A Marine carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Lt. Col.… (Ann Heisenfelt/AP )
Lt. Col. Christopher K. Raible was heading home to video-chat with his wife after dinner when the first blasts rang out. The pops in the distance on Sept. 14 at Camp Bastion in southern Afghanistan were harbingers of the most audacious Taliban attack on a major NATO base in the decade-long war.
Like most folks in the sprawling remote desert camp, Raible, 40, a Marine fighter pilot, faced two choices: seek cover or run toward the sound of gunfire.
“The difference between me and some people is that when they hear gunfire, they run. When I hear gunfire, I run to it,” the squadron commander had often told his Marines, half in jest, recalled Maj. Greer Chambless, who was with Raible on the night of the attack.
That evening, Raible did just that. Armed only with a handgun, he embarked on a course that cost him his life and probably averted even more devastating losses, witnesses and comrades said.
At least 15 heavily armed insurgents dressed in U.S. Army uniforms snuck inside the British-run airfield and incinerated six U.S. fighter jets, each worth about $25 million. The attack offered a sobering glimpse of the capabilities of the Taliban in Helmand province, one of the key targets of the American troop surge that ended this past week. It resulted in a staggering loss of military materiel and served as a reminder of the challenges of winding down the war by the end of 2014.
By daybreak the next morning, as smoke stopped billowing from the airfield and weary commanders gave the all-clear to U.S. Marines and British Special Forces troops who spent the night defending the camp, it wasn’t the threats raised by the infiltration on the minds of many people on the base. Rather, they were primarily struck by the actions of a tough and widely admired commander who returned home in a coffin.
This account of the attack on Camp Bastion and the response is drawn from interviews with four witnesses and a summary of the preliminary investigation by the Marine Corps.
The assailants, assembled into three teams of five fighters, cut a hole in the fence on the eastern end of the airfield at approximately 10:15 p.m. Wearing suicide vests and armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, they moved toward hangars where AV-8B Harrier jets were parked and began to open fire.
“We saw a rocket shoot into the sky,” said Lance Cpl. Danielle Ritter, 21, a combat logistics Marine who was unloading cargo from a truck when the assault began. “At first I thought it was a flare. Then we heard small-arms fire.”
In the distance, she saw the silhouettes of the gunmen.
“I didn’t realize who they were until another rocket lit up the sky,” she said, speaking on the phone from Afghanistan. “We just saw the sky light up and rockets go across the sky.”
The insurgents destroyed six Harriers, the type of aircraft Raible flew to provide backup for Marines on the ground, and significantly damaged two others. Three fueling stations were also lit up.
About a mile away, Raible had just finished dinner with Chambless, one of his deputies. It had been a long but unremarkable day for the squadron commander. Hours earlier, Raible had flown with one of his officers, Capt. Kevin Smalley, 29. After landing, he went into the office to discuss the mission and take care of paperwork. Shortly after 10 p.m., as he did most nights, Raible headed to his living quarters to call his wife and three children in Yuma, Ariz.
“He spent a lot of time on the phone, as much as he could spare calling his wife and kids,” Smalley said. “One of his favorite parts of the day was being able to talk to them and see their faces.”
When it became clear Bastion was under attack, Raible threw on body armor and jumped in a vehicle with Chambless. Because his rifle was not nearby, the commander charged into the combat zone armed only with a handgun. The two men exchanged nary a word during the short drive as they scanned the landscape for insurgents. When they got to the flight line, Raible dashed into a maintenance room and began barking out orders to the Marines who would soon push the assailants back.
Backed by a handful of men, he ran toward another building to check whether the troops there were safe. Along the way, Raible and his men were attacked. He and Sgt. Bradley W. Atwell, 27, of Kokomo, Ind., died of wounds from an explosion, said Lt. Col. Stewart Upton, a military spokesman. Chambless was devastated but not particularly surprised.
“It was very fitting that he was killed leading his men from the front,” the major said.
The men Raible led out of the maintenance building fought back, pushing one team of five assailants into a remote area of the airfield, where they were killed in an airstrike.
A Taliban statement said the intended purpose of the raid was to catch the foreign troops by surprise and attack them in bed.
Upton said Raible and his men helped prevent what could have been catastrophic losses. Nine of the remaining assailants were killed in the following hours, and one was wounded.
“The feeling is that because of the aggressive counter we were able to contain them,” Upton said.
The week since the attack has been rough for the squadron’s Marines at Bastion as they have come to terms with the loss of their leader and most of the aircraft in the fleet.
“It’s been a busy week picking up the pieces,” said Smalley, the captain. “We’re focusing back on the mission at hand, getting Marines refocused on the fight. We have already resumed combat operations. We’re going to show the Taliban their little attack is not going to stop us.”