Eleven Rifles

March 2003

Fort Drum, New York

Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield

I sat on the flight line with my soldiers in a line behind me. Three UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters lifted off. Rising from the tarmac and dipping their noses, they slid forward leaving us waiting for the next lift. They were transporting infantry soldiers from my unit, Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment. At the time, we were one of only a few 10th Mountain Division units that had fought in Afghanistan.

After 10 or 15 minutes, we started to hear the whop-whop-whopping sounds of approaching helicopters. The aircraft came around the end of the hangar and hovered over the tarmac before setting down again. The squad to my left started moving toward the first helicopter. The squad to my right starting moving to the helicopter that landed where the third one had taken off from. The second and middle spot on the flight-line remained empty. I watched as the first lift stumbled out of the helicopters, and the door gunners waved the approaching squads away. Once everyone was clear, they birds lifted off again, this time banking sharply to the right and quickly disappearing over the treetops on the other side of the airfield.

Before any of us had an opportunity to figure out what was happening, we were ushered back inside the hangar. We sat for what seemed like hours. There was no information about why we weren’t flying, why we were stuck in the hangar, or what had happened with the other helicopter. A side door on the building opened, and the senior leaders from our company walked in. One of the platoon sergeants cleared his throat. “Gentlemen, Chalk two, lift one has crashed.” The wreckage has been located by air, and first-responders are trying to get to the crash site as we speak,” he said. “The location is difficult to reach by ground, so it is taking longer than we would like. From what we can tell so far, we believe that there is at least one…” He paused and took a deep breath.

I remember thinking, Wow, one of our guys was killed in this crash.

His voice cracked and his chin quivered. He fought back tears as he said the word, “survivor.”

My heart sank. One survivor? I thought. We all looked around the room. We looked at one another. No one knew what to say. As people continued to look around in silence, I realized that we were all doing the same thing. None of us knew exactly who was on that helicopter. We were all trying to figure out who, of our roughly 150-man company was missing.

They were:

John Eichenlaub (24)

Josh Harapko (23)

Shawn Mayersick (22)

Brian Pavolich (25)

Andrew Stevens (20)

Stryder Stoutenburg (18)

Tommy Young (20)

Dimitri Petrov

Edwin Mejia

and the four crew members from the aviation unit;

Christopher E. Britton (27)

Kenneth L. Miller (35)

Barry M. Stephens (20)

Lucas V. Tripp (23)

There were two survivors that day. Edwin and Dimitri survived. Their bodies were badly broken, but they lived. The rest were gone.

In the days that followed there were eleven rifles with bayonets stuck in the ground behind eleven pairs of boots. There were eleven sets of dog tags draped on pistol grips, and there were eleven helmets placed on the butt stocks of rifles. There were eleven flag draped caskets for eleven fallen soldiers. There were tears, and hugs, and salutes, and goodbyes.

In all my years of fighting, I have seen many rifles stuck in the ground, too many, but eleven…eleven rifles side-by-side, for eleven men who died in service to their country. That is something that I can never forget.

Blackhawk Crash

 Eleven Rifles