Checky, Marcus, and Albuquerque

All American firefighters know the story of “The Lone Survivor” Marcus Luttrell, part of a four-person SEAL team whose mission “Operation Red Wings” in June 2005 was compromised. This is the story of the fire service’s role in that fateful event. Vastly outnumbered and deep inside enemy territory, those ill-fated SEALs fought with incredible ferocity and distinction and one by one they fell, defending one another, until only Luttrell survived.

Luttrell was saved by stumbling into two Afghan villagers, men who could have ignored this foreigner but who chose rather to honor their tribal code-a code that directed them to support and defend all strangers who came seeking refuge. After getting Luttrell back to their village, the Taliban surrounded the village and demanded Luttrell; the villagers resisted, and a three-day siege began. To rescue Luttrell, Rangers and Green Berets voluntarily went downrange, fighting their way in; the Rangers secured Luttrell. Recognizing that he could never make the climb, combat search and rescue would have to make a dustoff.

This would be one of the most dangerous and high-risk flights in modern military history. Just days before, 16 special operations warfighters were killed when the CH47 helicopter they were in was shot from the sky while attempting to rescue the Red Wings survivors. Everyone involved knew that this flight would be equally as deadly; altitude would be a challenge for the HH60s, so tactics would need to be modified.

Understanding this, the pilots, Spanky Peterson and Skinny Macrander, gave instructions to lighten the birds as much as possible; the PJs (pararescue) voluntarily chose to doff their body armor. The PJs’ job would be to exit the helo, most assuredly under fire; secure Luttrell; and get him aboard. PJ Staff Sgt. Chris Piercecchi and PJ Master Sergeant Josh Appel would be especially exposed to the enemy’s fire. Sgt. Piercecchi’s nickname was Checky; they would be the prime target of every gun surrounding the LZ, the kill zone.

As the helicopter neared ground, Checky and Josh leaped out of the right side. Checky kept moving his gun from left to right and up and down, scanning as he moved from the helicopter. He was looking as hard as he could for any sign of Marcus Luttrell and his rescuers and for hostiles, whom he fully expected to swarm the landing zone. Off in the distance, he could see what looked like two mujahedin. He raised his rifle, his finger over the trigger, and looked a little harder.

He could see two figures hobbling toward them. One of them was carrying a rifle stock, with the barrel pointing toward the ground. For that reason, they held off firing and let the situation develop. When one of the figures, Marcus Luttrell, stumbled and fell, Checky could see a glowing Old Glory patch on an American Ranger uniform directly behind him. After verifying his identity, Checky grabbed Luttrell and his Afghan protector and brought them to the side of the helo. The lone survivor was rescued.

Staff Sgt. Chris Piercecchi was the last man in a chain of heroes who rescued Marcus Luttrell. Checky had been a PJ in the 1990s but retired and joined the Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department, where I was honored to serve with him. After 9/11, Checky couldn’t stand by; he reenlisted in the U.S. Air Force. Today Checky is in his second year of residency for his next career as a cardiothoracic surgeon.

Checky and I continue to be friends today. In a recent conversation, he told me, “You know, Chief, the difference between when I worked for you in the Albuquerque Fire Department and when I was in the military was that I realized the entire time I was in the military that I could be killed at any moment.”

After he said that, I realized that I had failed because you can be killed at any moment in the Albuquerque Fire Department just as assuredly as you can be killed in the military. Checky made me realize that we need to do more to teach our firefighters that every fire we fight is going downrange. The fireground is a kill zone, and all firefighters need to be Green2 (see June 2016 Editor’s Opinion) before they undertake any fireground action. All firefighters need to have all the battle rattle on correctly; they need to maintain it properly and know how to use it.

Our tactics are evolving. Today’s modern fireground is a kill zone, and that kill zone is not just inside the door of the building. That kill zone is wherever toxic smoke can travel, whether it be 10 feet from the door, 20 feet from the door, or 50 feet from the door; that’s going to vary with all kinds of conditions, but that kill zone needs to be identified.

Our battle rattle-that’s our bunker gear. That’s where we put our plates on. That includes our hoods, our gloves, our footwear, and our self-contained breathing apparatus. We need to have all of that on correctly and operating prior to entering a kill zone. To do anything else is to be a liability to the mission. You are not Green2 until you understand what your mission is, have your battle rattle on correctly, and are on air and in communication with your partners.

The minute you go through that front door, you’re in the fatal funnel. You better know where that flow path is, you better have that line charged, and you better be paying attention to everything. You have to know that one wrong move is going to get you killed. The Marines have a great saying: “Make yourself hard to kill.”

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