If not for actions of Marines, deadly Taliban assault in desert could have been much worse
It was just after 10 p.m. when Lt. Col. Christopher “Otis” Raible heard the first explosions rumble over Camp Bastion and his fleet of Harrier jets. The Marine pilot had flown a combat mission that night and was heading back to his quarters after dinner to video chat with his wife.
Now the battle had come to him, right there on the flight line of the heavily fortified headquarters for U.S. Marines and international forces in southwestern Afghanistan.
As insurgents swarmed the hangars, Raible ran to the gunfire with his pistol and a phalanx of Marines to rally the counterattack. Sgt. Bradley Atwell, an electrical systems technician, also sprinted to help.
Neither Marine survived the Sept. 14 assault on Camp Bastion that destroyed six of the Corps’ irreplaceable AV-8B vertical landing fighter jets and heavily damaged two more. Raible and Atwell were buried this week.
They were among more than 100 people, most of them air wing personnel from Yuma, Miramar Marine Corps Air Station and Camp Pendleton who fought off the infiltrators and prevented a far greater loss of life, according to several witnesses who spoke with U-T San Diego and reports from NATO commanders.
British forces built Camp Bastion in 2006 on a remote patch of desert plain in Helmand province so it would be virtually impregnable in its isolation.
If the Taliban’s video clips purporting to show preparations for the attack are authentic, the assailants plotted in front of a white-board sketch of the base identifying concentrations of aircraft. They rehearsed with wire cutters and fencing, made wills and recorded last words. “We sacrifice ourselves in the name of Almighty Allah,” one said in English on camera.
Then 15 men dressed in a hodgepodge of outdated U.S. Army uniforms crept to the edge of the base closest to the airfield on a moonless night, evading notice by motion detectors, infrared sensors, human and canine patrols and overhead surveillance.
They were armed with automatic rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide vests. After blasting through a perimeter wall, the assault force split into three teams and stormed the flight line, firing heavily on tower guards on the way.
When explosions rocked the building, Lt. Col. Stephen Lightfoot, a Cobra pilot and commanding officer of Camp Pendleton’s Marine Light Attack Squadron 469, stepped outside and saw Harrier jets from the neighboring squadron inflames.
Lightfoot called his boss while another Marine alerted higher headquarters to the attack. Maj. Gen. Gregg Sturdevant, commanding general of the Marine air wing deployed in Afghanistan, said a curt “thank you,” andhungup.
All along the airfield, troops came running, thinking they were under mortar attack. Aviation mechanics dropped their wrenches and grabbed their rifles. Marines went bed to bed rousting the day shift, gym-goers and the chaplain.
After sheltering briefly in concrete bunkers, they emerged to the sound of enemy AK-47 rifles and PKM machine gun fire and the realization that the attackers were in their midst.
Raible, commanding officer of Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 211 out of Yuma, checked on Marines in the barracks. Then he pulled on his body armor and drove toward the gunfire and his burning jet fleet with his aviation maintenance officer and fellow pilot, Maj. Greer Chambless, 35, of Albany, Ga.
They parked near the hangar and hustled through enemy fire across 300 feet of open ground to reach a group of Marines. Raible yelled for volunteers to push on past the maintenance building, toward enemy fighters attacking the flight line and more Marines from his squadron. More than he needed agreed to go. He took eight.
Shrapnel from a rocketpropelled grenade that exploded overhead ended up killing Raible and Atwell.
Capt. Kevin Smalley, 29, of Ossining, N.Y., a Harrier pilot who flew with Raible that night on his last combat mission, was in the next building over coordinating a medevac for two wounded Marines when he learned that his commanding officer had been killed in action.
“He was a very brave and very great man,” Smalley said. “His actions that night saved the lives of 50 of his Marines and inspired them to repel the attack from the Taliban.”
By organizing a fierce counterattack on the flight line, he “scared the Taliban into hunkering down into their own positions and not looking up for a while.” That allowed dozens of Marines caught in the line of fire to move to a more secure location and limit the enemy’s advance, Smalley said.
At the neighboring helicopter squadron, the “troops in contact” alert horn had prompted the Marines to rush onto the flight line to launch the standby aircraft. “Usually, we respond to other units out in different areas of the battle space further away from Bastion,” Lightfoot said. This time, it was “in response to our own troops in contact for this very squadron.”
Enemy fighters were aiming rockets at his fleet ofUH-1Y Hueys and AH-1W Cobras. The helicopters were safer in the air, and more useful with their heavy firepower, night vision and infrared sensors.
“Now we can become the hunter, instead of the hunted,” Lightfoot said.
Marines were hunkered around the flight line on their bellies or a knee, firing on the insurgents with their rifles. Tracer rounds cut the darkness in both directions. Rounds cracked against the walls of nearby buildings, and the Marines felt heat from the flames on their faces.
Sgt. Jonathan Thornton, 23, a Camp Pendleton Marine working as a landing support specialist, pulled up to the air strip’s arrival and departure center in a bus. When he looked around the corner, he saw a group of enemy fighters walking down the road with rifles.
Thornton ordered the Marines at the cargo lot into the vehicle, but as they were scrambling in, the insurgents opened fire. They relocated to a better position and broke into fire teams to pick off the insurgents. “The Marines were all trying to do one thing … get everyone safe and stop the Taliban from overriding our position,” Thornton said.
“It was all surreal. … a scene out of a movie,” he recalled, like “I didn’t really live it.”
The smell of gunpowder and jet fuel was a reminder that the attack inside their home base was all too real.
The Camp Pendleton air crews took off amid shooting flames, explosions and billowing black smoke rising from refueling stations and burning jets. The pilots navigating through both darkness and blinding brightness from the fires tried foremost to avoid shooting friendly forces on the ground battling clusters of insurgents.
Staff Sgt. Steven Seay, a Huey crew chief, set in on the squadron perimeter with night-vision goggles and a 240 machine gun they normally use on the helicopter. When he saw a rocketpropelled grenade shoot from a concrete bomb shelter toward the flight line, he opened fire. Coalition troops the enemy fighters were targeting also fired back, helping the helicopters pirouetting overhead spot the insurgents.
Maj. Robert Weingart, a pilot and section leader, ordered his Cobra and Huey crews to fire. The British and Marine quick reaction force on the ground also opened up as the helicopters blasted the 20 mm cannon, the .50-caliber machine gun and the 7.62 mini-gun spitting 3,000 rounds a minute. In the end, five insurgents were dead, Lightfoot said.
The running gunbattle continued for hours as coalition forces flushed out insurgents dug in around the airfield. Marine aviation refuelers, called “grapes” because of the purple uniform they sometimes wear, gunned down one group of insurgents.
Later that night, Marines at the Harrier squadron’s flight line called in a “danger close” airstrike to target Taliban marauding nearby.
“Get out of the way!” the Marine helicopter pilots warned. Then Cpl. Benjamin Hebert and Staff Sgt. Robert Wise, crew chiefs hovering about 200 feet overhead in a Huey, squeezed off slugs from the .50-caliber and rapid-fire 7.62 Gatling, killing four insurgents.
“That’s our boys!” a contractor yelled from the other end of the flight line as tracer rounds sliced the darkness.
When it was over, all 15 insurgents were killed except one, who was wounded and captured, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said.
The Marines remained in firing positions on the ground and British and American air crews continued flying overhead until dawn, to be sure that no more lay in wait.
In addition to the two Marines who died, nine coalition personnel were wounded and more than $200 million in materiel was destroyed.
But the actions of Raible, the Harrier commanding office rwho rushed to the flight line to lead the counterattack, the air crews that managed to avoid killing any of their own and all the support Marines who send pilots into combat but rarely see it themselves — it was nothing less than heroic in the eyes of their commanders. On that night, every Marine truly was a rifleman, Marine leaders said.
Less than a week after the attack, ISAF announced the arrest of one of the Taliban organizers, the Harrier squadron had resumed combat operations using jets transferred from other Marine units, and a new commanding officer was en route.
Some 6 percent of the Corps’ aging Harrier fleet scheduled for eventual replacement by the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was disabled at Camp Bastion. Two heavily damaged jets will be repaired and return to service; the others cannot be replaced because the production line is closed, said Brig. Gen. Steven Busby, commanding general of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing headquartered at Miramar.
The Corps will cover the loss by reallocating aircraft, he said. There was never any question of pulling the squadron out of Afghanistan early. “Because of the devastating effect it would have on that unit,” he said.
In fact, some Marines who missed the attack because they were on the way home to Yuma with the advance party begged to return. One Marine’s pregnant wife told Busby her husband wanted to reunite with the squadron in Afghanistan more than anything.
Lightfoot, the attack helicopter commander, expected the Marines who served under Raible to be solemn and sullen after his death. Instead, he was moved by their aggressive resilience and universal praise for their commander.
“One Marine corporal who suffered blast and shrapnel wounds to his face from the same RPG shot that killed Otis expressed to me, ‘My commanding officer never feared death and would want us to keep fighting. That’s what he would do.’ Otis trained them well,” Lightfoot said.
Smalley said: “We’re back supporting the ground combat element, the Marines on the ground. We are doing exactly what Lieutenant Colonel Raible would want us to do — carry on and pick up the pieces here. Pick up the mess and get back into the fight.”