(From left to right) Tech. Sgt. Keary Miller, Senior Airman Jason Cunningham and Staff Sgt. Gabe Brown about three weeks before the battle. Behind them is a MH-47E, the same type of helicopter that took them to Takur Ghar. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Staff Sgt. Kevin Vance, a Terminal Attack Controller, engaged the enemy with his M4 carbine and worked with Army Capt. Nate Self and Staff Sgt. Gabe Brown to bring close air support into the battle. Vance made critical recommendations on how close to bring in the air strikes. (U.S. Air Force photo)
In March 2002, a combined task force began Operation Anaconda to trap and destroy Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in the Shahi Kot valley in eastern Afghanistan. During this campaign, a small U.S. force fought a 17-hour intense battle against enemy forces on the mountaintop of Takur Ghar, which came to be known as Roberts Ridge.
At about 1 a.m. on March 4, Razor 3, a U.S. Army MH-47E helicopter tried to insert a special operations team on top of an enemy stronghold. While landing, it was hit by RPG rockets and gunfire, causing U.S. Navy SEAL Neil Roberts to fall from the helicopter. With the MH-47E heavily damaged, the aircrew made an emergency landing about three miles away. USAF Combat Controller Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, a member of the team, began coordinating close air support and a rescue effort to retrieve Roberts. Another helicopter, Razor 4, picked up the team and took them back to rescue Roberts on the 10,000-foot mountaintop.
After landing, Chapman advanced on an enemy position, killing two of the enemy. When the team became pinned down by fire from three directions, Chapman broke cover to rush another enemy position, but was killed. His action saved the lives of the team by allowing them to break contact and move down the mountain away from the ambush. Chapman was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross.
About an hour later, another helicopter, Razor 1, arrived carrying a Ranger team and four Air Force personnel -- Staff Sgt. Kevin Vance (who was attached to the Rangers), Staff Sgt. Gabe Brown, Tech. Sgt. Keary Miller (a PJ from the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, Kentucky Air National Guard) and Senior Airman Jason Cunningham. As it landed, Razor 1 was hit with multiple RPG warheads and riddled with machine gun fire that killed or wounded several of those onboard.
Cunningham, a PJ, began administering trauma care and moving the wounded out of the burning helicopter. For several hours, and without regard for his safety, Cunningham returned fire and repeatedly moved casualties out of the line of fire. His actions to save others made himself vulnerable, however, and he was mortally wounded while carrying an injured helicopter crewman. Cunningham was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross for his selfless acts.
Though hit with mortar rounds, RPGs, and small-arms fire, the team on the ground continued to battle the enemy for hours. With the essential support of air power, they slowly silenced the enemy. At 8:15 p.m., helicopters arrived, and all personnel, including the dead, were taken off the mountaintop.