WATCH | A retired Air Force captain says the Pentagon lied to families about what caused the Extortion 17 tragedy.
A decorated retired Air Force officer who witnessed one of the most deadly attacks on Navy SEALs in U.S. history is breaking her silence, saying the government covered up evidence detailing that the 2011 downing of a Chinook helicopter gunship that killed 38 fighters in Afghanistan could have been prevented had it not been for restrictions to the military's rules of engagement that were changed under the Obama administration.
August 6, 2011: Retired Air Force Capt. Joni Marquez and her crew were working the dark morning hours aboard an AC-130 gunship after being summoned to a mission she describes “as almost like a 9-1-1 type of a situation.”
The gunship was ordered to fly close-in air support above Afghanistan’s dangerous Tangi Valley, in Wardak Province, assisting troops with the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment who were being fired on by eight heavily armed Taliban insurgents.
The Rangers had called in for assault helicopters to engage the enemy hiding among the rocky valley. The air weapons team fired on the Taliban fighters, but not all of the insurgents were killed as originally believed.
“I had the sensor operators immediately shift to the eight insurgents the helicopters had taken out,” Marquez told Circa, in her first interview about the incident. “Two were still alive.”
Marquez was the fire control officer aboard the AC-130 gunship, making sure that the sensors and weapons were aligned and allowing the crew hone in on targets.
That night it didn’t matter, because the gunship was not given permission to fire. “We had seen two of them (insurgents) moving, crawling away from the area, as to not really make a whole lot of scene,” she recalled.
Monitoring the scene from above, she relayed the scene to the ground force commander. “You have two enemy forces that are still alive,” she said. “Permission to engage.”
They were denied.
Marquez told Circa the ground commander's decision to not allow her crew to engage the two enemy fighters sealed the fate of those involved in Extortion 17.
There was little left to do for Marquez and her team but simply track the two enemy insurgents with the surveillance equipment. She watched as the two moved tactically through the open field, making their way to a village where they began to rally more fighters.
Meanwhile, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, with the call sign Extortion 17, was called into the hours-long firefight.
If we would've been allowed to engage that night, we would've taken out those two men immediately.
U.S. Central Command’s official investigation concluded that a rocket-launched grenade from a Taliban fighter hit the Chinook and sent the helicopter into a downward spin. The crash killed all 38, including thirty Americans and eight Afghans. Seventeen of the U.S. servicemen were Navy SEALs. Months before, SEALs were made famous for the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Marquez believes that had her team been allowed to fire, those deaths could have been prevented.
“They continued to essentially gain more and more force behind them because they just kept knocking on doors,” she said. “And the two personnel that initially fled ended up becoming a group of 12 people.”
Pleas and warnings from her crew to turn the Chinook back or cancel their mission went unheeded, she added.
“Whenever we reached out to the Joint Operations Center, they would essentially just push back with, ‘Find a, a good infill location. Find a good helicopter landing zone,’” said Marquez, adding that by the time Extortion 17 was coming in, everything was mired in confusion.
'Dying on the ground'
One of the SEALs was ejected from the burning Chinook helicopter and Marquez watched from her infrared monitor as his heat signature faded from red to blue as life was slipping from his body.
“We had to sit and watch that, and I think that was one of the hardest things that I had to do," she said. "That man was, you know, dying on the ground.” Marquez says the pain of living with what happened has taken its toll and she was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and is in therapy.
Her account is corroborated by a previously top-secret report by the Defense Department inspector general that includes interviews with some of Marquez’s colleagues on the gunship, including the commander.
“If we would've been allowed to engage that night, we would've taken out those two men immediately. I mean, it's just one of those things where you know that it could've all been prevented,” she said, tearing up at times as she recollected that night.
Rules of engagement
The battlefield rules of engagement were tightened by Gen. Stanley McChrystal under President Obama in 2009, citing an "overreliance on firepower and force protection.” The idea was that this would reduce civilian casualties and win the cooperation of locals.
But Marquez said rules of when to engage the enemy, which continuously changed depending on who was in charge, prevented her crew from doing what they knew needed to be done.
“Ridiculous rules of engagement that basically state that you can't shoot until being shot upon. A weapon has to be pointed, and essentially fired at you, in order for you to shoot and you have the proper clearance so that you don't, you know, go to jail, that you're charged with a war crime,” said Marquez, who had reached out to Congress, and some of the victims' families.
U.S. Central Command did not respond for comment about Marquez's account or about the changes in the rules of engagement.
But Jeffery Addicott, who served 20 years as a senior legal advocate for U.S. Special Forces and is an expert in rules of engagement, told Circa that Marquez's story is one of the most tragic for U.S. troops battling not only enemy fighters, but unrealistic rules that do nothing more than tie the hands of military personnel and endanger lives.
“In Afghanistan, we had rules of engagement that became more restrictive the longer we stayed,” said Addicott. “Right now, the rules of engagement are absolutely bizarre.”
Addicott is pushing for congressional oversight of the Department of Defense’s rules of engagement.
Here’s some of the unclassified rules of engagement for Afghanistan
- No night or surprise searches
- Villagers warned prior to searches
- U.S. units on searches
- U.S. soldiers may not fire at the enemy unless the enemy is preparing to fire first
- Afghan National Army or Afghan National Police must accompany
- U.S. forces cannot engage the enemy if civilians are present
- Troops can fire at an insurgent if they catch them placing an IED, but not if they’re walking away from placing an IED.
- Only engage an enemy fighter if you see a weapon, and they’ve fired first
Right now, the Rules of Engagement are absolutely bizarre
Addicott says placating foreign governments at the expense of American lives became a death sentence for some U.S. troops.
He said under the recognized “Law of war, if you do or you suspected that someone was an enemy combatant, they had a weapon, they were carrying it openly, you could kill them before they shot at you.”
He said overly restrictive rules of engagement do nothing to help the war fighter win, but are enforced against war fighters under political pressure from host nations.
“Under our current rules of engagement, you cannot shoot them until they shoot at you first. Now many people -- of course people on the ground, the military soldiers -- they know that this is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “And so, we basically have these rules that are made by the president.”
Marquez agrees and hopes revealing the secret of what happened the night Extortion 17 crashed will bring change that saves lives.
“I won't rest until some kind of justice is served, in a manner of either, you know, the people that were responsible for that night, for making those calls, come forward and are honest about it,” Marquez said. “I know that's kind of a lofty goal but, if that's something that doesn't happen, then obviously the ROE's to change, for them to be realistic.”
Follow Sara A. Carter on Twitter @SaraCarterDC