BUD/S Class: 184
SEAL Service: 10 years
Rank: Petty Officer First Class
Home: Woodland, CA
Assigned: Naval Special Warfare Development Group
Died: March 4, 2002
Operation: Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan)
Roberts was killed in combat during a clandestine insertion, when the MH-47 Chinook helicopter he was readying to exit made a rushed take-off from a 10,000 foot mountain after it was hit machine-gun fire.
The Chinook helicopter was about to set down when machine-gun fire ripped into the fuselage, cutting a hydraulic line. The chopper jerked and swayed as the pilot struggled to regain control. Intelligence for Operation Anaconda had indicated that this particular mountain top landing zone was unoccupied. The ambush opened the curtain on the bloodiest fight in the Afghan war, a battle that unfolded in the frigid mountain region of Gardez, Afghanistan, in the dead of the winter. The pilot managed to gain a little altitude, and then veeredoff. Petty Officer First Class Neil Roberts was standing in the rear by the open exit ramp when the first rounds struck. With the severed line spraying hydraulic fluid everywhere and the chopper jerking this way and that, Roberts lost his balance and fell to the snowy ground below. Roberts collected himself, activated his emergency beacon, and then took stock. His only weapons were a pistol and two hand grenades. Unfortunately his light machine gun had not fallen out of the chopper, too. Three al-Qaeda fighters began moving in. Roberts crawled toward better cover, engaging the terrorists with the pistol and grenades. He soon ran out of ammunition. Nobody knows what happened next. Images broadcast by a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle showed three men dragging him away. A rescue team later recovered his body. Roberts had been shot to death.
On 7 October 2001, the United States had embarked on Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan with the deadliest and most technologically advanced armed force the world had yet seen. No other conventional opponent could match it in combat. From the war’s opening day, Navy and Air Force bombs rained down on Taliban and al Qaeda targets with the highest level of accuracy achieved to that time in military history. The enemy, however, behaved like ants. When the bombs started falling on the anthills, many enemy fighters simply scattered, switched sides, or melted away into the mountains to regroup and fight another day. Although the U.S. arsenal boasted the most sophisticated technology in the world, it couldn’t help Neil Roberts. In the end, he fought alone on a frigid snow-covered mountaintop against enemies he could see and hear yards away. Even in the 21st century, war pits man against nature and man against man.
“Although I sacrificed personal freedom and many other things, I got just as much as I gave,” he wrote his wife in an “open in the event of my death” letter. My time in the Teams was special,” Neil Roberts, 32, wrote. “For all the times I was cold, wet, tired, sore, scared, hungry and angry, I had a blast.”
To his last action, Petty Officer Roberts was true to his SEAL ethos and to the unconditional commitment he made to the Navy when he enlisted. His moment of truth came when he was utterly alone, surrounded by a ruthless enemy deep in hostile territory and undoubtedly knew there was no chance of escape or rescue. Never forget that it is Sailors like Petty Officer Roberts and his shipmates currently engaged in the fight who we are serving.
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