It’s impossible to harness the overwhelming life and power of the ocean. Beneath the dark chop of the waves are more than 1 million known species – and potentially 9 million unknown. Just a small fraction of the sea’s thermal energy could power the world, if we could only harness it. The mysteries of the ocean are beyond us, and it’s impossible to describe the unseen. In much the same way, the boundless strength and hidden depths of the silent warrior community are impossible to describe. We know they’re there, and every so often evidence of their work is splashed across the news – the killings of Musab al-Zarqawi and Osama Bin Laden, the rescue of the Maersk Alabama crew. But for the tiny fraction of their lives we glimpse, there is an ocean’s worth of unknown missions and daily acts of courage carried out by men whose names we will never know. Sometimes we find out their identities when they’re suddenly, tragically killed in action, but we only know a small portion of their stories. Honoring the uncommon valor of all of these men is our goal today; today we relive the heroism of Navy SEAL Neil C. Roberts.
“Although I sacrificed personal freedom and many other things, I got just as much as I gave. My time in the Teams was special. For all the times I was cold, wet, tired, sore, scared, hungry, and angry, I had a blast. The bad was equally balanced with the good.” Neil C. Roberts in a letter to his wife, to be delivered in the event of his death.
Neil C. Roberts’ early years
Our uncommon American Hero was born on August 16, 1969, in Woodland, California. Woodland is part of Yolo County, an area known for its farms and open pastures, and it was there Roberts grew up as one of 12 children, one of whom was his twin brother, Galen. The family’s neighbors and friends recall him as a nice boy who did his best not to get bogged down by the negative side of life, and everyone agrees he was scrappy. If there’s one thing Roberts was, he was a fighter, probably from the day he was born.
Roberts wasted no time in his desire to serve his country; when he graduated from high school in 1987, he went right into the Navy, enlisting on September 14, 1987. After completing Basic at NTC Orlando, Florida, he went on to Aviation Electrician’s Mate training at NATTC Millington, Tennessee. He got his start during the Gulf War serving as an EP-3 Aries I Aviation Technician in Guam as a part of VQ-1, Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One, from 1988 to 1992. During that timeframe he deployed twice, first in support of Operation Desert Shield from 1990 to 1991 and then as part of Desert Storm in 1991. Before he was done with his years in Guam, he announced his intent to become a Navy SEAL.
Becoming a SEAL
Anyone with a shred of understanding and one booted foot in the military community knows just how intense the process is that makes men into SEALs. BUD/S has an attrition rate hovering right around 80% and, of course, if you can survive the brutal overtraining and hypothermia-inducing cold and wet, you’re still not a SEAL. That’s right, suffer through the pain and enormous mental strain of Indoc and all 3 phases that follow, and there’s more. After BUD/S, jump school, and SEAL Qualification Training, you’ll find more than a year has passed, and one things for darned sure, it’s that the men who wear the trident are a rare breed. Neil Roberts was one of those men, graduating with Class 184 in October 1992.
In November of 1992, Roberts was assigned to SEAL Team Two at NAB Little Creek, Virginia, and for 6 years he took on an untold number of missions. What is known of his service is that he spent time in San Vito, Italy, during the Bosnian War and also spent time in Sarajevo. As with all our silent warriors, it is basically a sure thing he carried out numerous acts of courage and bravery throughout his service, but being that it’s almost entirely classified – and for good reason – one can only guess. Something tells me our imaginations cannot even begin to do justice to this American Hero.
His final assignment was to the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, DEVGRU, in Dawn Neck, Virginia, in June of 1999. DEVGRU is often referred to by the name of its predecessor, SEAL Team Six, and it was with this Special Missions Unit Roberts found himself. He was among the elite of the elite, and he was serving his country, something he repeatedly made clear was of the utmost importance. And then came his final battle.
“When the will defies fear, when duty throws down the gauntlet of fate, when honor scorns to compromise with death – that is heroism.”
-Robert Green Ingersoll
The Battle of Takur Ghar
The Battle of Takur Ghar was a brief skirmish between United States SOF and insurgents that took place between March 4thand 5th, 2002. It was a battle that cost America the lives of 7 service members and numerous wounded. In honor of Neil Roberts, who was the first to be killed, the battle is frequently referred to as the Battle of Roberts Ridge.
Immediately prior to midnight on March 3, 2002, a pair of SEAL teams going by the names MAKO 30 and MAKO 21 were set to arrive in Gardez, the capital of the Paktia Province of Afghanistan, for insertion into the Shahi-Kot Valley. The Shahi-Kot Valley has a mean altitude of 9,000 feet and is known for its horrifically rugged terrain and was the center of Operation Anaconda, an op which was the much larger event surrounding the Battle of Roberts Ridge. MAKO 30 needed to reach the peak of Takur Ghar before dawn in order to establish an important observation point over the valley, but due to a series of unforeseeable events, they were delayed. Hoping to reach the peak as quickly as possible, MAKO 30 and MAKO 21 were picked up by Night Stalkers (160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment) in MH-47 Chinook helicopters. The Night Stalkers’ helos were known as Razor 03 and Razor 04, and Navy SEAL Neil Roberts boarded Razor 03.
It was now the early morning hours of March 4, 2002, and the SEALs, aboard Razor 03 and Razor 04, approached the Shahi-Kot Valley. The valley was a stronghold for guerrillas, and an untold number of al-Qaeda members were scattered throughout the shale-strewn peaks; knowing the danger, an AC-130 gunship went ahead to do reconnaissance. The gunship reported no evidence of insurgent activity, but was called away before the helos full of SEALs reached the LZ. There was already a need for air support in the area, and the gunship had no choice but to move on.
At 02:45 AM, Razor 03 began its descent. Roberts, the SAW gunner, was positioned to the rear of the helo both for a quick insertion and to act as rear gunner as needed. Now not only was the helo precariously perched on the saddle of the peak on sharp, protruding shale, but they were surrounded by snow. Snow whipped inside the helo’s open hatch, and the crew assessed their surroundings with lightning speed. The crew chief reported a donkey positioned at 3 o’clock right at the tree line, but that wasn’t the strangest sight. The point man, who was on the right-hand side of the helo, yelled that he could see multiple decapitated goats hanging from the trees by their legs. Then the left ramp gunner reported seeing a man pop his head up from cover before disappearing again. Seconds ticked by, and all hell broke loose.
The man who had looked up over the berm reappeared approximately 25 yards away with an RPG, and he launched it directly at the helo. The RPG tore through the left-side electrical panel, barely missing the gas tank, and exploded inside the helo, stunning the crew and starting a fire. Before anyone could react, a second RPG punched into the right-side radar pod. Now the helo was without electrical power, and that meant the mini guns couldn’t be fired. Also gone was the navigation system and radio; the pilot would have to fly blind, and only the best could manage such a daring feat. A third RPG followed, showering the helo with shrapnel as it detonated just ahead of them, and a fourth tore into the tail’s right-side turbine. Then the barrage of bullets began.
Razor 03 had only been on the peak for maybe 45 seconds at that point, and had already taken repeated RPG hits that had been fired with what was most likely dumb luck, effectively crippling the helo. As a result of the angle the pilot had landed at, the men were temporarily protected from the worst of the gunfire. The pilot would have to depart as quickly as he’d landed, and with severely mangled controls. The helo lurched into action.
Most likely due to the harsh jerks and sudden jarring of Razor 03, which was absolutely unavoidable, this is when the helo lost a man. The man on the M-60 caught a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye and realized one of the SEALs was tumbling from the helicopter, and he and one other crew member attempted to catch the big man. But between the angle, gravity, and the weight of his body and gear – including an 80-pound pack and 27-pound SAW – it was literally impossible for them to stop the SEAL’s fall. As the pilot struggled for control and the helo jerked up and down, the momentary grasp the crew member had on the SEAL was lost, and with that, Neil Roberts fell to the earth.
Multiple accounts have been pieced together in an attempt to figure out what happened when Neil Roberts fell from Razor 03. He was armed when he fell, and although he must have sustained possibly extensive injuries upon hitting the ground, he came up fighting. Aside from visual confirmation, there was a live feed from a circling Predator drone, and so the story of Roberts’ heroism can be told.
For a time estimated between 60 and 90 minutes, he fought them off. The men still in the helo – which crash-landed a click away – saw a large group of insurgents forming a wide circle around the fallen man, and the muzzle flashes from Roberts’ rifle were immediately visible. He burned through his primary and secondary ammo, emptying his SAW and using his grenades, and on he battled. Some say he low-crawled to a machine gun emplacement, storming it and taking out the insurgents inside. Whatever the case, Roberts fought valiantly, showing a level of courage and heroism under fire most can only hope to attain. Only when he was finally down to his sidearm, only then did the remaining insurgents dare come closer.
Courage in the face of death
Neil Roberts’ body was found with a hole through his helmet, and that along with other evidence makes it appear as though he was executed at close range by a single shot to the head. The SEAL wasn’t just tough, and he wasn’t just brave. Neil Roberts displayed the kind of stunning courage and cool in the face of sure death one expects only from myths and legends.
When at last the rescue attempts and firefights ended on March 5, 2002, 7 men had died: Navy SEAL PO1 Neil Roberts, USAF TSgt John Chapman, USAF SrA Jason Cunningham, Rangers CPL Matthew Commons, SGT Bradley Crose, and SPC Marc Anderson, and Night Stalker SGT Phillip Svitak. There are countless tales of heroism from the Battle of Roberts Ridge, tales far too few Americans are aware of, tales of American Heroes our children should emulate and we should all honor. And in the story of Neil Roberts, brief though it may appear, we bear witness to one tiny piece of a massive puzzle.
Uncommon American Heroes such as Roberts rarely receive the accolades they’re due in part because their heroism goes unnoticed. Perhaps it’s time to take notice of the heroism around you, because whether you realize it or not, it’s there. Show gratitude whenever the opportunity arises by honoring our flag, thanking our service members, and proving you know what patriotism is all about. A great many of our nation’s greatest heroes go unnoticed, and so, to our many silent warriors, thank you. We may not know all your names, but we see the results of your heroism in our daily freedoms, and for that we will be forever grateful.
To Neil Roberts, fair winds and following seas.