By Carole Robinson, Senior Staff Writer
MSG James “Tre” Ponder in front of Turbine 33, the MH-47D Chinook helicopter he was killed in while attempting to extract four Navy SEALs from a mountain in Eastern Afghanistan.
Hundreds of thousands of people across the country have seen the movie Lone Survivor since its December debut, including a young Franklin woman with a personal connection to the story; who knows the story all too well; she’s been reliving it in her head for the past eight years.
|Leslie, Elizabeth, Samantha and Tre. If you recognize this photo - it was used at the end of the movie “Lone Survivor.”
“I saw it for the kids’ sake,” said Leslie Ponder, the widow of MSG James “Tre” Ponder III.
“Lone Survivor” the movie is based on the book “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Red Wing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10,” by Marcus Luttrell. The book tells the true story of four members of Navy SEAL Team 10 who were sent on a reconnaissance mission in the rugged mountainous Hindu Kush region of Eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border in late June 2005.
The mission of Operation Red Wing was to document the activity of an al Qaeda leader known to be close to Bin Laden and was hiding in village that was a Taliban stronghold.
The book and movie are Marcus Luttrell’s heroic story of survival.
For Leslie Ponder, it is a reminder of the story behind the story and the mission behind the mission. It was a call to remember the eight Night Stalkers and eight SEALS in a MH-47D Chinook helicopter – call name Turbine 33 – sent to rescue SEAL Team 10. Their mission was halted when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the helicopter while it was landing. All 16-crew members were killed including MSG Tre Ponder.
“It’s hard – the movie puts our loss back in the forefront,” Leslie said. “We’re very proud of what the Night Stalkers did that day.”
The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, called the Night Stalkers, provide helicopter support for special and general purpose operations forces. Although he was on a training mission with the 3rd Battalion in Afghanistan, MSG Ponder was also a part of the QRF – Quick Reactionary Force – a team on call to fly Marines and SEALs in and out of localities during operations.
On June 28, 2005, when Lt. Mike Murphy, team leader for SEALTeam10’s Operation Red Wing, made the radio call to Bagram Airfield saying they ‘were covered with enemy fire and needed to be extracted,’ the Night Stalkers never hesitated, Leslie said. Eight Night Stalkers and eight SEALs jumped into Turbine 33 and headed out.
Apache gun ships were in the area but not at the airfield.
“They made the call not to wait for the Apache War Ships because of the urgency of the situation,” she said. “They made the right decision.”
When the Chinook got to where they thought was a good place to land an RPG was fired from a nearby Taliban hideaway.
Leslie remembered she talked to Tre a short while before they took off.
“I asked how Tuesday was looking,” she recalled. “He said ‘Looking beautiful,’ then he said, ‘I love-love you.”
That was their last conversation.
Since that day Leslie has come to realize strengths she never knew she had.
“God gave me strength and he gave me humor,” she said. “I know what it is like to be in the arms of Christ. He gave me strength I didn’t know I had.”
He also gave her their two young daughters, Samantha and Elizabeth, who were only six and seven when their father was killed. They gave her reason to go on.
Soon after Tre’s death Leslie received a phone call from a member of the 160th still at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. During the conversation he asked whether he could do anything for her.
“I said, bring me a piece of the mountain,” she said.
He brought back a tree – a log used as part of the Taliban hideaway from where the RPG that hit Turbine 33 was launched. It had marks from machetes.
“A friend turned the log into rustic crosses,” she said. “I gave one to each of the families who were on the helicopter and the girls and I have one in our bedrooms. It was good to turn something ugly into something beautiful. It helps to remember who’s in charge.”
Friends, family, faith, the widows of the other Night Stalkers killed that day and members of the 160th provided the strength Leslie needed to endure and they are still with her eight years later.
“We walked through this together, helping each other especially when we would find ourselves doing silly, mindless things,” she said. “We called it ‘Wacky Widow Brain.’”
Leslie and the girls moved back to Franklin several years ago to be close to family. Samantha is now a sophomore at Franklin High and Elizabeth is a freshman at Christ Presbyterian High School.
Leslie is at one of the schools every day volunteering or substitute teaching.
“We are good,” she said. “We could never call Tre’s death a blessing, but we’ve been blessed through it. We miss him every single day. There is always something to pop up and remind us of him. Little things. Samantha is running track – he was a runner. Elizabeth is in a play – he’s not in the audience. He was an incredible dad.”
During the past eight years, Leslie and the couple’s two daughters, are doing what Tre would have wanted – they are living.
“The thing that’s important about the movie is the brotherhood between military personnel,” she said. “They are willing to die for each other. The 16 men on Turbine 33 were willing to die for the four men on the mountain.”
“I have not a shadow of a doubt where Tre is [now] and if they knew the outcome, they would have still tried to extract them. They were a Band of Brothers.”
As Bands of Brothers throughout the military are there for each other, Leslie’s band of friends and family are still here for her.
Posted on: 2/6/2014