8 Min read
160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne)
The Soldier and the Citizen
Ides of March
On a lonesome stretch of road north of Nashville, we turned onto a farmer’s path. Strains of Johnny Cash and the honkytonk of Broadway far behind us, Carey said the farmer used to stop soldiers from driving across his fields. It was the secret entrance onto the compound of the 160th SOAR (A) (Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Airborne).
Bill drove the Transit van and John* sat shotgun. John was a student at Fordham University on 9-11; he went to help at ground zero, bagged four bodies, decided to leave college, and enlisted in the Army. Part of the First Special Forces Group, he took the fight to the enemy. He left the service with shrapnel in his body and a weight on his soul.
Bill and Carey had married in college and they would be wedded to the needs of the nation, with Bill flying missions on a moment’s notice. Carey would be left with three boys, her work, and her wits for much of their childhood. When he could call home, I did most of the talking, she said, because he couldn’t say what he was doing or where he was going. Sixty days gone, sixty home. Seventy-five gone, ninety gone. She didn’t know, but the Go-Bag was always ready at the door.
TIME ON TARGET
Aviators and soldiers of the 160th SOAR (A) call themselves Night Stalkers because they fly fast and low under the cover of darkness, giving ground forces the best chance of success and survival. The standard for time on target is arriving plus or minus 30 seconds. When I first read and heard that I did a double-take. Yep.
Plus or minus 30 seconds. A one-minute window because under fire, every second counts.
My family has a history with military aviation. When asked to support the Night Stalkers, I figured there’s a kind of karma going on since a marine chopper rescued my father on the last day of the US mission in Saigon. I wanted to help the 160th, though I wasn’t sure what that would look like. Bill had flown Little Birds and John had fought with the Green Berets. The only thing I had ever flown was a desk.
Amid the roar of helicopters and the smell of jet fuel, I received command and safety briefings on the Ides of March, the15th of the month, an infamous and fatal day in history.* I would be flying with and watching the best Army aviators and gunships on the planet.
With surgical precision, the team executed a live-fire exercise on Range 29, that’s RANGE TWO NINER in Army speak. The forward observer stood on a hill behind us. Black Hawks and Little Bird helicopters flew in, a deafening roar from above, the worst sound I imagine to the foe and the most welcome to the friend.
The Little Birds—Boeing MH-6 attack helicopters–rained mini-gunfire on the targets as Black Hawks approached the buildings. The ground force team fast-roped in and the Black Hawks circled out and were gone. Little Birds continued to lay fire, circling overhead. They approached range targets with noses down, mini guns blasting, and followed with rocket fire. The ground shook with the explosion. BOOM!!
Again and again, rockets on target. BOOM! BOOM! I had taken my ear plugs out after flying the Chinook to the range, some fifteen or twenty minutes into the expanse of nowhere. The aerial exercise was astonishing, the accuracy of timing and firing a lethal sight to behold. Carey–a career member of the Night Stalker family–said she had not seen the likes before.
Troop infiltration and exfiltration were executed with precision, the public affairs officer narrating the script as it played out. The Night Stalkers did what they did, every step and mission with meticulous attention, mastering basics, the tasks they could control, preparing for contingencies. Bill said the pilots used to mark the Little Bird windshield with a grease pencil to line gun fire and rockets on target. Armed with fourteen rockets and mini-guns, the Little Bird was capable of landing on a roof’s edge for troop dismount.
At the aquatics center the guide took us through the training program which simulated aircraft downed over water, replicating gale-force winds and waves. Night Stalkers–strapped into the cockpit of their aircraft, dropped and disoriented under water–learned to execute escape maneuvers. One of the greatest risks to pilot and crew is surviving a crash over-water. Watching the simulation in the dark had me gripping the pool railings to steady myself as the fans blasted and the waves rose over the sides, and the helicopter cockpit was submerged with trainees strapped into their seats.
The historian talked to us afterwards at the Memorial Trail built to remember fallen Night Stalkers. Then the Regiment Commander and Chaplain took us to the unit memorial wall, a black marble replica of an old bunker inscribed with the names of 99 Night Stalkers lost in the line of duty.
The Chaplain spoke about the mission and we toasted to the memory of those who died on this date in history. A formation flew overhead and one Little Bird peeled off in honor of the fallen.
Tina told me about when her husband had to go, and when this was broken, that broken, a flooded floor, things she would not let her children tell him. Because when he had deployed, she wanted him to believe all was well at home, so he would focus on mission success and the unstated—survival.
Heading back to music city on open and slightly rolling terrain, redbud blossoms dotted the roadside and city streets, vouching for spring among naked trees and a cold spell.
At dinner, Charlie spoke with guests about the Night Stalker family. A combat veteran and Licensed Professional Counselor, she had planned to attend the New York City fundraiser to speak about family programs and to celebrate a milestone birthday with her husband. Plans changed. He had gotten the call so she went without him. She talked about her children. Her job. What it’s like to live with someone who disappears on short notice.
THE SOLDIER AND THE CITIZEN
This was my first visit to the unit. Two crew members died in training since I had joined the Night Stalker Foundation and I studied the inscription of Sergeant Tyler Shelton’s name on the black marble wall. He was my daughter’s age when he died. The public affairs representative, Reed, pointed to names and told me the stories.
I asked about suicide. Reed showed me the memorial to all Night Stalkers, which also honored those who had taken their own lives, perhaps struggling beneath a burden too heavy to bear. I’m not sure how veterans set down the weight of war. The atrocities of battle when it comes right down to it means another human face on the other side of the sights. Maybe, that someone believes in what they are fighting for.
I’m not sure about line-of-sight in the moral sense, of what is and what is not a just war. Is such a thing in our sights in the heat of battle, as a leader, as a society? Soldiers should not have to deal with that. But many carry the deeds of combat with them and only they know what that feels like after Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Korea.
Through the lens of history and in hindsight, some argue that the motivations and reasons for war were questionable, unfounded, even plain wrong. Maybe so.
Love and war go hand in hand; they are inseparable. We fight for what we love. And if we don’t fight well, history—as my family experienced—is littered with loss and those who lost it all: their livelihoods, their country, their lives.
I came to Nashville to visit the 160th SOAR (A) and to hear the music. And, because of the American aviator and what was the largest helicopter evacuation in history–Operation Frequent Wind–my family is a living testament to such singular skill and rugged determination.
U.S. aviators brought my father home. And, his love of music has become my love of music. Citizens able to enjoy the music–whatever that music may be–owe the preservation of such liberties to its warriors.
A risk to the nation today is a society divided from its soldiers. When the citizens don’t understand those who would defend them, they no longer comprehend the scope of their service and sacrifice. They do not own the risk or have a personal stake in the country’s defense, willing to engage in ongoing or forever conflicts. What goes on in military households, in training, and in war is well beyond the city and its citizens.
So few carry the burden for so many.
*MyLinh Shattan serves on the innaugural board of the Night Stalker Foundation. This is her first visit to the unit, the 160th SOAR (A).
*John Paluska – read full bio at this link. John was an 18-year old freshman that fatal day, one of the youngest to volunteer in rescue and recovery. He is a founding member of Visionary Leadership Council which “plays a tremendous role in deepening the collective connection to September 11 and ensuring that future generations never forget the lessons or impact of what happened. Our Visionaries are a diverse group from a breadth of backgrounds, including a number who were drawn to serve in the United States military.”
*”Julius Caesar, dictator of Rome, is stabbed to death in the Roman Senate house by 60 conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus on March 15. The day later became infamous as the Ides of March.” The Ides of March, History.com
*”‘The [Little Bird] aircraft provides a unique and highly-capable platform for employing extremely lethal and accurate fires as well as inserting small numbers of special operations forces into a variety of combat environments and special mission situations,’ said Army Maj. Jeffrey Slinker, a public affairs officer at Army Special Operations Aviation Command.” Tadjdeh, Yasmin. “The Future of SOCOM’s Killer Egg.” National Defense Magazine, 4/22/22.
Service in the 160th is a calling only a few will answer for the mission is constantly demanding and hard. And when the impossible has been accomplished the only reward is another mission that no one else will try. As a member of the Night Stalkers I am a tested volunteer seeking only to safeguard the honor and prestige of my country, by serving the elite Special Operations Soldiers of the United States. I pledge to maintain my body, mind and equipment in a constant state of readiness for I am a member of the fastest deployable Task Force in the world, ready to move at a moment’s notice anytime, anywhere, arriving time on target plus or minus 30 seconds.
I guard my unit’s mission with secrecy, for my only true ally is the night and the element of surprise. My manner is that of the Special Operations Quiet Professional, secrecy is a way of life. In battle, I eagerly meet the enemy for I volunteered to be up front where the fighting is hard. I fear no foe’s ability, nor underestimate his will to fight.
The mission and my precious cargo are my concern. I will never surrender. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy, and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.
Gallantly will I show the world and the elite forces I support that a Night Stalker is a specially selected and well trained soldier.
I serve with the memory and pride of those who have gone before me for they loved to fight, fought to win and would rather die than quit.
Night Stalkers Don’t Quit!