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From the Front Lines:

Saying goodbye

D-Day for Operation Anaconda

Entering the fray

Left in the dark

Weathering the combat

Realities of the job

Making hard choices

 

Other Features Stories:

We're Changing Things

A Degree of Difficulty

United by a Friend

From the Front Lines

D-Day for Operation Anaconda

Martin SavageThe mission was to begin about March 2, and Savidge's unit would be in the second wave of troops. Some 1,500 soldiers plus friendly Afghan forces were involved. The first lift occurred about dawn that day, and those who remained didn't hear much more - just to be ready to go in the second wave two hours later.

"We marched to staging area, next to the landing strip, and we waited for the helicopters to come back."

Then word began filtering in that there had been problems. A delay followed. In the afternoon, the troops piled into the helicopter, and the radio operator plugged into the combat network. He'd give a play-by-play, shouting out news about heaving fighting in the operation and confirmed missile launches.

"We realized this was quite a fight going on, not what we thought was going to be 'land and wait for bad guys to run into our arms.' Of course, I realized that we're heading right for it, which was not something I had anticipated."

Anxiety increased when the radio operator said four of the six Apache helicopters in the first wave had been knocked out of the fight - not shot down, but unable to continue. Savidge was concerned because he knew the Apaches were the most sophisticated helicopters the United States had, with Hellfire missiles, a 30-mm chain gun and additional firepower.

"That to me was a real blow to the solar plexus." It made him think he might want out of the mission. "The most troubling thing is it was unlike when you cover battle fields from the outside. You would always have an escape route -- your own vehicle, a driver who knew local roads. If things got too hot you had a plan to withdraw and get away. By being imbedded, you knew your future; your fate was tied directly with the fate of the soldiers. There was no, 'Boy I've had enough, I'm headed out of here.' It was always most troubling that you no longer have personal control like you used to have.

"Here we were packed in a helicopter like sardines. The landing zone is hot and under attack. That's frightening. It's a wild ride, at 10 miles per hour. They call it flying in the dirt. They're flying about 10 feet off the ground, weaving and twisting."

The flight had left at sunset, so by now it was starting to get dark, making the ride even more unsettling. Plastic bags had been provided in case the trip proved too much for the chopper passengers' stomachs. Scotty felt a thumping on shoulder; the noise of the helicopter was so loud that no one could talk. A soldier motioned for one of the bags. That led to a chain reaction.

"You're looking at all this, it's pitch dark, people are getting sick around you. You're flying off toward what you know is one hell of a fight where your landing is under attack. I'm thinking 'What did I open my mouth and get myself into?' At the same time, I knew it was a remarkable opportunity."

Finally, the helicopter got near the landing zone, and the adrenaline really started pumping. Someone shouted, "10 minutes out."

"The mental stopwatch starts winding down: 5 minutes, 2 minutes, and that's when everybody starts loading the weapons and the posture really becomes extremely serious. You're just waiting for the sensation of when the wheels hit and you've got to get off the helicopter as quickly as possible because you're a sitting duck.

"I thought nothing was as loud as the helicopter, but then the door gunner opens up. It was deafeningly loud. Scotty says he looked out and could see red tracer fire -- bullets coming at us. We could hear them whistling by. I'm still sitting there with my eyes closed and jaw clenched waiting to hit the ground so we can get up and go. Suddenly the helicopter made a wild twisted motion. You could see we were leaving."

The landing zone was too hot with gunfire.

"The soldiers were mad because knew their friends were trapped and they wanted to help their friends. But the crew knew better; we'd have to wait." The Air Force came in and bombed to try to cool the landing zone, and the chopper pilot waited before making a second run, only to be waved off again.

"By this time the helicopter was nearly out of fuel, and we'd been in it about three hours. We were severely cramped; we'd been drinking water. We had to go to the bathroom."

They flew off to an air refueling point to get gas, but the helicopter just touched down; no one could get out. The pilot made a third failed attempt at a landing but was ordered back to the base.

"That was the end of our Saturday. We knew by that point things had not really gone according to plan in Operation Anaconda. We were told to go to bed, get some rest. I was able to send one cryptic e-mail to my producer."

The producer had been allowed to call Savidge's wife after Savidge left Kandahar, but all he could tell her was that Savidge had gone on a mission and would contact her when he returned.

"He calls her up and she answers the phone and knew instantly it was an overseas call because of the sound the satellite phone has." Her heart sank, thinking this stranger calling from Afghanistan could have nothing but bad news. But the producer told her Savidge was all right; he simply was on a mission.

Savidge still was not able to tell CNN any details. But he recommended that the network have a satellite truck standing by at Bagram when he returned.

NEXT: Entering the fray

 

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