Friday, August 03, 2007

The Rest of the Story

Air Force Major Jeff Peterson poses in front of his HH-60 Pave Low helicopter. In July 2005, Peterson led a chopper crew that pulled Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell from a mountain in Afghanistan, a rescue made under near-impossible flight conditions (Tucson Citizen via Air Force Times)

One of the summer's best reads is Lone Survivor, the story of Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, one of four Navy SEALs dispatched on a dangerous mission along the Afghan-Pakistan border in July 2005. As Luttrell recounts in his book, the SEAL element was supposed to conduct surveillance, and (if possible) kill a known Taliban leader who was rebuilding his forces in the area.

But the mission (codenamed Operation Red Wing) went quickly awry; a handful of local goat herders stumbled upon their position, and according to Luttrell, the SEALs voted to spare their lives. Within an hour, they were surrounded by scores of Taliban fighters, who launched a fierce firefight with the special forces element. Three of the SEALs died in the fighting that ensued; Luttrell survived by fighting off six Taliban fighters dispatched to kill him, and crawling seven miles to an Afghan settlement, where villagers risked their lives to protected the wounded SEAL, and summon help.

While riveting, Luttrell's recollections of the firefight--and his subsequent escape--have sparked controversy. The father of the SEAL element leader, Lieutenant Michael Murphy, told Newsday that the book doesn't match Luttrell's early account of the battle, relayed to the families of his dead comrades after returning from Afghanistan. The elder Murphy said that Luttrell's book was a "disservice" to his son, and the other SEALs who died on the ill-fated mission.

Lone Survivor also omits some details of the rescue mission that ultimately saved Petty Officer Luttrell. After the first rescue helicopter crashed (killing 16 SEALs and Army aircrew personnel), military planners mounted another effort, using Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters supported by A-10s, AC-130 gunships, and SOF troops on the ground. The rescue team mounted their first effort on the night on 30 June 2005, but could not pinpoint Luttrell's location.

They tried again the following night, and writer Blake Morlock of the Tucson (Arizona) Citizen has provided new details of the harrowing rescue mission, in an article reprinted by Air Force Times. Morlock tracked down Air Force Reserve Major Jeff "Spanky" Peterson, the HH-60 pilot who, along with his crew, plucked Luttrell off a cliff-side terrace in an Afghan village, with only inches to spare:

They flew in that night in darkness through the canyons leading up the mountains. It was more than dark; it was pitch black. Clouds blocked the stars, so Peterson’s night-vision goggles had no ambient light to amplify. His “Forward Looking Infrared” sensors, which pick up temperature changes, were on the fritz, and his infrared goggles weren’t working properly either. So he was basically blind while flying inside a narrow canyon.

He had only [Lt Col] Macrander’s helicopter [the other HH-60] as a reference. It’s all he could see.

When they found the landing site, the plan was to have the AC-130 shine an infrared beacon on it, but at 30 seconds out, he heard the call “negative burn.” Water vapor blocks infrared waves, and the clouds that night were turning into a blindfold.


He was coming down, though, with scant room to maneuver. The rotor kicked up dust from the ground. Now Peterson was blinded inside a swirling brown vortex.

Peterson’s gunner and engineer could see the ground beneath him, but Peterson saw only brown. He started to drift toward the cliff wall that would shatter his rotor and bring his bird rolling down the mountain.
“Stop left!” he heard.

“Like a good pilot, I go hard right,” he said, but his co-pilot anticipated this natural reaction and held his hand out so the control stick couldn't move too far to the right to send them over the cliff.
Then he saw something off in the distance with his NVGs that looked like a “hanging plant.” It gave him a fixed reference so he could descend.

“I’m committed now,” he said. “That’s when everything goes into slow motion.”

He dropped down and his wheels hit the ground. He looked out his window and saw that he was less than 2 feet from the cliff.

Seconds later, pararescuemen loaded Luttrell into the helicopter, and Major Peterson took off, carrying the wounded SEAL to safety.

Peterson's name isn't mentioned in Lone Survivor, but he's a hero nonetheless. His rescue of Petty Officer Luttrell was an amazing feat of airmanship, one that deserves to be told. The recovery of Marcus Luttrell was anything but routine, and his survival is due (in no small measure) to the Air Force chopper crew that pulled him from the mountainside.


DebbieKinIL said...

I've read the book, it was one that I could not put down, especially the mission and rescue chapter.

Thanks for giving more of the picture. Lots to be said on this mission from the SEALS to the PJ's. Maybe there will be another book on the missing information, when it can be made known to the public.

Dave Phillips said...

There are some real heroes in the service .. the SEALS who died in action, Marcus Luttrell, the lone survivor, and Jeff "Spanky" Peterson and his chopper crew who miraculously was able to land and get Marcus off the mountain. God bless these people.

pbjudd said...

Concure. What an amazing rescue! Thanks to all.

pbjudd said...

Concure. Amazing rescue. Thanks to all. Spanky rules.