Reporter's Notebook: Remembering Fateful SEAL Rescue Operation
The hole in the sod along the bank of the Kunar River was small, only big enough to fit a foot-long green ammunition box affixed with the flag of Afghanistan and containing a small wood urn and a two-inch sliver of granite in a blue velvet pouch. The bucolic currents of the river cut through Afghanistan's Himalayan foothills only a few kilometers from Pakistan.
A bearded U.S. Navy SEAL, his tan pants smeared with bright red blood on one leg - apparently not his own - and with a Sig Sauer 9mm pistol on his hip, dropped the ammo can into the hole and knelt in the grass holding a small card, which he read aloud.
"In memory of Sara Manley Harvey, who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11, on behalf of her husband Bill Harvey, and in memory of Lt. Cmdr. Erik Kristensen, on behalf of his friend, Arianne Harvey, who is Bill's sister," the SEAL said quietly.
This was how a small SEAL team on the front lines of U.S. counter-terrorism paid tribute to one American lost on 9/11 and another American killed in action eight years ago today during an ill-fated attempt to rescue an ambushed team of fellow SEALs in Operation Red Wings.
I had carried these mementos of the war for a month in my backpack during combat embeds in Afghanistan the summer of 2005, only a few weeks after one of the worst losses of life in combat during the now 12-year war.
Lt. Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL, had led a manhunt in Kunar province on June 28, 2005, but his team was discovered and attacked by Al Qaeda-linked insurgents. Murphy and two of his SEALs were killed, but the fourth, Marcus Luttrell, was eventually rescued by Afghan villagers and wrote the bestselling memoir about the ordeal called "Lone Survivor." Murphy was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award, posthumously by President Bush.
Kristensen led the mission to come to the aid of Murphy's team. The SEALs' Army MH-47 helicopter, "Turbine 33," was shot down, however, killing eight more SEAL operators and eight Army Nightstalker crewmen.
Before leaving for Afghanistan in July 2005 to embed with U.S. Special Operations Forces and infantry for the New York Daily News, my friend Bill Harvey and his sister Ariann Harvey had given me the wood urn filled with Ground Zero ash, which the City of New York had given him because his wife Sara's remains were not found in the rubble of the Twin Towers. A neighbor at the Pentagon gave me pieces of the Pentagon from the side struck by hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 on Sept. 11.
Each asked me to bury these mementos in Afghanistan in honor of those lost. But Bill had a more complicated request.
"We'd appreciate it if you could find SEAL Team 10 and give them this urn to bury near Erik's crash site," Bill said to me.
Arianne had grown up with Erik Kristensen and his death had been a double blow to the Harvey family after Sara's loss, he explained.
Finding a SEAL team conducting covert missions in Afghanistan was not easy. But during a stay at a Green Beret outpost on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in Paktika province, I met a SEAL who gave a me a phone number at Bagram Airfield north of Kabul.
"They know who you are and why you're coming," the SEAL informed me.
Inside Camp Ouellette at Bagram a few days later, the SEALs welcomed me as a messenger, not a journalist. They accepted the piece of the Pentagon and the small wood urn, which was engraved, "09-11-01."
"We'll take care of this," a commander assured me, offering Team 10's gratitude for the delivery.
They showed me their team room, where operators received pre-mission briefings. On the wall over the door to the outside were framed photos of each of the 11 SEALs lost weeks earlier in Operation Red Wings, including Lt. Murphy in an FDNY t-shirt and Lt. Cmdr. Kristensen.
"We face the guys" - meaning the fallen's faces - "every time we step out that door on a mission," one SEAL told me.
As I walked outside the camp gate, I was greeted by a senior public affairs officer from a different U.S. military command at Bagram, who began screaming at me for "violating the media ground rules" by "entering a classified area" of the base (I had not). I was told that my photographer and I were to be immediately expelled from Bagram, and 45 minutes later we were stranded on the wrong side of the barbed wire-laced gates of the massive U.S. air base.
But six months later, Bill Harvey received a small U.S. flag in the mail and photos of a burial ceremony on the banks of the Kunar by two SEALs. The flag had flown over the tiny SEAL base overlooking the spot where on Jan. 16, 2006 they dug a hole and dropped the ammo box in containing the urn and sliver of the Pentagon.
The blood-stained operator shoveled sod over the can and piled four smooth river stones atop it.
"We lay to rest the ashes and remains of those who died on 9/11 along with a piece of the Pentagon here in Naray, Afghanistan, in memory and in hope that we will prevent this from happening again in the future," the SEAL had said, looking down at that hostile but now hallowed ground. "It's a peaceful location alongside the river within the shadow and in the sight of the American flag that flies over the firebase in Naray."
Eight years has passed since Operation Red Wings ended in disaster as a team of SEALs sought an insurgent leader tied to Al Qaeda on a mountainside.