The Chinook touched down, conjuring a cloud of swirling sand and dust around it. U.S. Army Lieutenant Nate Bethea ran from its rear bay with his head down and immediately took cover flat against the ground as small arms fire popped from the village around him. It was July 2009, and Bethea was part of an airborne unit searching for Private Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who had walked off an outpost in Afghanistan and been captured by Taliban insurgents.
Bethea was leading a group of soldiers in a war a long way from home. Joining his unit for the rescue mission, and lying prone next to him, was an Air Force joint tactical air controller (commonly referred to as a JTAC). The helicopter lifted off, and once they realized the gunfire wasn’t aimed at them, Bethea and the JTAC moved off the high ground to avoid being silhouetted targets for the enemy.
It was in that movement that the seam on the JTAC’s pants tore open and “completely destroyed his trouser leg from cuff up to groin,” Bethea recalls. “He went the entire mission with his underwear exposed like that, and there was absolutely no hiding it.” For the next 12 hours, the man in charge of helicopters, fixed wing assets, and Predator drones in an important American rescue mission would appear to be wearing no trousers.
The good news is that the JTAC was wearing underwear—lots of soldiers don’t—and it was only a 12-hour mission, not a 10-day one. Bethea, who is now based in London and hosts the What a Hell of a Way to Die podcast, said the issue was common.
“Any single person who deployed to combat in a light infantry unit will have a story of taking a knee and their crotch or their pant seam blowing out,” he says.