Navy SEALs mourn their most tragic day

August 7, 2011

Tom Bowman

(NPR/Romeo Gacad)
The 30 American service members who died on Saturday were aboard a Chinook helicopter like this one when it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Some two dozen members of SEAL Team 6, based outside Norfolk, Va., were among 30 American servicemen killed Saturday when their helicopter came under fire during an operation in eastern Afghanistan.

The SEAL team swept into Wardak Province at night, aboard a lumbering Chinook helicopter. Their mission: Take down a suspected Taliban compound.

Just as they were arriving, the helicopter exploded in flames. Officials believe a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the helicopter, killing all on board.

Most of the dead were part of the same commando unit that killed Osama bin Laden back in May, though officials said none of the SEALs killed in the crash took part in the bin Laden raid.

Other SEALs killed came from Coronado, Calif. Seven Afghan commandoes were also among the dead.

It was the highest American loss since June 2005, when another Chinook helicopter operating in Eastern Afghanistan was brought down by Taliban fire. Sixteen service members were killed that day; most of them were also Navy SEALs.

Eastern Afghanistan is becoming the toughest fight for American troops, now that the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar have become more pacified through the so-called "surge" in U.S. troops. In the East, Taliban fighters slip across the border from their safe havens in Pakistan and find hiding places in the craggy mountains that cover the area.

"All of those killed in the operation were true heroes who had already given so much in the defense of freedom," said Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan.

President Obama said the tragedy reflects the "extraordinary sacrifices" made by the military and their families.

And Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said despite the tragedy, the American military operation must continue.

"The best way we can honor that sacrifice," Mullen said, "is to keep at it, keep fighting, keep moving forward."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.