A Fight in the Mountains
“A Fight in the Mountains” Aug 2009
The Global War on Terror (GWOT) had been going on for over eight years at this point. We had a small presence in Afghanistan while in conflict with Iraq. The drawdown and retrograde of Iraq had allowed us to push hard in Afghanistan. In August of 2009 the men of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment received the news they would be surging ahead of the other companies for the upcoming deployment. I personally didn't know what to think, and had no idea what was to come. The time had come, and just like any deployment we headed off to do our pre-deployment tasks as we had done many times before. We received our shots, filled out our family separation forms, ate our last meal in the States and boarded the flight just like any other rotation. This rotation would however prove to be different than any deployment I had ever been on. I have stories that will forever live with me both good and bad, but here is how that rotation started...
We arrived in Salerno to be greeted by our brothers in 3/75, whom we would be supporting. The camp we lived on was already packed and they had set up two additional Alaskan Structure tents for living and three for our ready rooms. The two living tents housed the entire company to include our enablers. Without a doubt, it gave a new meaning to "nut to butt" as our cots were side by side with barely enough space to stand up between them to walk out of the tent. Our briefing room for targeting and daily instruction was crammed and poorly put together. Nothing was favorable, and to be honest it was so horrible all we could do is laugh about it at the time. It didn't stop the mission and we continued to have our morning updates, which consisted of a lot of talk and no action. Countless times we were told “today or tomorrow” we would execute one of the targets we were looking at. The only thing that seemed certain was we would eventually be assaulting a training camp in the Paktika Province. Days passed, and a few targets were executed but we still hadn't hit this training camp and moral was dwindling every day.
Prior to one of the most mentally challenging days of my life we had built a pretty detailed plan to action this training camp we had been talking about for weeks. It was about 9-10k up in the Sreh Petaw Sar Mountains in East Paktika Province. History shows this area as one of the most dominating terrains through stories that dated back to Alexander the Great who failed at conquering what is now modern day Afghanistan due to the rugged and extreme terrain. Every piece of imagery we viewed was a nightmare and as soon as a new set of eyes saw it they too sighed. They had been watching the area for weeks at this point and had confirmed our High Value Target (HVT) was there.
We all heard rumors of what was there and at this time I was only a sergeant so it was all above me. We had gone over tons of imagery of the area we planned to assault, where we viewed fighting positions. We watched aerial video footage of the training camp where we saw men (our enemy) learning how to move in tactical formations, shoot guns, and so forth. We received briefing upon briefing of what was up there, which was sometimes described as 350-400 terrorists. These men had come from Uzbekistan and other areas to the north to fight us. They set up training camps in the mountains because they didn't think they would be bothered, which gave the command an idea to use a kinetic strike on the training camp prior to our infiltration. Sure we have all heard of dropping a few bombs to soften the objective, but this was a request of over 100k pounds of ordinance prior to our infiltration. A request this large had to be approved by the President himself.
Time past and finally on August 29th, 2009 the warning order dropped and the intent of a kinetic strike on the objective would be executed! Key players went into the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and the rest of us sat outside to get back briefs from our immediate leadership. After the brief was done my sniper team leader came out and briefed me on the final details. At 1845 hours Zulu time the pre-assault fires would have the green light and myself and others watched in the TOC as it went down. It was something I had never seen before, and watching it on a television I'm sure did it no justice. The fires included high mobility Army rocket systems (HIMARS), from Bagram Airfield and Salerno, as well as F-15s, A-10s, B-1 Bombers and a variety of other assets supporting the mission prior to our infil.
Shortly after it started we suited up and made our way to the flight line where we boarded three helicopters commonly referred to as "ships" or "birds". We planned on infilling as soon as it was confirmed that there had been no movement on the objective for thirty minutes, and once 2nd Platoon was on the ground, the ships would return and pick up 3rd Platoon and infil them to support us. As we approached our designated helicopter landing zones (HLZ) we took contact to which the helicopter crews responded with a volley of mini-gun and M240 machine gun fire while rotating to land so we could put troops on the ground. Because of the instant contact the third ship was unable to land and flew away while the initial two ships landed and dropped their ramps. I came off running with the rest of the guys while looking north in the direction of the other bird. They had instantly taken contact as the bird was landing and as we came off I wasn't sure what was specifically going on, as the radio net was pretty heavy with traffic. I would later find out that one of the new Rangers, PFC Eric Hario, was instantly killed as he was running off the bird. This objective was his very first mission.
We had essentially landed right into an L-shaped ambush as we came off the birds. We returned fire with good fields of fire based off their forward line trace as we assaulted through the enemy. The only thing I could see at this point was tracers and strobes as I scanned my sectors looking for enemy personnel. After a short while the gunfire subsided and a cease-fire from our end of the HLZ was called. I cannot account for what exactly happened on the other bird but one of the men monitoring the radio, Mack, stated:
"While I monitored, I could hear that 2A was taking contact from enemy forces. I briefly struck my commander on the shoulder and brought his head close to me so I could inform him that 2A was taking contact and that they had two enemy killed in action (EKIA) and that we have one friendly wounded in action (FWIA) with a gunshot wound (GSW) to the neck. I will never forget the look he gave me. He immediately got on his MBITR radio to inform 3A leadership about what was going down on the HLZ. The commander had also been talking to the pilots on his headset to confirm what I had told him. As he was confirming, I heard the RTO on the ground report to the TOC that the friendly casualty was unconscious and stable."
We had heard the call for a medic over the radio and that someone was hurt but had no idea who it was at this point, and you have a feeling inside of you that's hard to describe. You're angry but sad and curious; you sit there looking to your left and right into the blindness of the night or the greenness from your NODs without a clue who might have been hurt. The mission must continue though, and so we coordinated over our radios for the other element to consolidate on us with the casualty.
At this point the group with our friendly wounded in action (FWIA) had begun to move towards the location in which my group was. During their movement, the third bird that originally could not land was brought in to infil the remaining troops and MEDEVAC our wounded. They landed and the ramp dropped followed by a bunch of hard charging barrel-chested freedom fighters without a worry in their mind ready to bring pain to those who hurt our own. Our FWIA and the medic treating him were then loaded on the same aircraft as calls were being made about two enemies on the southern ridgeline. An AC-130 engaged both, resulting in two enemy killed in action (EKIA).
At 2226 Zulu, the ground force commander reported that there were seven confirmed EKIA in a wadi in the vicinity of HLZ Loyd along with one friendly killed in action (FKIA). At this point we had been receiving reports of five enemy personnel maneuvering on us to the northwest of the objective so the ground force commander gave his approval to the JTAC to do a call for fire mission. The assets in the sky eliminated the threat resulting in five more enemies killed in action. Shortly after, our assets and ground forces spotted one enemy to the west, and my sniper partner and myself stepped up and began to engage him. We both shot a few rounds and connected. They called in gun runs from an A-10 to confirm he was dead.
We had been on the HLZ for almost two hours at this point in what seemed like constant contact. The ground force began clearing through the southern portion of the HLZ, when a moment in which I'll never forget happened. We were walking through the wadi and I was with the 2nd or 3rd Squad in the order of movement. I stood about 10-15 feet to the back and left of the man to my right. It was pitch black and at the time didn't know or care who I was next to. Slowly taking one step after the other over the difficult terrain with tons of boulders and broken mountains everywhere, we continued to clear through checking our every step and assuring we had eliminated the threat. Then out of nowhere a burst of rounds came our way and without hesitation fire was returned by a couple of Rangers to my right. I instantly saw someone drop and ran to him.
At the same time the two guys to his right instantly returned fire on the enemy, the aggression and rate of fire was insane with rounds flying and ricocheting in every direction. It seemed as if the rifleman went through an entire magazine and the SAW gunner an entire drum. Simultaneously I arrived at the wounded’s side and began to try and elicit a response out of him. I received nothing, and soon had another body next to me helping me rip off his body armor to examine him for the wound. I remember reaching down by his Kevlar helmet into a pool of blood thinking he had been shot in the head but couldn't find an entry or exit point. While we searched, our surgeon on the ground had reached us. We did what we could to help, but let the surgeon try whatever he could although it seemed as if nothing could be done. This happened in a matter of seconds, but it's an event that would change so many lives forever. This objective would be the last mission that Staff Sergeant Jason Dahlke would go on in his long and distinguished Ranger career.
We finally finished clearing through and called in for the 2nd Strike Force, which was 3rd Platoon. They infilled and we loaded one "Angel" (friendly killed in action) on the bird and it left with our brother in arms at 2340 Zulu. We had now been on the HLZ for almost three hours and had not even begun our journey up the mountain to the main part of the training camp. The terrain is so difficult to maneuver they brought in AH-64 Apache gunships to blow up the side of the mountain enough for us to actually climb it. After multiple runs we finally began our journey to the top. Enemy chatter confirmed the enemy was consolidating and calling for reinforcements in which the gunship answered by killing one of the enemy.
This infil would prove to be the most miserable and physically exhausting walk I'd ever done in my life. As we climbed, which was more like a crawl, up the mountain we took contact yet again. One of the squad leaders near me engaged an enemy hiding in a bush with a suicide vest and when killing him his vest partially detonated. When it exploded my comrade was about ten feet from him, and a huge ball of flame erupted. I remember a couple others and me pulling him out of the fireball. I thought his legs were gone, and while we pulled him out shrapnel had gone in many different directions. While focused on him we quickly realized the wounded warrior we pulled out of the flame thankfully had both his legs regardless of the countless pieces of shrapnel in them. Our medics and other first responders were already treating someone else for a sucking chest wound about 150 feet further up the mountain. A military working dog also had his nose partially blown off and they were both deemed urgent casualties.
At this point it was obviously a serious moment but as I looked to my left I saw a practically half naked man. He was half naked because they were looking for other wounds, but regardless, I found it funny he was wearing nothing but his underwear in the middle of an all-out battle. Being 9000 feet up in the air after countless firefights, the last thing you expect is someone being treated in his whitey-tighties. Simultaneously they were passing his dog off to us below, I remember a couple others and me trying to clean off his nose but he was too amped up. We couldn't really treat him and continued to pass him down to the men below us.
The moment that was once comical turned serious as I remember looking to my right to where my Ranger buddy stood. This man had been really close to one of the men we had just lost, close like family. He looked at me, and I at him... I saw the dirt and sweat streaks on his face and he said some of the simplest words, yet held some of the deepest emotion I had ever seen from him. He said, "When is enough, enough?" and at that moment I replied back with, "No fucking shit…” It's hard to truly describe or make someone who wasn’t there understand what myself and the guys around me began to feel. We had finally realized that two of our friends were killed and knew who they were.
We were now passing down a guy with a sucking chest wound and his dog with half his nose blown off to our brothers below. Just at our feet we had another brother with shrapnel in his legs and tiny blood spots all over his pants. The look on everyone's face was the same. We all had been covered in dirt and blood, with sweat streaks or tears (whatever you had the balls to admit at the time) down our face. We were broken off from climbing hundreds of feet in elevation over very little distance. We hadn't even hit our halfway point, and who knows what else was to come our way as constant enemy chatter mentioned the enemy consolidating and preparing to attack us again. The truth is, we all had negative thoughts and our spirits were broken, and these were the strongest and most emotionally cut off people I'd ever known. After 3rd Platoon finished packaging the urgent casualties, they moved them to the HLZ where we originally landed to conduct the CASEVAC.
3rd Platoon had just finished doing post-assault operations and exploiting the HLZ while the CASEVAC element put our wounded dog handler and his dog on the bird. At this point, one of the assets observed scattered enemy personnel in the vicinity of a few tents/buildings about 500-800 meters away from us to the northeast. We called for fire, resulting in multiple JDAMs being dropped on the structures. Shortly after this, our CASEVAC element linked back up with us. The commander on the ground reported their findings, which consisted of multiple AK-47s, fragmentation grenades, ammunition and chest racks. He then ordered the guys of 3rd Platoon to blow the items in place with our own demolitions. Shortly after that and prior to continuing up the mountain we had to hold still because an asset in the air was dropping more bombs on three different locations, which had enemy movement.
We dug deep physically and emotionally just to keep moving up this mountain and as we were about 3/4 of the way to the top we found a place to take a rest. It was big enough to make a patrol base and we half assed it for sure. Thankfully, we had Apache gunships covering our movement the entire time because at this point, we all just flopped down on the ground. I remember walking through the middle of our group with my head down, morale at an all-time low. I was working my way through the patrol base to get to the highest point I could with my sniper partner, and as we made it to the highest point in the patrol base, we heard random shouting from across the valley that was dividing the next mountainrange and us. At this moment everything changed, the mentality and the physical exhaustion seemed to subside for now and it was because I, as well as others, have considered this to be one of the greatest shots ever made in Ranger Battalion.
The enemy had to be a good 700-900 meters away, and out of nowhere my sniper partner who was standing upright took one shot that dings this guy right in the neck. I only know this because I saw it through my 18-powered scope. The guy dropped instantly and his enemy "friends" had to try to recover his body at the crest of the mountain. I'm not sure why it happened (partners gun may have malfunctioned or I just decided to do it), but I began to engage the enemy using my partners shoulder as my bipod. At this same time, two Mk-48 machine guns began to “speak”, a term used to describe one gun shooting a burst and then being answered by the other gun shooting a burst, going back and forth until they finished firing. I'm not sure if we hit anyone else but no one crested that hill again and shortly after, our assets dropped Hellfires on the bodies lying at the top of the mountain. I think this moment kind of helped motivate everyone, because nothing negative happened to us, and we eliminated the enemy. That shot is something that is still talked about today by the Rangers who were out on that objective.
After things settled down, we prepared to continue movement on to the last section of our objective. The mission had now gone into the day by many hours at this point, and we continued to climb the mountain. We cleared through the objective as we walked to the end of the training camp, passing multiple anti-aircraft weapons, bunkers, tents and so forth. At this point the sun was beginning to set and we had finally reached the end. Our commander reported multiple enemies killed in action, machine guns, AK-47s, ten or more chest racks, and various other items, which we could link to our intended high value target.
At this point we had made it to the highest point I had ever been in a terrain I had never seen before. We could see all around us in various directions, we sat there in a patrol base while the sun set. We looked to our left and our right, spread out pretty good but close enough to a friend or two. We talked amongst each other about what had happened, and what we missed back home, we laughed and then had silence for those we lost. The feeling was surreal and something different, only the men that walked those mountains, or lost brothers will ever understand. Time passed and the sun set, and shortly after the Night Stalkers came to our aid, and took us home where we reflected on the mission and everything that happened.
On the 29th of August 2009, Alpha Company 1/75 and attachments lost two amazing men. This story is dedicated to them and their brothers that embarked on that mission. I gained friends and family that night and they will live on with me forever.
Staff Sergeant Jason Sean Dahlke, 29, was born Nov. 8, 1979, in Tampa, Florida. Jason was on his sixth deployment in support of the War on Terror, with three previous deployments to Iraq and two deployments to Afghanistan.
Jason enlisted in the U.S. Army from his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida in May 2004. He completed Infantry One Station Unit Training at Fort Benning, Georgia before moving on to and graduating from the Basic Airborne Course. He then continued on to the Ranger Indoctrination Program, which he successfully graduated from in December 2005. He was then assigned to Company A, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment on June 1, 2005. He served there as a rifleman, grenadier, machine gunner, fire team leader, section leader and squad leader. He also served in the battalion recce platoon for one deployment as an advisor to local national forces. Jason returned to A Company as a squad leader in February 2009 and served in that position until his death.
He was the recipient of numerous awards and decorations to include the Ranger Tab, the Purple Heart, two Army Commendation Medals, Army Achievement Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Combat Infantryman Badge, Expert Infantryman Badge and the Parachutist Badge. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal, his second Purple Heart and the Meritorious Service Medal.
Private First Class Eric W. Hario, 19, was an infantryman assigned to 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia. He was born Dec. 9, 1989, in Monroe, Michigan. Hario was wounded by enemy fire while conducting combat operations on August 29th, 2009. He was medically evacuated to a combat support hospital where he died. He was on his first deployment in support of the War on Terror.
After graduating from Monroe High School where he lettered in football and wrestling, Eric enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 2008. He completed Infantry One Station Unit Training at Fort Benning, Georgia. After also graduating from the Basic Airborne Course, he was assigned to the Ranger Indoctrination Program, which he also successfully graduated. He was assigned to Company A, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment in January 2009 where he served as a grenadier.
His awards and decorations include the National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon and the Parachutist Badge. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart.