FLASHBACK: CH-47 Crash Claims the Lives of 10

On May 5th 2006, 10 Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division were killed when the CH-47 Chinook they were riding in crashed in the mountains near Abad, Afghanistan. LTC Joe Fenty was one of those men. 

LTC Fenty was a remarkable leader who made a huge impression on me the very first time I met him. Now, anyone who's ever been associated with the military right now, is probably thinking good or bad of course he made an impression on you, he was your commander. Well let me give you a little back story as to why my statement couldn't be more true.

"Climb to Glory" 

In July 2005, barely 5 months after my discharge from the Army, I found myself continuing to have difficulty (to say the least)  reintegrating back into the the civilian world. I had just remarried after finalizing a divorce 6 months earlier (hindsight's a MF, I know). I couldn't hold on to a job and I couldn't pay my bills. My new wife was also pregnant with "our" first child. There were also some PTSD issues that haunted me from the previous year when I was in Iraq. I didn't know how to deal with that and not knowing where to turn, and not one to outright ask for help, I decided I needed to go back to where I knew someone would always have my back. I ended up contacting an old buddy of mine who was currently on recruiting duty in Las Vegas. One thing led to another, and by early October 2005, I found myself assigned to D FSC., 3-71 Cavalry at Fort Drum, NY. I was far from home (WA), surrounded by complete strangers, but at the same time I felt something I hadn't felt almost a year; a sense of belonging.  I was around people that understood where I was coming from (more on that later). When I got to my unit I was told to not unpack my bags. The unit had just finished its training cycle and we were all slated to deploy to Afghanistan sometime in February.

FNG and a Chance Meeting

Even though I was a Sergeant at the time, being the "FNG" of the unit I expected to get put on all of the crap details that no one else wanted; especially since the unit just came out of the field. Well my expectations weren't let down. This was my first week there and much to my chagrin, I was put on duty at Squadron HQ as the Staff Duty Non-Commissioned Officer (SDNCO). For those who aren't familiar with what staff duty is, it's a 24 hour shift that's combination of being an administrative assistant/courier by day, and security detail by night.

Since I had only being there a few short days, I didn't know where anything was on post and I knew absolutely no one there; VIP or otherwise. I didn't know who any of the staff officers were at squadron. And hell, I could hardly remember the names of my CO and First Sergeant at that point. So, as you can imagine it was a pretty stressful situation to be in. With the help of my assistants I was able to limp my way through the day okay. It was getting close to evening and a lot of the soldiers and staff officers started heading home. It was starting to get a little quieter around the duty desk to, thankfully. I knew the Sergeant Major and Commander would be leaving soon, so just like I had been doing all day, I continued to study the pictures of the chain of command on the wall. That way I wouldn't be caught off guard when they came by my desk in the near future.

When LTC Fenty finally came by my desk he looked at me quizzically while saying he was going to be leaving for the day. As he was getting ready to turn away he paused for a moment and looked at me and asked, "Are you new to the Squadron?" I said that I was, while trying to decide if I should continue to stand at attention or go to parade-rest, he told me to relax. He began to ask me about a dozen other questions about my previous assignments, where I grew up, and my family. He was sincere in his questions and showed that he actually cared what it was that I said during whole conversation. In my entire career before hand, and since, I had never seen a commander at his level act that way towards a much lower subordinate. He immediately earned my utmost respect. At the end of the conversation he welcomed me to the unit and turned and headed for the door. "Squadron, Uh-Ten- Shun!!!", I yelled. "Carry-on. Have a good night", he replied and quickly disappeared through the door. I stood there with a grin on my face for a few minutes. It was nice to know that I had someone like him as a commander. That was the first and last time I ever spoke to him, but not the last time he made an impression on me. 

Fast forward now a few months... 

It's early February 2006 and the unit is all ramped up and ready to head across the pond. By this time all of our equipment was in transit and were just counting down the days when it would be our turn. My wife was very much pregnant by this point and was about 5 or 6 weeks from her due date. My platoon sergeant pulled me aside one afternoon and told me that I wouldn't be deploying with the unit right away; all because of a new brigade policy. The policy said that if your spouse was having a baby and she was due within the first 3 months of deployment that you would stay home to see the baby born and then deploy afterwards. I had mixed feelings about this. On one hand I was glad that I was going to be there to see my daughter born and support my wife, but on the other hand I was sending my very "green" soldiers into combat zone without me. For that I felt very guilty. I also felt ashamed that I was now being lumped in with the rest of the lot that were seen as trying to dodge a deployment. When nothing could be further from the truth. Ask anyone there that was on Rear Detachment with. I couldn't get out of the place fast enough. 

Welcome to Rear Detachment

Being on Rear Detachment was one of the most mundane things I've ever done. And each day I was there I wanted to deploy even more. I managed to break the monotony by volunteering for details and helping with every possible task that ever came up. My daughter was born on March 27th and then the day came... I got a phone call saying there would be a mandatory unit/Family Readiness Group (FRG) meeting later that day. 

The Briefing

We all piled into the chapel and made found places to sit in the pews that formed a half "U" shape towards the alter. Sitting there were the husbands and wives and significant others of those deployed and the soldiers assigned to Rear Detachment with their families. There was a heavy air hanging over the group as people spoke in hushed tones; somehow knowing that the reason they were brought there was to be told something awful. The leaders of the Rear Detachment milled around up front and spoke quietly to each other as if they were trying to sum up the courage to break the news. Eventually CPT Goetz, the Detachment Commander, came up to the podium and cleared his throat. He began speaking slowly and purposefully and talked about a recent operation the unit was doing in Afghanistan. There was a slight pause and he announced that a CH-47 Chinook that was supporting one of our unit movements had crashed during the mission. He explained that it was in the process of doing a touch and go style unload where only the tailgate touches down and it appeared that a rotor blade hit a nearby tree causing the helicopter to fall down the mountainside. He let that sink in for a second and told the group that 10 soldiers had died, 4 of them from our squadron alone. By this point the tears were beginning to well up as summoned the courage to list the names of those killed from our unit... 

Pausing between each name he read, "Pfc. Brian M. Moquin, Jr....Spc. Justin L. O'Donohoe...Spc. David N. Timmons Jr....", and then paused for an extended moment. It took CPT Goetz a minute to fight back the tears and maintain his composure before saying through a cracking voice, "...Lt. Col. Joseph J. Fenty, Jr."

Everyone was tight lipped for the most part up until that point. There was a large involuntary gasp that came from the crowd when his name was spoken; almost as if someone broke the seal on an airtight container. I felt like I had just got punched in the stomach and the tears welled up in my eyes. As looked around, it seemed we all had that same reaction. Just weeks before that, and shortly after my own daughter was born, LTC Fenty's wife Kristen, gave birth to their first child, Lauren. When his soldiers stayed behind to be with their newborns, he went forward with his troops because that's where he felt he needed to be. At the time of his death he had not yet made it home to meet Lauren. At just 28 days old, she would become a gold star child and would grow up knowing her daddy only through the memories of others. 

LTC Fenty, was a highly regarded and respected leader and his death sent shock waves through the Army community. He constantly and consistently put the needs of his troops before his own and was truly a one of a kind leader; admired, respected, and beloved by those around him. His sacrifice will continue to make a difference for years to come as I will tell my children about how the briefest of encounters can have a lasting impression on the lives around them and I know others will do the same. For that I am eternally thankful.

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