What follows is a select history of one of the deadliest and least- known forces in the history of human warfare. It begins, as many heroic combat tales do, with a crisis.
It’s also the story of one man, John Chapman, who would earn the nation’s highest honor for bravery when he saved the lives of twenty-three comrades at the willing cost of his own.
Finally, it is the history of John Chapman’s fellow Combat Control- lers during Operation Anaconda, America’s first major operation in its ongoing Global War on Terror. How a handful of Combat Control- lers managed to stave off disaster and destroy Al Qaeda and Taliban forces by the score using their unique expertise and wits has gone down in history, even as the doomed operation continues to reveal its secrets to this day.
The history of the men of the Combat Control Teams (known universally by the acronym CCT, whether applied collectively or to an individual) laid down in these pages is by no measure com- prehensive; rather it is representative, a distillation of commitment, capability, success, and loss. Delta Force officer Tom Greer, who led the hunt for Osama bin Laden, writes in his book Kill Bin Laden that Combat Controllers are “the best-rounded and uniquely trained operators on the planet. The initial training ‘pipeline’ for an Air Force special tactics squadron Combat Controller costs twice as much time and sweat as does the journey to become a Navy SEAL or Delta operator. . . . And that is just to get to a place where they can do the job for which they are really trained, calling those deadly airstrikes.”
What’s unique about the role of CCT is that wherever the need arises, they are there. In Kill Bin Laden, Greer notes that, “In the relatively finite black SOF world, assaulters and snipers are a dime a dozen. Yes, these men are trained in multiple deadly skill sets and the dark arts of counterterrorism. But . . . Just because you are the best of the best does not mean you are the best at everything. Any Delta operator can vouch for the capabilities of the Air Force Combat Controllers, and very rarely goes on a ‘hit’ without the men who wear the scarlet berets.” CCT is not permanently assigned to the Special Forces (SF) teams or SEAL platoons they fight alongside but they are attached, to use military parlance (think integrated or embedded), when needed for combat operations. Consequently, in America’s longest-running war, the men of Air Force Combat Control collect, in aggregate, more combat action than their special operations counterparts in the Navy and Army— making some of them the most experienced veterans in all of America’s previous wars. During global humanitarian crises, they are often the first to arrive, unsupported, to deliver salvation where no other first responders can. Their motto: “First There.”
Born of America’s disastrous first attempts to insert airborne forces into battle during World War II, Combat Control predates their better-known SEAL and Special Forces counterparts, with whom they’ve served silently for decades in some of the most dramatic missions in US history. This is the story of one such mission.
The Night Stalker sliced the frigid Afghan darkness of the Shahi Khot Valley. Bristling with two 6,000-round-per-minute M134 miniguns on its sides and an M60 machine gun mounted on the tailgate, it was prepared for small-arms fire from Taliban fighters.
Chief Warrant Officer Alan Mack was on the stick of the MH-47E, America’s special operations workhorse of a helicopter. This particu- lar Night Stalker’s call sign was Razor-03. In the rear were six SEALs from the most famous unit in Navy history, SEAL Team Six. Mack’s only other passenger, the seventh member of a most elite pack- age, was a US Air Force Combat Controller named John Chapman. All seven men were highly trained and themselves bristling with weapons and purpose. Their mission call sign was Mako-30. It was the early morning hours of 4 March 2002.
Mack had flown countless insertions in the early stages of America’s newly ordained Global War on Terror in response to the treachery of 9/11. He’d been in Afghanistan for months and was comfortable with the hazards of the mountainous terrain and with the habits of the enemy. The team’s insertion point that night on the summit of their objective, a mountain called Takur Ghar, was determined last-minute, and Mack wasn’t sure he could pull it off, but he and the SEAL team leader agreed to attempt it. Even the helicopter he was flying was a last-minute change. He and his copilot, Chief Warrant Officer Talbot, had swapped their previous helicopter for this one when the other’s number-two engine “ran away,” accelerating uncontrollably, and had to be shut down, grounding the bird. The two pilots took on the new helo and, with it, the assigned enlisted crew comprising a flight engineer (who doubled as the right door gunner), a left door gunner, and two tail-ramp members, one of whom manned the tail gun. After a quick crew brief, Razor-03 took to the unwelcoming sky.
As the Night Stalker made its way through the night, frigid air poured into the cargo cabin from the two doors just behind the cockpit, where both gunners stood behind their M134 miniguns, projecting their primed six-barreled lethality through the openings. The heaters failed to keep pace.
On the tail ramp, Sergeant Padrazza surveyed their “custom- ers” through night vision goggles (NVGs) from his position on the “stinger,” a 7.62mm M60 strap-mounted machine gun. Unlike during training missions back in the States, that night the mood of the SEALs and Chapman was grim. The men were to be inserted by Razor-03 directly on top of the 10,469-foot mountain peak to estab- lish an observation post. From their commanding position, Chapman, as the team’s air expert, would call in airstrikes on Taliban positions throughout the valley. The somberness of the Mako-30 team was in- tensified by multiple last-minute changes to the mission, not the least of which was their commanders ordering Mako-30 to insert directly atop Takur Ghar mountain instead of offsetting the team, which would have allowed them to approach the summit clandestinely to determine possible enemy locations and capabilities.
From the cockpit, Mack could see another SEAL team’s helicopter landing zone (HLZ) as they passed over it. That team, Mako-21, had been inserted by another Night Stalker. Approaching his own mountain from the north, he was roughly two hundred feet above the summit. As they began their long final approach, Talbot had control of the helicopter. Mack continued scanning the HLZ through his NVGs and identified a location where they could set the massive twin-rotor helicopter down; it was a relatively level spot adjacent to a grouping of trees just below the summit. As they closed the distance, Mack noticed footprints on the snow-covered slope. This wasn’t alarming in and of itself—Afghans traversed severe and remote terrain in even the most adverse weather—but as the helicop- ter settled toward the ground, pushing a blizzard of snow in every direction, a figure ducked behind a knoll at their nine o’clock.
Mack keyed his intercom mike and told the SEAL team leader, Britt Slabinski, “You’ve got a guy at nine o’clock, stuck his head up and disappeared.”
“Is he armed?” asked the SEAL. “I don’t know.”
Poised to exit the helicopter and anxious to be on the ground, where the team would have more control, he responded, “Roger, we’re taking the LZ.”
From the front of the helo, Mack was looking through his goggles as the SEALs and Chapman prepared to be inserted, when he noticed a DShK Russian heavy machine gun at their one o’clock position, almost directly in front of them and only 150 feet on the horizon. The DShK is a lethal antiaircraft weapon, and the range of this DShK was point-blank. Before he could call “contact” to the gunners, re- ports of contacts from multiple locations poured in simultaneously— a donkey at three o’clock, a man ducking behind cover at their ten. The team leader reiterated they were still willing to take the HLZ. Nodding to himself, Mack asked his left gunner if he had the man at their ten o’clock. “Yes.”
Mack was about to authorize the left gunner to “engage,” when their world exploded. Two rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) slammed into the helicopter’s left side. The first warhead went through the left electrical compartment and then an ammo can before exploding, wounding the gunner and preventing him from shooting their assailant. He’d not been authorized to engage by Mack yet any- way, so the Taliban got in the first punch. And it was a knockout. The RPG killed all the AC electrical power to the stricken bird, and that in turn disabled the electrically powered miniguns. The gunner hit the floor. Before anyone in the helicopter could respond, a second RPG struck, knocking out their multimode radar system.
In the back, the SEAL team and Chapman kept their composure, readying to step off. Sergeant Dan Madden, in control of the ramp, put his arm out and blocked the team’s exit just as their world caught fire. On the heels of this, he called to the pilots, “Ready rear, go go go, lift off!”
As the senior pilot, Mack took control of the damaged bird from Talbot as the helicopter’s systems began failing, one after the other. First their multifunction displays failed, followed by the Nav system, then the automatic flight control system, and with it all the radios. The cockpit went black. One saving grace was the DC power, which remained, allowing the intercom to work so at least the crew could talk, even if they couldn’t fight. The crew’s NVGs, which were individually powered by helmet-mounted batteries, were also safe from the failing systems of the ravaged aircraft.
Mack rolled on more power through the collective stick and took off. But the added thrust for the high-altitude liftoff under extreme conditions caused a dangerous development: The rotors began to slow and droop. Though no instruments indicated this in the cockpit, years of experience told Mack he had a problem when he heard the pitch of the spinning rotors change. To compensate, he reduced power to regain desperately needed rotor RPM, causing the helicopter to jerk up and down above the now “very hot” LZ and mountain.
In the back, Petty Officer Neil Roberts, who’d not snapped his safety line to the aircraft, stood by the rear at the ramp’s hinge, facing the blackness beyond, ready. The fact that he was not on the inter-com wasn’t a problem, since he wouldn’t exit the helicopter until directed by the crew, and Madden had just blocked the ramp.
As the stricken helicopter struggled to lift, the situation worsened. A third RPG came screaming from the darkness and slammed into their right side, blowing out the right electrical box. Before they could gain any distance, yet another RPG hit the ramp where Roberts and Madden stood with Padrazza, the stinger gunner. The impact destroyed the flare dispenser, and the helo staggered under the impact. When it did, Roberts slid down the lowered ramp, with Padrazza on his heels, desperately trying to gain hold of the SEAL. Fully loaded with an eighty-pound ruck, combat gear, and an M249 SAW machine gun, Roberts weighed in excess of three hundred pounds. The two men managed to grab hold of each other as they tumbled toward the opening a few feet away.
Madden lunged for the two men. As they slid past, Roberts’s legs flipped into the air. Still attached to the ramp by his gunner’s harness, Madden grabbed on to the SEAL’s ankle, only to be dragged along until he snapped to a violent stop at the end of his harness tether. Roberts slid past him, flailing as he approached the void. Madden and Padrazza briefly suspended the SEAL by the ankle above the snowy slope.
In an instant, he was gone.
Meanwhile, the helicopter picked up momentum as Mack battled to save all their lives, oblivious to what had just happened behind him. Madden watched helplessly as Roberts dropped ten feet to the snow, slamming onto his back, and receded into the night as the helicopter limped away.
Before Madden could call “lost man,” the grim situation became even worse. One of the crew came on the intercom—they’d lost an engine. Mack, unaware they’d also lost the SEAL, knew they did not have single-engine capability, and he also had no way to determine which engine was out from his dead instrument control panel. The best he could do was to autorotate (land without power, essentially a controlled crash) somewhere in front of them and at the base of the hostile mountain. As Mack was working through the challenges of power, glide slope, a landing spot, and no instruments, Madden was pulling in Padrazza, who was dangling from the ramp and swinging wildly by his gunner’s strap. On the intercom Madden shouted, “Both engines are running!” several times. He could hear them directly above his head at the aircraft’s rear.
Mack wasted no time “pulling power” to determine the truth and was rewarded with level flight, which verified the intercom call. He now had options, but the helicopter soon began shaking and the controls fought the pilot, making them feel “heavy” in Mack’s hands. He knew he needed to get the helo on the ground immediately.
He turned north, the direction from which they’d come, looking for a place to set down, when the call came from the rear that they’d lost a man and he was somewhere on the HLZ. Fuck. “Are you sure?” he asked. By this time Madden had dragged his crewmate into the helicopter, and both responded on the intercom simultaneously with “Yes!”
Mack was determined. “We’re going back to get him,” he announced over the intercom. Every crewman agreed with the decision, but the gunners reminded him they had no weapons. Mack asked for a test fire, but the guns were dead.
He began a right-hand turn anyway to come around and head back into the one-sided onslaught and firefight that surely awaited them. But as he did, the controls continued fighting back. Then the collective stick went dead and no amount of wrestling could move it. His helicopter, stricken and blind, was coming apart around him and falling from the sky. Returning to the HLZ was impossible. There was little hope for Roberts as the Night Stalker limped off the mountain and into the blackness beyond.
In the rear, Chapman held tight to his cargo net seat as it lurched and shook like the inside of a VW Beetle in a hurricane, powerless at that moment to affect Roberts’s fate or his own. He had no idea what awaited Roberts alone on the mountain now seen receding into the night through the cargo ramp opening. Within minutes the HLZ was lost among the dozens of nondescript peaks surrounding the Shahi Khot Valley. It is impossible to say if Chapman understood his SEAL teammate’s future at the hands of dozens of hardened Chechen and Uzbek fighters. He certainly had no inkling that in another two hours he and Roberts would face exactly the same situation, their destinies separated by a half dozen steps, each a lone man fighting against many.
If there was one among the seven-man team who could possibly survive alone in hostile territory against insurmountable enemy numbers, it would be Chapman, the lone Combat Controller—the only man with the overwhelming firepower of America’s entire fleet of aircraft and death at his fingertips, and the expertise to wield them as either a precision strike on an individual or a crushing tsunami of tens of thousands of pounds of bombs over any mountain or massed force.
John did not know in that moment, in the rear of the darkened helicopter, that he was destined to soon save the lives of the remain- ing members of his SEAL team and another eighteen men who would ultimately commit their lives to rescuing John and the SEALs. How John came to be that man and hero on the frozen summit of Takur Ghar mountain is a remarkable and unique story about a force so unknown in American military history as to be invisible: US Air Force Combat Control. John would not be the only Combat Control- ler on Takur Ghar or the mountains surrounding it. Indeed, hidden in the folds of the US and allied special operations forces who were prosecuting Operation Anaconda, which was designed to push the Taliban to the brink of extinction and of which John’s team was but a small part, were more than a dozen of these unknown warriors.
In the history of human warfare, no single individual warrior has ever possessed so much precision power over life and death. This is the story of John Chapman and his brothers, the deadliest fighters ever to have walked the fields of battle.