In March 2002, during a battle called Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, a Navy Seal named Neil Roberts fell from a helicopter as it attempted to land on a mountaintop controlled by al Qaeda fighters. "Rescue On Roberts Ridge" is the untold story of the soldiers who were sent in to find Roberts and bring him home. It airs Sunday, June 24, 7 p.m.
Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor
They can't compare to Normandy's beaches in June 1944, but the landing zones in Afghanistan's Shah i Kot valley during Operation Anaconda in March 2002 were an infantryman's nightmare, too. Interviewing soldiers who were there, I was amazed how they even survived. As soon as their choppers touched down, Al Qaeda was waiting, in numbers far greater than anticipated. The courage demonstrated by these young American soldiers, most of whom had never been in combat, is truly impressive. Something else impressed me, as well.
In almost every case, as we sat down for the interviews, individually or in small groups, the soldiers started off speaking haltingly about their experiences. Surely, some of that was nerves. Most had never been on national television before. But as they grew more comfortable and really began to tell their stories, it became clear to me that, not only are their memories incredibly vivid, but their feelings are incredibly complex— a palpable mix of pride and pain, camaraderie and loneliness. If I have learned anything from the soldiers I have reported on over the years-- from Beirut to Blackhawk Down to today's war on terror— it is that the real story of war is the human story. It's a story told in reflective eyes and unrehearsed expressions, in clinched hands and stiff upper lips, in the body language of humility and exuberance, as much as any words ever spoken. It's in the scars and the sadness, in the strength and self-knowledge, in the honor shown to fellow soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Ask World War II veterans about their experiences in battle and it's remarkable how clear their memories can be more than half a century later. My own father was wounded in January 1945 as the Battle of the Bulge was winding down. I have always been amazed by the clarity of his recall: how cold the Belgian winter was, how young the German POW's were, and how costly the battle had been for both sides. On the few occasions when my father has talked about what he and his fellow soldiers endured, I have seen in his eyes that same mixture of pride and pain. It makes me deeply appreciative of the soldier he was and the man he is.
I am certain that is how the children of those who fought in Operation Anaconda will feel when their fathers describe what they endured in a remote corner of Afghanistan. Among those soldiers were 20 members of a Special Ops Quick Reaction Force decimated during an ill-fated rescue attempt. Our Dateline report, "Rescue on Roberts Ridge," focuses on two of the soldiers who survived that mission. Someday, Ranger Specialist Oscar Escano may tell his kids how he began living his life in 15 second intervals— the time it took the enemy to reload, aim and fire the mortars that were closing in on his unit. Someday, Oscar's captain, Nate Self, may tell his sons how his Ranger team landed on a mountaintop swarming with enemy fighters and made good on a promise to never leave a fallen comrade. Perhaps, Nate will run down the list of those under his command who lived and died that day, and share with his children, as he did with me, remembrances of them. This one young and fearless. That one a peak performer. Another his life-saver. And who could forget the klutz. Doesn't every unit have one? Another soldier brought to mind innocence. And one was just perfect.
1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment
When the day comes to have that talk, those children will see something in their fathers' eyes. Something about having been there, and never being the same again. Something about the value of life, the cause of freedom, and the terrible cost of war. I hope viewers who watch our report see a glimpse of that, as well, and come away, as I did, feeling the pride and pain that is the story of war.
This report originally aired June, 2006.