The war in Afghanistan is the first in American history in which no soldiers have been listed as missing in action.
One reason for that can be attributed to people like Air Force Capt. Ed Blanchet, who flies a rescue-and-recovery helicopter. One of his recoveries of a fallen soldier took place just over a year ago in a steep ravine, where his helicopter's blades came within feet of a sheer rock face.
"Most of my crew didn't get scared until afterwards, when we realized how close we were," Blanchet says.
The emergency call came just as Blanchet and his helicopter crew were sitting down to dinner at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. "We were eating at the dining hall when they called us on the radio. And we stopped eating and just ran," he says.
They ran to their Pave Hawk, a specially designed Black Hawk helicopter with sophisticated navigation gear, infrared systems that can peer into pitch black, and a hoist capable of lifting 600 pounds.
Blanchet's two Pave Hawks flew for six hours north toward the rugged peaks of Nuristan province. They flew in with all their lights out, to avoid being spotted by the enemy. Master Sgt. Tom Ringheimer was a gunner on Blanchet's helicopter. As they circled, Ringheimer scanned the ground through his night-vision goggles.
"There wasn't a lot of moonlight, so it was really, really dark," Ringheimer says. "You couldn't see a lot of shadows — it was just a lot of black spots. You just had to kind of pick the spots in between it."
When they finally saw chemical lights around a human form on a ledge hundreds of feet below, the helicopters dropped four men off in the valley. The men rappelled with ropes down to where the soldier lay.
Blanchet says they didn't have much time.
"We wanted to do this before the sun came up, because a hovering helicopter is an easy target in the daytime," Blanchet says. They could see Taliban campfires not too far away.
The soldier had fallen down the cliff during a firefight with the Taliban. His unit was ambushed on the way home from a meeting with tribal leaders.
'A Very Intense Night'
Things soon got complicated for the helicopter rescue crew, because the men on the ledge couldn't climb out of the ravine with the dead soldier.
"They were basically trapped," Blanchet says. "They couldn't get back out of there, they couldn't get back up the terrain. So that's when it was necessary for us to have to go in and try to hoist them out."
A second helicopter flew into the narrow space, shaped like a wedge and tapered like a funnel. They dumped gas to make the helicopter lighter and easier to maneuver.
Master Sgt. James Karmann was the flight engineer on the second helicopter. He says it was like parallel parking — rock faces surrounded the helicopter on three sides.
"We had about 10 feet on the front and the right side and the tail of the aircraft," Karmann says.
Just 10 feet from disaster. Karmann leaned out the door, trying to position the hoist to the upturned faces of the rescuers below. That's when the wind picked up.
"It started pushing the aircraft backward. We managed to stop the aircraft just within a matter of inches between our tail rotor and the rocks there," Karmann says. Still, he guided the pilot ever closer to the ledge. "Tried to talk him in as close as I could to the rocks and just couldn't, just couldn't get in there close enough."
Low on gas, the helicopter pulled away. Then Blanchet, a 30-year-old pilot from Florida with six years in the cockpit, angled his Pave Hawk toward that wedge of rock and decided on a new approach.
"We actually backed the helicopter kind of around the corners of the cliff," Blanchet says.
In that position, the helicopter began to descend lower into the funnel, so the cable could reach the men on the ledge.
"It was really loose shale rock, so their footing was really precarious," Ringheimer says. "So we really had to be careful not to blow those guys off the rocks."
Ringheimer moved to the other side of the helicopter to help with the cable. He was stunned when he saw the rock wall looming out the window. A single thought crossed his mind, he says: "We'd better not screw up or it will be a bad day for everybody."
After 45 minutes and several attempts, the crew pulled the rescuers and the soldier into the helicopter, with little time to spare, says Blanchet.
"We had just enough gas to try to get them out that one last time before the sun came up," he says.
Unique Among American Wars
Successful recoveries like this are one reason why Afghanistan is unique in American wars, says Larry Greer, an official with the Pentagon's POW/MIA office.
"Right now — fingers crossed — there are none who are missing in Afghanistan," Greer says.
To put that into perspective, some 1,700 people are still missing in Vietnam, and 78,000 are still missing from World War II. Greer says there's just one missing soldier in Iraq.
It's easier to locate the dead in Afghanistan's desert terrain — there are no triple canopy jungles or forests to shield the fallen, Greer says, and the American helicopter patrol units common in Afghanistan make it more likely everyone will be accounted for.
On that harrowing dawn in Nuristan, Blanchet put the fallen soldier in the back of his helicopter for the long return flight to Bagram Air Base.
"During the flight, it's very quiet. ... You start to think, and you really start to identify and relate with that soldier," Blanchet says.
Appreciation From The Family
That soldier was Sgt. Jeffrey Mersman, just 23 and on his fourth combat tour. He left behind a wife and four stepchildren. His father, Robert, says Jeffrey loved the outdoors and he had always wanted to be in the military, like his grandfather.
"My father would always take him fishing and stuff — wherever he wanted, you know. Always picking him up after school to take him fishing or hunting," Robert Mersman says.
At Bagram, the helicopter crew carefully removed Mersman's body and a mortuary team prepared him to fly home to Kansas.
"I think that they deserve a medal for doing something awesome like that — being able to maneuver a helicopter into somewhere tight like that. ... Words can't describe the thanks I have for them for doing that, for retrieving him," says Mersman, who'd never heard the full story of the recovery before.
The helicopter crew returned to the dining hall, ordered omelets, ate in silence, and then got some sleep, Blanchet recalls.
"And we woke up and we came in and we started kind of looking at the map imagery of where we had been and we started looking at the tapes that were taken off of the helicopter of what we had done before we started realizing like, 'Wow, that was a very intense night,'" he says.
Blanchet says they listened to the intense radio chatter and started poking fun at each other.
"There's a lot of taking jabs at each other just in jest — helps ease the tension and kind of gets the guys talking," he says.