Michael's Dispatches

The Kopp-Etchells Effect

A CH-47 helicopter whirls in with a “sling load” of resupplies from Camp Bastion to FOB Jackson in Sangin.

The pilot comes in fast, to the dark landing zone, lighted only by “Cyalumes,” which Americans call “Chemlights.” The sensitive camera and finely engineered glass make the dark landing zone appear far lighter.  The apparent brightness of the small Cyalumes provides reference.

A show begins as the helicopter descends under its halo.

The charged helicopter descends into its own dust storm.

Gently releasing the sling load.

The pilot hovers away from the load, pivots and begins to land.

The dust storm ripples and flaps over the medical tents.

Heat causes the engines to glow orange.

Dust begins to clear even before landing.  The helicopter, under its own halo, casts a moon shadow.


 

The halo often disappears when the helicopter ramp touches the ground.  Again, the conditions are quite dark, but the excellent camera gear has tiger vision.

The British medical staff treats many wounded Afghans who often show up at the gate.  In the photo above, Dr. Rhiannon Dart (right) observes as an Afghan patient is medically evacuated to the trauma center at Camp Bastion.  The medics and Dr. Dart are especially respected for the risks they equally share here.  The medical staff walks into combat just like the other soldiers—frequently side by side in close combat.  Numerous times per week, their battlefield work, often under intense pressure in hot and filthy conditions, is the deciding factor on whether soldiers or civilians survive or die.  I asked Dr. Dart if Afghan men have any reservations when being treated by a woman.  She answered that when men are seriously wounded—which is about the only time she sees Afghans as patients—they don’t care if she is a man or a woman.  During a mission last week, I saw an Afghan soldier walk by with a bandage on his hand.  Dr. Dart stopped the soldier, asking him to remove the bandage.  Contrary to harboring reservations, the soldier appeared relieved that she wanted—actually sort of politely demanded—to examine his injury.

The ramp lifts in preparation for takeoff and the halo begins to rematerialize before the helicopter lifts into the darkness and disappears.  Soldiers call the medevac flights to Camp Bastion, “Nightingales” or “Nightingale flights.”  Shortly after sunrise on the morning of 13 August, an element from this unit was ambushed nearby, killing three and wounding two others.   Despite the immediate danger, the helicopter came straight onto the battlefield.  After the initial ambush, and another successful ambush during the evacuation, the British soldiers did not return to base but continued with the mission.  Later that evening they were twice ambushed again, sustaining more fatalities as two interpreters were killed.  Soldiers asked me to go on that mission but I was busy assembling this dispatch.  One of the killed soldiers, shortly before the mission, had looked over my shoulder as I selected the photos.   Captain Mark Hale was killed while aiding a wounded soldier.  Mark had particularly liked the next three images:

Night after night, helicopters keep coming.  Last month a civilian resupply helicopter had tried to land at this exact spot but was shot down on final approach.  Two children on the ground and all persons aboard were killed.  The helicopter crews earn much respect.

Sometimes the halos appear like distant galaxies.

In motion, the halos spark, glitter and veritably crackle, but in still photos the halos appear more like intricate orbital bands.

Perhaps like the rings of Saturn.

The halos usually disappear as the rotors change pitch, dust diminishes and the ramp touches the ground.  On some nights, on this very same landing zone, no halos form.

Note: By request of the British Army, a handful of these photos were slightly altered to obscure base security measures.  The alterations are limited to minimal parts of several photos.

On another night, the helicopters return.  The camera is jostled, accidentally creating a double image.

Note: Most photos, such as this one, are unaltered other than normal 'black room' processing.

They keep coming.

What is this halo phenomenon called?  None of the American or British helicopter pilots seemed to have a name for the effect.  They provide only descriptions and circumscriptions.  I asked many people, and finally reached out to Command Sergeant Major Jeff Mellinger (one of my “break glass only if” sources whom I ask when other means have failed).  Jeff asked pilots, and came back with an excellent description from one pilot:

"Basically it is a result of static electricity created by friction as materials of dissimilar material strike against each other. In this case titanium/nickel blades moving through the air and dust. It occurs on the ground as well, but you don't usually see it as much unless the aircraft is landing or taking off. The most common time is when fuel is being pumped. When large tankers are being fueled they must be grounded to prevent static electricity from discharging and creating explosions."

But still no name.  How can the helicopter halos, so majestic and indeed dangerous at times, be devoid of a fitting name?


 

A phenomenon in need of a name.  Mark Hale had liked this image and the next.

I spent two weeks searching for a fitting handle but all attempts came to naught.

The halos are different every night.  Some nights they are intense, other nights dim, but often there are no halos.

There are explosions and fighting every day and night.

Under the moon.

This time exposure shows where the pilot briefly hovered before dropping in.

Our casualties in this war reached an all-time peak in July 2009 and the heaviest fighting was here in Helmand Province.  On 10 July, elsewhere in Helmand, some of America’s finest soldiers were hunting down Taliban.

Members of the U.S. 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment closed space with the enemy, apparently killing at least ten.  Corporal Benjamin Kopp was shot and evacuated to Germany, then back to the United States, where he died just over a week later on 18 July.  Benjamin was 21 years old and at the very tip of the spear.  If not for such men, we would be at the mercy of every demon.

Benjamin Kopp and his comrades were delivering the latest bad news to the sort of people who harbored the terrorists who attack innocent people around the world every day, and who attacked us at home on 9/11.  Ranger Kopp was a veteran with three combat tours.  He knew the risks, yet continued to fight.

Benjamin was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates quietly attended the funeral, as did my good friend, Colonel Erik Kurilla, the new commander of Ranger Regiment, where Kopp served until America lost one of its finest Sons.

Yet the effect of Corporal Kopp did not end on the battlefields of Afghanistan; he only regrouped and continued to serve.  Corporal Kopp had volunteered as an organ donor and his heart was transplanted.  Two days after most people would have died, Benjamin Kopp’s heart was transplanted into Judy Meikle.  According to the Washington Post, Meikle said, "How can you have a better heart?" said a grateful Judy Meikle, 57, of Winnetka, Ill., who is still recovering from the surgery. "I have the heart of a 21-year-old Army Ranger war hero beating in me."

Other organs were also donated for other recipients.

Benjamin Kopp’s case is reminiscent of so many others whose names are and faces will forever remain unfamiliar to most of us.  The Angels Among Us are nearly always invisible to our eyes until it’s too late to say “thank you,” and “farewell.”

On August 11, I attended a small ceremony for a British soldier from this base in Helmand who was killed in combat the day after Benjamin passed.  His name was Joseph Etchells.  I was told how Joseph died in a bomb ambush, and that his last request was to be cremated, loaded into a firework, and launched over the park where he used to play as a kid.  When Joseph’s last request was explained, I burst out laughing and the British soldier who told me also was laughing.  The absurd humor of Joseph’s request was familiar, and it was as though Joseph were standing there with us, laughing away.

Joseph Etchells from 3 Plt, 2 Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was attached to 1 Plt, 2 Rifles

Lieutenant Alan Williamson was “Joey’s” platoon commander here in Sangin.  LT Williams said that the other soldiers called him “Etch,” or Joey, and that Etch was born in 1987.  He joined the army at age 16, though he could not deploy for combat until he was 18.  Etch did a tour in Northern Ireland and three tours in Afghanistan, including 2006 in Now Zad where he endured 107 days of straight combat wherein they fought literally every day.  In 2007 Etch deployed to Kabul and then performed “Public Duty” by guarding the Queen outside the palaces.

Lt Williams said that Etch was a, “Young and very keen Section Commander.  Most Section Commanders like to be a few men back so they can command without being in immediate danger, but “Etch” refused to be that far back, and was always right behind the [“point man.]  He was an outstanding runner.  He left his fiancé behind.  He would have been a very young sergeant.  He was an outstanding, outstanding soldier.”

Joseph Etchells and Benjamin Kopp were both Corporals in different armies.  Both had served three combat tours.  Ben was 21, Etch was 22, and they both fought their last battles in Helmand Province.  The names of these British and American warriors are listed consecutively in a roster chronicling our sacrifices in Afghanistan.

Last month there had been a large service here for Etch, but I witnessed a much smaller service where those closer to him came together to pay final respects.  This service in Sangin occurred on the same day that a final ceremony was being held back in the United Kingdom.  About twenty soldiers attended.  The event was quiet and respectful and I wanted to be back in the United Kingdom to salute the rocket launch as it carried away the payload of Joey’s ashes, and exploded over the park.  Here in Sangin, the bugler played and his buddies tossed their cap feathers into the Helmand River.  The red and white feathers drifted away in the same waters where Etch used to swim after missions, down into the desert.  Here they call it the “Dashti Margo,” the Desert of Death.

And so a fitting name had arrived to describe the halo glow we sometimes see in Helmand Province: Kopp-Etchells Effect, for two veteran warriors who died here in Helmand, Ben on the 18th, Joe on the 19th of July in the year 2009.  It’s not hard to imagine the two Corporals have already linked up and regrouped, and in sense they have.  Knowing combat soldiers, it’s easy to imagine them laughing away at the idea.

The Kopp-Etchells eponym can be seen as a cynosure for the many who have gone before the Corporals, and those who will follow.  I had talked to Captain Mark Hale nearly every day for two weeks.  Mark liked the name.  And then Mark himself was lost on Thursday along with Daniel Wild as they were aiding a wounded Matthew Hatton.  I heard very good things about Daniel Wild.  They say he was a good and tough soldier.  I’d seen Matthew Hatton on the battlefield and felt more confident by his presence.  Hatton was a well-respected man.  As for Mark Hale, I only knew him for two weeks.  Mark will be missed by many people, myself included.

The war goes on and all the fallen soldiers know what we must do.  We must keep moving.  There will be time in the future to pay proper respects, and to reflect upon their honor.  Now is not that time.

While waiting for a helicopter to land, there was activity on the perimeter, and then an unseen hand fired a flare so that we could see who was out there.


Epilogue:

The following men and women sacrificed their lives in Afghanistan since the time that Benjamin Kopp and Joseph Etchells passed on.  I am told that more names will soon be added to the list:

 

8/13/09

Cahir, William J.

Sergeant

40

US

8/13/09

Hale, Mark

Captain

 

UK

8/13/09

Wild, Daniel

Rifleman

19

UK

8/13/09

Hatton, Matthew

Lance Bombardier

23

UK

8/12/09

Tinsley, John

Captain

28

US

8/10/09

Ferrell, Bruce E.

Lance Corporal

21

US

8/10/09

Ambrozinski, Daniel

Captain

32

Poland

8/9/09

Schimmel, Patrick W.

Lance Corporal

21

US

8/8/09

Smith, Tara J.

Staff Sergeant

33

US

8/8/09

Olvera, Javier

Lance Corporal

20

US

8/8/09

Swanson, Matthew K.S.

Specialist

20

US

8/8/09

Williams, Jason

Private

23

UK

8/7/09

Burrow, Dennis J.

Lance Corporal

23

US

8/7/09

Evans Jr., Jerry R.

Sergeant

23

US

8/7/09

Freeman, Matthew C.

Captain

29

US

8/6/09

Adams, Kyle

Private

21

UK

8/6/09

Hopkins, Dale Thomas

Lance Corporal

23

UK

8/6/09

Mulligan, Kevin

Corporal

26

UK

8/6/09

Argentine, James D.

Lance Corporal

22

US

8/6/09

Babine, Travis T.

Lance Corporal

20

US

8/6/09

Rivera, Christian A. Guzman

Corporal

21

US

8/6/09

Hoskins, Jay M.

Sergeant

24

US

8/5/09

Garcia, Anthony C.

Petty Officer 3rd Class

21

US

8/4/09

Lombardi, Anthony

Craftsman

21

UK

8/2/09

Granado III, Alejandro

Sergeant 1st Class

43

US

8/2/09

Summers III, Severin W.

Sergeant 1st Class

43

US

8/2/09

Luce Jr., Ronald G.

Captain

27

US

8/1/09

Walls, Jonathan M.

Corporal

27

US

8/1/09

Fitzgibbon, Patrick S.

Private

19

US

8/1/09

Jones, Richard K.

Private 1st Class

19

US

8/1/09

Allard, Matthieu

Sapper

21

Canada

8/1/09

Bobbitt, Christian

Corporal

23

Canada

8/1/09

Bodin, Anthony

Caporal (corporal)

22

France

7/31/09

Miller, Alexander J.

Specialist

21

US

7/30/09

Posey, Gregory A.

Lance Corporal

22

US

7/30/09

Stroud, Jonathan F.

Lance Corporal

20

US

7/29/09

Vose III, Douglas M.

Chief Warrant Officer

38

US

7/29/09

Smith, Gerrick D.

Sergeant

19

US

7/27/09

Upton, Sean

Warrant Officer Class 2

35

UK

7/27/09

Lawrence, Phillip

Trooper

22

UK

7/25/09

Vincent, Donald W.

Private 1st Class

26

US

7/25/09

Hopson, Craig

Bombardier

24

UK

7/24/09

Coleman, Justin D.

Specialist

21

US

7/24/09

Xiarhos, Nicholas G.

Corporal

21

US

7/24/09

Lasher, Jeremy S.

Lance Corporal

27

US

7/23/09

Charpentier, Andrew Scott

Aviation Electronics Technician Airman

21

US

7/23/09

Lane, Ryan H.

Sergeant

25

US

7/22/09

King, Christopher

Guardian

20

UK

7/22/09

Rimer, Joshua J.

Sergeant

24

US

7/22/09

Neff, Jr., Randy L.J.

Specialist

22

US

7/21/09

Morales, Raymundo P.

Specialist

34

US

7/20/09

Shepherd, Daniel

Captain

28

UK

7/20/09

Owens Jr., Gregory

Sergeant

24

US

7/20/09

Lightfoot, Anthony M.

Specialist

20

US

7/20/09

Roughton, Andrew J.

Specialist

21

US

7/20/09

Pratt, Dennis J.

Private 1st Class

34

US

7/19/09

Etchells, Joseph

Corporal

22

UK

7/18/09

Kopp, Benjamin S.

Corporal

21

US

http://icasualties.org/OEF/Afghanistan.aspx

*Note: some photos were slightly altered to obscure base defenses.

 

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