The Afghanistan War has captured as many headlines as any other global story in 2010. Here's a look at one of GlobalPost's favorites from the frontlines.
KUNAR, Afghanistan – The mountains here echo with heavy machine gun fire and rocket attacks. This small province, in Afghanistan’s northeast along the border with Pakistan, is corrugated with valleys so dangerous U.S. troops can't enter without a full battalion behind them and a border so porous it’s unclear even to Afghan border patrol where it actually begins and ends.
The U.S. military's focus over the summer and into the fall has been far from here, on operations in southern Afghanistan, and that's been the focus of the American media as well. Here in Kunar, the steady firefights have been largely forgotten.
I have now been embedded with three different deployments of U.S. troops in Kunar between 2009 and 2010. It was the first place I really felt what it was like to take direct fire.
This company of 101st Airborne Division soldiers out of Combat Outpost Monti has had a very tough fight even by Kunar’s standards. Before this summer, IED and suicide vest attacks seemed confined to the south. But this company has lost seven soldiers to such attacks. They have also reportedly killed more than 200 Taliban, according to their company commander. The ambush I recorded on video for GlobalPost Aug. 26 was not particularly unique. Unfortunately, it's an all too common occurrence for the soldiers patrolling here. Soldiers from Monti have been ambushed from the nearby steep mountainsides at least three times. The Taliban are known for being creatures of habit, using the same ambush spot if it proves effective. The difference is that this time the first truck was hit with a “lucky shot” which disabled it and the driver. I don’t want to go into more detail per Army operation security rules for embedded reporters.
When Pvt. Justin Greer got hit in the helmet, at first it didn’t seem real. I’ve noticed this immediate reaction in myself before. The mind, for several seconds, acts like it’s watching a movie. If this lasts for more than several seconds, one could freeze and really put themselves in danger. I’ve never seen an infantry soldier freeze. They’ve been trained to react to contact and in Kunar, their buddies' lives depend on it.
Greer also appeared amazed with how close the bullet came to killing him. He showed me the bullet hole and the round he found in his helmet, before tucking it in his pocket as keepsake. Most likely it was an indirect shot, those Kevlar helmets rarely can stop a direct AK-47 7.62 round. A reporter told me that the layers of Kevlar in the U.S. helmet are actually designed to split and channel bullets, like Greer's seemed to do.
Once one has overcome the initial shock, time either slows down or speeds up, that is to say, time doesn’t really exist, only the incoming danger and damage. This is a good thing. The body hasn’t gone into shock, but acts as training has prepared it. In my case, I am usually able to shoot video, to varying degrees of success depending on how shaky I am while moving for cover.
It always amazes me how brave these guys are. But I’m a civilian with no previous military experience. Not only are these guys used to taking fire several times a week, they have leaders – soldiers who have had more than one deployment and performed under many horrific, mind-boggling conditions. One yell or decisive action from such a leader can make all the difference in how the younger soldiers act and ultimately ensure the safety of the entire patrol.
You see this in how Pvt. Jon Duran and Jesse Townsend were able to remove their severely wounded driver and wrap a tourniquet around his arm despite suffering smoke inhalation and symptoms of a concussion.
All the soldiers survived the attack. Their families were immediately notified per Army policy. All were evacuated to Bagram Air Base that evening for further medical treatment.
Several soldiers showed the symptoms of what the Army calls MTBI (Mild Traumatic Brain Injury) from previous RPG attacks on their convoy. This attack may have counted their third or fourth such injury according to fellow platoon members. It would likely mean they'd be forced to return to the United States per Army policy on the third such wound.
I have exchanged emails with Pvt. Jesse Townsend while he was being treated in Landstuhl Germany for such injuries. Just yesterday, he told me he was back at Ft. Campbell and being evaluated for the physical symptoms of multiple concussions. He keeps saying all he wants to do is get back to his guys. But he’s clearly not yet ready. He’s preparing a package of goodies to send them, and asked if I wanted anything.
It usually takes one patrol for the soldiers to start talking to you. I've never had anyone give me any trouble beyond some joking, probably because I try to go out on every patrol I can, as most embedded reporters do. Soldiers are remarkably candid. They'll usually tell you about bad things that have happened totally unprompted. They don't forget you're a reporter, it's just they see you as a person who's interested in what they do. And in a war zone that's infectious.
I find I often have trouble leaving a unit even if I spend only a week with them. These guys would easily risk their own lives to save mine. They are mostly young kids compared to me, and they share everything from sweets they got from their mom to swapping photos and videos.