Neil Roberts grew up in the farmlands of Yolo County, CA, one of 12 children, including a twin brother named Galen. Neighbors and friends remember him growing up as someone who didn’t let himself get bogged down by the negative things in life — but he didn’t mind a good fight.
Neil always knew he wanted to serve, and enlisted in the Navy immediately after graduating high school in 1987. He completed basic training at NTC Orlando, Florida, and went on to Aviation Electrician’s Mate training at NATTC Millington, Tennessee. From there, it was off to Guam for four years as an EP-3 Aries I Aviation Technician as a part of VQ-1, Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One. He deployed twice, in support of Operation Desert Shield and then as part of Desert Storm in 1991.
But Neil had a bigger dream. He wanted to be a SEAL.
In October 1992, Neil graduated with Class 184, and spent the next 6 years with SEAL Team 2 on missions around the world, including San Vito, Italy, during the Bosnian War and for a time in Sarajevo.
In 1999 he received his final assignment with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, DEVGRU — sometimes known as SEAL Team 6.
Petty Officer First Class Neil “FiFi” Christopher Roberts’ final combat mission took place in Afghanistan, where he became the first SEAL to perish during that war in a skirmish that became known as The Battle of Roberts Ridge.
In the early hours of March 4, 2002, a pair of SEAL teams were planned to be inserted onto the 10,000 peak of mountain named Takur Gar in order to establish an observation point over the Shahi-Kot Valley known to be a stronghold for guerrillas.
Racing against the approaching daylight, the teams were picked up by by Night Stalkers (160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment) in tow MH-47 Chinook helicopters known as Razor 03 and Razor 04. Neil boarded Razor 03.
Just before 3:00 am, Razor 03 began its descent. As the SAW gunner, Neil was posted to the rear of the chopper to facilitate quick insertion, but also to act as rear gunner as needed.
The landing spot was precarious to say the least. It was perched on protruding fangs of shale and surrounded by snow, which whipped inside the open hatch.
It was about to get weird. And very hairy.
The crew chief reported a donkey positioned at 3 o’clock right at the tree line. A donkey? The point man, on the right-hand side of the aircraft, said he could see a number of headless goats hanging from the trees by their legs. The left ramp gunner reported a man had popped his head up from cover before disappearing again.
Then all hell broke loose.
The man they’d spotted reappeared approximately 25 yards away with an RPG, and launched it directly at Razor 03. It tore through the left-side electrical panel, barely missing the gas tank, and exploded inside the helo. Almost instantly, a second RPG punctured the right-side radar pod. The blasts knocked out electrical power, the navigation system and the radio. A third RPG showered Razor 03 with shrapnel, and a fourth tore into the tail’s right-side turbine.
Then the bullets came. Razor 03 had only been on the peak for maybe 45 seconds, but it had to somehow get out of there as quickly as possible.
The craft jerked and jarred as it lifted off, and Neil Roberts, wearing an 80-pound and holding a 27-pound SAW, tumbled out of the bucking chopper. Two crew members attempted to catch him, but between the angle, the gravity and the weight of his body and gear, it was impossible to stop his fall.
Neil Roberts fell to the earth.
No one knows exactly what happened next. It’s believed Neil sustained some injuries when he fell, but he was armed and he came up fighting.
Based on eye-witness accounts and footage from a Predator drone circling above, Neil single-handedly fought off the enemy for an estimated 60 and 90 minutes.
Men still onboard Razor 03 – which crash-landed nearby – saw a large group of insurgents forming a circle around Neil, as he fired at them with his rifle. He continued fighting, until he’d emptied his SAW and used up his grenades. Some reports say he low-crawled to a machine gun emplacement, stormed it and took out the insurgents inside.
Finally down to his sidearm, the remaining insurgents dared to come closer.
When Neil Roberts’ body was eventually found, there was a hole through his helmet, indicating he had been executed at close range by a single shot to the head.
The Battle of Roberts Ridge ultimately claimed the lives of seven U.S. service members. Up to 200 enemy fighters were killed.
For his incredible courage in the face of certain death, Neil was awarded the Silver Star.
In a letter to his wife, to be delivered in the event of his death, Neil wrote, “Although I sacrificed personal freedom and many other things, I got just as much as I gave. My time in the Teams was special. For all the times I was cold, wet, tired, sore, scared, hungry, and angry, I had a blast. The bad was equally balanced with the good.”