President Barack Obama’s decision to send Navy SEALs in Army helicopters to kill Osama bin Laden is being hailed as a huge military success. No American service members died in the operation, and the country’s chief enemy in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks is dead.
The May 1 mission into bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan could owe much of its success to
the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Fort Campbell. It provided the pilots who flew the SEALs in the nighttime mission.
The unit is relatively young, and it owes its existence to another Middle Eastern military operation — one that cost the lives of eight service members.
On April 24, 1980, President Jimmy Carter authorized an operation involving eight helicopters that would fly into Iran and attempt to rescue 52 Americans being held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Two of the helicopters had to abort the mission in its earliest stages. Two others eventually crashed and killed the service members.
The Americans remained hostages, and the United States’ military reputation took a serious blow. Carter’s bid for re-election also took a hit.
Within months, according to military historians who trace the beginnings of the 160th, Carter began planning a second rescue attempt before he left office in 1980.
Task Force 158 was created and began training in desert regions of the United States. A secretive Army unit that was not publicly recognized, its pilots pioneered the use of night-vision goggles.
Dave Bramel, who was one of the first members to train with Task Force 158, told the New Era in a 2002 interview that members of the unit began to understand in late 1980 that their first big mission would be decided by the outcome of the presidential election.
They believed that Iran would release the hostages if Ronald Reagan became president. But if Carter won re-election, they speculated, the mission to rescue the hostages would have to be repeated and their new unit would be called to make the flight.
The hostages were set free on the day of Reagan’s inauguration.
But the unit continued training in helicopter maneuvers.
Their first operation was Operation to test their new techniques and equipment wasUrgent Fury, to liberate Grenada in October 1983.
Task Force 158 eventually became the 160th SOAR.
Approximately 1,400 of its 1,800 members are stationed at Fort Campbell.
On Friday, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Unit Citation to the 160th during a private meeting with some of the Navy SEALs and Army pilots who performed the mission to kill bin Laden.
The 160th remains one of the most secretive units in the U.S. military. Members of the 160th are known as Night Stalkers. They have two mottos: “Night Stalkers Never Quit” and “Death Waits in the Dark.”