During Battle Soldier fell from copter under fire, was captured & shot
By RICHARD SISK
Daily News Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Navy SEAL who fell from a helicopter during a mountain firefight was captured by Al Qaeda forces as his commanders watched helplessly on a drone's TV screen and later executed, U.S. battle commanders said yesterday.
"We saw him on the Predator being dragged off by three Al Qaeda men," said Maj. Gen. Frank Hagenbeck, who watched the battle in real time by a transmission from a Predator spy drone overhead.
Air Force commandos later recovered the body of Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts, 32, after a fierce 14-hour firefight Monday in which seven Americans were killed and two helicopters were lost. Maj. Ralph Mills of the U.S. Central Command said Roberts survived the fall and was executed by gunfire.
Hundreds of U.S. troop reinforcements loaded with heavy equipment were airlifted into the mountain battlefield today, preparing for a lengthy confrontation with Al Qaeda forces.
The fresh troops were delivered by helicopter from Bagram airfield, a sprawling former Soviet base north of Kabul that is becoming the focal point for U.S. operations in Afghanistan. They were armed with shoulder-launched rockets and night-vision equipment.
Bob Hanson, who lives two doors from the Roberts' family in Woodland, Calif., and knew Neil all his life, said the SEAL's death was a "tragedy."
"Neil wanted to do his part for his country," said Hanson, an ex-Army Ranger who served in Vietnam in the early 1960s. "He said becoming a SEAL was the greatest thing that happened in his life." Despite the losses, Hagenbeck said U.S. troops engaged in Operation Anaconda had killed hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in southeastern Afghanistan.
In battle yesterday, Army Apache AH-64 helicopter gunships and Air Force fighters "caught several hundred of them with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and mortars heading toward the fight," said Hagenbeck, commander of New York's 10th Mountain Division. "We body-slammed them and killed hundreds of those guys," Hagenbeck said in the mountain town of Sirkankel.
Hagenbeck and Pentagon officials described major gains in the U.S. offensive across the Shahikot mountain range and U.S.-led forces have been able to enter the first cave complexes in the area, finding large caches of weapons.
The fiercest fighting, however, occurred Monday, when G.I.s stranded around their downed helicopter fought for more than a dozen hours to protect the wounded and safeguard the bodies of their dead comrades. "We don't leave Americans behind," said Air Force Brig. Gen. John Rosa.
Six helicopters were involved in the mission, and two of those were abandoned in the mountains after they were disabled by enemy fire. Two MH-47 Chinook helicopters began the assault at 3 a.m. Monday by trying to land troops. The first chopper to land took fire and lifted off immediately to escape.
As described by Pentagon officials, Roberts fell out as the stricken chopper veered up and away toward safer ground. But another military official suggested the chopper landed, then was hit and everyone except Roberts piled back in as it flew off.
At 6:30 a.m., two more Chinooks renewed the assault a few miles from the scene of the first incident. The first chopper to land was hit with withering enemy fire, and six U.S. troops were killed and 11 wounded in the firefight.
The second Chinook landed its troops, and they took up the fight. They held their positions in close combat for 12 to 14 hours into the night while waiting for relief.
Two more helicopters, thought to be armored Air Force Special Operations CH-53 Pave-Lows, recovered the troops and all the dead and wounded at both sites, and returned to base.
Maj. Bryan Hilferty said about 1,000 U.S. troops from the 10th Mountain Division, the 101st Airborne Division and the Special Forces were doing the fighting.
The flag-draped coffins of the seven servicemen were flown aboard an Air Force C-17 transport yesterday to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where honor guards transferred them in a solemn ceremony to a C-5 Galaxy for the flight to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
With News Wire Services
Original Publication Date: 3/6/02
Daily News Services
Excerpted from the March 16, 2002 edition of Bits N Pieces, the newsletter of the National Alliance of Families: