Published 12:00 AM EDT Sep 26, 2018
WASHINGTON – Seventeen years ago, on Sept. 26, America began to hit back.
Just 15 days after the U.S. mainland was attacked by al-Qaida terrorists on 9/11, a team of seven CIA paramilitary operatives and a three-man flight crew landed in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley to prepare for the assault that would topple the Taliban regime by December.
The CIA liaison team – codenamed JAWBREAKER – flew into Afghanistan on a Russian-made twin-turbine Mil Mi-17 helicopter and began to coordinate with the Northern Alliance rebels who controlled roughly a quarter of the country's territory.
Now, that aircraft, which flew 310 missions in Afghanistan, is being enshrined in the agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, at the CIA Museum – a place agency employees jokingly refer to as "the best museum you'll never see."
Gary Schroen – whose storied career included making the initial contacts with the mujahideen forces fighting the Soviets and running the effort to capture Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s – assembled and led the JAWBREAKER team that would form "the tip of the spear" in the response to 9/11.
It was not a young crew. Schroen was 59 at the time and he estimated that their average age was 48. But they had worked together before and most of them had worked on Afghanistan over the years.
Schroen, author of "First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan," told USA TODAY that the helicopter represents one of the CIA's "best moments" and a "life-changing event" for the members of the team.
"We were really lucky because we were the first Americans to carry the fight back to bin Laden," Schroen remembers thinking as they headed into Afghanistan that day.
Schroen's deputy, Phil Reilly, said he shared that sense of feeling lucky to be a part of the mission.
"There's not a single officer within the organization at that time who wouldn't have eagerly taken my place," said Reilly, a senior paramilitary officer.
"It was nerve-wracking, I have to be honest, because there were so many unknowns," Reilly said of that first mission. "We were going into an unknown area. We were going into an area that was friendly in terms of the Northern Alliance, but we, in fact, had to fly over Taliban-controlled territory."
In addition to having to worry about possibly being shot down and what awaited them when they landed, the team wondered if the Russian helicopter, with a service ceiling of 19,690 feet, could make it over the towering Hindu Kush, mountains that soar to 25,000 feet.
The team picked up an Afghan pilot who knew a route through the Anjuman Pass, where the elevation is still about 14,500 feet, and he was able to safely carry the anxious fliers to their landing zone.
There they were met by 10 members of the Northern Alliance, five of whom Schroen already knew from his more than two decades working with the group's leader, the late Ahmad Massoud, and were greeted as heroes.
Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaida suicide bombers posing as journalists on Sept. 10, 2001, and the Northern Alliance leadership was glad to see the Americans arrive before tribal and personal rivalries split them apart without Massoud to keep them united.
Schroen said it also didn't hurt that they were carrying $2.5 million with them and handed out $350,000 for equipment, including new winter boots, on the first night they arrived.
For nearly a month, the team operated alone in Afghanistan, gathering intelligence, coordinating with American special forces and preparing the Northern Alliance for the coming offensive that would be Operation Enduring Freedom.
"It worked out well, and I don't think much else has worked out as well in any area, since those first months in Afghanistan," Schroen said.
The Mi17 helicopter played a key part in that success.
The Taliban was using many of the same model helicopters. So when the JAWBREAKER team first traveled into Afghanistan, its aircraft was painted a similar color.
But after initial concerns about being shot down by Taliban forces, the team soon had to worry about not being mistaken for the Taliban by American forces. The flight crew repainted the helicopter and added a surprise for the team: on the tail they added the call numbers 91101, in reference to the 9/11 attacks.
When they saw that, the team laughed heartily thinking, "Yeah this is it. Let's stick it to those bastards," Schroen said.
Another member of the team, who was only able to identify himself as "Doc" because he is still active in the agency, remembered some nervous moments on the helicopter, which was built in 1991.
"One of the things that held my attention all the way through was the hydraulic system for the tail rotor leaked," Doc said. "This is the problem with flying a used helicopter. It's kind of like wondering if it's a lemon with a used car."
Doc said that whenever they would land, one of the pilots would stand on a stepladder to refill the hydraulic fluid.
There was also the matter of the fuel, which had long been sitting unused in barrels. The fuel had become filled with debris and had coagulated, forcing the team to resort to straining it through their socks to help filter it.
On one occasion, the pilots announced they had to turn around not long after takeoff because the helicopter's fuel filters had become clogged. The pilots hoped they had enough fuel to make it back as the passengers nervously watched the peaks below.
"We were not a young bunch of guys," Schroen said. And, isolated and alone in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, he said he reminded his team, "We are not here to fight. We are here to open a doorway so the U.S. military can come in."
It is that lesson that CIA Museum Director Robert Byer hopes the helicopter will convey to the agency's younger employees, 70 percent of whom he said have joined the CIA since 9/11.
"When you see a military helicopter, you immediately think of a military operation. But this wasn't a military operation, this was a liaison operation," Byer said.
"We are not a military organization. We're a civilian organization," he said, stressing the men that formed the JAWBREAKER team had "relationships with the Northern Alliance that touched back years."
"They were able to cultivate these relationships and use them and then pave the way for the ground campaign that helped rout the al-Qaida and Taliban forces from most of Afghanistan," he said.
Schroen, Reilly and Doc all shared Byer's hope that having the helicopter on display will inspire the next generation of intelligence officers.
"I would like for the younger people who weren't around then – and there's a lot of them – to look at that and see it is a symbol of what we as an organization can do," Schroen said.
Doc said that having the helicopter become a part of the museum instills him with a sense of pride that "later on, two generations from now, young people inside this organization might feel motivated to risk operations in adverse conditions because of the story of the helicopter and the ordinary, over-the-hill people that actually were in it."
"People will probably come to understand that the team was ordinary officers, just like everyone else here, who are doing ordinary work, in an extraordinary situation," he said.