In early August, 2011 Mary Ann Strange heard a sound she would never forget and could never describe. She pulled into her driveway, parked the car and ran into her home. It was there she saw her 6 foot plus husband, Charlie Strange, on his knees. The sound of Charlie’s wailing could not be contained in their middle-class Philadelphia home but tore through the Autumn wind as he came to terms with the death of his son.
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WATCH: Reporter Sara Carter talks with the families of the victims of Extortion 17.
It’s still a nightmare. I buried my father, I buried my cousin, I buried good friends – Not even in the same circle as burying a child.Charlie Strange, father of Michael Strange
Before Mary Ann arrived home, Charlie Strange had just been told by the military that his child, Michael, a Cryptologic Technician and Petty Officer (Collection) First Class assigned to SEAL Team 6, had just been killed in Afghanistan.
Michael, was one of 30 American special operators and military personnel on a Chinook helicopter -code named Extortion 17 – that died after a Taliban fighter shot them down with a Rocket Propelled Grenade. The event is considered the worst single incident since the start of the Afghanistan war. Seven Afghan Special forces, an interpreter and a military dog named Bart were also on the helicopter.
Petty Officer First Class, Michael Strange
“It’s still a nightmare,” said Charlie Strange. “I buried my father, I buried my cousin, I buried good friends – Not even in the same circle as burying a child.”
On Tuesday, decorated Air Force Captain Joni Marquez broke her silence with Circa about the night Extortion 17 was ambushed. She said the government lied to the families, adding the troops on board Extortion 17 were in eminent danger when her AC-130 gunship was denied permission to engage two enemy fighters, who escaped from an earlier air assault by Apache helicopters protecting U.S. Army Rangers.
Marquez said she and her crew were following the two men all night and they had not disappeared into a “grove of trees” as the military report had claimed. She said the men knocked on doors and regrouped with more fighters. Further, she said warnings from her crew to turn back Extortion 17 were ignored.
She hopes the truth can bring the families some peace. Three years ago Marquez reached out to Billy and Karen Vaughn, whose son Aaron Vaughn, a Navy Seal and father of two young children was killed on the Chinook helicopter that night.
Navy SEAL Aaron Vaughn
“I think she’s one of the bravest women I’ve ever known in my life,” said Karen, who spoke with Circa from her home in Florida. They agreed to keep Marquez’s secret until she was ready to come forward and put their faith in God.
Karen recalls the moment Marquez decided to come forward. “She said ‘I’ve talked to my father and I’ve talked to my therapist, and I finally decided that I would rather spend the rest of my life in Leavenworth than keep holding onto these secrets. I know about what happened that night.”
“When it comes to any sort of loss of life, I think that you have to do the most in order to remember those men, and for me, what happened that night that is just something that I will never forget,” said Marquez, who wants the government to reopen the investigation.
Marquez says overly restrictive rules on how to engage the enemy tied the hands of her crew and prevented them from eliminating the threat on the ground.
During the Obama administration the rules of engagement changed four times in Afghanistan becoming more and more restrictive and putting troops lives at risk, according to Jeffery Addicott, who served 20 years as a Special Forces lawyer and now defends troops against rules of engagement charges.
Ret. Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey F. Addicot, S.J.D., (pictured right)
“In Afghanistan, we had Rules of Engagement that became more restrictive the longer we stayed. Right now the Rules of Engagement are absolutely bizarre,” said Addicott. “Because the say, you can not shoot an enemy combatant unless you have a positive identification. Well how do you get a positive identification when no one wears a uniform? And secondly you can only shoot them if they are shooting at you.”
For some of the surviving families the past six years have been a grueling quest for the truth against a military bureaucratic machine.
Doug Hamburger, whose Army Air Crew son, Patrick, was killed on the mission, said Marquez’s testimony was “something we had not heard before and it wasn’t all surprising.” Hamburger said the official report said there were “no ‘eyes in the sky.’. for some reason the drone was out, the satellite wasn’t there, the AC-130 was looking at the landing site instead of what was going on with the Chinook.”
Staff Sargent Patrick Hamburger
“We’ve talked a lot about different lies, but some of the biggest lies we’ve been given have been by omission,” said Hamburger. He also recalled how his son, Patrick, would try to reassure him by explaining that the military had multiple protocols to ensure that flight crews taking troops to and from battlefields were safe.
“Pat wold come back and would always talk about how important safety was, that no matter what mission they went on, that the number one importance was for their fellow soldiers and to make sure everybody got back okay,” Hamburger added.
For the families of Extortion 17 the answers do little to fill the hole left in their hearts, they said. They insist that with the truth, they’ll be able to prevent other families from going through the pain they have experienced over the past six years. And they want the new Trump administration to review and change the rules of engagement that prevented Marquez’s crew from intervening in the fight.
“We need Mr. Trump to stand up for us,” said Charlie Strange. “Come talk to us and change the rules of engagement for our men and women in the military.”
Charlie summed it up for all the families as he recalled the death of his son and the fight for the truth saying, “It’s a nightmare that never stops.”
Follow Sara A. Carter on Twitter @SaraCarterDC