By CNN's Adam Levine
The circumstances surrounding the shooting down of the Chinook are still murky but what is known is that it ended with the deadliest day yet for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The death toll by Saturday evening was at 30, including more than two dozen special operations forces.
The troops were en route to help another unit pinned down by enemy fire in eastern Afghanistan, and the belief is that it was enemy fire that took down the Chinook that carried the elite forces, according to sources.
Of the special operations forces killed, 22 were Navy SEALs. Many were fellow forces of the elite team that took down Osama bin Laden. As much as bin Laden's killing was a high point for the covert troops, Saturday's devastation is yet another painful chapter in the lives lost by U.S. and NATO forces over the last 10 years.
Working below the radar, special forces are a key part of the U.S. mission with scant attention or publicity. Special Operations run about a dozen missions a night in Afghanistan, according to Eric Olson, Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, making
rare public comments at an event last month.
"Every night, dozens of times," Olson told an audience at a national security conference in July. The missions are often to go after what are known as high-value targets.
"Ground forces getting on helicopter and flying against a target," Olson said. "This has become habit."
Questions will arise as to why the troops were on board a single Chinook, the graceless workhorse of a troop carrier, and not a more specialized helicopter like the noise-dampening, stealth-capable one now known to have been used in the raid on bin Laden's compound.
But the details of the mission provide some of that answer. This was not, according to sources, a raid but a response to help fellow troops pinned down. In that case, the Chinook is often the transport of choice.
"It goes about 175 miles an hour, can hold up to 55 troops. It's a workhorse," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, retired, told CNN on Saturday. "If you have a mission that requires a large number of forces to get on the ground quickly to prosecute the mission, for that type of environment, probably nothing is better."
The bin Laden raid itself was the apex of a force rebuilt after a failure to rescue hostages being held in Iran, or as Olson said last month, "a failed attempt by this nation to put a ground force on helicopter and fly them into a hostile environment."
His description was not so different from Saturday's catastrophic mission, whose impact will raise many questions as to the speed with which the U.S. is looking to draw down its troops from Afghanistan.