Five years ago, eight months after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. forces were concluding Operation Enduring Freedom, the effort to drive the brutal Taliban government from power in Afghanistan and defeat the al Qaeda jihadist militants controlled by Osama bin Laden who were protected by the Taliban.
Operation Enduring Freedom was a spectacular success in most respects. The U.S. forces involved were relatively small (a few thousand) but extraordinarily motivated, well-trained and resourceful. Operating in very inhospitable conditions, from arid deserts to wild mountainous terrain covered in deep snow, the American military and intelligence forces used a wide array of weapons and tactics, from CIA operatives riding horseback alongside Northern Alliance tribesman — scenes reminiscent of the 19th Century — to ultra-sophisticated drone aircraft with laser-guided smart bombs that can land within inches of their target.
In a little over two months following 9/11, the U.S. deployed a small but powerful fighting force to Afghanistan, a remote country of forbidden terrain halfway around the globe. It toppled the Taliban, one of the most ruthless governments in the world, and hunted down and killed the majority of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorists and drove the rest into hiding in Pakistan.
This was a remarkable feat of American military prowess and involved many stories of extraordinary courage on the part of our troops. Almost all these stories are unfortunately unknown to most Americans. Here are a few.
Navy Seal Stephen [Doe]
Chief Boatswain’s Mate Stephen Doe (his real last name is classified), a Navy Seal, was operating with a joint British-American special rescue team in Northern Afghanistan in November 2001.
The rescue team was on a mission to locate two Americans who were missing after a group of Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners had overpowered their guards at the Qala-I-Jangi fortress in the Mazar-E-Sharif area. The enemy prisoners had seized a large quantity of weapons and ammunition and were holed up in the fortress.
Doe was forced to cross an enemy minefield in order to enter the fortress in search of one of the American prisoners. (The other was thought to be seriously injured or dead.) Under heavy enemy fire, Doe made two hazardous efforts to locate the uninjured prisoner and then worked his way back to his team to report the prisoner’s possible location.
The team then looked for the other American outside the fortress until darkness fell. Doe then moved forward another 300-400 meters into the heart of the fortress by himself under constant enemy fire in an attempt to locate the injured troop. Running low on ammunition, he utilized weapons from deceased Afghans to continue his rescue attempt. Upon verifying the condition and location of the American citizen, he withdrew from the fortress.
The citation awarding the Navy Cross to Doe read, in part: “By his outstanding display of decisive leadership, unlimited courage in the face of enemy fire, and utmost devotion to duty, Chief Petty Officer Doe reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Army Major Mark E. Mitchell
The Distinguished Service Cross was awarded to Maj. Mark E. Mitchell, 5th Special Forces Group, Army Airborne for valor displayed in the battle for Qala-I-Jangi. The citation reads in part:
“As the Ground Force Commander of a rescue operation during the Battle of Qala-I-Jangi Fortress, Mazar-E-Sharif, Afghanistan, Maj. Mitchell ensured the freedom of one American and the posthumous repatriation of another. His unparalleled courage under fire, decisive leadership and personal sacrifice were directly responsible for the success of the rescue operation and were further instrumental in ensuring the city of Mazar-E-Sharif did not fall back in the hands of the Taliban. His personal example has added yet another laurel to the proud military history of this nation and serves as the standard for all others to emulate. Maj. Mitchell’s gallant deed was truly above and beyond the call of duty and is in keeping with the finest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), the United States Army, and the United States of America.”
Navy Petty Officer Matthew Axelson
June 27-28, 2005, Navy Sonar technician Second Class Matthew Axelson was serving with a four-man reconnaissance team, working with a SEAL delivery vehicle in the vicinity of Anasabad, Kanan province. The area was located in very mountainous terrain in an area largely controlled by the enemy.
Axelson’s team was charged with locating a senior enemy militia leader following an encounter with enemy forces.
On June 28, Axelson’s unit was spotted by enemy sympathizers who reported their location to the enemy militia forces. Axelson and his team came under immediate attack from a numerically superior force fighting from a protected position.
In the battle, numerous enemy militia men were killed and several Navy men, including Axelson, were injured. Ignoring his wounds, Axelson ordered a teammate close to him to attempt to escape while he provided covering fire.
Totally disregarding his own safety, Axelson continued to fire on the enemy, killing several more of them before he in turn, succumbed to enemy bullets. For his selfless courage under fire, Petty Officer Matthew Axelson was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
Navy Petty Officer Danny D. Dietz
Another posthumous Navy Cross was also awarded for valor in this action to Gunner’s Mate Second Class Donny P. Dietz. Dietz’ citation reads in part:
“Petty Officer Dietz fought valiantly against the numerically superior and positionally advantaged enemy force. Remaining behind in a hailstorm of enemy fire, Petty Officer Dietz was wounded by enemy fire. Despite his injuries, he bravely fought on, valiantly defending his teammates and himself in a harrowing gunfight, until he was mortally wounded. By his undaunted courage in the face of heavy enemy fire and absolute devotion to his teammates, Petty Officer Dietz will long be remembered for the role he played in the Global War on Terrorism. Petty Officer Dietz’s courageous and selfless heroism, exceptional professional skill, and utmost devotion to duty reflected great credit upon him and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for the cause of freedom.”
Navy Seal John Smith
Yet a third Navy Cross for valor in the battle in Kanan Province was awarded to Navy Seal John Smith (a pseudonym, as the SEAL is still on active duty and his name is classified). The citation honors the SEAL’s “extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy” in which he “fought valiantly against the numerically superior and positionally advantaged enemy force.”
Marine Corps Sgt. Anthony Viggiani
On June 14, 2004, Sgt. Anthony Viggiani and his 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit were conducting a “cordon and knock” operation in a village in South-central Afghanistan when the pilots of two Apache helicopters reported seeing a force of 20 heavily armed militia fighters retreating into the hills nearby.
Viggiani and his men quickly went in pursuit. In the vanguard of his squad as they moved over a steep mountainside, Viggiani came under heavy enemy fire.
“The rounds just started pouring in,” he said later, “and we weren’t sure where they were coming from.”
Then Viggiani saw two Marines on a nearby slope get wounded by enemy rifle fire, and he realized that the enemy fighters responsible were on the slope ahead of him.
Moving forward, Viggiani came upon the cave from which the enemy sniper was firing.
“I was able to look down a break in the rocks and saw a bit of cloth move,” Viggiani said. “So I got off three or four shots and then dropped a fragmentation grenade.”
The grenade, along with rifle fire, shut down the sniper nest, which contained three enemy fighters.
During the battle, Viggiani was wounded in the leg.
Disregarding the injury, he continued to fire at the enemy until they were silenced. When the area was cleared, four dead and one wounded fighter were found.
Refusing to be evacuated for medical care, Viggiani applied a dressing to his wound, took some aspirin and headed further into the mountains looking for more enemy fighters.
For the courage he displayed in this action, Viggiani was awarded the Navy Cross.
Army Cpl. Pat Tillman
The most famous American hero of the liberation of Afghanistan was Army Cpl. Pat Tillman, who had already gained fame as a safety for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. An honor graduate (3.81 GPA) of Arizona State where he was named PAC-10 defensive player of the year his senior year, Tillman was an NFL all-star in 2000 while playing for the Cardinals.
Tillman was offered a three-year, $3.6-million contract by the Cardinals. However, Tillman had been galvanized by the 9/11 attacks and was determined to be part of the war on al Qaeda. He turned down the contract and enlisted in the Army with his brother Kevin, who had turned down the opportunity to play professional baseball to serve. Both became members of the elite Army Rangers.
A participant in the liberation of Iraq, Tillman was sent with his unit to Afghanistan. On April 22, 2004, while on patrol Southwest of Khost, Afghanistan, Tillman was killed by rifle fire while on patrol. Initial accounts reported that Tillman was killed by enemy fire in a firefight, and he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and a promotion to corporal. Later, however, the Army issued a correction reporting that he had been killed by friendly fire in the confusion that ensued when an enemy explosive device went off near Tillman’s patrol team.
Tillman’s family and the public as a whole were shocked to learn that Tillman’s fellow Rangers and his superiors knew the truth and tried to cover it up.
Neither this reprehensible action by the Army nor the fact that Tillman was killed by friendly fire detracts in the least from Tillman’s patriotism, courage and self-sacrifice.
The only strategic and tactical failures of note in the effort to topple the Taliban came in the battle for Tora Bora, the mountainous region bordering Pakistan where Osama bin Laden and his forces holed up in December 2001.
The U.S. commander relied on Afghan warlords and their forces to lead the main assault while the Americans provided air power and some special forces on the ground.
Unfortunately, many of the Afghan leaders succumbed to bribery by bin Laden and his people and allowed them to escape across the border into Pakistan.
In the succeeding months, however, the Taliban and al Qaeda forces began filtering back into Afghanistan, gathering in the mountainous region of Shah-E-Kot.
Having learned their lessons from Tora Bora, the American commanders relied this time on U.S. forces to encircle the enemy forces, backed up by Afghan forces and troops from several allied nations. Although Operation Anaconda was ultimately successful, resulting in more than 500 al Qaeda jihadists’ being killed, the two-week-long battle was a difficult one.
Allied forces faced severe obstacles, the mountainous terrain was covered in deep snow, and the al Qaeda forces were heavily armed and holed up in a complex series of caves and concealed positions. U.S. intelligence also did not know the number of enemy combatants, with estimates varying from hundreds to thousands.
As U.S. forces advanced on March 2, they ran into heavy resistance and took significant casualties.
A key to the battle was control of the mountaintop called Takur Gar, which commanded a 15-mile view of the battle area.
A Navy SEAL team was dispatched in an MH-47 helicopter under cover of darkness to take the al Qaeda command post at the summit. As they circled the peak, however, the chopper came under heavy fire, and while taking evasive action, Navy Petty Officer First Class Neil Roberts fell out of the craft.
The helo was forced to make a crash landing in the valley seven miles away. Resolved not to leave Roberts behind, the team called in another helicopter to take them back to the area where Roberts was.
A 17-hour battle ensued for control of what became known as Roberts Ridge. The battle left a number of Americans dead (including petty officer Roberts who died trading fire with the enemy) and many others wounded. It also saw heroic action on the part of many members of the rescue teams, including Air Force Tech Sgt. John Chapman (who was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross) and Navy SEAL Britt Slabinski (who received the Navy Cross). Both Chapman and Slabinski were profiled in an earlier Human Events article on heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan [see “Remember Our Unsung Heroes,” by James C. Roberts, Sept. 11, 2006].
As the SEAL team searching for Roberts slogged their way for two and a half hours through heavy snow, they called in air support to hit the al Qaeda bunkers they encountered. Two additional helicopter teams were ordered to join the SEAL team, which by this time had engaged the enemy who were firing from a number of bunkers.
Airman Jason D. Cunningham
Senior Air Force Airman Jason D. Cunningham was the primary rescue medic assigned to a quick reaction force that was endeavoring to rescue two American servicemen who were being pursued by Taliban and al Qaeda forces in mountainous, snow-covered terrain.
As the pilot began to land the Chinook helicopter containing Cunningham and his team, the craft came under enemy fire, causing it to crash land. The members of the assault force came under heavy enemy fire that immediately killed three of the men and wounded five.
Disregarding his own safety, Cunningham remained in the burning helicopter treating the wounded. He then began moving the wounded men one by one to a more protected location, braving a hail of enemy gunfire several different times.
When the second treatment location came under enemy fire, Cunningham began moving the wounded to a third location, coming under intense enemy small arms and RPG attack. Even after he was mortally wounded, Cunningham continued to direct patient evacuation until he died.
Because of Cunningham’s efforts, 10 seriously injured American personnel were saved. For his incredible bravery under fire, Sgt. Cunningham was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross.
More than 1,000 people, including the governor of Georgia attended a funeral service for Senior Airman Cunningham at Moody Air Force Base.
The airman’s widow, Theresa, read a letter that her husband had written to be opened in case of his death. It said: “If I die, I died a happy man because of you and the girls and because I died doing what I wanted to do.”
Brother-in-law Jared Marquis wrote movingly of Jason: “Most people have a hero or someone they credit for being the person they are today. For me, that person isn’t a teacher, supervisor or parent. While I have had my share of influential people in my life, that credit goes to Senior Airman Jason Cunningham.
“One of the most powerful moments I experienced was at Jason’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. I remember seeing a three-star general salute Jason’s casket as it made its way to his final resting place.
“I am here to tell you, even as a civilian, I understood how powerful an image that was. I could see in his face how much respect he had for the fallen airman.
“After the funeral, I had a lot of time to think, and came to a conclusion: I knew I wanted to serve my country the way Jason did, the way that all our fallen service members have. When Jason died, he left behind a wife and two daughters. I didn’t feel it was right for me to stay home with my wife and kids, enjoying the freedom he fought for. I couldn’t stay home when people like him were unselfishly risking everything. I felt it was my responsibility to stand up and fight.”
Inspired by his brother-in-law, Jared Marquis is now serving in the U.S. Air Force.