10 January 2009

Leave no man behind

“Words can't describe the thanks I have for them for doing that, for retrieving him.”

- Robert Mersman, on the crew that recovered the body of his son, Sgt. Jeffrey Mersman

Most readers here are familiar with the events of November 9, 2007, in which Captain Matthew Ferrara and five other troops were killed during an ambush near Forward Operating Base Bella, home of Chosen Company, 2-503rd PIR, 173rd ABCT in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan.

Yesterday, Tom Bowman of NPR published an interview with some of the Pave Hawk pilots who participated in the recovery mission. During the course of the firefight one of the Soldiers, Sergeant Jeffrey Mersman, had fallen from the narrow trail they were traversing and landed on a ledge below. Four of the other Soldiers climbed down to him, were unable to carry him out in the rugged terrain, but weren't going to leave without him.

"They were basically trapped," [Air Force Capt. Ed] Blanchet says. "They couldn't get back out of there, they couldn't get back up the terrain. So that's when it was necessary for us to have to go in and try to hoist them out."

A second helicopter flew into the narrow space, shaped like a wedge and tapered like a funnel. They dumped gas to make the helicopter lighter and easier to maneuver.

Master Sgt. James Karmann was the flight engineer on the second helicopter. He says it was like parallel parking — rock faces surrounded the helicopter on three sides.

"We had about 10 feet on the front and the right side and the tail of the aircraft," Karmann says.

Just 10 feet from disaster. Karmann leaned out the door, trying to position the hoist to the upturned faces of the rescuers below. That's when the wind picked up.

"It started pushing the aircraft backward. We managed to stop the aircraft just within a matter of inches between our tail rotor and the rocks there," Karmann says. Still, he guided the pilot ever closer to the ledge. "Tried to talk him in as close as I could to the rocks and just couldn't, just couldn't get in there close enough."

Low on gas, the helicopter pulled away. Then Blanchet, a 30-year-old pilot from Florida with six years in the cockpit, angled his Pave Hawk toward that wedge of rock and decided on a new approach.

"We actually backed the helicopter kind of around the corners of the cliff," Blanchet says.

In that position, the helicopter began to descend lower into the funnel, so the cable could reach the men on the ledge.

"It was really loose shale rock, so their footing was really precarious," Ringheimer says. "So we really had to be careful not to blow those guys off the rocks."

Ringheimer moved to the other side of the helicopter to help with the cable.

He was stunned when he saw the rock wall looming out the window.

Read the rest of this story about honor, courage, and dedication to duty.

I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.

- From The Soldier's Creed

Click here for more 173rd ABCT Afghanistan posts.

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