The ascending bird-copter flew away leaving the area in silence. Pieces of shrapnel no bigger than a cellphone littered the ground. Chunks of meat lay at every step. It was not just meat, it was human flesh. Joseph Wheaton and his fellow Rangers carefully trekked through the ruins trying to locate any survivors or remains. Wheaton had been searching for ten minutes, with no luck of finding anything, but then he saw something. “It didn’t seem real. It seemed like a mannequin from a clothing store,” Wheaton said. One of the pilots sat dead, still strapped into the seat.
It was the Spring of 2002 and Wheaton was 20 years old. He was a Ranger for the U.S. military stationed in Afghanistan just before the Iraq War. Wheaton was a part of the Quick Reaction Force where if something happened he said, “we are ready to go at a moment’s notice.” One night they got a call that a medical helicopter flew to an Afghanistan City to help a little girl and had tragically crashed. The Rangers were called to go recover the remains, destroy any military equipment before it fell to enemy hands and bring back any bodies. They had also been informed that the Taliban was moving in on the crash site and they needed to beat them there.
Wheaton said, “You’re in the open-air helicopter and everything is cold as ice”. The tension was high during the 45-minute flight. A mini-gun went off, increasing the adrenaline of the Rangers, but it was just a test shot. They were unsure if they would land in the middle of a gun fight. Once they landed, they ran out the back of the helicopter ready for battle. Luckily, there was no enemy to be found in sight. Only the carnage from the tragic accident.
The Rangers now had to recover what they could and destroy what they had to. Wheaton had to get the body out of the pilot seat. It was the first dead US solider he had ever seen. Wheaton said, “I can still see the face 16 years later.” They cut the seatbelt and lifted her body on a stretcher. “It felt liquified,” Wheaton said, “The only thing holding her body together was the flight suit.” He carried her body to the helicopter. He was a strong young man, but it was very difficult carrying her body up the hill. Wheaton said, “For whatever reason, I think dead bodies weigh like three times more than normal bodies, so it just felt like the heaviest thing in the world.”
They had to repeat this process and they stacked the fallen soldiers’ bodies in slots in the bird-copter. “We’re all kind of cramped on the floor, of course it was cramped on the way out and now we’ve got 11 bodies with us,” Wheaton said. The helicopter took off and Wheaton said, “All this blood pooled underneath me.” He put his hand down on the ground to push himself up and blood soaked through his glove. Wheaton said he was, “just soaking in all the blood from the bodies.” Wheaton felt immense guilt. “I was kind of ashamed of what I was thinking at the time,” Wheaton said. Here he was worrying about getting blood all over him, yet these soldiers had just given their lives in support of the US mission in Afghanistan.
When they got back they were getting cleaned up. Wheaton looked at his boots, he said, “It looked like hamburger, just like little chunks of meat stuck in my boots,” and that about ends that day.
Wheaton said, “What made this even crazier… the parents of the female solider that I found, go to church with my mom.” “I don’t know how these connections were made, it’s not like I knew her name, I didn’t recognize her, I didn’t know her,” he said. The couple was talking at church about how their daughter was in Afghanistan and the helicopter crashed. Wheaton’s mom was at the church service and heard them and told them her son was on the mission. The couple wanted to talk to Wheaton, but he said, “I just couldn’t bring myself to talk to them…I just didn’t think I had answers to any questions I thought that they would ask.” “I didn’t think I could bring them any kind of comfort whatsoever…I was so uneasy about talking to these parents who had just lost their child,” he said. He let himself down because he was thinking about himself. He felt pretty ashamed.
Wheaton said he learned valuable life lessons from this experience. Wheaton said, “I am at a point in my life where I have seen so many bad things.” He said about this experience, “it forced me to grow up in the sense of putting others before myself.” He explained that he has always been service minded, but he has really strived to serve and take care of others since this experience. Wheaton said, “I need to make sure that I am at a point where I need to make sure others are taken care of and as comfortable as they can be.” “To really put others before yourself, having made those decisions and lived through that regret, it definitely makes me aware that… I don’t want to repeat the same mistakes,” Wheaton said.