Lone Survivor. Maybe you read the book. Maybe you saw the movie. But Jeff Peterson of the Tucson West Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lived the rescue ordeal.
Major Peterson, “Spanky” to his crew, is an Air Force reserve helicopter pilot. He flies the HH-60G Pave Hawk, a variant of the Blackhawk. Sometimes they assist in simple rescues, but no mission had ever put him in the middle of an intense combat situation. That status was about to change.
It was the summer of 2005. Peterson and his group from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson were three days away from what, to that point, had been a pretty low-key deployment in Afghanistan. They were sitting around the base in Kandahar (in the southwestern part of the country), sweltering in the heat, watching movies and dreaming of home, when they heard that a Chinook helicopter had crashed in eastern Afghanistan.
Peterson’s group had a routine of staying up nights and sleeping days, anticipating when missions would come down, which would most likely be at night. Now they felt the need for that practice, as this kind of event could result in a call to action.
The crew’s radios went off at noon the next day. They were needed at Bagram Air Force Base which was four hours northeast of their location. They were to bring three-day packs and hightail it up to the base. When they were faced with signing nondisclosure agreements that prevented them from telling anyone what they were about to experience, they knew this was serious. They were in the middle of Operation Redwing.
Details were shared once information was officially released. Four Navy Seals had been on a mission to photograph and possibly capture a high-level Taliban officer. Deep in enemy territory their mission had been compromised when some young local shepherds had stumbled into their position. Faced with killing the boys to ensure their own safety or releasing them, which would most likely mean that the boys would tell the Taliban they were hiding in the woods, they decided to refuse to shed innocent blood and released their captives.
What followed was a battle in which the Seals were outgunned almost ten to one. They fought valiantly, but three were killed. Badly wounded, Marcus Luttrell was still alive but in the worst kind of peril. Two Chinooks had already made one attempt to reach the men; one of them had been shot down, killing all 16 aboard. This was the mission: to save the one remaining Seal.
The first leg of the reserve group’s part in the mission was night reconnaissance in search of the missing Seal. Peterson’s copter was in the support position flying as back-up to his boss who had lots of experience. “I was happy to be on his wing,” Peterson recalls.
They could hear the “clicks” that acted as Luttrell’s primary emergency signal. They learned later that he was in bad shape. Though he could see them, he could not speak. All he could do was send clicks over his radio.
The air crew flew until they ran out of fuel, then headed to an out base in Jalalabad. Some delays kept them on the ground longer than they wanted to be. They kept checking for news. No clicks had been heard all day. “Our hearts sank,” Peterson said.
During the night they got a call to go to a Marine outpost up the canyon. There was an old man there with a note, supposedly from the Seal, saying he was in a village five miles up the mountain. Peterson remembers that they were leery about this information at first. It could have been a trick. There could have been Taliban holding Luttrell prisoner, or maybe—just maybe—this really was a friend.
The old man was taken to an out base in Asadabad where he did his best to explain that his son had been helping and hiding the American. He described Luttrell’s distinctive tattoo. Once the military was sure the note was indeed from Luttrell, operations were quickly in motion again. Peterson was told it was “one of the biggest rescue missions since Viet Nam.”
While this all was taking shape, Peterson knew his wife, Penny, would be worried. For most of his deployment they had been able to talk every day and now he had been unable to contact her for several days straight. He had gotten word to her that he was okay but he later learned that the cryptic message she received did little to assuage her fears in the face of what she was hearing in the media. He managed a call before the next phase began. His focus was on supporting the rescue of this Seal then getting home to his wife and four sons.
In the final meeting back at Bagram before the rescue mission the commanding officer decided that the larger, heavier Chinook helicopters that were usually the instruments of rescue in such an operation would have a hard time navigating the narrow canyon near the village. The landing spot was precarious—a ledge on the side of a terraced mountain. The smaller HH-60G helicopters would have a better chance. The command came down, “Sixties, you got the pickup.” Peterson felt every emotion one might imagine on hearing those words. “I had just been support up to now. It got a lot more nerve-wracking after that.”
The plan was to hit the area with the heavy fire from A-10s and an AC-130 gunship. Peterson’s boss decided they would fly a “trailer-spooky,” a pattern in which one copter flies over as a diversion and marks the landing zone then covers the second as it makes the landing. “That’s when I realized I would be the one going in,” Peterson said.
The HH-60G pilots had to plan their entrance into the canyon, the landing, and exit with no more than a three-second variance so that they would not be hit by friendly fire. There was to be one infrared strobe light on the ground to mark the landing site. But when the barrage of gunfire started, all the American Special Forces personnel in the area turned on their helmet-mounted infrared strobes. Added to the explosions all around, it was bedlam. Peterson had no idea which light marked the target.
The AC-130 was supposed to shine a light over the intended landing spot 30 seconds before Peterson was to land, but the night was very dark with heavy cloud cover. The clouds blocked the beam. Still, Peterson kept moving through the canyon trying to find his way up to the rocky ledge. Just when chaos was abounding, an A-10 flashed a laser beam on the objective for five seconds. “It looked like a flashlight from God,” Peterson said. He then had the landing zone in sight but the rotors had kicked up the thick summer dust, turning the already dense night into a whirling brown out.
Peterson said, “I kept thinking ‘I’m doing righteous stuff and doing a good thing here, and hopefully, we’ll be blessed by that.’ I was serving as Elder’s Quorum President at the time. Folks were fasting for me (it was Fast Sunday weekend back home). God’s hand was with us all.”
He was not the only one counting on God’s help. The Washington Post account of the mission notes that every member of Peterson’s crew was also praying. And Luttrell, who had now been missing for several days, had a lot of people praying for him, too. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/10/AR2007061001492.html
As the HH-60G approached the landing zone it had about ten feet of clearance on either side of the terraced outcropping. Peterson couldn’t see a thing that would give him a clue as to where they were in relation to the mountain, the village rooftops, or the ground. The crew called out to Peterson to correct as they saw the craft drifting left, then right.
Suddenly, Peterson caught sight of a bush sticking out from the side of the terraced ledge in front of him, blowing wildly in the rotor wash. It was only for an instant, but that was all he needed to get his bearings.
They set the bird down and were met by two men in Afghan garb rushing the helicopter. Again, they were not sure who these men were and trained guns on them. Luttrell had a secret identifying code—a series of questions to which only he would know the answers. One of these robed men answered correctly. He was Luttrell. Within 30 to 45 seconds of landing, they had their rescue.
Once Luttrell was safely on his way to medical help and the mission was over, “all the adrenaline went away,” Peterson recalled. “I was shaking. I wanted to talk to Penny.” His call reached her as she was doing some shopping back in Tucson. “I kept telling her that everything was good. Really, really good. I was trying to tell her that we had just done something big, but that was all I was allowed to say.” When Penny heard news reports about the rescue, she put two and two together.
That day undeniably impacted Jeff Peterson’s faith. “No way would I try to do [something like] that in Tucson during the day, let alone in this situation. God’s hand was in the rescue of Luttrell. Being chosen to be the pilot was not luck. We really should have crashed. I thought all was lost. God’s hand was with all of us.”
There is one more piece to this story. When the movie, “Lone Survivor,” opened in a Tucson theater in January, Penny Peterson bought advance tickets and took the opportunity to tell the theater manager who would be attending the premiere. Clueless about this event, Jeff—now a Lieutenant Colonel with a local testing squadron—walked into the theater with his wife and some friends to see the show.
The previews were running, people were settling in; then the projection stopped and the manager stepped forward. He thanked everyone for coming and told them that there was a Tucson connection to this movie. He explained the situation, and indicated that the rescue pilot was in the house.
What followed was a standing ovation. “They wouldn’t stop clapping,” Peterson said. “I was embarrassed… I sunk down in my chair.” Then Penny told him what she had done.
“After the movie, we had a hard time getting out of there. Everybody wanted to shake hands, take pictures, and tell me their war stories. It was silly.”
Silly? No. A manifestation of the humility of a hero? That is probably more accurate. True heroes often do not think the word applies to them. They realize that they were only instruments in the hands of God for a few hours. Still, we who live safely at home because of their courage have few chances to tell them personally how much we appreciate what they do. The crowd in that theater took the opportunity when it came.
Thank you, Lieutenant Colonel Peterson. And please pass the message on to your entire crew.
The Smithsonian put together a documentary on the rescue. You can watch clips from it here.