Monday, August 6 marks the first anniversary of the Afghan crash of a U.S. military CH-47 Chinook helicopter that killed 30 Americans, including 17 Navy SEALS. It was the worst single loss-of-life day for the U.S. in the war in Afghanistan. It was also the worst in the history of Naval Special Warfare.
Just six weeks before the crash, I spent several days meeting with members of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team SIX, talking to them about the loss of one of their teammates, Adam Brown, who had been killed in action during an especially complex raid on a compound in Afghanistan.
I met with two of them in a crowded bar in a remote Alaskan village. The salmon run had just begun so the place was packed with fishermen, one of whom approached our group with a tray of shot glasses overflowing with whiskey. It was also a place that SEALs would come to before heading for training exercises in the surrounding mountains.
The man offered to buy a round. “I’d be honored if we could have a drink together, to thank you all for your service. And for taking care of business in Pakistan,” he said. Tom Ratzlaff, one of the SEALs I was with, took two shots and handed one to me. “This is for Adam,” he clicked his glass against mine, I nodded, and we threw them back together.
Tom, who was better known as “Rat,” and Chris Campbell shared memories of their teammate, but as they talked about his life and the circumstances surrounding his death, they alluded to the fact that they were keenly aware death might be just around the corner, quite literally, for them too. They were about to be redeployed, and with the loss of Adam weighing heavily on their minds, there was some urgency to have a chance to talk and honor their brother-in-arms.
Kevin Houston, one of the SEALs I met with in Virginia Beach the following week acknowledged, “I could end up getting killed on my next mission I go on, but until that happens, for me, business will continue to be conducted.”
One of things I was most interested in understanding from these men was how they managed moving so fluidly between their family lives and their work as highly-trained warriors. Frequently, they were deployed, came home, and then were suddenly redeployed.
In some cases they developed rituals. Tom shared that whenever he boarded a helicopter for a mission, he said the Lord’s Prayer silently, once he got seated, and then prayed for protection. “I don’t ask for protection myself because that’s in his hands. I ask him to look after my wife and kids. Then I ask him to protect all my buddies and forgive them of all their sins and me of my sins. Then I move straight into thinking about what I’m about to do-the target, the map study, making sure I know which way’s north so I can call out things correctly on the target.”
During my interview with Heath Robinson, another teammate of Adam Brown’s, I asked “How do you do it?” referring to how they transition from lethal missions—shooting and killing people—and then coming back home, sometimes just hours later. Heath answered using his friend’s horses as an analogy. “His wife and daughter have horses,” said Heath. “Nothing makes [them] happier. Well, horses are dirty animals, every weekend he puts on his waders, goes in the barn, and shovels the manure…the dirty hay…their piss. It’s not a good job, it’s miserable, but somebody has to shovel the shit so the family can enjoy what they have.”
Kelley Brown, Adam’s wife, recalled the one time she saw “that side” of her husband. He had just returned home and was relaxing in a bubble bath when a very unlucky burglar attempted to break into their house. Adam, naked but covered in bubbles, flew out of the tub and the look in his eyes was someone she did not recognize. Moments later, the intruder bolted in fear and Adam returned to being her loving husband and the adoring father of their two young children.
The SEALs were also circumspect about death in a way that only those confronted with it regularly can be.
“I either want to die in combat, doing my job right now, or live till I’m 98 years old and see my great, great grand kids,” one of them told me. “I don’t want anything in between. None of us do. A warrior’s death, you can’t get any higher than that. It’s horrible for the family, they don’t want to hear that, but for us, the guys at our command, we’re okay with it. That is our duty, the highest calling. And if that happens to you, you hope you are in the right frame of mind that you are okay with it. I have seen a lot of people go, not well. Had they been able to do another take on it, they would probably want it to go better. I remember everything else about Adam also, but I will always remember the end. You know, your first impression lasts a relationship, and your last impression is with you forever. Adam died well.”
Six weeks after my last interview, I was returning to civilization from my version of being off the grid: camping with my family. My own happy grubby kids were in the back seat of our car when my cell phone indicated I had voicemail.
I called in and listened to one message after another and I learned that all seven of the men I had interviewed — John, Kevin, Brian, Heath, Matt, Tom, and Chris — had been killed in action the day before.
The team had been on a mission in the Wardak Province of Afghanistan, part of an operation intended to capture or kill leaders from an insurgent cell that was holed up in the region. The Chinook carrying them, along with 23 other Americans, and eight Afghan troops, had crashed and exploded after a single rocket propelled grenade struck its aft rotor blade.
Questions surrounded the crash: Why were so many from our most elite military unit on one helo? The most credible view is that it was a lucky shot, but some speculated that it might have somehow been retaliation at the same unit that had only a couple months earlier taken out Bin Laden.
As of today, some family members remain unsatisfied with the investigation. A few days after the crash, I attended Kevin Houston’s funeral, then began transcribing the interviews, haunted as I listened to their voices and read their reflections on life and on death.
As they had talked about Adam Brown, they had unknowingly defined themselves: humble, selfless, and fearless.
With the one-year anniversary of that tragedy upon us, I think of them, and their families, often.
My mind wanders to the inside of that helicopter, envisioning their final moments. It’s a dark place filled with questions — mainly the questions I didn’t ask when I interviewed each of them just weeks before they were killed — but the one thing I know for certain is that they died honorably: serving their country, doing what they believed in.
I have no doubt that they died well.
Eric Blehm is the author of FEARLESS: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown, which is dedicated to the memory of the men who were killed on August 6, 2011. See www.fearlessnavyseal.com