This particular Sunday morning was like many others over southern Afghanistan. Clear, blue skies characteristic of those back home in Nevada greeted both soldiers and aviators ready to begin another day of executing their missions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The date was Sept. 25, 2005, nine months after their unit, Co. D, 113th Aviation, left the Nevada Guard training center at Stead in a heavy snowstorm and deployed for two months of training at Fort Sill, Okla., and then left to Kandahar in southeastern Afghanistan.
Yet, on this particular day 10 years ago, three CH-47 Chinook, two Blackhawk and two Comanche helicopters lifted off from Kandahar headed toward their objective, but something terrible happened at 7:35 a.m. A Taliban-fired rocket-propelled grenade ripped into Mustang 22, sending the spiraling helicopter and five guardsmen to their grave near the Daychopabn district in southern Zabul.
MUSTANG 22’S LEGACY
Former commander Roger Capps remembers that day well as he addressed family, guardsmen and guests assembled for a memorial service on Friday at the Army Aviation Support Facility at Stead to honor the legacy of Mustang 22 and its crew.
After the 113th received the news of possible enemy action, Capps flew out to the site, not knowing if any soldiers had survived. During a flight aboard a Blackhawk, a message crackled over the radio: “Total loss.”
No one survived.
An empty feeling fell over Capps knowing that two Nevada guardsmen — Chief Warrant Officer 2 John M. Flynn of Sparks and Sgt. Patrick Stewart of Sparks — along with three other soldiers —Warrant Officer Adrian B. Stump and Sgt. Tane T. Baum, both of Pendleton, Ore., and Sgt. Kenneth G. Ross of Peoria, Ariz. — perished in the crash. Reaching the crash site, Capps tried to understand the loss and then how the deaths would affect his soldiers back at Kandahar.
“I wish I had the power to take the burden off their shoulders,” he remembers saying.
Several days later at Kandahar, a ramp ceremony held in memory of the fallen soldiers preceded a plane taking off from Afghanistan and heading home to the United States. More than 210 soldiers crowded into the cargo plane for the ramp service. Capps said listening and seeing the emotions displayed by the soldiers for their friends showed the compassion they held for them.
“We have a dangerous occupation,” Capps said, “Everyone of us in aviation knows the risks. We relish the excitement. Basically, we love to be around helicopters and marvel at the sight, sound and capabilities they have.“
Capps said being an aviator aboard a military helicopter is a lifestyle, and the crew of Mustang 22 knew it. At one point after the incident, Capps said Stewart’s widow, Roberta, talked to him, saying she was just as concerned for the crews who remained in Afghanistan.
REMEMBERING THE FALLEN
991st Troop Command Brigade Commander Col. Joanne Farris echoed the meaning of never forget.
“We always remember the courage of these soldiers and cherish the families they left behind,” she said.
Friday’s ceremony remembered the families as each surviving spouse and mother received flowers. Tane Taum’s father also traveled from Oregon to attend the memorial. Christie (Flynn) Pierce, who has since remarried, said the Guard family and friends have been incredible since her husband’s death.
“I am thankful for John’s buddies,” she said. “Thy still honor and remember them. From time to time, they check on me and my family.”
Roberta Stewart, who assisted Pierce by placing a wreath in front of the Mustang 22 monument honoring the five men, was equally moved.
“This was an awesome ceremony,” she said. “It was very special to have people come from Oregon and from the old company. For me it was very special to be with them.”
Although Roberta Stewart has tried to put the incident behind her, the events of that Sunday morning are still vivid. Roberta and Patrick had been married less that two years, and on the Saturday afternoon before the fateful day, the Stewarts talked to each other by phone. Patrick, according to Roberta, sounded as though he was in good spirits and recently bought some gifts for her.
Capps said it was good to see the families and how they have adjusted during the past 10 years.
IT’S STILL TOUGH
Chief Warrant Officer 5 Dan Walters of Genoa, who served as master of ceremonies, also flew Chinooks in Afghanistan, first in 2005 alongside the Mustang 22 crew and then seven years later when the unit deployed to Forward Operating Base Shank southwest of Kabul.
After 10 years, though, the events of Sept. 25 still affect the veteran pilot.
“It’s still tough on me. Every time I go to on one of these things, I think of these guys,” Walter said, trying to find the words to describe his feelings. “It’s tough. When I hear ‘Taps,’ I hear of Afghanistan. They got played a lot,” Walter said the numerous ramp ceremonies conducted at the Kandahar Air Field have never disappeared.
Also vivid is the day Walters heard of the downing of the Chinook helicopter.
“I came off a night shift,” he said. “I worked all night long and then landed a while ago before heading to bed. I heard a pounding on the door. Then a voice.
‘Get up and get outside.’
Walters hurriedly put on his clothes and hurried to a formation.
“That was all that was said, and they told us Mustang 22 was shot down.”
As with all soldiers in the military, they bond friendships both during war and peacetime. Those friendships last a lifetime.
“This is a good memory, reminding people of the sacrifices these guys gave and of their families and friends left behind,” Walters said. “We still care. We think about the solders and families together.”