During my enlistment in the Marine Corps I was assigned to the 2nd bn, 8th Marines (WPNS Co.). Eventually my unit was attached to the 24th MEU(SOC), as a TRAP Team. TRAP stands for Tactical Recovery of Aircraft Personnel. The TRAP team was a QRF (quick reaction force) in the event one of our pilots went down behind enemy lines. If we got the call we were inserted to locate, and recover the pilot. Prior to our 6 month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea, we had to complete several field exercises in order to be deemed ‘Special Operations Capable’. During the last field exercise known as Operation Purple Star we were tasked with a night insertion and movement to our objective. Prior to the operation kicking off, we all sat around playing cards, watching movies, and just generally shooting the shit with each other. Little did we know that our ‘training’ exercise would turn into the recovery of our own guys.
Once the operation kicked off my unit was stacked just inside the door leading to the dark flight deck, doing our final weapons and gear checks. Once we had the green light we made our way out to our assigned CH46 helo’s ( 3 in all). To this day I’ll never forget the smell of aviation fuel, the sound of the helo’s on the flight deck spinning up, and the blast of heat as we loaded into the back of the CH46. The plan was to take the three CH46 helo’s towards the coast to the assigned LZ (LZ Bluebird). Prior to us landing in the LZ we had two Cobra Attack Helicopters clear the LZ for us. As we approached the LZ, looking out the small window next to where I was sitting I saw a huge fireball appear in the sky. At that moment our helo banked left at a steep angle. Seconds later the crew chief passed back the hand signal (his fists hitting each other) signalling that there was a mid-air collision (The Cobra and lead CH46 helo had just collided).
Long story short, the training mission was aborted and we were now recovering the bodies of our own brothers (the very same guys we were playing cards with just hours ago). This goes to show you just how dangerous training is, not only for the Marine Corps, but all our military. At times the training can be damn near as dangerous and risky as combat itself. As with my unit and many others who operate within this capacity, the training needs to be fast-paced and as realistic as possible in order to prepare us for the real thing. In order to find out if your gear and tactics are going to work, you need to shake everything out in different training scenarios. To get a glimpse into what the capabilities are of the Marine MEU(SOC) units check out the following video.
During the opening hours of Operation Purple Star at 0200 on 10 May 1996 America lost 14 warriors. They did not die in combat. They died training for when that time would come. They joined thousands of other Americans in all branches of service that have died in peace while preparing for combat. There is no monument to recognize their sacrifice. You won’t ever hear the media mention that terrible night (on the anniversary) because the only ones that remember are the families who were left behind and those of us that were there.
Featured image courtesy of marines.mil