Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Afghan night mission ends in bullets

November 5, 2009

This was blogged by Deborah Gembara, a reporter for Reuters Television, who recently spent six weeks in Afghanistan.


BABO KHEYL – It’s just after midnight and I am in the back of a helicopter, pinned against the wall with two soldiers on either side. We are in darkness, save for slivers of moonlight illuminating the door gunners.

I’m tagging along with the 1-501st Infantry Battalion as they conduct a raid on the town of Babo Kheyl in eastern Afghanistan.

It’s my first night operation and I’m digesting what I’ve been told about Babo Kheyl. Taliban stronghold. Surrounded by muddy trenches. Armed to the teeth.
Our ride is a Chinook. Chinooks are the workhorse of the chopper fleet, transporting several dozen people at a time as well as major cargo. They’re also excellent at high altitudes. If Blackhawks are racehorses, Chinooks are Clydesdales.

The helicopter begins dropping in altitude. The thigh muscles of the soldiers on both sides of me stiffen at the same moment. Weapons that had been resting on the floor are now pulled up to the soldiers’ chests.

babo-kheyl-wadi2The chopper lands with a clumsy thud. We are on our feet and shuffling single file toward the rear of the helicopter. Ahead of me, two soldiers bound off the end of the ramp, sprinting into the darkness.

By the time I reach the ramp, the momentum behind me is so great it feels like a stampede. As a general rule, soldiers run off of helicopters as if they were on fire. The more time a chopper spends on the ground, the greater the chances a sniper will shoot out one of the rotors.

I’d been sold on the idea of covering an air mission after being told: “You’re in and then you’re out.” That was only partially true.

The chopper leaves without incident and we walk briskly across a field. Our ride has spared us a six-hour trudge through minefields and muddy riverbeds also known as wadis.

My world is the green images I see through the night vision goggles. It isn’t long before the soldiers are going into the first home.

Fueled by adrenaline and energy drinks with names like “Monster” and “Rip It”, they spill into the house and round up the men, separating them from the women and children who looked frightened.

Tonight, they’re looking for weapons, bomb-making materials and answers about recent mortar attacks on their base.

By 9 am, they’ve searched the entire town, arrested one man, confiscated a handful of weapons and issued stern warnings to several others.

soldiers-sleepingWe learn that the choppers won’t be able to retrieve us until 4 pm and plant ourselves in the courtyard of one of the homes. The soldiers remove their assault packs and flop onto the ground along the wall. The next time I look up, they are all asleep. Weapons and gear are strewn all around them.

Soon, a sergeant screams at the soldiers to wake up, ordering several of them to stand guard outside.

Dusty-haired children stream into the courtyard throughout the morning, begging us for pens and enticing us to chase them. By early afternoon, I’ve handed over pens, lip balm, breath mints and hair elastics.

We leave the town hours later and are standing in a field when the first burst of gun-fire rings out. I drop to the ground and press my cheek into the dirt. The soldiers are on their bellies and knees, returning fire.

“Move over to the wadi. Get your asses into the wadi,” someone yells.
I turn my head and realize we are exposed on all sides. The flat fields that are ideal for landing helicopters are also perfect for a ground attack. A soldier grabs my arm and we sprint for a wadi nearby.

The shots are getting closer. A cluster of bullets scream past me, buzzing so close to my shoulder and arm, my entire right side feels singed. Bullets are penetrating the dirt all around us. With my body armor and helmet, I’m top-heavy and awkward. The wadi still looks miles away and I worry I might get shot in the back.

Within seconds, a chopper is overhead, preparing to land on the tiny patch of flat ground. It skids violently and before it comes to a stop, we launch ourselves into the back of the chopper. We’re in the air before we can even take our seats.
- Deborah Gembara was embedded with the 1-501st Infantry Battalion, based in Fort Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska. She took this night mission in October.


Probably these descriptions alone are not enough to portray 1/2 of what is happening there. Good report, and I hope the best for the soldiers fighting a true war on many fronts mental and physical.

Posted by Adam12 | Report as abusive

What’s the purpose of this mission?? Let me see, pi*ss off a whole town just to arrest one person. The next day you end up with a whole town of Taliban, haha. Stupid is as stupid does.

Posted by R | Report as abusive

It’s refreshing to read such an informed and descriptive first-hand account of events on the ground, rather than a reporter piecing together wire copy from behind a desk 10,000 miles away! The raw video clip was a nice compliment to the blog-really allowed me to visualize the story and put everything in context. In my view, news organizations need to focus more on embedded reporting. It’s the only way the public can see through the fog of war and access the truth. Kudos to Reuters! Blogs such as this are reasons why all Americans would be better informed and possibly engaged in further understanding the difficulties U.S. and NATO forces face in Afghanistan(and Iraq). I don’t envy President Obama’s decision on possibly sending in additional troops into that region. Whichever decision he chooses, he will most certainly(and unfortunately) be critized by those on the left and right! It’s a no win situation politically.

Posted by graf1988 | Report as abusive

I was with Comanche 1-501 out of Kush for a couple months. Left in August. That area of Western Paktika is really bad.Got IED’d with a british journalist along for the ride, in Nasow Khel.

Posted by GEORGE | Report as abusive

Is the footage related to the article above?? Because there is clearly more than one prisoner in the footage, and when the chopper lands the soldiers are clearly no longer under fire and rather casually make their way inside..

I agree graff1988, all reporters should be in bed with the US rather than have the freedom of old to report both sides of the story.. It’s definitely what is needed to help people see the story the American way and limit such negative reporting of the US which can only damage their image.
We need to focus more on positive imagery and that way we can also feel good about ourselves.
Yes, good work Reuters for not promoting ‘wire news’ reporting….

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

The only thing missing here is an 80′s power ballad!

Don’t stop!
Hold on to that feeling!!

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

(other than the partisan bickering above) a very solid report, writing feels alot like Bowden’s Road Work. Great helicopter shots too. Good work!

Posted by alex | Report as abusive

My war was 66 years ago-that been said,its rather difficult to see the reasons for what seems to me as a hit or miss,type of an operation.The people managing this war in Afghanistan,know their bussiness.I am shure they are doing their best and so are the guys on the front line.Their phisycal and mental stress must be really something,since they do not see much of the fruit of their labor or experience the uplift from a breackthrough through enemy lines. It must be tough not
to be able to have an idea of how the total effort around you is going.

Posted by Felix Ramon Lopez | Report as abusive

I didn’t think embedded journalism was a partisan issue…
Definitely not in my country, who’s bickering?

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

Deborah could you please explain the inconsistencies between the story and the footage?
Does the footage relate to the story directly or is it from another mission?

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

I am the Fire Support NCO for comanche company, I was on that mission- it was a hot little fire fight for a bit. Matter of fact, I am the guy resting on the multi-cam pack in the foreground.

That being said, the soldier’s who got hollered at were soldiers not on security at the time, we beefed up security as a precaution once we found out we would be out there longer.

Posted by R. William Martin | Report as abusive

R. Martin, maybe you can answer my questions if you can recall, is the above footage from that mission?
If so how many reporters were out there because there also seems to be 3 separate shots of the Chinook landing?

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

Hi Brian-
The additional chinook shots are from missions I covered in Monari and Sar Hawza. They just show different angles of the choppers that I thought would be interesting to a viewer.

Posted by Deborah Gembara | Report as abusive

War is such a boring drag…alot like porn, the same old same old over and over. The Bush Cheney Wolfowitz Rumsfeld cowboy invade everywhere, shoot the hell out of everything while the war contractors rip off mainstreet U.S.A. goes on and on and on while the lobbyists bribe the congress for more war funding. War sucks. There are no winners. PEACE IS THE ONLY ANSWER.

Posted by freebe | Report as abusive

Seems terrifying Deb! Do you think this kind of search and seizure is effective?

Posted by PL Millet | Report as abusive

You tried to make this sound like a manic action scene from a movie, when you know things happened differently there. Way to make us look and sound untrained and naive reporting that all of us were fueled on energy drinks and that everyone fell asleep with our gear strewn about and took pictures of soldiers off guard taking a nap to boot. Way to get yourself a story at our expense. I had to deal with you personally in Kush and you showed me there that you were unskilled at this job, should have known this was going to happen.

Posted by Random Soldier | Report as abusive

Through the eyes of many you have single handed demolished the view of my brothers. Namely for nothing more than personal gain in the ranks of journalism. You know you continued to stand like a deer in headlights until one of the soldiers pulled you down and probably saved your life. Further more, who are you to pass judgement on the soldiers who are tired from running around the whole time with mass amounts of weight on their bodies. Weight that tears at the rotator cuff, the traps, and the knees. Soldiers who stand when others would lay and take the abuse. Soldiers who will face an enemy when the rest of the people would sit back in their homes and make ill judgements based on reports like this one. Those same people also critisize and mock us for being the elite 1% who volunteer to be in the position we are in to help people in other unsafe areas of the world. You make us sound undisciplined. You might want to report the rest of the story that shows how we stopped many producers of IEDs and those who oppress their own people.

Posted by chente | Report as abusive

These are no longer the brave American marines who fought heroicly during tthe world war two and defeated the fascists enemy.Their style is more or less similar to the Al Capone gangsters,entering peasents houses at night to frighten sleeping innocent women and children!

Posted by rex minor | Report as abusive


There was only one reporter, that footage is from the entire night/day we were out, but not much of the actual firefight that ensued.

Posted by R. William Martin | Report as abusive

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see