Helicopter Crash In Afghanistan Kills Dozens

A NATO helicopter crashed overnight in Afghanistan, killing more than 30 Americans, mostly from the elite Navy SEALs. The Taliban says it shot down the Chinook copter. Host David Greene gets the latest from NPR's Tom Bowman on what the Pentagon is calling the deadliest incident in the decade-long war.

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

And we're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

A U.S. military helicopter crashed today in eastern Afghanistan, most likely taken down by Taliban fire. It's being called the deadliest incident for U.S. troops in the 10 years since the war began. At least 30 Americans are dead, including about two dozen Navy SEALs. At least seven Afghan soldiers were also killed.

Officials are still trying to sort out whether a rocket or a rocket-propelled grenade brought down the huge Chinook helicopter. It was carrying troops to attack a Taliban compound in Afghanistan's Wardak province.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us. And, Tom, what do we know so far?

TOM BOWMAN: Well the Pentagon is now confirming those numbers, and we just got a release from Kabul, Afghanistan, from the top general there, John Allen, who said, quote, "No words describe the sorrow we feel in the wake of this tragic loss. All of those killed in this operation were true heroes who had already given so much in the defense of freedom."

Now they're not saying anything about what happened. But our sources are telling us again the Taliban shot down this helicopter. And again, as you said, many of those killed were Navy SEALs. And that's, of course, is the Navy's elite commando unit. Now the Navy SEAL Team 6 were the ones who killed Osama bin Laden back in May, but we're being told no one who took part in the bin Laden raid died in today's crash.

GREENE: What kind of mission were they on today?

BOWMAN: Well, in this particular operation, we're told they went out to go after a Taliban compound in Wardak province in eastern Afghanistan. And it was a U.S.-Afghan operation during the night. And, you know, we're seeing a lot of these special operations missions at night so they can sneak up on the Taliban. But these missions are also very controversial.

President Karzai has condemned them because sometimes civilians get caught in the crossfire, or they go to the wrong house. And the other thing is eastern Afghanistan is increasingly becoming the big fight in Afghanistan now that the southern part of the country, Kandahar and Helmand provinces, are becoming more pacified. We're seeing a lot more fighting in the east.

GREENE: What are these Chinook helicopters like? And is it pretty common to see the U.S. military using them in these missions?

BOWMAN: Oh, yeah.

GREENE: And is it common to have so many people on board? I mean, three dozen people.

BOWMAN: Oh, it is. I've ridden in many Chinook helicopters myself. It's basically a flying bus. It has two huge rotors. You can put several dozen people aboard these helicopters sitting against the walls on either side with a huge amount of equipment. And they're really used quite a bit in the special operations missions in particular so they can get a lot of people on board, a lot of equipment.

And in Afghanistan, they really rely a lot on helicopters because the road structure is so primitive. Many dirt roads and gravel roads, very few paved roads. If you want to get anywhere fast, you're taking a helicopter.

GREENE: You know those gravel roads very well. You spent a lot of time reporting in Afghanistan I know over the summer. And one thing I remember about your reporting is sort of talking about the morale among U.S. troops. That right now hearing some people start to question the mission, what they're doing there. I mean, what is an incident like this, how does it play in the minds of people fighting there?

BOWMAN: Well, I think, particularly among the SEAL community, this is going to be really hard. But these are very, very tough people. And as Admiral Mullen said today, we're going to mourn them, but we're going to continue the fight as well. And I think you'll see a lot in the SEAL community saying that very same thing.

But it's funny, when you go to Afghanistan, you go to some areas already getting a little bit better. The morale tends to be better. But if you go to other areas where there's still a tough fight, morale tends to be down quite a bit. And also, I've seen with people who are in multiple tours over to Afghanistan where they don't see much progress sometimes. Those are the kind of guys who basically say, I'm not sure what I'm achieving here, maybe it's just time to go home.

GREENE: That's the voice of NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks for joining us, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, David.

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