Pale Horse is the remarkable never-before-told true story of an army aviation task force during combat in the Afghan War, told by the commanding officer who was there. Set in the very valleys where the attacks of 9/11 were conceived, and where ten Medals of Honor have been earned since that fateful day the war began, the narrative races from ferocious firefights and bravery in battle to the quiet moments where the courageous men and women of Task Force Pale Horse catch their breath before they take to the skies again.
Jimmy F. Blackmon writes with a power and hard-hitting honesty that leaps off the page. He has the respect of the men and women of his brigade, and a command of the narrative to tell their story. From pilots of lethal Apache attack helicopters who strike fear in their enemies to the medevac soldiers who risk their lives daily, these are warriors from a variety of backgrounds who learned selflessness and found the closest brotherhood they ever knew through the crucible of war. Pale Horse both honors and commemorates the service of this elite task force from the unique vantage point of the commander who led them in battle.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)|
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Hunting Terrorists and Commanding Heroes with the 101st Airborne Division
By Jimmy Blackmon
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Jimmy Blackmon
All rights reserved.
The history we shall make, the record of high achievement we hope to write in the annals of the American Army and the American people, depends wholly and completely on the men of this division. Each individual, each officer and each enlisted man, must therefore regard himself as a necessary part of a complex and powerful instrument for the overcoming of the enemies of the nation. Each, in his own job, must realize that he is not only a means, but an indispensable means for obtaining the goal of victory. It is, therefore, not too much to say that the future itself, in whose molding we expect to have our share, is in the hands of the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division.
—MAJOR GENERAL WILLIAM C. LEE
SURROUNDED BY TALENT
SEPTEMBER 8, 2009
"Sir, Adam and Patrick just got shot," the battle captain said in a calm but alarmed voice, his eyes glued to the digital map in front of him. Silence fell over the tactical operations center (TOC) and every eye was on me. How would I, their commander, respond? I felt like I'd been stabbed in the chest with an ice pick, like someone was slowly driving it through my sternum.
"Did they crash?" I calmly asked.
"No, sir," he said. "Patrick is still flying it, but it sounds like both of them are shot up pretty bad. They're going to land at Able Main and the medevac helicopter is following them in."
Able Main was a small combat outpost (COP) in northeastern Afghanistan, at the mouth of the valley where Adam Stead and Patrick Benson had just been shot. The digital map enabled us to watch their helicopter, a tiny icon, move in real time across the terrain, from the Shuryak Valley to COP Able Main. Everyone watched and prayed that the icon would not disappear, that it would continue to move until it reached the COP and then stop moving.
The operation was called Lethal Storm — named for Task Force Lethal, Lieutenant Colonel Brian Pearl's unit, which was conducting the operation. We had flown over one hundred of Brian's soldiers, four Chinooks full of them, into landing zones deep in the Shuryak Valley, to landing zones over seven thousand feet above sea level. A low-set western moon cast the valley in the long shadow of Sawtalo Sar, a massive ridge that separated the Shuryak from the infamous Korengal Valley. The insertion went in at 2:00 A.M., and almost immediately our Apache pilots observed Taliban fighters fleeing small villages that clung like beehives to the nearly vertical slopes overlooking the valley. No doubt alerted by the sound of the helicopters, the fighters fled up into the forested mountains to retrieve weapons.
By 6:00 A.M. our Apaches had killed at least ten enemy fighters, maybe more, as Task Force Lethal soldiers had carefully moved to the villages in search of a Taliban commander named Abdul Aziz and his fighters. Despite our best efforts to find and kill them, numerous enemy fighters crept into the forest undetected, where they retrieved hidden weapons and prepared to attack us.
We were operating in the Pech District of Kunar Province — the heart of Al Qaeda and Taliban territory. More specifically, our operation was conducted in the valleys where the attacks of September 11, 2001, had been planned and rehearsed. The terrain had historical significance for both us and the enemy. We did not know it at the time, but we were about to etch an even more indelible memory into our minds, with the blood of our own men.
Task Force Lethal soldiers clumsily struggled to keep their footing on the steep, loose, rocky terrain as they moved to their objectives. It took agility to remain afoot. The ground kept shifting, giving way. It wasn't long until one of the soldiers rolled his ankle, and soon another one became severely dehydrated. Both were unable to continue the mission, leaving us only one option: They would have to be hoisted out of the valley by a cable from our medevac helicopter.
It was a risky mission. The medevac pilots would be forced to hover the aircraft completely still above the trees in broad daylight, with enemy fighters scattered throughout the valley, seeking an opportunity to shoot them down. We were certain that the aircraft would quickly become the primary target within the valley, the focal point of enemy fires, so we had to get in and out of the valley as quickly as possible to minimize exposure time.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Gary Heine piloted the medevac bird. As he steadied the Black Hawk helicopter at a high hover, flight medic Sergeant Nate Whorton descended seventy feet down into the trees — on a tiny cable the size of his finger. He quickly attached the injured soldiers to the jungle penetrator at the end of the cable, and the crew chief began retracting them up through the trees to the helicopter using a hoist. They swung and swayed like a piñata beneath the Black Hawk as they ascended, but the crew chief eventually pulled them safely inside. Now the cable had to be lowered back down so that Sergeant Whorton could be extracted.
One of Brian Pearl's men transmitted over the radio, "You've got to hurry! The enemy is coming for you. They've told all of their fighters to converge on the helicopter and shoot it down!" and with that the radios came alive with nervous chatter.
Brian's men had been listening in on the enemy's push-to-talk walkie-talkie radios. The message was clear: They are coming — we have to hurry. Meanwhile, enemy fighters, like bighorn sheep, ran effortlessly through the rocky terrain trying to reach the helicopter before it departed the valley. We were in their backyard, their childhood playground. Where we struggled to keep our footing, they moved with ease. Several enemy fighters made it into position underneath the helicopter before Whorton could be extracted.
"What was that?" the crew chief asked, clearly concerned. He hoped it wasn't a bullet, but he was sure that it was.
"I felt it in my feet. We just got shot," Gary Heine said. The enemy had made it to their location. They opened fire on the vulnerable Black Hawk with all they had. Bullets hit the nose of the helicopter, yet Heine held his position rock steady.
"He's on the cable!" the crew chief told Gary, letting him know that Whorton was on his way up.
"Tell me when he's clear of the trees," Gary said.
Adam Stead and Patrick Benson flew lead in a team of two OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters charged with protecting the medevac during the hoist recovery operation. When the enemy opened fire, Adam dove his Kiowa without hesitation between the enemy fighters and the medevac. He wanted to draw their fire away from the vulnerable medevac, but more important, he wanted to find and kill the enemy. As he flew around Gary Heine, the enemy shifted their fire from the medevac to the Kiowa. Both pilots were instantly hit, Patrick through the leg and Adam in the head.
With Adam now unconscious, the nose of the aircraft pitched up and then began to roll right and fall. Patrick, whose leg had literally exploded in the cockpit, quickly took the controls and struggled to keep them from crashing.
"We've been hit. I've been hit. Oh God ... Adam is dead!" Patrick radioed.
Meanwhile, across the Kunar River Valley, less than twelve miles away, a battle that had raged all morning in Ganjgal village was finally calming down.
"What's happening at Ganjgal now?" I asked the battle captain.
"Sir, Ryan Neal just called us with an update. He's still talking to Highlander Five, Captain Will Swenson, on the ground. It sounds like they are heading back to FOB Joyce now."
The secure phone rang in the TOC. "Sir, it's Colonel Lewis," the battle captain said as he handed me the phone.
"Sir, it's Jimmy. Can I call you back from my office?" I asked, not wanting to disrupt the operations in the TOC.
"Roger, Jimmy. That's fine. Give me an update when you can," he said and hung up. Colonel Ron Lewis was my brigade commander, stationed at Bagram Airbase.
"Sir, Patrick and Adam have landed at COP Able Main. The medevac is on the ground with them," the battle captain told me.
I turned to my operations officer, Major Jack Murphy. "I need to go update Colonel Lewis. Adam and Patrick are in good hands now. The medevac will take them to FOB Wright. Start working on a plan to get a recovery team up there for their Kiowa. I'll be right back," I said, leaving him in charge.
I walked next door to my office and called Colonel Lewis. "Sir, it's Jimmy."
"Hey, Jimmy. Do you have time to give me a quick update?" he asked. "What's going on in Ganjgal?"
"Sir, it was supposed to be a key leader engagement [KLE]. They planned to go yesterday, but the mission got delayed until today because the Afghan border police couldn't make it. We didn't have enough aircraft to cover it, execute the air assault in the Shuryak, cover our operations up north in Barg-e Matal, and maintain a quick reaction force. It was just too much. These guys were invited to Ganjgal by the village elders, which usually means they don't get attacked. The marine Embedded Training Team [ETT] and the Afghan soldiers went in just before daylight. They were ambushed in the wadi right in front of the village. We launched a team of Kiowas that have been fighting all day. It seems to be over now. They are in their trucks and headed back to FOB Joyce," I said.
"How many casualties?"
"I'm not entirely sure. I know three marines and a navy corpsman led the patrol into the village. Our Kiowas found them about an hour ago. They were killed just outside the village. Ryan Neal is the air mission commander for the Kiowas. He said there were Afghan soldiers lying all up and down that wadi, dead or wounded. We've been flying units of blood from FOB Fenty up to FOB Wright and transferring patients all over the place. They ran out of beds at FOB Wright, so we transferred several patients to the forward surgical team here at FOB Fenty. They were low on blood so soldiers at Fenty have been giving blood throughout the day. It's been a rough morning."
"Okay, you've got a lot on your plate right now. What do you need from here? How can we help?" he asked. It had occurred to me already that if we ended up fighting into the night I would run out of crews to fly the missions. 7th Battalion, the general support aviation battalion, was located at Bagram. They had a large mission load of their own, but they were sometimes used to reinforce our task force when needed.
"Our night Apache teams flew the air assault insertion last night. The day teams are covering our mission at Barg-e Matal. I've got Kiowas fighting in the Shuryak Valley and Ganjgal village now. We'll want to go back in and kill any enemy forces left at Ganjgal tonight, so we will most likely air-assault the Special Forces and Afghan commandos in to clear Ganjgal village after dark. I may need more Apaches for tonight, and I'll need help with Apaches tomorrow for sure. I need to take a closer look at our combat power before I say for certain, but I think I'll need a team of Apaches and another Chinook tonight," I told him.
"Okay, take a look at it and let me know what you need. We'll find a way to help get you what you need," he said.
"Roger, sir," I said, paused for a second, then spoke again. "Sir, Patrick Benson and Adam Stead just got shot."
"What? How bad?" he asked in a clearly concerned tone. "Are they down?" he asked before I could respond, wanting to know if they had crashed.
"No, sir. It just happened. Patrick was able to fly them out of the valley. He landed at COP Able Main. I need to get back to the TOC to see how things are going," I said.
"Okay, I'll leave you alone and let you handle the fight, but call me back when you get a chance and let me know," he said.
I hung up the phone and sat for just a moment, staring at the plywood wall in front of me, and for a minute I refused to believe what the outcome of that day might be. I always knew casualties could happen. We had come so close to death all year, yet somehow, by the grace of God, we'd escaped with mere flesh wounds. Our sheet metal repairers were better trained than the fender and bumper boys at Bumpus Body Shop back in Clarksville. Helicopter after helicopter had returned to the airfield shot up like Swiss cheese. Always, the pilots stepped out of their helicopters wild-eyed and drunk on adrenaline, but alive, perhaps more alive than they had ever been. The mechanics swarmed the helicopters, assessed the damage, and began repairing them.
Adam and Patrick both shot, I thought to myself. How can this turn out well?
I felt a sudden surge of stress and anxiety. For just a second I had a strange urge to explode and let it all out, but I feared where that might take me. Something inside said, "Let go. It will feel good to get it out," but I couldn't. That was a place I'd never gone before and I was terrified of what might be there. So I tucked those emotions neatly away, bowed my head, and prayed for Adam, Patrick, and the boys in Ganjgal.
I prayed for Carrie Stead, Adam's wife, who was back at home carrying out her day with no idea that her husband had just been shot and was reported dead. It hurt to think about it. We had been pushing hard for eight long months in combat, fighting almost every day. As I thought back over the previous eight months it was hard to put it all into perspective. What we had experienced was like something I'd seen in a movie as a kid, read in a book, but this had been real — surreal at times — but real. I was humbled to be able to lead such a talented group of men and women, men and women who were willing to sacrifice so much. I was amazed at how far we had come since first visiting Afghanistan on a Pre-deployment Site Survey (PDSS) the previous year. That was where the story truly began, on that first visit in the summer of 2008.CHAPTER 2
PRE-DEPLOYMENT SITE SURVEY
I assumed command of the 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment (Task Force Pale Horse) on a cool, rainy Fort Campbell, Kentucky, morning in May 2008. But the ride truly began when I traveled with First Lieutenant Jillian Wisniewski and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mike Woodhouse to the sweltering July heat of Afghanistan for a reconnaissance of sorts, to prepare for our deployment the following winter.
A quirky, witty former navy corpsman who absolutely abhorred running but loved Star Wars, British humor, and restoring old cars, Mike Woodhouse brought color to an otherwise olive-drab world. Mike was rarely if ever in a foul mood and could always be counted on for a laugh. Despite trying to cover it up with a heavy dose of sarcasm, he was a sensitive guy who genuinely loved people, and that appealed to me. Mike and I had known each other and served together for thirteen years. Like me, he flew the Kiowa Warrior helicopter and served as our standardization instructor pilot, the senior instructor in the task force. We expect warrant officers to be masters of their craft — technical and tactical experts in their field. Mike certainly met those criteria, but what set him apart was how passionately he cared. Mike cared about the reputation of our unit as much as any soldier in it. He wanted us to contribute to the war in ways in which an aviation unit never had before — to make a quantifiable difference.
Jillian Wisniewski was a petite, blond-haired, blue-eyed intelligence officer from West Virginia who had graduated from West Point in 2006. Smart and athletic, yet quiet and unassuming, she had a degree in operations research and a natural affinity for data analysis, systems efficiency, and pattern development. Innately inquisitive, Jillian was a natural problem solver — ideal qualities for the challenges we would face in 2009. Academically she thrived in the hard sciences, yet she wrote poetry, ran cross-country, played volleyball, Ping-Pong, Scrabble, and Cornhole, and was a self-proclaimed connoisseur of hot tea, designer coffee, and food. She made daily trips to FOB Fenty's Green Bean Coffee stand, where she would order a hot cappuccino, light on the milk and robust with espresso, no sugar, and then, after a few hot sips, she'd proclaim it "delectable!" She was the perfect lead for our intelligence team, upon which we would lean heavily in the following year.
After a painfully long flight around the globe, which seemed to grow exponentially more difficult for me with each passing year of my life, we finally landed at Bagram Airbase. The first few days in Afghanistan were spent with the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB). I made my way around Bagram to visit all of the senior leadership in CJTF-101 before moving on to Jalalabad Airfield to spend time with our sister unit, 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment (Task Force Out Front).
Our division headquarters, the 101st Airborne Division, was already in Afghanistan serving as the Regional Command East (RC-East) Headquarters, also known as Combined Joint Task Force 101 — CJTF-101. The 101st CAB, the other aviation brigade in our division, was deployed as well, providing aviation support for all of the ground forces in Afghanistan. Both the CJTF-101 headquarters and the 101st CAB headquarters were located at Bagram Airbase. The 101st CAB's subordinate aviation battalion task forces were strewn across Afghanistan, supporting infantry brigade combat teams in various provinces of the country. Task Force Out Front, which we would be replacing, was stationed at Jalalabad Airfield in Nangarhar Province. Due to the challenging terrain, weather, and vast distances that prevented the battalions from mutually supporting one another, each aviation task force had a complement of Kiowa, Apache, Chinook, Black Hawk, and medevac helicopters.
Excerpted from Pale Horse by Jimmy Blackmon. Copyright © 2016 Jimmy Blackmon. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Surrounded by Talent 1
Pre-Deployment Site Survey 9
Air Cavalry Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition 45
A Cavalry State of Mind 55
A Hateful Day 61
It All Begins 73
Korengal_Learning The Hard Way 89
Cowboys and Indians 101
Bari Ali 117
Mountain Warrior 155
The Plan Begins To Unravel 161
The Watapur 183
Ganjgal and Shuryak 231
Getting Out of Nuristan 261
Cop Keating 275
Cop Lowell 295
Bittersweet Goodbye 311
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great book. With no specific agenda, the stories give a close-up view of war in Afghanistan. Some stories are from the inside of a helicopter cockpit, others are from the perspective of a crew chief or mechanic. You hear concerns of the commander and the thoughts of the intelligence officer. There's the complexity of command. There's the intensity of the fight on the ground. This book is well done and for real. I served in Afghanistan but did not see combat. I personally knew pilots and infantry but this book gave me a new perspective and new respect for all our Soldiers do. If you want to get a feel for what it's really like -- this is your book.