Operation “Embryo Stage”: Remembering Special Operators Lost in Training
by Wesley Jurena
Author’s Note: I hung this out on a hidden blog I created years after getting out. It was picked up by Gallant Few a few years back so it may be a repeat for some.
It has been said, “to whom much is given, much is expected.” As a member of the 75th, your given everything you could ask for. But in return, you are expected to give all. The tip of the spear can be sharp and cuts both ways, even in training. It’s important to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, lest they be forgotten.
That was the name of the operation that had us Rangers loaded for bear and headed out west.
The weather was much colder in Utah than it was in Savannah at the end of October. As I walked off the back of the C130, the JP4 in the air caused my eyes to water and my nose to burn, a common occurrence in this line of work, a sensation never forgotten and, now, often missed.
Moving towards the hangar the wind blew the sleet sideways and it burned my exposed skin as if I had stuck it in an ant pile.
I was sure the mission would be scrubbed on this day years ago, after all we had a weather day. No airborne operation, the MH53 helicopters had not even been able to make it from their home base to Hill AFB because the weather was so bad. No way this mission is a go, looks like I’ll miss Halloween as we will be here another day. No worry, play some spades in the hanger, maybe screw with the SEALs about their haircuts. Tomorrow we would take down the objective.
Boy was I wrong. The comedy or in this case tragedy of errors that took place over the next few hours seemed to arise from the fact that Colin Powell and the Department of State were on our final target today and would not be there tomorrow. As was the case during most of these operations, there was some real world target somewhere that looked just like the one we were about to blow up and the people who authorize such activity wanted to ensure all the Special Operations elements could play nice together and complete the mission.
That is the kicker. Because the weather was so bad, I expected the weather day, but instead we went with the words that make me want to vomit to this day “minimum force requirements.” Well, what exactly does that mean? And yes, I asked that repeatedly. I also stated how stupid I thought it was once explained. I had a 7-man squad, I was taking myself and two others. We had a 30-man platoon, 10 of us were going. That hardly seems “min force.”
I won’t go into all the detail of what transpired in the hangar, but it was ugly. I was threatened with UCMJ and loaded my cargo pockets with 2 squads worth of C4 to blow roughly a platoon’s worth of doors and headed out with my boys and my good friend Eddie and his boys.
We were assigned to Chalk 4, call sign Merit 84. As we moved through the sleet and rain, still blowing sideways, there was a lone light by where the 4 birds were waiting for us to load up with their rotors turning. The combination of this light and sideways precipitation and the twirling blades made for a very eerie blue effect.
As we got to Merit 84 we were told that there had been a change, go figure, this would make like change 500, I thought my head was going to explode. We would be moved to Merit 83.
14 of us, a mix of Rangers and Air Commandos, loaded that MH60. The load included a mini bike for the Combat Control Team. I have never been on a bird so packed. I snapped my safety line into the D ring on the floor and had to shove people back to get about ¼ of my ass into the bird with my feet out the door. My Ranger Platoon Leader looked at me and said “Sar’nt Jurena this is Hooah!” I said “No sir, this is stupid, this is how people get killed.” I had no idea how prophetic that statement was.
At that moment, out of the same eerie blue haze came SFC Harvey Moore a legend in the community and the Platoon Sergeant of 3rd Platoon. He smiled like he always did, the long scar on the side of his face crinkled, he had his regular dip of Copenhagen in. “You Rangers got any room on this bird’? he asked. “Negative, Sa’rnt , but there is room on Chalk 4, we just got bumped from there,” was my reply. He said “Hooah” and ran off into the darkness. A minute later we had to do a rolling take off as the fuel tanks were full and the men and their equipment put a strain on the birds.
Shortly into the Nap of the Earth flight we were notified that the Little Birds leading us in were turning back, the weather was too bad. Again, Sergeant Jurena wonders to himself,”what about the weather day?” As we flew staggered trail right, I was sitting in the door, closest to the tail, I could see Merit 84 just to my half right.
We were flying faster than I think I have flown before and the dips over the dikes that crisscross the Great Salt Lake reminded me of my days at Astroworld, riding the Cyclone. Only, this time I had a loaded weapon, a bunch of explosives and I was absolutely freezing as it was still sleeting and with the door open there was no hiding from the elements. And then, after what felt like one of the roller coaster drops downward, we pulled up and out to my right I saw a huge fireball.
Our bird dumped us on a causeway and Eddie and I asked him to fly over the crash site, where we could see the flames on the open water. We wanted him to use his vanilla lights and let us jump in and see who was alive. Due to the chaos that took place before take off, no one had a manifest, so we had no idea who was on the bird. The pilots refused and we considered drawing down on them. We had live rounds but they pulled pitch and left us on a causeway in the middle of the Great Salt Lake. It was very quiet other than radios being put into operation as we tried to make comms to figure out what happened.
Eddie had just graduated pre-scuba and thought he and I should start swimming towards the flames. Judging distance, at night, over water is a bitch though. There was no way to tell how far out they were. We got accountability of our men and sensitive items and monitored the radios.
Another tidbit, the real world Search and Rescue bird was supposed to have been Merit 84 but instead it was burning in the distance.
It seemed like an eternity before we saw a red lens flashlight and a cry for help. Eddie and I charged into the freezing water that was the Great Salt Lake and grabbed the raft that was sinking. In it were Ken Turner, Artie McCann and Doc Donovan as well as the lone survivor from that bird. Their pilot had taken them over the crash site, pushed out a raft and let them jump in. Their efforts saved the lone survivor. Somewhere in here we started hearing about who was on the bird and we were devastated.
The SEALs would do the body recovery the next day.
On the same day as we loaded the birds to fly back to Savannah, the sun shone brightly in a crystal blue sky.
“May we remind each other that these men who died doing what they loved best will not fade away. We will remember and we will pray for them forever. These were men who heard the call of freedom, liberty and justice. Men who heard a call to discipline and valor. These were men of the Ranger creed. Rangers Lead The Way”. – Captain Steve Berry – 1/75 Chaplin.
RIP Brothers. Gone but never forgotten.
COL. John Kenellay- 3/75 CDR
LTC. Ken W. Stauss – 1/75 CDR
1SG Harvey Moore – 3 Charlie PSG
SGT Blaine Mishak
SPC Jeremy Bird
Air Commandos – Quiet Professionals
LTC Ronald Pexiotto
CPT Michael Nazionale
TSGT Mark Scholl
SSG Steven. W. Kelly
SGT Phillp Kesler
SGT Mark G. Lee
Senior Airman (SrA) Derek Hughes
I was angry about this for years in fact probably never let it go until I typed this into a blog I never thought anyone would see. I often wondered if I was the only one who was pissed off and as you get older you wonder if your memories are accurate. I felt that maybe not 100% but I was pretty close, I lived it.
I thought that no one remembered, no one cared.
Then out of the blue, someone I did not expect left the following comments on the post:
I was there that night. I was part of the crew of one of the two MH-60Gs that actually made it to Hill AFB from Savannah. Weather had forced us to shut down in Rapid City, SD the night before.
The next day it was decided to send two MH-60gs ahead as weather advon. We hit bad weather approaching the mountains in Utah and relayed back that the remaining birds should stay put. We ducked and dodged our way through the mountains and weather and finally hit Hill.
After we landed I did a quick post-flight of the bird and then when about 100m behind the bird for a “leak check” and smoke. The weather had deteriorated to the point I could no longer see the mountains at all. It was obvious this storm was gonna be a rough one. I shrugged and figured, “Oh well, weather day, it’ll be a fun time at the bar later.”
We then hiked up to the hanger where I met Steve. Ssgt Steven W Kelley was the best friend I ever had and had taken me under his wing when I first arrived to the 55th.
He was also gung-ho for this mission. In the 55th we all absolutely loved working with the Rangers. We loved the camaraderie the Rangers had and the way we all just seemed to “click” when it came to the mission. I don’t know, maybe the Rangers saw it differently, but it always seemed like when it came down to the MICON we had each others back.
Anyway, Steve was decked out with a full-combat load complete with the KYK which he had tucked in his toboggan. When I first saw him I really kinda laughed. Steve liked to carry his GAU-5 with a .203 beneath and it was really kinda comical because really, we weren’t the shooters, but it showed his commitment. He was ready for a fight when supporting the Rangers and it was hard not to get on board. As I said, the camaraderie was awesome. I had no problem with the possibility of dying to support an extract or resupply of those Rangers; we all felt that.
The fact that our fuckup killed so many Rangers is crushing.
For 20 years now: crushing.
Anyway, I grabbed Steve’s excess gear and told him I’d see him back at whatever hotel we would be staying in “because you ain’t going nowhere. We laughed and the crew headed out to the birds.
…I’m gonna stop here. I went back to the the room. Threw Steve’s ruck on one of the beds in the room we were assigned and settled in to study for an upcoming promotion exam. Steve didn’t come back. About midnight I switched on the bedside radio for background noise and a news report relayed details of a helicopter crash. Chills washed over me as I looked at Steve’s gear and thought of his wife Val, and young children. I waited, refusing to leave the room, for Steve to come in and tell about how they helped out on the rescue of some news chopper that went down…or something…anything. Dawn came, no one came in, it became apparent Steve wasn’t coming in and things went to shit for me. For some reason I went full on denial and just stayed in the room knowing what must have happened and denying it at the same time. I went down finally and bought a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, avoiding anyone else from the squadron. Someone eventually came and got me for a “squadron meeting” and dragged me down, drunk. Reality left me, I haven’t…fuck it.
I’m angry, after 20 years, I’m still so fucking angry. What happened that night didn’t have to happen and neither…fuck it.
Like I said, I’m gonna stop. Anything I say now is gonna hurt some people unnecessarily and it will 100% be the fucking truth. No one has ever wanted the truth. No one.
God Bless our Rangers and Airmen. Sgt. Jurena, I love ya bro, probably met you a time or two. God Bless you and take care.
I thought those comments were a great testament to how we all looked out for each other but it let me know that it was okay to be angry as well. Gallant Few would add it to their website and I would also be contacted by Col Stauss’s son who thanked me for telling the story. So, hopefully it helps to keep their memory alive!
This first appeared in The Havok Journal November 11, 2018.