The loss of helicopter Extortion 17 hits close to home


by Libby James
North Forty News

The Final Mission of Extortion 17, Fort Collins author and photographer Ed Darack’s recently published book, investigates a tragic event that will go down in history as the deadliest day ever during the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. The local author’s carefully documented tale, published by Smithsonian Books, brings the harsh reality of America’s longest lasting war close to home, especially for residents of Northern Colorado.

Dave Carter’s headstone in Grandview Cemetery, Fort Collins

Among the towering now leafless trees in Grandview Cemetery, at the west end of Mountain Avenue in Fort Collins, lie the remains of pilot David R. Carter, who lost his life in the line of duty in Afghanistan. On the morning of August 6, 2011, his Chinook helicopter, Extortion 17, went down carrying 37 others, including the members of Navy SEAL Team Six, eight highly vetted Afghanis and a military-trained dog.

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The helicopter was fired upon from the ground by a rocket-propelled grenade. It broke into a ball of fire moments before it was to deliver a team of Navy SEALs, the core of an immediate reaction force, on a mission to bolster Army Rangers already on the ground in the Tangi Valley. Everyone aboard the Chinook suffered such blunt force trauma that they died instantly. In the weeks and months that followed, only a short time after a team of SEALs had raided Osama Bin Laden’s hideout resulting in his death, rumors flew and conspiracy theories began to emerge.

Darack, a veteran of numerous trips to Iraq and Afghanistan where he was embedded with infantry and aviation units at the front lines, set out to tell the story straight. He conducted interviews with military personnel close to the event and with friends, colleagues and family members of the victims. His book chronicles in painstaking detail the people, events and circumstances surrounding the tragedy.

In the “Wooden Wings” chapter, Darack documents Dave Carter’s early love of flying. It began with his attempts to become airborne at age 10 by jumping off the roof of an outbuilding on the Nebraska farm where he grew up, the second of three brothers. He was confident that the wings he’d built for himself from scraps of lumber would allow him to fly. “If the birds can do it, then I can,” his mother Elsie Carter, remembers him saying. He never lost that love of flying. After graduation from flying school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, in 1988, he and his wife Laura moved to Fort Collins. There he joined the Colorado Army National Guard where he flew attack helicopters and later Chinooks.

His daughter Kaitlen remembers her dad touching his plane down onto a field near her elementary school in Fort Collins to show the kids what a helicopter looked like up close. “He was born to fly,” Kaitlen said, explaining that her dad taught her and her brother Kyle how to identify aircraft by sight and sound. Kyle Carter is now a pilot.

Dave went on to become an instructor at the High Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site near Vail in the Colorado mountains. In August 2006, he deployed with the Army National Guard to Iraq where he spent a year flying frequent missions and taking enemy fire six times. He downplayed the dangers he faced and did not share his close calls with his family. Kaitlen remembers the time he was in Iraq because it was then that the father and daughter started a book club to read Rick Warren’s A Purpose Driven Life. After reading a chapter, they would exchange ideas about it together via Skype.

In July 2011, with more than 4,000 flying hours to his credit, Dave deployed to Afghanistan to join Extortion Company, a Chinook helicopter unit. His wife and daughter sensed a change in his usually positive outlook when they visited him at Fort Hood before his deployment. He promised to take a leave of absence in the spring in order to attend Kaitlen’s high school graduation.

But that was not to happen. Dave Carter had just turned 47 when his life ended in the middle of a moonless night over enemy territory, many miles from home. His family and friends understood that he died doing what he loved best, a knowledge that provided some small comfort in their loss.

In addition to clearing the air and telling an authentic, documented story, The Final Mission of Extortion 17 honors each of the men who lost their lives on that fatal night.

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