Bagram Airfield remembers Operation Anaconda’s fallen
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – “Senior Airman Cunningham,” said Master Sgt. Chris Young, 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, pausing for a response. “Senior Airman Jason Cunningham? Senior Airman Jason D. Cunningham?”
Three times the name was called and three times the call was answered by deafening silence. Thirteen years have passed since U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jason Cunningham was present and accounted for. The pararescueman and six of his Special Forces comrades including U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts, U.S. Army Sgt. Bradley Crose, U.S. Army Sgt. Phillip Svitak, U.S. Army Spc. Marc Anderson and U.S. Army Cpl. Matthew Commons, traded their blood for freedom in the mountains of Afghanistan, March, 4, 2002.
Exactly 13 years later, service members of all branches stood at attention as the familiar names reverberated through a loudspeaker, enveloping the assembly as they have for more than a decade, and signifying the commencement of a retreat ceremony in their honor.
“I want to start with the PJ creed because it’s important to understand where everybody came from on this mission,” Young said. “It’s my duty as a pararescueman to save life and to aid the injured. I must be prepared at all times to perform my assigned duties quickly and efficiently, placing these duties before personal desires and comforts.”
Living by the same creed in 2002, Young was a staff sergeant running combat search and rescue operations and responsible for executing CSAR missions in support of special, coalition and conventional forces simultaneously. His team consisted of five additional pararescuemen and two combat controllers.
“We were planning Operation Anaconda at that time,” Young said. “It was going to be a conventional operation assisted by Special Operations Forces on the reconnaissance side as well as our Afghan partners. It was going to be a classic hammer and anvil movement: One unit was going to stay, the other was going to sweep through; we were going to do some bad things to some bad people.”
“Everybody started moving March 3,” Young continued. “The men who launched that day were from three different services, five different specialties, and they were all focused on one goal: to rescue Americans.”
The Americans in question belonged to a Navy SEAL team whose helicopter came under enemy fire in the Paktia Province in Afghanistan. During the confrontation, Roberts, a member of the team, was thrown from the helicopter and became stranded on a mountain called Takur Ghar. The remainder of the SEAL team circled back for Roberts, and despite taking heavy hostile fire, launched a team to locate their isolated member.
Cunningham was a member of the Quick Reaction Force that was dispatched in response to the worsening situation on the mountain now referred to as Robert’s Ridge.
“The QRF arrived at before morning nautical twilight, which is that time of the day when the sky is light but the ground is still dark,” Young explained. “The Remotely Piloted Aircraft operator at the time was quoted as saying ‘the helicopter is a Rocket Propelled Grenade sponge.’ At that point they crashed as a result of losing primary flight controls and primary aircrew.”
Young, who had been relocated to Karshi Khanabad, Uzbekistan the previous month, and an additional combat controller were immediately sent to Bagram in an effort to obtain transport to Robert’s Ridge and provide supplemental aid.
“We hopped on a C-130 out of Uzbekistan and landed here right as the helicopters were pulling pitch for the mission,” Young said. “Once I realized there was no way to get back on those helicopters, I did the best thing I could do: I established the casualty collection point and our combat controller set up the Satellite Communications antenna and we got on the radio to Task Force Dagger and kept them abreast of everything that was going on.”
For Young, all that was left to do was listen and wait.
“The first helicopters that came in carried the critical patients,” Young said. “At this point, I knew one of the PJs had been shot, but I didn’t know which one. As the critical patients landed, I got word that one of the PJs was killed.”
Only two pararescuemen had been a part of the QRF mission that day, Carey Miller and Jason Cunningham.
“The very first guy I saw coming off that helicopter was Carey Miller,” Young said. “So right then I knew for a fact that we’d lost Jason.”
In the many talks that followed, it would come to light that Cunningham had taken every preventative measure he possibly could have. He’d been wearing all of this Personal Protective Equipment; he’d followed all the protocol; he was surrounded by the most elite special operators the U.S. had to offer. Arguably, the only thing Cunningham could have done differently would have contradicted the very creed he lived his life by: So that others may live.
According to an excerpt from his Air Force Cross citation, after the QRF’s helicopter was shot down, Cunningham remained in the burning fuselage of the aircraft in order to treat the wounded. As he moved his patients to a more secure location, mortar rounds began to impact within 50 feet of his position. Disregarding the extreme danger, he exposed himself to enemy fire on seven separate occasions. Cunningham was then forced to relocate his patients two additional times when the casualty collection points became compromised. Even after he was mortally wounded and quickly deteriorating he continued to direct patient movement and transferred care to another medic. Though his own wounds ultimately proved fatal, Cunningham’s efforts led to the successful delivery of 10 gravely wounded Americans to lifesaving medical treatment.
In addition to the story Cunningham was writing on the ground, another was being told from the sky. Brig. Gen. Mark Kelly, 455th Air Expeditionary Wing commander, was a young major and pilot assigned to the Area of Responsibility when the heroism of few saved the lives of many.
“We’re here to honor those who gave every one of their tomorrows for someone else’s today,” Kelly said. “It’s important that we pause to recognize and remember this level of service and sacrifice from the best that our land, our sea and our air components and services have to offer. Some people wonder why our PJ, our combat controller, our Ranger, our SEAL training is so rigorous. These seven knew why, and we’d be standing here in front of 17 pictures rather than seven if that training was anything less.”
“A vast majority of the thoughts I had that day were just the simple, immediate, tactical level recognitions of an aviator,” Kelly continued. “I remember most of them, but only one really sticks with me: I don’t know what else we could have done, but I know it wasn’t enough.”
That thought has been the cornerstone on which Kelly’s allocation of assets has been based every day since March 4, 2002.
“Today when our Combined Joint Special Operations Air Component, Special Operations Task Force, or our coalition teammates take the field, there is no limit to what we’ll commit,” Kelly said. “That thought has never waned over 13 years. Not only to bring them home safely, but to honor the sacrifice of those in the field 13 years ago when we simply couldn’t do enough. So the character of our service, the decisions we make, the actions we take, must hold up to the litmus of those we’re here to remember. We stand on the shoulders of giants and we must be worthy in their eyes.”
In addition to the retreat ceremony, men and women assigned to Bagram conducted a vigil run during which a U.S. flag bearing the names of the seven fallen special operators was carried for 24 consecutive hours. Though minute in comparison to the sacrifices made by Cunningham, Commons, Anderson, Svitak, Crose, Roberts and Chapman, the gesture was a physical representation of the promise never to forget.