American Heroes: 160th SOAR(A), Night Stalkers

The year was 1983, the location was Grenada, and the event spanning the days between October 25th and December 15th was Operation Urgent Fury. In the years leading up to Fury, the little Caribbean island was the site of significant strife; Sir Eric Gairy spearheaded Grenada’s breaking away from the United Kingdom’s authority in 1974, claimed victory in the 1976 general election – a win that was hotly contested – and was eventually overthrown by the New Jewel Movement, which was led by a man named Maurice Bishop. When the NJM overthrew Gairy’s private army and government in 1979 Bishop began his own revolution, creating the People’s Revolutionary Government. Bishop’s reign lasted almost as long as Gairy’s had, coming to an end in 1983 when Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard wrested control from him and placed him under house arrest. Violent protests followed and somehow, during the confusion, Bishop escaped his confinement. His escape was short-lived, though. Bishop was quickly captured and murdered, as were several men loyal to him. And then things got really bad.

After Bishop’s death, a military council was created for the sole purpose of running the country. More arrests were made of those who had been in power while Bishop was in control, and as tends to happen, violence begat violence. The new army had supreme control and exercised it by announcing a four-day long curfew during which anyone seen on the streets would be summarily executed. But their bloody rule wasn’t going to last long, because one of the government officials they arrested, governor-general Paul Scoon, managed to communicate with the United States through secret diplomatic channels. He made one request: would the United States please invade Grenada?

The battle to follow was a victory for the U.S. and seen as necessary by then-president Ronald Reagan because the size of airstrips being built on Grenada, combined with massive fuel stores beyond what was needed for normal use, signaled what Reagan called “Soviet-Cuban militarization.” Among those taking part in the invasion were a slew of highly skilled Special Forces operators from every branch of the military, from Delta Force to SEALs. One particular Special Forces group to participate was rather new to the upper ranks; Operation Urgent Fury was their first major foray into combat. They were the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Airborne (SOAR(A)), better known as the Night Stalkers, and they’re a special forces group that plays a key role in our nation’s defense while receiving a very small amount of recognition from the general public.

They came out following the failure of a hostage rescue attempt in 1980. The president at the time was Jimmy Carter, and when the rescue attempt in Iran failed, he ordered former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James Holloway to find a solution. Holloway knew a key factor was the need for specially trained helicopter units and set about attempting to fill the gap. There wasn’t any group like today’s Night Stalkers at the time, and in order to rescue those hostages the 101st Aviation Group was tasked with learning stealthy night-flying tactics. Before the second attempt could be made the hostages were released, but the need for a SF helicopter unit was not forgotten.

Night Stalker SideIt’s true that SF operators function at their greatest heights under the dark veil of anonymity, but despite that reality, Night Stalkers deserve some attention. They became active on October 16, 1981, with a particular task: providing helicopter aviation support. Their services are rendered to both general forces and other SF, and they’re not limited to transportation, not by a long shot. Night Stalkers do it all from attacks to assaults to reconnaissance, and their name gives you a hint as to the usual circumstances of their missions: they often work under cover of darkness, operating in the air at incredibly high speeds and low altitudes. To say they’re bold and daring would be an understatement of the greatest kind.

The Night Stalkers regiment is headquartered at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and made up of four battalions. The 1st and 2nd battalions are stationed at Fort Campbell, the 3rd can be found at Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, and the 4th is located at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. Battalions have a combination of light, medium, and heavy helicopters, and when they get their hands on the helicopters they make sure they’re specifically outfitted according to the unique requirements of the 160th SOAR(A). Helicopters used include the MH-47E/G Chinook, MH-60K/L/M Black Hawk, MH-60L DAP gunship, and AH-6MH-6 Little Bird. After all, aviators in the 160th aren’t just any pilots; they’re at the top of their field, flying maneuvers that would boggle the mind of the average helicopter crew. Officers volunteer for the 160th while enlisted either volunteer or are assigned. All soldiers must take the five-week long Green Platoon course; enlisted soldiers take the basic course while officers go through a process that varies between twenty and twenty-eight weeks in total length. Training is intensive and brutal, covering everything from navigation to hand-to-hand combat, and when it comes to learning to fight for their lives, fights are relentless, painful, and wholly realistic. There’s no such thing as cutting corners in the Night Stalkers, they’re trained and honed to a knife’s edge of readiness, because they never know when their airborne skills will end in ground combat.

Night Stalkers are no strangers to battle, and no strangers to death. They’ve participated in quite a few major battles since Operation Agent Fury took place in 1983, and in those battles the enormous courage of the men has been proven time and again. They were there for the Battle of Mogadishu, played an important role in the hunt for bin Laden, and in fact handled insertion and cover during the actual raid on bin Laden’s compound. When the stakes are high and talented aviators are needed – aviators capable not only of piloting metal birds but also of fighting ferociously in combat – the Night Stalkers can be found.

Sadly, they’re familiar with the loss of their brothers in combat as well. During the Battle of Mogadishu five Night Stalkers were killed in combat when their helicopters were shot down, and they suffered a large-scale loss during Operation Red Wings. We are all familiar with Red Wings, the mission where three Navy SEALs died battling insurgents in the harsh terrain of the Hindu Kush and one survived, with extensive injuries, both physical and emotional, but it was not only the SEALs who suffered significant losses a decade ago this coming summer. When a rescue was mounted for the SEALs sixteen men boarded an MH-47 Chinook hoping to save the lives of the men on the ground who were not only their brothers in arms but their friends. The Chinook was shot down by the insurgents with an RPG, and every man on it died. Eight were SEALs, and eight were Night Stalkers. No, the Night Stalkers are not strangers to the devastation of loss in combat.

Night Stalker Side 2But although they’re familiar with loss, they’re also familiar with the inner strength necessary to survive worst-case situations, a fact proven by Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mike Durant during the Battle of Mogadishu. Durant enlisted in the Army in 1979, joined the Night Stalkers in 1988, and marked his career with many exceptional moments prior to the Battle of Mogadishu. One such moment took place during Operation Desert Storm, where he became the first helicopter pilot to face off successfully with a SCUD missile launcher. By the time the Battle of Mogadishu rolled around Durant was an experienced combatant by air; little did he know he was about to experience the horrors of battle on the ground, and at great length.

Durant was part of the crew on the helicopter that was shot down during the opening salvo of the Battle of Mogadishu. Although he survived the initial crash he didn’t make it through in good shape; he broke his leg and severely injured his back which left him unable to maneuver on the ground in the firefight that followed his helicopter’s crash. Nevertheless he fought courageously, holding off the advancing horde with just his service pistol until a pair of Delta Force operators by the names of MSG Gary Gordon and SFC Randy Shughart fast-roped in, supplying him with their skilled reinforcement. The battle on the ground to follow ended in blood with Gordon and Shughart both being killed by the mob and the remainder of Durant’s crew also being executed right there on the spot. This left Durant as the last man standing, and the angry mob set about beating him mercilessly, making it a miracle he was not paralyzed or crippled for life considering the injuries he’d already sustained prior to their mass attack. Before they could beat him to death one of the group’s leaders realized he had more value alive than dead, so they dragged him off to captivity.

Durant was held for 11 day and, when at last he was released, he did not even consider leaving the service. As soon as he healed he was right back with the 160th SOAR(A); over the course of his career he flew over 3700 hours, 1400 of which were flown using night vision. Today he can be found offering his services in a different way by giving talks about his experiences and participating in seminars for military service members regarding the nuances of maneuvering helicopters and the details of Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) missions. Its clear Durant is one Night Stalker who embodies their motto: “Night Stalkers Don’t Quit.”

There’s a second Night Stalker motto worth mentioning: “Death Waits In the Dark.” Never let it be forgotten that the members of the 160th SOAR(A) are some serious badasses capable of fighting back tooth and claw whether in the air or on the ground. They’re a Special Forces group of American Heroes that doesn’t get nearly enough recognition, and it’s high time they were recognized for the heroes they truly are. No one in their right mind would want to face off with an operator capable of swooping in from above, let alone one who does so with incredible stealth and teeth-baring ferocity. The Night Stalkers are an awesome group, and we are ever so grateful for their service.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth
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