This is part three of a three part series I wrote for the the Civil Air Patrol Cadet Newsletter. In August of 2014, I attended a presentation by an Air Force Reserve Helicopter pilot. The story changed my outlook on things significantly. I wanted to tell the cadets that life is a journey but not with the same old stories. The significance of this story for the cadets won’t be the same as it was for me but maybe someday they will remember what I wrote and it will make sense.
A day later, the Marines received word that an Operation Red Wings member, Marcus Luttrell, was confirmed alive in a village on the side of a mountain. While the Seals and Marines planned the rescue mission, Spanky and his boss remained at the back of the room. They only task was to stand by in case additional support was needed. As the mission planning was taking place, another message came in that another American was found on the side of the mountain. The report was unconfirmed. The Seals felt they had to determine if the report was valid. The recuse team turned to Spanky and his boss and said “You guys get Marcus. We’re going to look for this other person”. Spanky admitted they hadn’t been paying close attention since their original task was to stand by. Now, they had to finish the mission planning and be airborne soon. To compound the stress on Spanky, his boss said they were going to fly a “Spooky approach” to the landing zone. This meant the lead would swoop in low and fast over the landing zone and then climb sharply to provide cover. Spanky would then fly to the landing zone and pick up Marcus.
The landing zone was a terrace cut into the mountain. This would provide a very narrow clearance for the rotor blades. Also, the mission was being flown at night. A cloud cover was over the village and the air was humid. Night vision goggles (NVG) are less effective in humid weather. A lantern flare is designed to provide light up an area at night. The AC-130 gunship was to drop the flare. This would compensate for the limited effectiveness of the NVG. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the flare. Spanky needed to rely on all the skills practiced under better conditions.
After landing, the PJ’s jumped out to retrieve Marcus. A couple of men in Afghan garb approached the helicopter from behind. This was not safe and unusual. The PJ’s were concerned the mission was becoming an ambush and were ready to fire. Marcus revealed himself. He was dressed in the local clothing to hide him from the Taliban. Marcus was loaded into the helicopter and they departed.
Spanky is Lt. Col Jeff Peterson. He said that to this day, Marcus will text him around the day of the rescue and holidays. The message is usually a simple “Thank you for saving my life”. Spanky mentioned that it was all of his years as a maintenance officer and training for 15 years that prepared him for his most significant mission (to date). He had to be able to be good at his job, be patient, and be mentally prepared for the call whenever that came in.
Next time: How this story changed my perspective and my message to the cadets.