ERIK S. KRISTENSEN, LCDR, USN
Erik Kristensen '95
Date of birth: March 15, 1972
Date of death: June 28, 2005
From the 1995 Lucky Bag:
Erik was killed in action against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan on June 28, 2005 during Operation Red Wings. He and several other SEALs set off as part of a search and rescue mission, hoping to assist a four-man SEAL team that was engaged in a firefight with Taliban fighters.
Early Life and Education
Kristensen was born into a military family of partial Danish and Norwegian ancestry. His father, Edward Kristensen, is a career officer in the United States Navy who rose to the rank of Rear Admiral. As his father was in the military, Erik traveled widely with his family as a child, living in such places as Japan, Guam, California, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., among others.
He graduated from Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. in 1990, and continued his education at Phillips Academy (Andover, Massachusetts) before moving on to the United States Naval Academy, where he majored in English. After graduation in 1995, he was commissioned an Ensign and served in the Engineering and Combat Systems departments of USS Chandler in Everett, Washington. He attended the Graduate Institute at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland while he taught English at the U.S. Naval Academy. He left both his graduate studies and teaching at the Academy to pursue a career as a Navy SEAL.
He reported to Basic Underwater Demolition/Sea, Air, Land training (BUD/S) at Coronado, California at age 27, making him one of the oldest in his class. Kristensen graduated with class 233 in March 2001. He then completed Parachute Training and SEAL Qualification Training. His first assignment was to SEAL Team EIGHT as a platoon commander.
Operation Red Wings
On June 28, 2005, a four-man Navy SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team was assigned to keep eyes on Ahmad Shah (nom de guerre Mohammad Ismail), who had no affiliation with the Taliban other than fighting against Anti-Coalition Forces but who was responsible for operations in eastern Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush mountains. The SEAL team was made up of Matthew Axelson, Danny Dietz, Marcus Luttrell, and Michael P. Murphy. Luttrell and Axelson were the team's snipers; Dietz was the communications officer and Murphy the team leader. The four SEALs engaged local Taliban forces, they were engaged in an intense gun battle against a force of approximately 30–40 enemy fighters. Murphy risked his life to get off an emergency message to his command. Of the four-man team, only Luttrell would survive.
Upon hearing the distress call, an MH-47 Chinook helicopter was dispatched with a force consisting of SEALs including Kristensen and 160th SOAR Nightstalkers to rescue the team, but the helicopter was shot down by an RPG, all 16 men on board the Chinook including Kristensen were killed. The battle was later called "the worst single day loss of life for Naval Special Warfare personnel since World War II." In interviews Ahmad Shah maintained that his forces had set a trap for the American forces: "We certainly know that when the American army comes under pressure and they get hit, they will try to help their friends. It is the law of the battlefield."
Via email from Sam Kristensen on May 26, 2018:
There are two things I miss. Erik's hugs and his voice. I wish I had a recording of his voice.
Nothing I can say could ever capture the spirit, energy, kindness and friendship that Erik gave me. He was my classmate, teammate and friend and I am a better person for knowing him. The oldest Brotherhood at the U.S. Naval Academy is that of the crew team. As we rowed, laughed and lived: We few, we happy few, we Band of Brothers. For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother. Jonathan Bingham '95
From an article commemorating the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks authored by Captain David Poyer '71, USNR (Ret.) in the September-October 2016 of Shipmate:
Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen ’95, USN, was the son of Suzanne and Rear Admiral Edward Kristensen ’65, USN (Ret.). Growing up, he lived in Japan and Guam, among other places. He graduated from Gonzaga College High School, a Jesuit prep school for boys, in Washington, DC. There he “won academic awards but never picked them up,” his mother recalled. “He just wasn’t a person who wanted the limelight on him.” Kristensen played offensive and defensive tackle at Gonzaga. He got the nickname “Spider” because of his spindly legs and arms when down in a four-point stance. He was also trumpet player in the school band—a first chair, section leader and co-concert master. A “gentle giant with a kind soul and unique sense of humor,” Kristensen was also an Eagle Scout.
At the Academy, Kristensen rowed on the crew team. He raced with the Varsity 4 in three IRA National Championships (1993-95) and raced Freshman 8 crew at the 1992 IRA National Championships. He earned his N-star in heavyweight crew before graduating with an English major and French minor in 1995.
Kristensen applied for SEAL school during his service selection, but was not chosen. After graduation and SWO Division Officer School in Newport, RI, he went to Chandler (DD 996) as ordnance control officer, fire control officer and main propulsion division officer from January 1996 to January 1998. An enlisted shipmate said, “He was among a small handful of officers who were liked and respected command-wide. Personally, as a boatswainsmate, I served with Kristensen primarily on the bridge and quarterdeck. He made every watch interesting, from quoting the UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] to discussing Shakespeare or Melville.”
His nickname there was “Special K.” His next assignment was as officer in charge of RHIB [rigid-hull inflatable boat] detachment India with Special Boat Team 12 at NAB Coronado, CA, from February 1998 to August 1999.
In 1999, he began teaching English at the Naval Academy while attending graduate school at St. John’s College.
But Kristensen had never abandoned his dream of becoming a SEAL. He was finally admitted to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) Training just under the age limit as the oldest man in his class. He completed BUD/S Training, jump school and SEAL Qualification Training before going to SEAL Team Eight, then as officer-in-charge of Alpha Platoon with SEAL Team Ten at NAB Little Creek, VA.
In 2005, he deployed to Afghanistan with SEAL Team Ten, becoming the leader of a dedicated team quelling Taliban resistance along the Pakistan border. A friend who served with him during the Red Wings operation said, “Erik leaned to the left. He was liberal in his thinking. Guys gave him a lot of grief but he was witty about it.” Other friends recalled him as a “goofball,” a “chucklehead” and a “down to earth, happy-go-lucky guy,” while also emphasizing his professionalism and dedication. But apparently he was thinking ahead to a post-SEAL career. Proficient in French, he was to have started a two-year program that fall at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris as an Olmsted Scholar.
Fierce Taliban resistance was to chart a different course for him.
“On June 28, 2005, LCDR Kristensen led a daring mission to rescue a four-man SEAL reconnaissance squad engaged in a fierce firefight with overwhelming Taliban forces in rugged 10,000-foot mountains. Kristensen, seven other SEALs and eight Army ‘Nightstalker’ commandos died in the heroic attempt when their MH-47D Chinook helicopter crashed after it was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade.”
The leader of the Taliban force who set the deliberate trap, one “Commander Ismail,” was quoted in an interview: “We certainly know that when the American Army comes under pressure and they get hit, they will try to help their friends. It is the law of the battlefield.”
Kristensen’s Bronze Star citation reads: “Demonstrating exceptional resolve and fully comprehending the ramifications of the mission, Lieutenant Commander Kristensen’s element launched aboard a helicopter for direct insertion onto an active battlefield, ready to engage and destroy the enemy in order to protect the lives of their fellow SEALs. While airborne Lieutenant Commander Kristensen continued working with members of his team to develop the plan of attack to support both a Quick Reaction Force and an urgent evacuation of the intended deliberate assault. As the helicopter hovered in preparation for a daring fast-rope insertion of the SEALs, the aircraft was struck by an enemy rocket-propelled grenade fired by Anti-Coalition Militia. The resulting explosion and impact caused the tragic and untimely loss of life of all onboard.”
The recon squad fought on, but eventually all but one were killed. The book Lone Survivor and subsequent film are primarily the story of that single SEAL, Marcus Luttrell, but in the film Kristensen is played by actor Eric Bana. One scene, where he’s awakened to go to the rescue of the embattled team, shows Kristensen in his favorite footgear—Birkenstocks, a touch appreciated by his friends. He was buried in his favorite pair.
After several narrow escapes from coalition bombing and strikes targeting his terror cell, “Ismail” (Ahmad Shah) was killed by Pakistani police in 2008 while engaged in a kidnapping.
Kristensen held the Bronze Star with Combat “V” for Valor, Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon and Afghanistan Campaign Medal, awarded posthumously. His funeral services were at the Naval Academy Chapel. He’s commemorated with an annual golf outing—the Eye Street Classic—which raises money for the Erik S. Kristensen Memorial Scholarship Fund, helping Gonzaga students whose families serve in the armed forces. He’s remembered at the Academy with the Erik S. Kristensen ’95 racing shell. Kristensen’s classmate and teammate, Brooks McFeely, along with the Naval Academy Foundation, raised funds not just to buy a shell in Kristensen’s name, but to establish an endowment to buy replacements, endowing a rowing shell in the Navy boathouse in perpetuity. The Erik Kristensen Award is presented by the Naval Academy Foundation Athletic and Scholarship Programs division each year to the varsity heavyweight crew member of the graduating class who has excelled in athletics, leadership and academics. The Foundation also administers the Erik Kristensen Scholarship, which sends viable candidates to a post-graduate year of high school before attending the Academy. The Travis Manion Foundation also commemorated him during USNA’s Summer Seminar and USNA Summer STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Camp for rising 11th graders through the “Characer Does Matter” program. And St. John’s College has an annual memorial lecture series named in his honor jointly sponsored by the Naval Academy.
Kristensen is buried in the Naval Academy cemetery near the road facing the boathouse so he can look down at Hubbard Hall and watch over Navy’s current rowers.
Michael McGreevy, Jr. '97 was lost in this action.