Operation Anaconda took place in early March 2002 in which the United States military and CIA Paramilitary Officers, working with allied Afghan military forces, and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and non-NATO forces attempted to destroy al-Qaeda and Taliban forces. The operation took place in the Shahi-Kot Valley and Arma Mountains southeast of Zormat. This operation was the first large-scale battle in the United States War in Afghanistan since the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001. This was the first operation in the Afghanistan theater to involve a large number of U.S. conventional (i.e. non-Special Operations Forces) forces participating in direct combat activities.
Between March 2 and March 16, 2002 1,700 airlifted U.S. troops and 1,000 pro-government Afghan militia battled between 300 to 1,000 al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters to obtain control of the valley. The Taliban and al-Qaida forces fired mortars and heavy machine guns from entrenched positions in the caves and ridges of the mountainous terrain at U.S. forces attempting to secure the area. Afghan Taliban commander Maulavi Saifur Rehman Mansoor later led Taliban reinforcements to join the battle. U.S. forces had estimated the strength of the rebels in the Shahi-Kot Valley at 150 to 200, but later information suggested the actual strength was of 500 to 1,000 fighters. The U.S. forces estimated they had killed at least 500 fighters over the duration of the battle, however journalists later noted that only 23 bodies were found - and critics suggested that after a couple days, the operation "was more driven by media obsession, than military necessity".
- 1 Background
- 2 Prelude
- 3 Battle
- 4 Aftermath
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
In early 2002 increasing signals and human intelligence indicated a strong presence of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in the Shahi-Kot Valley. Approximately 150 to 200 fighters were believed to be wintering and possibly preparing for a spring offensive in the valley. The signal intelligence also raised the possibility that high-value targets (HVTs) were present in the valley among which were Jalaluddin Haqqani and Saif Rahman. In late January and February plans were drawn up to assault the Shahi-Kot Valley using Afghan military forces (AMF) advised and assisted by U.S. special operators. Major General Franklin L. "Buster" Hagenback was put in command of the operation. The plan called for an attack on the valley, along with units positioned in the mountains to the east to prevent escape into Pakistan. The expectation was that fighters, as in the case of Tora Bora several months earlier, would flee in the face of an assault and that blocker groups would simply be able to round them up.
It was decided to use U.S. conventional infantry. The forces used, consisting of the 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division ("Rakkasans"), led by Colonel Frank Wiercinski, and soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, led by Lieutenant Colonel Paul LaCamera, to secure these blocking positions. In keeping with established strategy in Afghanistan, fire support was to be provided by United States Air Force units, rather than artillery. Further air support was provided by US Navy units and French Air Force Mirage 2000Ds. The amount of conventional assets allowed in Afghanistan was limited by CENTCOM and civilian defense leadership. The final plan foresaw two major forces: TF Hammer and TF Anvil. TF Hammer consisted of AMF and special operators as the primary effort to assault the Shahi-Kot Valley. TF Anvil consisted of TF Rakkasan and the 1-87 to set up blocking positions and prevent enemy forces from escaping. Special operations teams from the Advanced Force Operations (AFO) detachment led by Lieutenant Colonel Pete Blaber were to provide on-location reconnaissance in the Shahi-Kot Valley for the operation.
The Afghans had successfully defeated the Soviet Army twice in this valley, and were expecting events to pan out in a similar fashion.
The operation was composed of elements of the United States 10th Mountain Division, 101st Airborne Division, TF Rakkasan, B Co. 159th Avn Rgt, 75th Ranger Regiment, the US Special Operation Forces groups to include elements of forces from USSOCOM, JSOC and CIA's Special Activities Division, TF 11, TF Bowie, and TF Dagger, British Royal Marines, Canada's 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, and Joint Task Force 2, the Afghan National Army, the German KSK, the Turkish Maroon Berets, the Norwegian FSK and Marinejegerkommandoen, and elements of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment, the New Zealand Special Air Service and Danish special forces from Jægerkorpset and the Danish Frogman Corps.
Afghanistan's Taliban regime falls — some of the Taliban regime's forces along with al-Qaeda elements continue to hold out in mountains.
1 March 2002
In eastern Afghanistan, Operation Anaconda starts. US special operations forces infiltrate the area and set up observation posts. These forces consist of three teams: Juliet, India, and Mako 31. Teams Juliet and India are primarily from US Army Delta Force, and they were to take positions to allow the north and south of the Shahi-Kot Valley and the approaches from Gardez to be observed. Mako 31, a small SEAL reconnaissance element from the DEVGRU, was tasked to set up an observation post on the Finger, allowing recon of the TF Rakkasan landing zones. While attempting to reach their post, two snipers from Mako 31 observed a group of Taliban standing by a group of tents with a DShK machine gun position. This gun was emplaced in a position that would have allowed it to engage the Chinook helicopters bringing in the first wave of U.S. troops which would have been disastrous to the operation. Plans were made to destroy this emplacement at D-1 hour.
2 March 2002
Canadian and US sniper teams and Afghan forces begin to sweep the Shahi-Kot valley area to root out rebel forces regrouping in the valley after the fall of the Taliban regime.
Around midnight, the units of TF Hammer loaded into their vehicles and left their base in Gardez at Zia Lodin and the Special Forces A-teams Texas 14/ODA 594 and Cobra 72/ODA 372. The road was in poor condition and difficulties ensued. Several soldiers were injured after their jingle trucks overturned, the commanders ordered the trucks to use their headlights, destroying any element of surprise. As TF Hammer continued, it suffered from a lack of unit cohesion because of the transportation difficulties. A convoy led by Army Chief Warrant Officer Stanley L. Harriman of the Third Special Forces Group split off from the main TF Hammer force to reach the assigned observation point. Grim 31, an AC-130 aircraft providing fire support and reconnaissance for the assault, spotted Harriman's convoy and, due to a failure in its inertial navigation system, believed it was in a position away from friendly forces (this was due to a problem with the "glint" panels which should have identified the convoy as American). Grim 31 engaged the column, resulting in the death of Harriman and wounding several Afghan militia and U.S. special forces.for the Shahi-Kot Valley. TF Hammer consisted of a large force of Afghan militia led by
The main body of TF Hammer reached its pre-assault point around 06:15 and waited for the expected "55 minute" aerial bombardment of enemy positions. Miscommunication between Texas 14 and higher command meant the bombardment was not that extensive and consisted of six bombs. This was due to a bomb getting stuck in the launch bay of the B-1B that was on its bomb run. The next aircraft in line waited for the B-1B to receive permission to jettison the bomb and go round again. During this time, both bombers plus the additional two F-15E planes claimed to have received a "knock off" call directing them to cease the bombardment. One of the F-15E pilots later acknowledged that this may have been a communication directing Grim-31 to cease fire. This lack of air support demoralized the Afghans and frustrated the special forces. The Afghan fighters, in trucks, were devastated by mortar fire registered in advance to strike fixed points on the road. The Afghans suffered forty or more deaths and injuries. At this point it became clear that Al Qaeda fighters had been expecting an attack. TF Hammer's attack stalled short of entering the valley, due to unexpected heavy small arms and mortar fire, combined with the lack of expected close air support. These assets were tasked instead to the TF Anvil troops.
TF Anvil/TF Rakkasan
At 06:30 the first wave of Rakkasans and Mountain troops landed via helicopter along the eastern and northern edges of the valley to await the fleeing fighters at their assigned blocking positions. The 101st and 10th Mountain troops came under fire almost immediately after landing on their way to their objectives, and remained pinned down by heavy mortar fire and locked in a fierce firefight throughout the day. Instead of 150-200 fighters in the valley as expected, post assessment held that the area contained up to 1,000 enemies dug in on the high ground around the valley.
The troops of 1-87 in the southern landing zones (LZs) faced the heaviest fighting. The men on the floor of the valley then picked up and began to patrol north again moving another 50 or so meters when an RPG was fired off a low foothill to the east. This round closed in on around 10 men, including the two Australians and most of the American leadership, landing in the snow and mud right amongst them but failing to detonate. The AQ then opened up with a DShK as the troops on the ground ran for the only cover on the valley floor in what became known as "Hell's Halfpipe." The hot reception resulted in only two of the planned eight CH-47's landing in the LZ. In this engagement, Staff Sergeant Andrzej Ropel, a Polish immigrant who was at the time not a citizen of the United States, and Specialist William Geraci a native of Cleveland, Ohio, who was recently assigned to 1-87 from the Divisions Long Range Surveillance Detachment, (LRSD) led the squad under fire to a ridgeline above the "Halfpipe." Ropel was able to kill the enemy observer calling mortar fire into the "Halfpipe," and he and his squad provided 1-87 reconnaissance of the surrounding terrain. Ropel was later awarded the Bronze Star with a valor device for his actions. The expectation of very limited enemy indirect fire capability meant that only a single 120mm mortar was brought in the first wave. The primary fire support for the troops was provided by two Apaches of the 3-101's Aviation Battalion [Eagle Attack] from the 159th Aviation Brigade. The Apaches destroyed some enemy positions harassing the U.S. and Afghan troops, but suffered serious battle damage that caused them to withdraw from the area early in the day.
The Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) also provided in-depth operational intelligence, and Signalman Martin "Jock" Wallace of 152 Signals Squadron was awarded the Medal for Gallantry for his actions during the fighting. When a mortar team from the US 10th Mountain Division was hit by enemy mortar fire, Wallace put himself in harm's way, collecting some of the wounded by dragging them into the creek bed, then dressing their wounds along with another SASR liaison officer. Throughout the day, the TACP forward air controllers and Special Forces recce teams that had infiltrated into the area the previous day called in airstrikes from B-1, B-52, F-15, F-18 and F-16 aircraft, inflicting heavy casualties on the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, but by no means silencing them. After nearly having their position overrun, the men in the southern LZs were in a desperate position, pinned down all day and short of ammunition. Salvation came after dark in the form of an AC-130U Spooky gunship that unlike the faster-moving jets during the day, was able to loiter over the area and provide sustained firepower so the men could be airlifted out under cover of darkness; the group suffered 28 wounded and none killed.
3 March and 4 March 2002
Battle of Takur Ghar
In the late evening of 3 March, Lieutenant Colonel Blaber received notice from Brigadier General Gregory Trebon, commander of TF 11, that two SEAL teams commanded by Lieutenant Commander Vic Hyder were to be inserted into the Shahi-Kot Valley. The two SEAL teams, Mako 30 and Mako 21, planned to establish an observation point on either end of the valley. One team would move to the peak of Takur Ghar, which commanded the southern approach to the Shahi-Kot valley. Due to time constraints, a helicopter insertion would be needed for the teams to reach the peak before dawn. LCDR Hyder requested authorization to shift the insertion 24 hours to the next evening but was directed that insertion was critical to SOF providing support to the Operation. Originally, an insertion point 1,300 metres (1,400 yd) east of the peak was identified, but due to uncontrollable time constraints, the SEALs of Mako 30 were forced into an insertion to the peak itself. Even though all overhead imagery showed no signs of life on the peak of Takur Ghar, LCDR Hyder gave the team final guidance per SOP that if any signs were seen, mission would be aborted.
The SEAL team, Mako 30, was picked up by an MH-47 Chinook helicopter, at 23:23 on 3 March. However, the Chinook experienced engine difficulties, and new MH-47s were dispatched to replace the original helicopters. This delay meant that the SEALs could not be inserted into the LZ east of the peak until 02:30 on 4 March, which did not allow enough time to reach the peak before daylight. Blaber was notified that the SEALs were forced to insert on the peak in order to fulfill the order to infil Mako 30 that night. Nail 22, an AC-130 gunship reconnoitered the peak, and, seeing no enemy activity, declared the mountain top secure. It was then called away to support other troops before the Chinook arrived.
At approximately 03:00, the Chinook attempted to land atop the mountain. As they approached, the pilots and SEALs observed tracks in the snow and other signs of recent human activity. As they discussed a possible mission abort, the helicopter was met with effective RPG fire. Two Rocket Propelled Grenades slammed into the helicopter, shutting down one of its engines, the electric system, and the hydraulic systems and causing Petty Officer First Class Neil C. Roberts to fall out of the open ramp. Razor 03 attempted to return and retrieve him, but the damage prevented proper control and the helicopter was forced to crash-land in the valley below, approximately 4 miles away. Razor 04 returned to the peak in an attempt to rescue Roberts, offloading Mako 30. The team came under immediate fire, and Air Force combat controller Technical Sergeant John A. Chapman was killed and two SEALs wounded. Mako 30 was forced off the peak due to the heavy fire and damage done. The Ranger quick-reaction force located at Bagram Air Base and led by Captain Nate Self, was called in to search for the SEAL who fell out of the helicopter, now alone on top of the mountain.
Around this time command decided to change the frequencies for satellite radio communications which different units, including the AFO teams in their reconnaissance positions, were relying on to conduct and adapt the mission as the battle unfolded. One of the generals in overall charge of the events at Takur Ghar ordered the radio frequencies switched to prevent the plan being modified. Though the change may have been meant to enhance direct control of the rescue of the downed SEAL atop Takur Ghar, it had the critical effect of severely limiting communications between the different teams participating in the battle.
The SEAL team Mako 30, regrouped and was ferried by nearby units to a CH-47 to go back to Takur Ghar and search for Roberts. The AC-130 was then directed to attack the large groupings of enemy combatants currently exposed on top of the mountain, one to three minutes before the Mako 30 was scheduled to arrive. As the CH-47 neared their return, the AC-130 radioed on the new satellite frequency for confirmation to fire. They were unable to get a clear answer from the officer they reached and also were unable to connect with the AFO teams. As a result they did not fire and the CH-47 made an entry similar to the first, this time successfully landing the team on the ground amidst heavy machine gun and rocket fire while taking some casualties. They were able to establish communications via a line-of-sight radio with the teams of the AFO positioned around the Takur Ghar, taking advantage of the AFO's knowledge of enemy movements in real time.
At 03:45, the Ranger quick reaction force was alerted by the DCG to the area. Though they weren't given a specific mission, they were to establish communication for further instructions upon reaching Gardez, 10 minutes from the mountain. The quick reaction force (QRF) consisted of 19 Rangers, a Tactical Air Control Party (Tacp), and a three-man USAF special tactics team carried by two Chinooks, Razor 01 and Razor 02. As Air Force rules prohibited AC-130 aircraft from remaining in hostile airspace in daylight after the crash of an AC-130 in Khajfi in the Gulf War, the AC-130 support protecting Mako 30 was forced to leave before Razor 01 reached the LZ, although the leadership was aware that Razor 01 was incoming. Unfortunately, the Razor Chinooks had not been equipped with functioning satellite radios to maintain communication with the HQ in Bagram or, even more critically, the AFO Teams lead. Also unfortunate, the pilot of the Razor 01 was not told about the enemy's anti-aircraft location on top of the mountain. Due to the satellite communications difficulties, Razor 01 was mistakenly directed to the "hot" LZ on the peak at . Because of this, the Razor 01 flew into the same enemy trap that the SEALs had flown into, with no one able to communicate the reality of the situation.
At approximately 06:10, Razor 01 reached the landing zone. The aircraft immediately began taking fire, and the right door minigunner, Sergeant Phillip Svitak, was killed by small arms fire. A rocket-propelled grenade then hit the helicopter, destroying the right engine and forcing it to crash land. As the Rangers and special tactics team exited the aircraft, Private First Class Matt Commons, posthumously promoted to Corporal, Sergeant Brad Crose, and Specialist Marc Anderson were killed. The surviving crew and quick-reaction force took cover in a hillock and a fierce firefight began. Razor 02, which had been diverted to Gardez as Razor 01 was landing on Takur Ghar, returned with the rest of the quick-reaction force and Lieutenant Commander Hyder at 06:25. With the help of the new arrivals and close air support, the force was able to consolidate its position on the peak. The QRF's Chalk 2 moved up the mountain to assist Chalk 1. While air force jets provided suppressive fire on the mountain top with individual gun runs since Mako 30 was less than 100 metres (110 yd) north of the peak and Chalk 1 with its downed MH-47 was less than 100 m south of the peak. Hyder saw the need to assist Mako 31 who at that time had two dead and two injured, one of them non-ambulatory. It was obvious from this viewpoint that the proximity of friendly forces to the enemy positions was preventing sufficient suppressive firepower from being used due to danger close distance to both Mako 30 and QRF chalk 1. Hyder directed the Chalk 2 leader to continue mission up the mountain and moved, alone, to link up with Mako 30 in order to assist that team's movement away from the peak thereby creating a better situation for air assets to support by fire. An enemy counterattack midday mortally wounded Senior Airman Jason D. Cunningham, a pararescueman. The wounded were refused medevac during the daylight hours, due to risk of another downed helicopter. Mako 30 and Lt. Cmdr. Hyder moved down the mountain with their wounded. Through threat of nearby enemy response elements, hypothermia and shock of wounded personnel, and across nearly 30" of snow in extreme terrain, Mako 30 found a site suitable for an MH-47. The SEAL team set up defenses, attempted to warm the wounded, and waited for dark when a recovery would be attempted.
Australian SASR soldiers had infiltrated the area prior to the first helicopter crash undetected as part of a long range reconnaissance mission when the Chinooks went down. They remained undetected in an observation post through the firefight and proved critical in co-ordinating multiple Coalition air strikes to prevent the al-Qaeda fighters from overrunning the downed aircraft, to devastating effect. This, plus the actions of the two SASR officers working with the 10th Mountain Division, earned the commander of the Australian SASR force in Afghanistan the US Bronze Star for his unit's outstanding contribution to the war on terrorism. Australian soldiers had utilised 'virtual reality' style software for mission rehearsal prior to insertion, and this contributed significantly to their situational awareness in the darkness and poor weather conditions. This was the first time this capability had been used for a live combat mission.
At around 20:00, the quick-reaction force and Mako 30 were exfiltrated from the Takur Ghar peak. As a result of this action, both Technical Sergeant Chapman and Senior Airman Cunningham were awarded the Air Force Cross, the second highest award for bravery. US and Afghan sources believe at least 200 Taliban and Al Qaida fighters were killed during the initial assault and subsequent rescue mission.
Fate of Roberts
It is not certain whether the sailor died immediately or was killed by opposing soldiers. There is a possibility that Roberts was captured by the al Qaeda fighters, and executed later with a single shot to the back of the head (One of the feeds showed a group of 8-10 fighters huddling around what appeared to be a body; both GRIM 32 and MAKO 30 noted that an IR strobe was active, a video feed showed the fighters passing the IR strobe around). This report has not been confirmed. Maj. Gen. Frank Hagenbeck did confirm that al-Qaeda fighters were seen (on live video feed from a Predator drone orbiting the firefight) chasing Roberts, and later dragging his body away from the spot where he fell. Another feed from the same predator showed a puff of heat [from a rifle] and the indistinct figure in front of it fall. Also, the quick-reaction soldiers reported fighters wearing Robert's gear and finding "a helmet with a bullet hole in it, [from which] it was clear the last person [Roberts] to wear it had been shot in the head." Predator drone footage also shows the possibility that Chapman was alive and fighting on the peak after the SEALs left rather than being killed outright as thought by Mako 30. A man was seen fighting in a bunker against multiple enemies until hit by an RPG. If this man was Chapman, he succumbed "a mere 45 seconds before... Razor 01 appeared over the mountaintop."
Note: A paper written by Col. Andrew Milani (Former commander of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment) and Dr. Stephen D. Biddle entitled "Pitfalls of Technology: A Case Study of the battle of Takur Ghar" noted that the Predator was on station 90 minutes after Roberts had fallen; the images that were shot before the Predator had arrived were shot by GRIM-32's Infrared Cameras. although this has not been confirmed by commanders.
10 March 2002
Major Bryan Hilferty states that the "major battle ended three or four days ago." The U.S. sends 400 of its troops back to base.
12 March 2002
By 12 March, following the bombing, joint U.S. and Afghan forces swept through the valley and cleared it of remaining rebel forces, with little significant combat by 18 March. A total of 8 U.S. soldiers, sailors, and airmen were killed and 82 wounded, along with several Afghan militiamen; U.S. estimates of other casualties vary, indicating rebel casualties between 500 and 800 and at least 14 civilian casualties. An undetermined number of rebels are said to have escaped the fighting through rugged terrain.
18 March 2002
General Tommy Franks declares Operation Anaconda over, terming it "an unqualified and complete success." Seymour Hersh goes on to refute the official account, describing it as "in fact a debacle, plagued by squabbling between the services, bad military planning and avoidable deaths of American soldiers, as well as the escape of key al-Qaeda leaders, likely including Osama bin Laden."
The operation ran into problems from the outset. American Forces mistakenly landed in the middle of the valley, instead of the outside and were immediately caught in the Taliban's kill zone. In the heavy fire fight that followed two Chinooks were shot down and a number of others were severely damaged. American forces eventually gained the upper hand, inflicting heavy casualties on the Taliban forces and pushing them out of the valley.
At the end of Operation Anaconda, the US and Afghan forces had succeeded at removing the majority of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban presence from the Shahi-Kot Valley. The US forces suffered 80 casualties in the operation, with 8 killed and 72 wounded. Estimates of Al-Qaeda and Taliban casualties range from 100 to 1,000, with U.S. commanders favoring the higher estimates and Afghan commanders favoring the lower estimates. An unknown number of fighters were able to escape the Shahi-Kot Valley into Pakistan.
In the wake of Operation Anaconda, relations between US and the and UK forces on the ground soured when Stars and Stripes, the magazine for American forces and their families, openly criticized the Royal Marines for returning "empty-handed" from their search for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters claiming that Britain's contribution to the campaign was "disappointing." Relations were further soured with reports from a number of publications that Osama bin Laden might have escaped due to a substantial delay from the original H-hour of the deployment of American Forces.
Long-distance sniper record
The record for the longest combat kill by a sniper was set during Operation Anaconda by Canadian Army sniper Corporal Rob Furlong of the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and held for seven years until surpassed in 2009. Using a McMillan TAC-50 .50-calibre rifle, Furlong killed a Taliban fighter armed with an RPK machine gun at a confirmed distance of 2,430 metres (1.51 miles). The previous record of 2,310 metres (7,580 ft) was set a few days before by his teammate Arron Perry, also of the 3rd Battalion PPCLI.
The five-man team, including MCpl Graham Ragsdale, MCpl Tim McMeekin, MCpl Arron Perry, Cpl Dennis Eason, and Cpl Rob Furlong, killed over 20 enemy fighters during the operation and were awarded Bronze Star medals by the United States for their service.
Reverse side of the operation
Operation Anaconda was also met with criticism. According to an interview of some soldiers of the German Special Forces KSK, the post-operation briefing was broken down by an argument between the KSK soldiers and U.S. soldiers. The cause of the conflict is said to have been the complaint of some U.S. soldiers that the KSK soldiers had only changed their position when a shepherd stumbled into their hideout instead of killing him. "Use your silenced gun, then move on."
"Die Amis eliminieren solche Bedrohungen tatsächlich," sagt ein Ex-Offizier des KSK. (...) Die Deutschen hätten auch erlebt, wie Amerikaner "bei der Operation Anaconda ganze Dörfer platt machten"(...): Hier Jungs, frei zum Plündern." Der hochrangige Ex-KSK-Mann sagt: "Die Bilder von Abu Ghraib, das Foltern in irakischen Gefängnissen, haben mich absolut nicht überrascht."
"The U.S. soldiers would in fact eliminate such 'threats,' says a former KSK officer. (...) The Germans are quoted to have witnessed U.S. Forces flattening entire villages during Operation Anaconda: 'Let's go, free to pillage' (...). A former KSK commander is quoted in the German magazine Stern to have said: 'The pictures of Abu Ghraib, the torture in Iraqi prison camps, did absolutely not surprise me.'
- Afghan Civil War
- Mountain warfare
- Special Activities Division
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Operation Anaconda.|
- United States Army Center of Military History The U.S. Army in Afghanistan Operation ENDURING FREEDOM
- Defense and National Security Studies
- Combat Films and Research
- BBC News: Al Qaeda 'executed US serviceman'
- Strategypage interview of Col. Wiercinski
- Executive Summary of the Battle of Takur Ghar (pdf)
- VFW Magazine: Valor in the Face of the Enemy - Air Force Cross awarded to Senior Airman Jason Dean Cunningham and Tech. Sgt. John Chapman[dead link]
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