A few minutes past 2 a.m. on August 6, 2011, at a dusty forward operating base 40 miles south of Kabul, Afghanistan, the rotors of two U.S. Army CH-47D Chinooks began to turn. Operating with no lights save for the faint green glow of night vision goggles and cockpit instrument panels, the two helicopters, call signs Extortion 17 (“one-seven”) and Extortion 16, lifted into the darkness and accelerated toward a destination less than 20 miles west.
Extortion 17 and its 38 occupants would not return. A Taliban fighter shot the helicopter out of the sky with a rocket-propelled grenade and all aboard were killed—the single greatest loss of American life in the Afghan war. Those killed ranked among the world’s most highly trained and experienced commandos, including 15 men from Gold Squadron of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, popularly called SEAL Team 6. Just three months earlier, members of a counterpart SEAL Team 6 squadron successfully raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden. In light of that raid’s success, the shootdown of Extortion 17 incited a flurry of conspiracy theories: The Taliban were tipped off; it was a trap; it was retribution for the killing. No evidence has emerged to support any of these claims. Instead, two rigorous U. S. military investigations followed every moment of the mission to determine what went wrong on Extortion 17’s final flight.
In the final analysis, the enemy gets a vote too.