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Caught by surprise

Issue: "Memorial Day 2005," May 28, 2005

This Memorial Day veterans will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima-an epic fight that in many ways stands in contrast to modern terror-inspired warfare. Nearly 100,000 U.S. troops stormed the tiny Pacific island (about the size of Manhattan) in 1945 to find they had no cover from the Japanese. The island's loose volcanic ash made foxholes impossible; one-third of U.S. forces died.

But for the soldier on the ground, then and now, some things don't change. Losing one man-or many-is hard on any unit. Leaving casualties behind is unthinkable. And no matter how sophisticated the weaponry, other prevailing forces wait to surprise.

So U.S. troops in Afghanistan suffered one of their single biggest losses in three-and-a-half years' fighting April 6 when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter carrying 15 U.S. military personnel and three civilian contractors crashed in Ghazni, 80 miles southwest of Kabul.

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"We were suddenly in the middle of a sandstorm and couldn't see anything for a few minutes," reported Maj. Tim Mattison, who was riding in a Chinook just ahead of the chopper that crashed. "I have a feeling that the other group was caught by surprise in the same way. Winds were very high and gusting in all directions, it seemed."

Learning of the crash, Maj. Mattison's crew landed, took on more soldiers, and returned to the crash site, the second team on the scene. "Most of the fires had been put out by then and we brought all the body bags that were available with us. We recovered as many as possible, tried to reassemble the pieces and put them in bags, and finished just before dark." Thirteen bodies were recovered. Someone spotted two more, so enmeshed in the wreckage it would take heavy equipment to retrieve them. Guards were posted overnight until all the bodies could be transported to a temporary morgue. Later, more bodies were discovered beneath the wreckage. Body parts believed to be two separate casualties, it turned out, were one person-bringing the total count to 18 dead, the same number as appeared on the flight manifest (including Spc. Chrystal Stout, see above).

"It was a traumatic experience for our younger soldiers especially," said Maj. Mattison, National Guard chaplain of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment. "I counseled with some for several days afterward trying to put this in perspective, which is often difficult to do when you are in the middle of such a situation."

By the time the Pentagon concluded that the crash was likely weather-related, the search-and-rescue soldiers had returned to day-to-day duties. One was subsequently wounded in an IED explosion and hospitalized. Trauma on the field, even for the most battle-tested, always is compounded by thoughts of home. "Since we all have wives, children, parents, and loved ones waiting for us, we can easily imagine the impact such a tragedy would have on them," Maj. Mattison said.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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