Deadliest Day in Spec Ops History: The Chinook Crash

An Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter takes off in Afghanistan.
A U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook departs from Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Dec. 27, 2009. (Tech. Sgt. Francisco V. Govea II/U.S. Air Force)

Aug. 6 marks the anniversary of what has become known as the deadliest day for special operations in U.S. military history. On this date in 2011, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed, killing 38 personnel on board. Among the casualties were 30 Americans, including 17 Navy SEALs. It was the worst single loss-of-life day for the U.S. in the war in Afghanistan and was also the worst in the history of Naval Special Warfare.

The Chinook was carrying a quick-reaction force to provide back-up to troops on the ground in the eastern Afghan province of Wardak when a Taliban insurgent hit the helo with an unguided rocket-propelled grenade that brought it down. According to the International Security Assistance Force, the team on the ground -- believed to be Army special operators -- broke away from its firefight and moved to defend the crash site, but the damage had been done.

The final death toll included 15 members of SEAL Team 6; seven Afghan National Army Commandos; five U.S. Naval Special Warfare support personnel; three U.S. Army Reserve personnel from the 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment; two U.S. Navy SEALs from a West Coast-based SEAL team, two U.S. Army personnel from the 2nd Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment, part of the Colorado Army National Guard; two U.S. Air Force pararescuemen from the 24th Special Tactics Squadron; one U.S. Air Force combat controller from the 24th Special Tactics Squadron; one Afghan civilian interpreter; and one U.S. military working dog.

In response to the tragedy, Marine Corps Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said at the time, "In the immediate aftermath, they press on with the mission ... It's an unfortunate part of the business we're in -- we take casualties. But our folks are well-trained to realize that they can't let the loss of their comrades deter them from the mission, and especially because this is a very dangerous undertaking, you can't afford to lose your focus and make the situation worse. Specifically, in the special operations community, they know very well how to soldier on."

In the aftermath of the crash, questions were raised about operational security, as well as the wisdom of having such a large number of special operators together on one aircraft. A subsequent official investigation conducted by Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Colt concluded that everyone involved did what they always do on special operations raids, and there was no problem with commanders, the troops or the procedures involved.

Three years later, the crash still haunts the special operations community and the families of the victims. In October 2013, The Washington Times acquired investigative files regarding the crash, suggesting that "the helicopter's landing zone was not properly vetted for threats nor protected by gunships, while commanders criticized the mission as too rushed and the conventional Chinook chopper as ill-suited for a dangerous troop infiltration."

Others have suggested that the attack was a pre-planned retaliation against SEAL Team 6 for their part in the mission that had taken down Osama bin Laden a few months earlier. Charlie Strange, the father of Petty Officer Michael Strange, a Navy cryptologist who was among those who died in the crash, stated that he was convinced the attack was an "inside job."

"Somebody was leaking to the Taliban," Charlie Strange said. "They knew. Somebody tipped them off. There were guys in a tower. Guys on the bush line. They were sitting there, waiting, and they sent our guys right into the middle."

Recently, a hearing was held to address these and other issues, including the belief that when a Muslim clerk had uttered words of prayer during a memorial in Afghanistan for the victims, he actually was condemning them to hell as infidels.

In response, Garry Reid, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said, "We have had people in our government listen to what he was saying. I'm told that there are verses that he is citing. He is commemorating the fallen -- all of the fallen. There are some interpretations that I have seen on the internet that he was condemning the Americans, the infidels. It's not my expertise, but what we have been told on good authority is that he is commemorating all of our fallen and condemning the enemy."

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