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The naval special warfare community was reeling in what one member called "shock and disbelief" Saturday after 22 of its own died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan that also killed eight other U.S. service members, a civilian interpreter and seven Afghan soldiers.
The CH-47 Chinook crash, which occurred during a raid in Wardak province, is believed to be the biggest single loss ever suffered by the NSW community or in the 24-year history of U.S. Special Operations Command.
Of the 22 NSW members killed, 17 were SEALs and five were direct support personnel, according to the source in the NSW community. Two of the SEALs were from a West Coast SEAL unit, but the others were from Gold Squadron of Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DevGru, sometimes known as SEAL Team 6, said the NSW source.
DevGru, based in Dam Neck, Va., is the Navy's "Tier One" special mission unit that operates as part of task forces formed under the Joint Special Operations Command, Fort Bragg, N.C. It is the Navy's equivalent to the Army's 1st Special Forces Operational Command — Delta, or Delta Force. DevGru has four line squadrons — Blue, Gold, Red and Silver — plus a strategic reconnaissance element known as Black Squadron.
Each squadron is divided into three troops. The crash wiped out an entire troop in Gold Squadron, said the NSW source.
The presence of the West Coast SEALs on the mission should not come as a surprise, even though they are not part of a unit that habitually reports to JSOC, said the NSW source.
"We have SEALs from the West Coast augmenting Dam Neck on every deployment," the source said.
The remaining U.S. military casualties were divided between a five-person regular Army aircrew and three Air Force combat controllers, said a special ops source who has been briefed on the incident. The use of a regular Army Chinook to fly a JSOC mission was "atypical," the source said. Most JSOC missions involving helicopters are flown by the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne).
The Defense Department has not announced which unit or units the three Air Force personnel were from, but most JSOC missions of this type are supported by members of the 24th Special Tactics Squadron.
The seven Afghan soldiers who died were Afghan National Army commandos from the Afghan Partnered Unit, which accompanies JSOC forces on their combat missions in Afghanistan, according to the special ops source, who has been briefed on the mission.
Although there have been reports that the twin-rotor helicopter was shot down, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan has not confirmed that. An initial statement about the crash states that "reporting indicates that there was enemy activity in the area."
The personnel in the helicopter belonged to an "immediate reaction force" that was en route to support troops in contact on the ground, said the NSW member. An immediate reaction force differs from a quick reaction force in that the former is built into the mission plan and is on site during the raid, sometimes circling the action in a helicopter, waiting to be committed if needed, whereas a quick reaction force is typically brought forward from the rear, the NSW source said.
There were no survivors from the crash, said the special ops source who has been briefed on the incident. "There will be multiple investigations," the spec ops source said, noting that this was typical for an aircraft crash of this magnitude.
Asked what the naval special warfare community's initial reaction to the incident was, the NSW source answered: "Shock and disbelief. There's no precedent for this. It's the worst day in our history by a mile."
The source noted that twice as many NSW personnel died in the Wardak crash than were killed in Operation Red Wings, which cost the lives of eight SEALs and eight 160th soldiers when insurgents shot down their MH-47 Chinook near Asadabad, Afghanistan, on June 28, 2005. A further three SEALs were killed during a firefight on the ground.
The tragedy comes two months after JSOC's highest profile success — the May 2 mission that killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden in his safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan. That raid, conducted by DevGru's Red Squadron and air crews from the 160th, was executed without any friendly casualties.
The Wardak incident also occurred less than three days prior to the change of command at U.S. Special Operations Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., that will see Adm. Eric Olson relinquish command to another SEAL, Vice Adm. William McRaven, who was the JSOC commander for the bin Laden mission. (McRaven is due to be promoted to admiral immediately prior to the change of command.)
Army Lt. Gen. Joe Votel has since replaced McRaven as the JSOC commander.