The Gunfight on Takur Ghar

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The Gunfight on Takur Ghar

By Matthew Dodd

As a career Marine officer, it is truly sad and discouraging to be bombarded constantly with news media stories (real and imagined) that emphasize the worst judgment and conduct of a minute percentage of the overall number of our troops deployed in support of combat operations in our global war on terrorism.

Go to your favorite Internet search engine site and type in "Abu Ghraib" or "Guantanamo Bay" or "Pablo Paredes" and you will instantly get at least 600,000 "hits." Type in "Britt Slabinski" and you will get less than 30 "hits." Look closely at those 30 "hits" and you will find only a handful of them associate "Britt Slabinski" with the nation's second highest award for battlefield valor, the Navy Cross. From that handful of "hits," all you will find is his Navy Cross citation posted on some military-related websites.

How the mainstream news media ignores our nation's heroes in a time of war in favor of negative, sensationalized stories of atypical criminal activities and cowardly disloyalty of a small few in uniform, is unconscionable.

Let me share with you my thoughts and perspectives on the incredible Navy Cross citation of U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski:

"The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Britt Slabinski, United States Navy .... For extraordinary heroism as Sniper Element Leader for a joint special operations unit conducting combat operations against enemy forces during Operation Anaconda, Sahi-Kot Valley, Afghanistan on 3 and 4 March 2002, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom."

Right from this opening sentence, I knew that I was going to be reading about some truly special battlefield exploits. For starters, I immediately recognized that Slabinski was a Navy SEAL, one of the Navy's elite sea, air and ground warriors. As a small-unit leader in a joint special operations unit in Afghanistan not even six months after the 9/11 attacks that led us into Afghanistan, I knew he must have been carefully screened and selected for this mission in such a dangerous "target-rich environment."
The citation continues:

"On the evening of 3 March, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski led his seven-man reconnaissance team onto the snow-covered, 10,000-foot mountaintop known as Takur Ghar, to establish a combat over watch position in support of U.S. Army forces advancing against the enemy on the valley floor. As their helicopter hovered over the mountain it was met by unrelenting rocket propelled grenade (RPG) and small arms fire by entrenched enemy forces. As a result of several RPG hits, a member of Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski's team was ejected from the helicopter into the midst of the fortified enemy positions. The badly damaged helicopter conducted a controlled crash, at which time Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski immediately took charge and established security on the crash location until the crew and his team were recovered to a support base."

I have personally done winter mountain warfare training in elevations approaching 10,000 feet. Operating in that harsh environment was tough and challenging, and I did not have anyone shooting at me or have a helicopter shot out from underneath me.

For Slabinski, one moment he was focused on his mission that was about to start, and the next moment his mission focus became the improvised survival of his team against the elements and against an entrenched and numerically superior enemy force. Slabinski "immediately took charge" of the chaotic situation and rallied his men to secure and organize themselves for whatever was to follow. The citation goes on:

"At this point, Senior Chief Slabinski fully aware of the overwhelming, fixed, enemy forces over the mountain, but also knowing the desperate situation of his missing teammate, now reportedly fighting for his life, without hesitation made the selfless decision to lead his team on an immediate, bold rescue mission. He heroically led the remainder of his SEAL element back onto the snow-covered, remote, mountaintop into the midst of the numerically superior enemy forces in a daring and valiant attempt to rescue one of their own. After a treacherous helicopter insertion onto the mountaintop, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski led his close quarter firefight. He skillfully maneuvered his team and bravely engaged multiple enemy positions, personally clearing one bunker and killing several enemy within."

Blown out of the sky by a heavily armed and entrenched enemy force, to crash-land on a hostile mountaintop with only himself and five others, and with another one of his team members fighting for his like in the midst of the enemy positions, Slabinski found himself at a key decision point. He could have hunkered down to wait for the enemy to come to him, or he could have backed down off the mountain.

Neither option was good, but knowing one of his men was desperately fighting alone for his life, Slabinski chose a third course of action: attack. Attacking was the only chance he had to rescue his imperiled teammate, and personal example was the only way to lead on that mountain. Slabinski's judgment and conduct under fire were exemplary. The citation continues:

"His unit became caught in a withering crossfire from other bunkers and the closing enemy forces. Despite mounting casualties, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski maintained his composure and continued to engage the enemy until his position became untenable. Faced with no choice but a tactical withdrawal, he coolly directed fire from airborne assets to cover his team. He then led an arduous movement through the mountainous terrain, constantly under fire, covering over one kilometer in waist-deep snow, while carrying a seriously wounded teammate. Arriving at a defensible position, he organized his team's security posture and stabilized his casualties."

This action is combat leadership at its best! A few phrases jumped out at me from this part of the citation: "maintained composure," "coolly directed fire to cover his team," "led a [unit] movement under constant fire," "[carried] a seriously wounded teammate," and "organized security and stabilized his casualties." The citation then reads:

"For over fourteen hours, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski directed the defense of his position through countless engagements, personally engaging the enemy and directing close air support onto the enemy positions until the enemy was ultimately defeated. During this entire sustained engagement, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski exhibited classic grace under fire in steadfastly leading the intrepid rescue operation, saving the lives of his wounded men and setting the conditions for the ultimate vanquishing of the enemy and the seizing of Takur Ghar."

With at most six men under his charge, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski repeatedly repelled the enemy's assaults. His personal and interpersonal warfighting skills were put to great use time and time again. His leadership was constantly challenged by the forces of nature, by a determined adversary, and by the circumstances in which he and his team found themselves. In the end, Senior Chief Slabinski and his men held the field of battle and stood victorious on top of the mountain. The Navy Cross citation concludes:

"By his heroic display of decisive and tenacious leadership, unyielding courage in the face of constant enemy fire, and utmost devotion to duty, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."

Once again, words and phrases jumped out at me from this closing sentence: "heroic," "decisive and tenacious leadership," "unyielding courage," "utmost devotion to duty," and "upheld the highest traditions." I often do not pay as much attention to the closing sentence as I do to the body of the citations. Too often I find them to be too "cookie-cutter" for my tastes. In this case, I found this closing sentence to be a perfect complement to the actions described in the citation.

Despite the news media's repeated "sensationalism-over-substance" choices, I found Senior Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski's Navy Cross heroics impossible to ignore. The world needs to hear less about the zeroes who are over-exposed, and more about heroes like Senior Chief Slabinski who are under-exposed.

Editor's Note: While the Navy Cross citation for Slabinski is silent on specific details of the combat incident involved, news accounts from Operation Anaconda in eastern Afghanistan during March 2002 reveal that it occurred during a rescue mission on Takur Ghar mountain. Slabinski was a member of a team of Navy SEALs who landed by helicopter on the mountaintop to attempt the rescue of a fellow commando, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Neil C. Roberts, who had fallen out of another helicopter after it came under heavy ground fire from entrenched Al Qaeda fighters. The rescue attempt was unsuccessful and Roberts' body was later retrieved from the site. During that same firefight, Air Force combat controller Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman was killed by enemy fire. He was later posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross for his valorous conduct.

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