation, the tandem rotor, heavy-lift Chinook helicopter is used for delivering troops, equipment, supplies and also even the mail. The Chinook is often used to help in disaster relief, carrying food and water ~ earthquakes and also floods.

In combat, the mission is come transport large teams the elite assault troops, including army Rangers and also Navy SEALs, to and from the battlefield.

On together missions, the Chinook pilots virtually always fly in ~ night, wearing night vision goggles, or NVGs. When the goggles are better than nothing, lock turn whatever green, distort depth perception and limit peripheral vision.

“It’s choose taking a record towel roll, cutting it in fifty percent and strapping the to your eye,” Lee said.


A CH-47 Chinook helicopter takes off after dropping soldiers in Zabul province in Afghanistan(FILE 2005 / AP)

Landing in deserts or mountainsides, the helicopter rotors absent up clouds the sand and dust, leading to brownouts that have the right to blind a pilot.

“I had to learn exactly how to floor while browned-out, attract NVGs, on the side of a hill or one uneven field,” Lee said. “It’s crazy how many times I deserve to think of whereby me or the guys I to be with had to carry out that.”

On his very first deployment, the felt fortunate to be surrounded by veteran pilots he could learn from. “We had actually guys who had flown in Desert Storm, guys who had just come off active duty,” Lee said.

“The sheer amount of experience with our pilots, flight engineers and also back-seaters and also mechanics readily available a wealth of knowledge,” that said. “We to be told at that time we were the very first unit to make it through a rotation without having actually anyone killed.”

Bin Laden killed

Lee’s second deployment began in might of 2011. The night prior to he left to go to fort Hood, wherein he would board a airplane to Afghanistan, the biggest event of the 10-year battle occurred: Osama bin Laden was eliminated in Pakistan throughout a raid by navy SEALs.

Lee’s wife, Christy, hoped the news would carry a sudden end to the war. She had actually just offered birth come their very first child. In fact, the problem was heating up.

Lee, currently a captain, was placed in command the a Chinook helicopter unit in ~ Forward operation Base Shank. Located in a remote and also dangerous province in eastern Afghanistan, the base was the target the near-constant rocket assaults from Taliban insurgents. Six weeks into his deployment, Lee knowledgeable his worst day as a helicopter pilot to the point.


Lee, at his home in Rockwall, Texas in 2017, was commander the the helicopter company that contained the Chinook that was shot down. (Nathan Hunsinger / employee Photographer)

That June, the U.S. Military introduced Operation Hammer down to drive out insurgents entrenched in remote strongholds of east Afghanistan. Lee and his girlfriend Bryan Nichols flew their Chinook into fight several times the very first night, dropping turn off troops in ~ a landing ar (“LZ”) almost 10,000 feet over sea level.

“The hardest LZ I’d ever before been into,” Lee said.

The following night, the pair had orders come drop off an ext troops in the very same spot. As they made their approach, there was a heat of thunderstorms nearby. Winds whipped v the fir trees. Together they began their descent, Lee heard a loud popping noise. The aircraft jerked. “I assumed I struggle a tree,”he said.

The helicopter hurry tail first. A catastrophic crash appeared unavoidable. “I was terrified. Ns didn’t desire to die.”

He mental the native of his old trip instructor: “Never protect against flying the aircraft.”

He pushed difficult on the cyclic stick come tilt the helicopter forward. As he did, that felt the handmade leveling off. The Chinook smashed into the ground, the pressure ripping turn off his goggles. The front rotor shattered, and the back pylon sheared off. Among the engines flew off, and the other captured fire. It to be a hard landing, but it would have been worse if they had actually landed tail first.

About a dozen of the 33 troops in the back of the helicopter suffered broken bones, hefty bruises and also scrapes. Yet no one died. The worst of the injured was among Lee’s crew members, who endured what was later diagnosed together a severe traumatic mind injury.

Two investigate of the event proved inconclusive. Whether opponent fire brought down the Chinook or a tree to win would never ever be recognized for sure.

For Lee, there was no time to reflect on exactly how close that had come to dying. The tempo the the objectives did no decrease. Neither did the risk he and also his pilots challenged every night.

A U.S. Naval speaks into a radio top top a mountaintop after an insert the troops through a CH-47D Chinook (same version as Extortion 17) throughout a combat procedure in Afghanistan.(Ed Darack)

Fallen Angel

Six weeks later, at approximately 10:40 p.m., an assault team of military Rangers and also Afghan one-of-a-kind operations forces were dropped right into an LZ on a mission to record or death a Taliban commander called Qari Tahir, who had been responsible because that a collection of attacks and ambushes in the Tangi Valley, not much from Shank.

That attack team recorded Tahir’s compound and also some that his men. But Tahir and a team of his fighters escaped. The mission’s commanders decided to insert an additional team to pursue Tahir when the Rangers organized the compound.

Darack did considerable research the what taken place next. The quick reaction force contained SEAL Team 6 and also other special operations personnel. The team boarded Extortion 17 with Dave Carter and also Bryan Nichols at the controls. The Chinook top to a various landing zone than the first assault team -- one in the narrowest component of the Tangi Valley.

“You never ever want to use the same landing region twice,” Darack said. “ You likewise want come come in indigenous a various direction because that the element of surprise.”

The landing zone to be small, and also the leaders didn’t desire to separation up the win force. So the totality team go in one Chinook helicopter -- Extortion 17. As is program on together missions, 2 Apache assault helicopters listed extra cover and security because that Extortion 17, while circling above was one AC-130 aircraft, a gunship that additionally provides surveillance.

At the pilots’ request, the AC-130 flashed one infrared spotlight, which might be seen just through night vision goggles, to light up the landing zone.

In the dark

Nearby, there were two foe fighters with rocket-propelled grenade launchers. “The insurgents had actually no method of knowing the helicopter would be coming in, in ~ the speed it to be coming and also at the altitude,” Darack said.

“They heard a helicopter coming, they grabbed their RPGs, and also they fired in quick succession,” Darack said.

They gained lucky.

The very first grenade to let go Extortion 17. The Taliban shot in ~ the Chinooks all the moment with RPGs and rifles, Darack said. “It’s nearly always a miss.”

The 2nd shot fight the rear tail rotor assembly.

Around 2:40 a.m., one Apache pilot paris in assistance came on the radio and shouted: “Fallen Angel. Fallen Angel.”

Lee heard the call, and he knew what it meant.

The RPG that struck Extortion 17 threw the helicopter into an uncontrollable spin.

“The too much G-forces eliminated everyone on board within a portion of a second,” Darack said.

The shootdown to be the single, deadliest loss that U.S. Forces in the war.

Wreckage of the Chinook helicopter at the website of the crash death 30 Americans and eight Afghans. The helicopter the insurgents shot down burst into flames before hitting the ground, leave wreckage scattered top top both political parties of a river, witnesses said The linked Press.(Mohammad Nasir / AP)

An Afghan official, speak anonymously a few days ~ the attack, speculated the the Taliban had laid a trap, that they had actually purposely placed out false information about a meeting involving the Taliban commander.

Some news stories reported that investigators couldn’t find the helicopter’s “black box,” introduce to the flight data recorder and also cockpit voice recorder. The helicopter crashed right into a creek bed and a speed flood soon afterward washed away some components of the wreckage.

Stephen M. Mills, 35, of fort Worth, was among the U.S. Marine SEALS eliminated in the helicopter crash.

But the CH-47D has neither a flight nor voice recorder, just an engine performance data recorder for maintenance.

The conspiracy theories didn’t stroked nerves Lee at first. The was also busy. However over time, castle became much more disturbing, consisting of one that argued the Taliban had actually been tipped turn off by someone inside the Afghan federal government as revenge for bin Laden’s killing.

“Just together ridiculous together saying shrub was responsible for 9/11,” Lee said.

An official investigation found no evidence of a pre-planned ambush, though it did indicate that various other helicopter task in the area might have tipped off Taliban battle aircraft that more helicopters could be approaching, according to the report.

“This to be preventable only if lock just had not bring away off that night,” Lee said. “If this to be survivable, that was the best crew come have. There was a most experience in that cockpit, the trip engineers and also the door gunners. It to be a an excellent crew, it really was. One of the ideal crews in my company. It wasn’t preventable. It simply wasn’t.”

Finding meaning

Lee continued to be in Afghanistan paris combat missions for another eight months before returning house in the feather of 2012. He finished his contract through the military shortly afterward, and that September enrolled in southerly Methodist University’s Dedman institution of Law.

For the last 2 years, he’s been an attorney with the legislation firm Jackson Walker. When asked what lessons american can attract from the crash of Extortion 17, Lee’s prize is simple: Americans should care around what wake up in Afghanistan because they’ve sent Americans to battle there.

“We’re asking civilization to perform incredible things. We’re handing rifles to 20-year-olds and asking them come shoot people. And also that’s fine; that’s what you signed up for,” Lee said. “But at least you need to care around them and appreciate what we’re questioning of them.”

Caring is an ext than just slapping a bumper sticker on her car, he said. It method being informed.

“No one is planting win gardens, and we’re no rationing. Yet we room still sending civilization to another country come fight, and also we need to know why we’re act that,” he said.

As because that himself, he speaks out around Extortion 17 because he desires to psychic the males on the mission. Top top his ideal wrist, that wears a bracelet through the surname of the five crew members the Extortion 17.

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“One that the points I vowed, i will never ever forget. I will never ever forget what lock did,” the said.

“Over time, specific memories will fade, details details will certainly fade. But one thing that doesn’t fade is never ever forgetting what castle did.”

A grave for stays of marine SEALs board a helicopter v the speak to sign Extortion 17, i m sorry crashed in 2011 in Afghanistan, at Arlington nationwide Cemetery in Arlington, Va., in march 22, 2015. The downing asserted 15 gold Squadron members and also two bomb specialists -- the most destructive day in the history of navy SEAL Team 6. (Gabriella Demczuk / NYT)

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David Tarrant. Companies writer at The Dallas Morning News. Telling stories around ordinary people involved in extraordinary events is his passion. He has actually written about soldiers returning house from war and the mental health dilemm facing young people. A indigenous of Pittsburgh, Pa., he remains obsessively curious around Texans and also the Lone Star State culture.