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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. The war in Afghanistan is the first war in U.S. history where no soldiers have been listed missing-in-action. One reason, the military insists on bringing back everyone, and they have the search-and-rescue teams to do it. NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, has this report of a single dangerous mission to recover a fallen soldier.

TOM BOWMAN: It happened just over a year ago. Captain Ed Blanchet and his helicopter crew were sitting down to dinner at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Captain ED BLANCHET (U.S. Air Force, Afghanistan): We were eating at the dining hall when they called us on the radio. And we stopped eating and just ran.

BOWMAN: Ran to their helicopters, specially designed Black Hawks called Pave Hawks. They were loaded up with sophisticated navigation gear, infrared systems that can peer into pitch black night, hoists capable of lifting 600 pounds. Within minutes, they were flying north through the rugged peaks of northeast Afghanistan. Flight reporters capturing the radio chatter.

(Soundbite of radio chatter)

BOWMAN: The two helicopters flew in lights-out to avoid being spotted by the enemy. Two hours later, they arrived at the ravine where American soldiers had clashed with Taliban fighters. The two helicopters circled. Aboard Blanchet's helicopter, Master Sergeant Tom Ringheimer scanned the ground through his night-vision goggles.

Master Sergeant TOM RINGHEIMER (U.S. Air Force, Afghanistan): There wasn't a lot of moonlight, so it was really, really dark. You couldn't see a lot of shadows. It was just a lot of black spots. You just kind of pick the spots in between it.

(Soundbite of radio chatter)

BOWMAN: Hundreds of feet down in the ravine, they spotted a human form on a ledge surrounded by emergency glow sticks. The helicopters dropped off four rescuers high up in the valley. The men rappelled with ropes down to where the soldier lay. Blanchet says they didn't have much time.

Capt. BLANCHET: We wanted to do this before the sun came up, because a hovering helicopter is an easy target during the daytime.

BOWMAN: They could see Taliban campfires not too far away. The soldier had fallen into the ravine after a skirmish with Taliban forces. His unit was ambushed after a meeting with tribal leaders. Then things got complicated for the rescue team. The men on the ledge couldn't climb out of the ravine with the dead soldier. They came to recover one soldier; now, the crew had to pull out the rescuers as well.

Capt. BLANCHET: They were basically trapped. 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 then try to hoist them out.

BOWMAN: The two helicopters worked as a team. Captain Blanchet pulled up. The second helicopter flew into the narrow space. The ravine was shaped like a wedge, and its walls narrowed toward the valley floor. The crew dumped fuel to make the helicopter lighter and easier to maneuver. Master Sergeant James Karmann was a flight engineer on that second helicopter. He said it was like parallel parking; on three sides were sheer rock faces.

Master Sergeant JAMES KARMANN (U.S. Air Force, Afghanistan): We had about 10 feet on the front and the right side and the tail of the aircraft.

BOWMAN: Karmann leaned out the door, trying to position the hoist to lower a litter to the rescuers below. That's when the wind picked up.

Master Sgt. KARMANN: It started pushing the aircraft backwards. And we managed to stop the aircraft just with a matter of inches between our tail rotor and the rocks there.

BOWMAN: The helicopter pulled away. It hovered nearby to provide cover for the second helicopter.

(Soundbite of radio chatter)

BOWMAN: Then it was Captain Blanchet's turn again. The 30-year-old pilot from Florida with six years in the cockpit angled his helicopter toward that wedge of rock. He tried something new.

Capt. BLANCHET: We actually had to turn the helicopter around and back it in. It was the only way to fit it in.

BOWMAN: So, that's how you eventually got to him?

Capt. BLANCHET: Yes, we actually backed the helicopter kind of around the corners of the cliff.

BOWMAN: In that position, the helicopter began to descend lower, between those narrow walls, so the cable could reach the men on the ledge.

Master Sgt. RINGHEIMER: It was a shale. It was really loose shale rock, so their footing was really precarious. So, we had to be really careful not to blow those guys off the rocks.

BOWMAN: Sergeant Ringheimer moved to the other side of the helicopter to help with the cable. That's when he got his first look at the rock wall, 10 feet away. He remembers just one thought crossed his mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Master Sgt. RINGHEIMER: We better not screw up. Otherwise, it'll be a bad day for everybody.

BOWMAN: It took 45 minutes and several attempts, but the crew pulled the rescuers and the dead soldier into the helicopter.

(Soundbite of radio chatter)

Capt. BLANCHET: (Unintelligible) we will be able to extract our entire team with one American hero.

(Soundbite of beep)

BOWMAN: With little time to spare, says Captain Blanchet.

Capt. BLANCHET: We had just enough gas to try to get them out that one last time before the sun came up.

BOWMAN: The troop carefully placed the fallen soldier in the back of the helicopter for the long flight back to Bagram Airbase.

Capt. BLANCHET: During the flight, it's very quiet. During that flight as you start to think, and you really start to identify and relate with that soldier.

BOWMAN: That soldier's name was Sergeant Jeffrey Mersman. He was just 23 years old and on his fourth combat tour. He left behind a wife and four stepchildren. His father, Robert Mersman, says he never heard the full story of the recovery until now.

Mr. ROBERT MERSMAN: I don't know how to say it. I guess words can't describe the thanks I have for them for doing that, for retrieving him.

BOWMAN: On that night, more than a year ago, the helicopter crew returned to that same dining hall where they'd gotten the emergency call six hours before. They ordered meals and ate in silence. Tom Bowman, NPR News.

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