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A rare window into a closed world

Everyone wants to know: Who are America's most elite special operators? The Pentagon provided some clues on Thursday when it released the names of the service members who were killed in Saturday's CH-47 Chinook crash in Afghanistan. And although we keep being told to wait until the investigations are complete before deciding what to think about the tragedy, Thursday's grim roll at least provides a glimpse of the men who take some of the most dangerous missions in the world.

The Pentagon identified the members of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group as sailors assigned to an "East Coast-based Naval Special Warfare unit" -- no doubt a concession to Special Operations Command -- and Thursday's announcement makes clear how unusual DevGru is: Its members are much more experienced than a typical unit, either first-class petty officers, chiefs or senior chiefs, and included one master chief SEAL.  Also, they're not all SEALs.

Sailors are unique among service members in that they wear their military occupational specialties on their sleeves -- literally. If all you hear about a soldier is that he's a "sergeant,"  you can't tell whether he's an artilleryman or a file clerk, but sailors' ratings are part of their titles, so you know a logistics specialist 3rd class has a very different job from someone who's a machinist's mate 2nd class. The SEALs who were aboard Saturday's helo belonged to "special warfare operator" rating, but five of the sailors with the DevGru operators didn't:

Two were explosive ordnance disposal technicians -- no doubt assigned to help defuse or even set bombs during the missions. One was an information systems technician -- a computer and network specialist, perhaps along to help exploit enemy laptops or other electronic intelligence.  One was a cryptologic technician, specializing in codes and communication, also likely along to help with exploiting intel. One was a master-at-arms, the Navy's version of military police, usually assigned to keep order on ships or bases -- his job may have been to handle the team's working dog, or even perhaps to help deal with potential prisoners or interrogations.

Unlike the sailors, the three airmen who were aboard don't have job designators as part of their titles, though we know they were combat controllers from the 24th Special Tactics Squadron, based at Pope Field, N.C. -- they may have been along to help direct air support for the SEALs or the Army Rangers who were already on the ground.

Thursday's list of victims is the first time the Pentagon has identified the units of the Army crew members who were flying the Chinook, and it confirms that they and their aircraft did not belong to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), which often, but not always, flies special operators in combat. The Chinook's Army crewmen were from the 2nd Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment (General Support Aviation Battalion); and the 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment (General Support Aviation Battalion).

The announcement also paints a larger picture of the special operations community: It's dominated by senior enlisted troops; there was only one officer aboard the Chinook, a Navy lieutenant commander who was presumably in charge of the mission, and the two Army chief warrant officers who piloted the helicopter. The fact that most of the men aboard were E-6es or above, clearly some of the saltiest veterans in a highly select and very dangerous line of work, reinforces the magnitude of this loss to the special warfare community.

The head of Naval Special Warfare Command, Rear Adm. Sean A. Pybus, issued this statement on Thursday:

"Early Saturday morning, Aug. 6, Naval Special Warfare suffered a tremendous loss of 22 men while conducting critical special operations combat in Afghanistan. They cannot be replaced. We will honor their service and sacrifice, and embrace their families as our own, in this time of immeasurable grief. The outpouring of support and sympathy from the armed services, the government, communities and the public is well beyond my ability to properly thank. The Naval Special Warfare Community is deeply humbled and appreciative.

"Our NSW men were in company with U.S. Army aircrew, U.S. Air Force para-rescue and combat controllers, and an Afghan security element. We grieve for all of them, and admire their teamwork, commitment and courage. I have great hope for the future knowing that extraordinary men dedicate themselves completely to the idea and the actions of freedom and security, not only for ourselves but for others. We are truly blessed that such men answer a call to military service at the highest levels of professionalism and capability, but also deeply saddened by their loss. In the days and weeks ahead, I would ask for your thoughts, prayers and support for NSW, our families, the special operations community, and all of our armed forces."


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