When American commandos parachuted onto the airfield outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, they jumped from just 600 feet above the ground. There was no time for a reserve chute to open if the main one failed. Wearing night vision goggles, they went in under cover of darkness when they could see and the enemy could not. This raid behind enemy lines is the kind of mission American Special Operations Forces have spent years training for. The Pentagon called it a success.
But it was a success born of failure. That failure was the catastrophic attempt to rescue the hostages at the U.S. embassy in Iran.
"That was our first effort in the war on terrorism," says Logan Fitch, who was a member of the team that went into Iran. "And it failed. No whitewashing that."
Fitch barely escaped with his life from an inferno at Desert One, a secret landing strip set up in the Iranian desert. A member of the elite Delta Force, Fitch was chosen to lead the assault on the militants who had seized the embassy.
Since it was created in 1979, Delta Force has been America's most secret commando unit. Its target in 1980 was the radical students at the embassy in Tehran. Today Delta Force will be trying to track down Osama bin Laden.
Fitch recruited and trained many of the original members of Delta. The ones who made the grade were not those one might expect. "Military skills were a detriment because we tend in the Army and the military to be quite regimented and we wanted people to think out of the box," says Fitch. "You'll have people in situations who don't have a superior standing over them saying "Do this, do that, turn left, turn right.' They've got to understand what it is to be what has to be accomplished and be able to take independent action."
Fitch says that out of 14,000 volunteers in 1979, less than 100 were ready by the time the Iranian mission began. That mission was Deltas first.
The unit never got to the American embassy. Their mission ended at the landing strip in the desert. The American military, already devastated by Vietnam, was deeply embarrassed.
According to Wade Ishimoto, who was Delta's intelligence officer, it was a fiasco. "We sent our best soldiers over there, ill-equipped, ill-organized," he says. Ishimoto didnt even have the basic tools for a nighttime operation.
Although he was on the lead plane, one of the first soldiers on the ground, Ishimoto didn't have night vision goggles. Why? The U.S. military didn't have enough. "Absolutely pthetic," says Ishimoto.
The U.S. also lacked helicopters that could fly hundreds of miles across the Iranian desert without having to stop to refuel. It also didn't have the right helicopter pilots either. Those assigned to the mission had never before trained with the Delta force.
Fitch says that he and his men had little confidence in the pilots. Says Fitch: "(The pilots) were not accustomed to doing these kinds of things, flying at night, flying in inclement weather, flying very, very close to the ground through mountainous areas, and its just not what they were trained or prepared to do."
To this day, Ed Seiffert does not know why he was picked to command the helicopters flying the mission. "I had not flown except what I would refer to as casual flying for the preceding year," he says.
In a risky mission of high national importance, the U.S. military only mustered a hodge-podge force. "I call it a 'Hey you' basis," says Fitch. "'Hey you come over here and do this part. Hey you, come over here and do that part.' And these people, in many cases, are not Special Operations people. They dont have the mindset, the training and the equipment. And things fall through the cracks."
The mission began to unravel as soon as the first plane landed, at what was supposed to be a remote desert location. Soon after, a passenger bus rolled up. "Here come two headlights, and forever and a day, I'll remember the Mercedes emblem because it was a Mercedes bus," says Ishimoto.
The soldiers stopped the bus and corralled the people on it. Then a truck came along. Despite being fired on, it wouldn't stop. So Ishimoto ordered one of his men to hit it with a shoulder-fired missile. It was a fuel truck, and it exploded.
"The next thing that happens is we wait and we wait, and we wait," says Fitch. "The thing we're waiting for, at that point, was helicopters."
The helicopters were late because they had run into a giant cloud of suspended sand. Three of the eight helicopters had had mechanical failures, so there were not enough helicopters to continue; the mission was scrubbed. Then disaster struck: One of the remaining helicopters crashed into a C-130 waiting to take off.
"The helicopter banked over," recalls Ishimoto. "It's rotor blade sliced into the wing fuel tanks of the 130 and into the forward cockpit."
Fitch and his men were in the back of the C-130, in a vulnerable spot. "In the cargo compartment of the C-130, there was this fuel bladder that had hauled in fuel for the helicopters, and were all sitting on top of the fuel bladder," he says. "I mean we dont have chairs and that sort of thing. We're just laid out on the fuel bladder. We have all of our armaments, our, our weapons, explosives, grenades, anti-aircraft missiles, machine guns. It's a lot of stuff that could burn."
It was, he says, a powder keg. Somehow, though, he and his men got off the plane. But eight others, five in the cockpit and three in he helicopter, were killed. The rest fled Iran, piling into the remaining C-130s for the long flight out.
Fitch says the ride back was the lowest moment of his life: "I'm not sure I can describe it. It's despair. It's disgust. It's sorrow. It's shame."
It was a total failure, a national humiliation. It forced the U.S. military to recognize that it had to change.
We did not have a real special operations capability in the true sense of the word, says General Hugh Shelton, who until last month when he stepped down, was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One of the key lessons of Desert One is that you cannot create a Special Operations Force after the need arrives. You have to have that force in place. It has to be resourced, trained and ready to go on a moments notice.
Before he became chairman, Shelton was chief of the Special Operations Command. He worked hard to ensure that there were no more debacles like Desert One. And in fact, during last week's mission in Afghanistan, a C-130 landed and refueled the helicopters.
This time there were no mishaps. Today, helicopters can also be refueled in flight, and special helicopter units train constantly with Delta Force. There are, he says, no more hodge-podge operations.
There is much more to todays Special Operations Force than commandos who leap out of helicopters. Before the commandos even get there, AC-130 gunships spew out thousands of rounds per minute, taking out much of the opposition. Helicopters add to the barrage from closer range. On the ground, commandos with night vision goggles track targets with lasers that are invisible to the naked eye.
"When we tried to do the Desert One Operation a quarter of a century ago, we didn't have half the capability, a third, a tenth of the capability that we have today," says Shelton.
Desert One wasn't the only hard-learned lesson. Eight years ago in Somalia, Special Operations helicopters were shot down. One of the pilots was taken hostage and 18 soldiers, including two members of Delta, were killed. Osama bin Laden helped organize and train those anti-American forces.
Now, the U.S. is going after bin Laden somewhere in the forbidding landscape of Afghanistan. Fitch says that the Afghan terrain is similar to Irans as are the long distances the units must travel.
Shelton agrees: "It's a very formidable terrain. It's a very austere environment that you have to operate in. It's a high-risk type of environment in that there are lots of shoulder-fired air-to-air weapons systems around. So there's risk associated with it."
Last week's raid into Khandahar went as planned. Even so, two Americans were killed when their Blackhawk helicopter crashed in Pakistan. The pilot apparently became disoriented when his rotor blades kicked up a cloud of dust exactly the same thing that caused that crash at Desert One. Accidents like that will almost certainly happen again.
"People all it the fog of war or Murphy's Law," says Fitch. "Murphy's Law is not the exception, it's the rule." Special Forces soldiers must be prepared for things to go wrong, at the worst possible moment, he says.
Although Fitch retired from Delta years ago, he is sure he knows what's going through the minds of the commandos waiting for the next raid into Afghanistan. "I suspect (they're) quite eager," he says. "Can't wait, chomping at the bit, ready to go, and I have no doubt that they're gonna do us proud."
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