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Still Here And Still Ready To Fight For Freedom And Liberate The Oppressed! World War II Veterans Hold Reunion at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center

June 18, 2018

World War II heroes of the 66th Infantry Division hold final reunion at Camp Blanding Joint Training CenterWorld War II heroes of the 66th Infantry Division hold final reunion at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center

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By U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Carmen Fleischmann

Florida National Guard

STARKE, Fla., June 18, 2018 — For years, veterans of the Army’s 66th Infantry Division have reunited to reminisce about their time together fighting in World War II, to share stories of how their lives have changed since then, and to recall fond memories of those brothers they lost along the way.

They have taken many journeys together, but none as impactful as their June 15 return here to the Camp Blanding Joint Training Center for their final reunion.

The 15 veterans of the 66th “Black Panther” Division and their families were welcomed to the Camp Blanding Museum by post commander, Army Col. Matt Johnson, who shared how he was personally impacted by their stories.

Upon taking command of Camp Blanding in 2015, Johnson said he would enjoy a morning run past the troop billeting areas on Quincy Avenue which just happened to be located behind what used to be the headquarters for the 66th Infantry Division.

“I remember vividly on those first mornings as I ran through the area, how I observed the concrete foundations and the red brick chimneys that still remain there today,” Johnson said. “It stirred within me the desire to learn more about the history of this post and the soldiers and civilians who once trained and served here.”

Johnson ran his usual route again on the morning of the reunion to prepare for his meeting with veterans that trained at his post all those years ago.

“I could still imagine the voices and the sounds of men rising early, preparing for another day of training at Camp Blanding. I thought of what you experienced then and what we experience today,” he said.

Veteran’s Story

Johnson said he was also touched by the story of one of the veterans in attendance, Cyril Reshetiloff, who served in Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 262nd Infantry Regiment. Reshetiloff was onboard the S.S. Leopoldville, a Belgian passenger ship that was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine as it was crossing the English Channel to deliver members of the 66th to fight at the Battle of the Bulge.

While Reshetiloff was able to climb his way out of the wreckage and swim to safety, the 66th Infantry Division lost 14 officers, including two battalion commanders, and 784 enlisted men in that attack.

Instead of continuing to the original battle, the Black Panther Division was assigned to fight 60,000 Germans along the French Atlantic coast. They later relocated to Koblenz, Germany, following the German surrender in May 1945, where they conducted occupation duty and provided security at German prisoner-of-war camps. The men who left to continue the fight after Leopoldville consider the sacrifice made by their fallen brothers to have saved their lives.

Jerry Roetigers, President of the Panther Veterans Organization, and one of the young men who trained at CBJTC and went on to fight with the 66th Infantry Division, said the PVO has boasted as many as 2,500 members since it was created in the 1960s. He recalls emotional moments when the PVO went to Europe and placed a wreath at the location where the Leopoldville was sunk, and later when they placed one at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 

The members of the 66th Infantry Division have been honored for their sacrifice and praised for their legacy. Their final reunion at Camp Blanding was no different. Dozens of soldiers, airmen and civilians turned out in the hot summer sun to pay their respects to the brave men of the Black Panther Division. Several World War II-era vehicles led the convoy of buses around post, bringing back memories of the unit’s time here, but also providing a reminder of how much time has gone by.

Choking back tears, Roetigers said, “None of this would have ever happened if our buddies on the Leopoldville didn’t give their lives. They gave their lives for us. It kept us out of the Battle of the Bulge, and who knows … we all might have been buried in Belgium.”

Honoring World War II Veterans

Roetigers had his grandson, also named Jerry and a veteran who served in Iraq, read an article written by his friend and previous PVO President Frank Bartino, and the current CEO of the Panther organization, Lenore Angelo, titled, “Roses in December.” The heartwarming words remembers comrades that fell during the war and have passed away since.

Just before laying a wreath on the monument, each of the 12 Black Panther Division veterans in attendance received a 66th Infantry plaque and a CBJTC challenge coin.

The veterans noticed on their tour of Camp Blanding that while the post has changed tremendously over the years, the spirit of sacrifice and service remains.

During the ceremony, currently serving Florida National Guard soldiers and airmen stood proudly as they donned the same style “Black Panther” Division patches as the heroes who have gone before them wore when the 66th Infantry Division was activated on April 15, 1943.

“We are very proud of the 66th Infantry Division’s record in World War II, and we are extremely pleased that you have come home in 2018,” said the president of the CBJTC Museum Association, George Cressman.

Picture 1: Combat Veterans of the U.S. Army 66th Infantry Division pose for a group photo during the division’s final reunion and site dedication at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center’s museum in Starke, Fla., June 15, 2018. The 66th division was activated in 1943 at Camp Blanding. After training, the division deployed to England and afterward fought German forces in Europe. The division finished the war in Koblenz, Germany, in 1945. While in Germany, the division conducted occupation duty and provided security at German prisoner-of-war camps. Florida National Guard photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Vann

Picture 2: U.S. Army Capt. Kimberly Quinn enjoys a laugh with World War II U.S. Army Veteran John Dietz following the 66th Infantry Division’s final reunion and site dedication held at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center’s Museum in Starke, Fla., June 15, 2018. Florida National Guard photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Vann

Family’s Support Makes Difference Through Multiple Deployments…

June 12, 2018

Celebrating Father’s Day: Family’s support makes the difference in military dad’s multiple deployments

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Family’s Support Makes Difference Through Multiple Deployments

By Stephanie Beougher, Ohio National Guard

COLUMBUS, Ohio, June 12, 2018 — Six times in the last 10 years, Sgt. Maj. Jeff Zentz has deployed with his Ohio Army National Guard units. Zentz’s most recent deployment ended just a few months ago when the 371st Sustainment Brigade, headquartered in Springfield, Ohio, returned from a nearly yearlong deployment in support of operations in Southwest Asia. With that many deployments on his service record and a wife and three children, Zentz knows firsthand the challenges soldiers face when they’re away from their families for an extended period.

“Staying connected to my wife and children is one of the hardest parts of being deployed, especially as often as I have been over the last 10 years,” he said. “Being gone for nine to 12 months is not like being gone for a drill weekend or a two- to three-week annual training.”

Zentz credits his wife, April, for giving him the ability to focus on taking care of his military business through the support she’s given him during the six mobilizations and “holding down the fort back home.”

“During every deployment, I handled most of the issues at the home level,” she said. “Even though things may have been difficult, I always made sure I did not complain to Jeff. I knew he had a lot of important responsibilities where he was, and I didn’t want to draw his attention away from those. “We have been married for 26 years now,” she continued, “and working together with my husband and children throughout all of the deployments has made us a very close family. I wouldn’t change anything.”

Serving Together

Zentz has served with both of his sons during two different deployments. In 2012 he and his son Army Spc. Jordon Zentz were in Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion, 148th Infantry Regiment, and last year he and Army Sgt. Jaaron Zentz deployed with the 371st Sustainment Brigade. Jordon was deployed with his unit at the same time last year and all three were able to get together for a brief visit.

“When deployed with one of my sons, it is nice to have a family member close,” he said. “The negative side is others tend to assume that I insert myself into their business, which I do not. They may be my sons, but they are not my soldiers. There is a very distinct difference.”

Jordon called the experience of being deployed with his dad “interesting,” and Jaaron said it was “nice, as I was able to spend time with him when we had free time.” The military experience also has helped the Zentz family pay for college tuition, including that of daughter Mikayla, who recently graduated from Michigan State University.

Zentz is on active duty at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and is scheduled to retire Nov. 30, 2019. With the support of his family, he said, he has been able to support the Ohio National Guard’s federal mission to defend the homeland and will be able to retire after a successful career as a citizen-soldier.

Picture: The Zentz family, from left, Jordon, Mikayla, Jeff, April and Jaaron, in 2014. U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Jeff Zentz has deployed six times in the last 10 years, and his sons were deployed at the same time he was in 2017.COLUMBUS, Ohio, June 12, 2018 — Six times in the last 10 years, Sgt. Maj. Jeff Zentz has deployed with his Ohio Army National Guard units. Zentz’s most recent deployment ended just a few months ago when the 371st Sustainment Brigade, headquartered in Springfield, Ohio, returned from a nearly yearlong deployment in support of operations in Southwest Asia. With that many deployments on his service record and a wife and three children, Zentz knows firsthand the challenges soldiers face when they’re away from their families for an extended period.

Afghanistan Making Progress Toward Peace, Mission U.S. Commander Says

June 8, 2018

Resolute Support commander visits TAAC-South

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By Jim Garamone

DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, June 8, 2018 — Afghanistan is making progress toward peace even as fighting continues, the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support mission, said today.

Afghan security forces are providing the power, NATO is providing support and training, and the Afghan people are providing the will in the fight against the Taliban and other extremist groups, Army Gen. John W. Nicholson said during a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Nicholson also praised Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s announcement of a June 15 cease-fire in the country for Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of the Muslim observance of Ramadan – a month of fasting. The move is a “bold step towards peace and stability,” the general said.

The cease-fire pertains only to operations against the Taliban. Operations will continue apace against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, al-Qaida and other violent extremist groups.

South Asia Strategy

Nicholson said the U.S. South Asia strategy has been a game-changer for Afghanistan and the region. “The objective of this strategy is reconciliation, and the strategy is working,” he added.

The level of violence between February and April in Afghanistan dropped 30 percent below the five-year average. “And in the month since the Taliban announced their offensive on April 25, violence has increased, but it is still below the five-year average,” Nicholson said.

Though violent acts still take place, the general said, the country is in a period of “fighting and talking,” as was the case in Northern Ireland and Colombia in the past. But the violent acts have not been effective, he noted. “The Taliban are no longer attempting to gain ground. They are trying to inflict casualties and gain media coverage,” Nicholson said.

For the first time, Nichoilson said, all six Afghan corps conducted offensive operations over the winter, successfully repelling 80 percent of Taliban attacks on district centers and retaking the remaining 20 percent within hours or days.

Finally, the general noted that a loya Jurga composed of 3,000 senior religious leaders issued a ruling rejecting the religious justification for suicide and terror attacks.

Picture: U.S. Army Gen. John W. Nicholson, commander of NATO’s Resolute Support mission and of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, shares a laugh with Afghan National Army Gen. Imam Nazar, 205th Corps commander, during a visit to the Train, Advise and Assist Command South region, May 14, 2018. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sharida Jackson

Utah Beach Salute…

June 6, 2018

74 years later: Eyes still upon the selfless service, sacrifices of Greatest Generation

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American D-Day Combat Veteran John Roman, center, and U.S. Army Major General Mark W. Palzer, U.S. Commander of the 79th Theater Sustainment Command, center left, salute for the playing of French and U.S. “Taps” during the Utah Beach Federal Monument Ceremony in Sainte-Marie-Du-Mont, France, June 6, 2018. DoD photo by U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Michael McNabb

On This Great Day In American History: June 6, 1944, D-Day…

June 6, 2018
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History.com
 
Although the term D-Day is used routinely as military lingo for the day an operation or event will take place, for many it is also synonymous with June 6, 1944, the day the Allied powers crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, beginning the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control during World War II. Within three months, the northern part of France would be freed and the invasion force would be preparing to enter Germany, where they would meet up with Soviet forces moving in from the east.
 
With Hitler’s armies in control of most of mainland Europe, the Allies knew that a successful invasion of the continent was central to winning the war. Hitler knew this too, and was expecting an assault on northwestern Europe in the spring of 1944. He hoped to repel the Allies from the coast with a strong counterattack that would delay future invasion attempts, giving him time to throw the majority of his forces into defeating the Soviet Union in the east. Once that was accomplished, he believed an all-out victory would soon be his.
 
On the morning of June 5, 1944, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe gave the go-ahead for Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious military operation in history. On his orders, 6,000 landing craft, ships and other vessels carrying 176,000 troops began to leave England for the trip to France. That night, 822 aircraft filled with parachutists headed for drop zones in Normandy. An additional 13,000 aircraft were mobilized to provide air cover and support for the invasion.
 
By dawn on June 6, 18,000 parachutists were already on the ground; the land invasions began at 6:30 a.m. The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches; so did the Americans at Utah. The task was much tougher at Omaha beach, however, where 2,000 troops were lost and it was only through the tenacity and quick-wittedness of troops on the ground that the objective was achieved. By day’s end, 155,000 Allied troops–Americans, British and Canadians–had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches.
 
For their part, the Germans suffered from confusion in the ranks and the absence of celebrated commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was away on leave. At first, Hitler, believing that the invasion was a feint designed to distract the Germans from a coming attack north of the Seine River, refused to release nearby divisions to join the counterattack and reinforcements had to be called from further afield, causing delays. He also hesitated in calling for armored divisions to help in the defense. In addition, the Germans were hampered by effective Allied air support, which took out many key bridges and forced the Germans to take long detours, as well as efficient Allied naval support, which helped protect advancing Allied troops.
 
Though it did not go off exactly as planned, as later claimed by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery–for example, the Allies were able to land only fractions of the supplies and vehicles they had intended in France–D-Day was a decided success. By the end of June, the Allies had 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles in Normandy and were poised to continue their march across Europe.
 
The heroism and bravery displayed by troops from the Allied countries on D-Day has served as inspiration for several films, most famously The Longest Day (1962) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). It was also depicted in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001).

Operation Roundup Hits ISIS Remnants Hard in Iraq, Syria!

June 1, 2018

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From a Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve News Release

SOUTHWEST ASIA, June 1, 2018 — Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve and its partners increased offensive activity against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria targets in designated parts of Iraq and Syria throughout May.

Since the May 1 start of Operation Roundup, Syrian Democratic Forces resumed major offensive operations in the middle Euphrates River valley. Since then, the SDF has continued to gain ground through offensive operations, coupled with precision coalition strike support.

During May, the coalition has conducted 225 strikes with 280 engagements. This demonstrates a 304 percent increase over the 74 strikes conducted in March, and a 123 percent increase over the 183 strikes recorded in April.

Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve and its partner forces continue to exert pressure on ISIS senior leaders and associates to degrade, disrupt and dismantle ISIS structures and remove terrorists throughout Iraq and Syria. ISIS morale is sinking on the front lines as privileged ISIS leaders increasingly abandon their own fighters on the battlefield, taking resources with them as they flee, task force officials said.

Over the coming weeks, Operation Roundup will continue to build momentum against ISIS remnants remaining in the Iraq-Syria border region and the middle Euphrates River valley.

Coalition military forces conducted 41 strikes May 25-31, consisting of 49 engagements in Iraq and Syria:

May 31 Strikes

On May 31 in Syria, coalition military forces conducted six strikes consisting of seven engagements against ISIS targets. Near Abu Kamal, four strikes engaged an ISIS tactical unit, destroying three ISIS vehicles, an ISIS command-and-control center and an ISIS fighting position. Near Shadaddi, two strikes engaged an ISIS tactical unit and destroyed two ISIS command-and-control centers.

On May 31 near Basheer in Iraq, coalition military forces conducted a strike consisting of one engagement again an ISIS tactical unit.

May 30 Strikes

On May 30 in Syria, coalition military forces conducted six strikes consisting of six engagements against ISIS targets. Near Abu Kamal, three strikes destroyed an ISIS fighting position. Near Shafah, a strike engaged an ISIS tactical unit and destroyed two ISIS vehicles. Near Hajin, two strikes engaged an ISIS tactical unit and destroyed two ISIS fighting positions.

There were no reported strikes in Iraq on May 30.

May 29 Strikes

On May 29 near Abu Kamal in Syria, coalition military forces conducted a strike engaging an ISIS tactical unit, destroying an ISIS vehicle.

There were no reported strikes in Iraq on May 29.

May 28 Strikes

There were no reported strikes in Syria on May 28.

On May 28 near Qayyarah in Iraq, coalition military forces conducted a strike consisting of two engagements against ISIS targets.

May 27 Strikes

On May 27 in Syria, coalition military forces conducted five strikes consisting of five engagements against ISIS targets. Near Abu Kamal, four strikes destroyed three ISIS fighting positions. Near Shadaddi, a strike engaged an ISIS unit and destroyed an ISIS vehicle-borne improvised explosive device.

On May 27 near Baghdad, coalition military forces conducted a strike consisting of one engagement against ISIS targets, destroying an ISIS-held building.

May 26 Strikes

On May 26 in Syria, coalition military forces conducted 11 strikes consisting of 12 engagements against ISIS targets. Near Abu Kamal, 11 strikes engaged an ISIS tactical unit, destroying two ISIS logistics hubs and two ISIS vehicles.

There were no reported strikes in Iraq on May 26.

May 25 Strikes

On May 25 in Syria, coalition military forces conducted eight strikes consisting of 11 engagements against ISIS targets. Near Abu Kamal, seven strikes engaged an ISIS tactical unit and destroyed three ISIS fighting positions. Near Shadaddi, a strike destroyed six ISIS fighting systems and three ISIS logistics hubs.

On May 25 near Kirkuk in Iraq, coalition military forces conducted a strike consisting of three engagements against ISIS targets, destroying two ISIS-held buildings.

Definition of Strikes

The coalition’s strike report contains all strikes conducted by fighter, attack, bomber, rotary-wing, or remotely piloted aircraft, rocket propelled artillery and ground-based tactical artillery.

A strike, as defined by coalition officials, refers to one or more kinetic engagements that occur in roughly the same geographic location to produce a single, sometimes cumulative effect in that location. For example, a single aircraft delivering a single weapon against a lone ISIS vehicle is one strike, but so is multiple aircraft delivering dozens of weapons against a group of ISIS-held buildings and weapon systems in a compound, having the cumulative effect of making that facility harder or impossible to use. Strike assessments are based on initial reports and may be refined.

Task force officials do not report the number or type of aircraft employed in a strike, the number of munitions dropped in each strike or the number of individual munition impact points against a target.

U.S. South Asia Strategy in Afghanistan Shows Results, Nicholson Says

May 31, 2018

ENDURING FREEDOM

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By Terri Moon Cronk

DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, May 30, 2018 — The South Asia strategy in Afghanistan has spawned intensified dialogue and a drop in Taliban violence, U.S. Army Gen. John W. Nicholson, commander of NATO’s Resolute Support mission and U.S. Forces – Afghanistan, told reporters today.

Speaking to Pentagon media via teleconference from Kabul, Afghanistan, the commander said the goal of the South Asia strategy is reconciliation, and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has called it a game changer.

Six months into the strategy, Nicholson said, “we had the elements of a peace proposal outlined by the Taliban in an open letter to America and a formal peace offer by President Ghani,” followed by other communication channels.

Between February, when the peace offers were made, and the end of April, the levels of enemy-initiated violence dropped to 30 percent below the five-year average, Nicholson said.

But on April 25, the Taliban announced their offensive and since then, the violence has increased, but still stands at a level that’s 10 percent to 20 percent below the five-year average, he said.

“I call this talking and fighting,” Nicholson said. “And, as [Defense Secretary James N. Mattis] has said, ‘violence and progress can coexist,’ and that’s what we’re seeing.”

The South Asia policy brought additional firepower and authorities, he said, noting that the Taliban have sought to avoid attacks by air, and have targeted more remote district centers.

During the period of violence, the Afghan National Defense and security forces defeated more than 80 percent of the enemy attacks on district centers, meaning the Taliban failed to achieve their target goals, the general noted.

The 20 percent of the attacks in which the Taliban were successful in taking five district centers have been retaken by Afghan forces, the commander said, adding some were retaken in anywhere from hours to 10 days.

Driving the Enemy From Farah

“The one exception to a remote district center being attacked [by the Taliban] was the city of Farah. Within 24 hours of the attack, these Afghan forces, supported by the Afghan air force, and enabled by the United States, drove the enemy out of the city and into surrounding districts, where they pursued them for a week,” Nicholson said.

He added, “During this pursuit, a number of these Taliban leaders and fighters returned to Helmand, and through some great intelligence work by our Marines, … they tracked 50 of them to a meeting in Musa Qala and struck them with rockets, killing dozens of the enemy leaders.”

Another example of a failed enemy attack took place today, the general said.

Eight terrorists in a captured Humvee attempted to penetrate the ministry of interior headquarters in downtown Kabul, he said.

“They were stopped, and in a sharp firefight with special police, all of the were killed, with the exception of one, who was captured. We did lose one friendly casualty and had a few wounded, but the enemy attack failed and never was able to penetrate MOI headquarters,” Nicholson said.

“[These] are just a few examples of the improvements we’ve seen in the [Afghan forces] fighting abilities, which … is the focus of our investment and one of the key parts of the South Asia strategy — defeating 80 percent of enemy attacks, retaking any fallen district centers, successfully defending Farah, pursuing and killing the attackers, defeating terrorist attacks,” the general said.

Counterterrorism is the other key mission in Afghanistan, and the top two targets remain the Islamic State-Khorasan Province and al-Qaida, the commander said, noting that while the Islamic State aspires to spread around the country, it is geographically limited to Jowzjan, Nangarhar Kunar.

“Our [counterterrorism] team recently killed the leader of the Jowzjan enclave, Qari Hekmatullah, and many of his fighters, which caused many of them to fade away or to flip sides to the Taliban, severely disrupted,” Nicholson said.

“We are maintaining the pressure on that particular enclave to defeat this group, and we’re also maintaining pressure on the group in Nangarhar, with what is called Operation Hamza,” he said, “which has been going on for the past year and steadily reducing their space and inflicting casualties.”

 

Thank you; to America’s Fallen and Their Families on this 2018 Memorial Day…

May 27, 2018

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U.S. Navy SEAL Receives Medal of Honor for Afghanistan Actions in 2002

May 25, 2018

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By Jim Garamone

DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2018 — Sitting in the White House reading the citation for the Medal of Honor doesn’t give the real flavor of why retired Navy Master Chief Petty Officer and special warfare operator Britt K. Slabinski is receiving the award.

The nicely air conditioned room with comfortable chairs, impeccable floors, historic artwork and gilt on many surfaces isn’t right, somehow.

The dispassionate words on the award talk of Slabinski’s heroism in assaulting bunkers, rallying his men, and going back into the center of the firefight.

The White House is literally half a world away from a mountain in Afghanistan in 2002, where Slabinski — and America — lost seven good men.

When the master chief talks of the action, you realize he is reliving his time atop Takur Ghar — a 10,000-foot mountain near Ghazni, on March 4, 2002. He is remembering his decisions. He is remembering what he felt. And he is remembering his brothers who were killed.

He speaks in present tense, because in his mind’s eye. It is still happening.

‘I Was Just Doing My Job’

He believes he did nothing special. “I was just doing my job that day,” Slabinski said during an interview.

Slabinski — then a senior chief petty officer — and his men were just supposed to set up an overwatch position on the mountain to support the conventional forces in the valley below. “Now the enemy gets a vote,” he said. “We plan, we train, we rehearse and we rehearse some more for every possible contingency, but sometimes the fog and friction of war is just out of your control and a leader has to adapt.”

The team was aboard an Army MH-47 helicopter and as it was landing, well dug-in al-Qaida fighters opened up. “When we land, the ramp goes down,” he said. “I’m standing on the very back of the helicopter … and almost immediately take an RPG rocket to the side of the aircraft. It goes off, fills the aircraft full of smoke and we are getting shot up right away. There’s bullets flying through the aircraft the size of your finger [from] 12.7 machine guns that were up there.”

The pilot was able to take off, but the bird was wounded and experienced what Slabinski called “the worst turbulence you could imagine.”

Those gyrations caused Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts to fall off the ramp. The crew chief grabbed Roberts’ pack, and the weight of the SEAL pulled him off the ramp, too. But the crew chief was tethered into the aircraft and was able to get back in. Roberts fell 10 feet into the meter-deep snow.

“It happens that fast,” Slabinski said as he snapped his fingers.

He told the pilot that he had lost a man, but with the chopper’s hydraulics shot out, there was no way the bird could circle and retrieve him. “[The pilot] was flying a brick,” Slabinski said. “It was basically a controlled crash into the enemy-held valley.”

The master chief assessed the situation. “Now my mission originally was to support the overwatch, then my teammate Neil fell out, and now I have a downed helicopter I have to deal with,” he said.

Calling For Support

The first problem he dealt with was the helicopter, and he called in a second aircraft to take the crew and team to a safe place. Once there, Slabinski was able to focus his attention on Neil.

The information he received was Roberts was alive. “I knew there was a superior enemy force up there and they had heavier weapons than I had,” he said.

The enemy, the cold, the altitude — “Everything that could be stacked against us, was stacked against us going back, and I had the feeling that this was a one-way trip,” he said. “I knew though, that if I go now, there’s a chance I could rescue Neil. I knew if I tried to develop a battle plan more on my terms, it would certainly be better, but I knew Neil didn’t have that time.”

The weight was on Slabinski’s shoulders. “I remember sitting in the helicopter,” he said. “The [rotors are] turning, it’s cold, trying to sort through the tactical piece of it … and this thought keeps coming back to me: If I go now what’s the cost going to be versus the cost if I wait. If you are the leader and you have peoples’ lives that you are responsible for, the decisions don’t come easy.”

This was Slabinski’s loneliest moment. He was sitting in the chopper with a headset on and people are talking to him. He was thinking of all the tactical problems and the lives. “And this thought kept coming back to me, and it’s the first line of the Boy Scout Oath … ‘On my honor, I will do my best,’” said Slabinski, who attained the rank of Eagle Scout at his hometown troop in Northampton, Massachusetts “The only thing that is in the back of my mind is, ‘On my honor I will do my best, On my honor I will do my best, On my honor I will do my best.’

“That’s when I said, ‘I’m gonna go do this.’”

The master chief assigned his men jobs, and the pilot of the first aircraft, Army Chief Warrant Officer Al Mack, went up to Slabinski and told him he would be flying them back in the new MH-47, even though he had just survived a harrowing experience with the first helicopter.

There was no other place to land, so the team had to go right back to the place the first bird took the fire. As the chopper took off, it got quiet for Slabinski and he thought of his son, who was 6 years old at the time. “I remember saying, ‘I love you. Sorry for what’s to come. Be great,’” he said. “Then I put it in another room in my brain and went on with my duties.”

Enemy Fire

This Chinook also took fire coming in to the landing area, and as soon as the ramp went down, the team went off the back of the ramp. Two men went to the right, two to the left and the master chief and Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, an Air Force combat controller, went out together.

Slabinski and Chapman were hit by a burst of automatic weapons fire. “The burst hit John and he went down,” Slabinski said. “The bullets from the same burst went through my clothes on each side, and I jumped behind a rock.”

The belt-fed weapon kept firing at them. “I looked for John and he is lying in a very odd position, and I look to my other guys and they are engaged with another dug-in position and the two to my left are engaged there. There are enemy muzzle flashes on three sides.”

There is no cover, and Slabinski tosses two grenades at the bunker, but the position is too well dug in. He looks to his men and sees Chapman still in the same odd position and the others engaging the enemy. His M60 gunner is next to me. “I have a 40mm grenade launcher … and I have six grenades,” he said. “I’m too close to the big bunker because they won’t go off. They have to spin to arm.”

Firefight Continues

He fired at the farther bunkers and silenced those, but the big bunker remains a deadly problem. He has the M60-gunner fire on the bunker and he wants to charge to the bunker to clear it under the cover of that automatic fire. Before he could do that, a grenade flies out of the bunker and explodes right in front of the barrel of the M60, wounding the gunner.

Slabinski again assesses the situation. “The gunner is down. John hasn’t moved and my other two guys are still engaged in contact,” he said. “The plan in my head isn’t working so I have to do something different.”

He decided to get his small band out of direct fire. As he is doing that another SEAL was hit in the leg from the same machine gun Slabinski was trying to take out. “I sent the wounded over first and I crawled over to John, looking for some sign of life from John and didn’t get anything,” he said.

The place he chose to seek shelter from the fire was just about 30 feet away over the side of the mountain.

Mortar Fire

Slabinski called for support from an AC-130 gunship to hit the bunkers. At the same time as the aircraft was hitting the mountain he noticed shell fragments were landing around the team. Slabinski thinks at first it is the AC-130, but it is from an enemy mortar that is ranging his position.

He moves again to a more protected area and now the U.S. Army Ranger quick reaction force is coming in. The first chopper is hit and crashes on the top of the mountain. Slabinski contacted the second bird and it lands on another spit of land and the Rangers work their way to the SEAL position and attack up the mountain to secure the top.

The master chief can’t move his wounded to the top of the mountain, so he moved to a place he could secure and await medevac, which came that night.

Estimates of the number of al-Qaida fighters on the top of that mountain range between 40 and 100. They had heavy weapons galore with automatic machine guns, mortars, RPGs and recoilless rifles. It was the headquarters for al-Qaida operating against U.S. forces engaged in Operation Anaconda. The SEAL team went in to try to rescue Roberts with six men.

Footage taken by a remotely piloted vehicle and examined later showed that Chapman was not dead. The technical sergeant regained consciousness and engaged the enemy killing two of them — one in hand-to-hand combat. “I was 100 percent convinced that John was dead,” Slabinski said. “I never lost track of John.”

He never would have left the airman on that mountain, he said, if he thought for an instant that Chapman was alive.

For his actions that day, Slabinski received the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor. As part of then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s directive to the services to re-examine all of the valor awards beginning in 2001, the Navy recommended upgrading that award to the Medal of Honor. The master chief — who retired from the Navy in 2014 — received a call from President Donald J. Trump in March telling him of the decision.

The master chief is conflicted about the award. He believes he was just doing his job and still feels the loss of the seven men — Navy, Army and Air Force — he served with that day. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about them,” he said. “If I could give up this medal to have them back, I would.”

U.S. Navy Mizzenmast Climb

May 21, 2018

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U.S. Navy Seaman Gabriel Lupo, assigned to the USS Constitution, climbs the mizzenmast as the ship hosts Vietnam veterans to thank them for their service during an event in Boston, May 18, 2018.

U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Casey Scoular