Army evacuation came within inches of disaster

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Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News
The crew of "Flipper 76" stands in front of a Chinook CH-47F, similar to their own, at Kandahar Airfield Thursday, November 12, 2009. From left, CW3 James Woolley, of Sanford, North Carolina, Sgt. Roger Rathbun, of Bunn Level, North Carolina, W2 Eric Slov

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — As Chief Warrant Officer 3 James
Woolley eased the giant Chinook down into the mud-walled compound, Special
Forces troops on the ground dashed to form a perimeter to protect the
helicopter, a prize target for Taliban insurgents.

The landing zone in the western Afghan province of Badghis
wasn’t under fire when U.S. Special Forces called for help to evacuate five
wounded U.S. soldiers. But seconds after the Chinook, call sign Flipper 76,
touched down, generating its trademark cloud of khaki-colored dust, the attack
began.

Woolley, of Sanford, N.C., and the other pilot, Chief
Warrant Officer 2 Eric Slover, of Hope Mills, N.C., noticed a puff of smoke
maybe 175 yards away up a slope and the chopper, immediately lurched like a car
hit in a fender-bender.

As a medic began rushing the wounded men to the rear ramp,
the thin-skinned helicopter, unbeknownst to its crew, now had a live
rocket-propelled grenade aboard — a weapon capable of disabling an armored
vehicle.

The incident, which turned into one of the biggest medical
evacuations of the Afghan war, occurred on Nov. 4, and Thursday, the commanders
of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., cleared the
crew to tell the story of a miracle that came within inches of becoming a
disaster.

The story began when two paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne
Division, also based at Fort Bragg, went missing in a nearby river in a mishap
during a resupply mission.

A massive U.S.-Afghan manhunt turned into a fierce firefight
with insurgents. Four Afghan soldiers, three Afghan police officers and an
interpreter were killed, and 22 men were wounded, including the five Americans.

NATO is investigating whether some of the friendly
casualties were a result of errant fire from U.S. aircraft that were called in
to help.

The body of one of the missing soldiers has been found, but
the other was still missing.

The crew of Flipper 76 didn’t know any of that when the
medevac call came at about 4:30 p.m. It had just finished dropping off troops
and supplies at a small nearby U.S. base, along with Flipper 13, another
Chinook, which stayed put while Flipper 76 headed for the compound, which was
in a rural community with several other compounds.

The rocker-propelled grenade punched through the nose of the
helicopter and zipped between Woolley and Slover, and down a short passageway,
striking door gunner Sgt. Roger Rathbun in the back of his head.

The impact ripped away a palm-sized chunk of his flight
helmet, and propellant from the rocket scorched his neck as it deflected up
into the ceiling of the cargo area. Rathbun was spun halfway around as he was
knocked to the floor.

Chinook pilots can’t hear much of what’s going on around
them, but after hundreds of hours flying helicopters, they develop a musician’s
ear for any odd sound, or change in the tone of their engines and rotor blades.
Pilots quickly learn to recognize the “tink” of small arms fire
hitting the fuselage. This hard slap and shudder was new for Woolley.

Slover, too was startled. “What the —- was
that?” he said.

Woolley saw damage to the nose of the chopper and
immediately guessed that it had been struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, the
weapon that brought down the helicopters in the famous Black Hawk Down battle
in Somalia.

Slover was wondering why they were still alive.

“I think we both knew, even though I was trying to
convince him it possibly might have been something other than an RPG, because I
was trying to convince myself there was no way we had just been hit by an RPG
but survived it,” Slover said.

Rathbun, of Bunnlevel, N.C., crawled up the short passageway
and motioned to the pilots that he could hear them, but that his microphone had
been torn away. His injuries turned out not to be serious, but he was shaken.

Then the pilots saw puffs of dust around the helicopter as
the insurgents began firing small arms at them.

“The biggest thing was sort of sticking it out when
they started engaging us with small arms fire,” Woolley said.
“Fortunately the ground guys did return fire, which helped us.

“We were kind of scrambling inside the aircraft in the
front, trying to assess Sergeant Rathbun to see what his status was, and also
taking a look at the aircraft to see what kind of damage we had sustained.

“All the while the ramp gunner was continuing to load
casualties, and he said ‘Ah, they’re shooting sir, there’s rounds
popping,'” Woolley said. “I could see ’em, and I said I know, just
stick it out, and get these (wounded) guys on.”

{::PAGEBREAK::}

It took maybe two or three minutes to get everything sorted
out in the helicopter, call in close air support to help suppress insurgent
fire, and get the other wounded men aboard, but it felt like two or three
hours, Woolley said.

Then began a long odyssey to get the five wounded Americans
— and later the wounded Afghan troops — to safety, and also get the dead out of
the combat zone.

They weren’t sure the helicopter could fly. Their luck held,
though, and they zoomed back to the small nearby base and put it down inside.
Woolley badly wanted to know where the exit hole was and whether the RPG had
hit anything vital.

When the crew couldn’t find a second hole, he told them to
start looking for something worse: a live grenade inside the chopper. After two
or three long minutes, one of the soldiers found the grenade on the floor
between a helmet bag and a set of goggles.

The pilots shut the chopper down, and Slover dashed off to
find explosives experts and medical help for the wounded soldiers.

The rest of the crew started pulling the wounded off Flipper
76, and transferred them to Flipper 13 for the flight to a military medical
facility in Herat.

En route, they learned that the RPG had been removed, so
after they unloaded the casualties they headed back. Casualties had mounted
during the search for the missing paratroopers, and both choppers were needed.
For the second trip, they loaded 14 wounded Afghan troops and six dead.

They headed back to Herat, but there wasn’t room for the
wounded there, so they pushed on to another base, where they dropped off the
casualties.

Finally, after a long night of flying back and forth across
western Afghanistan, they headed for a small staging base.

The 82nd CAB crews are all flying a new model of the
Chinook, and after Flipper 76’s RPG miracle, a standard joke among them now is
that the new version has been equipped with a secret device that disarms enemy
munitions.

No one had to tell the Flipper 76 crew how lucky they were.
Even when RPGs don’t explode, they can tear through a person, and this one
passed inches from both pilots and grazed Rathbun.

It wasn’t Woolley’s first brush with death. A Chinook he was
flying in Iraq once took 32 bullets. Another, in an earlier stint in
Afghanistan, caught several rounds in the plexiglass windows of its bulbous
nose. In 2007, he was just five helicopter lengths behind another Chinook that
was hit by a Stinger anti-aircraft missile and went down, killing all five crew
members and a British military cameraman who was aboard.

This time, when he got back to base he called his wife to
tell her what had happened.

“Boy, you are crazy,” she said. “Quit using
those lives up!”

Then she asked if they’d evacuated all the wounded men. He
said he had.

Woolley told McClatchy Thursday that there’s some question
in the unit about whether it’s a bad idea to fly with him, or really, really
smart.

“Either they want to or they don’t, the jury’s still
out on that, he said. “Either I’m lucky or I’m unlucky.”

Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.