Embedded in Taliban territory
One of the most challenging and exciting parts of my job is working with some of the toughest and best-trained men in the most dangerous and challenging spot in the world. Last January, Reuters photographers received a group email asking for volunteers for an embed in Afghanistan “during the two most dangerous months of the year, May and June”. I did not think much before responding. I was on my way back to my home base in Greece after a two-year assignment in Israel.
By mid-March I was back in the gym to be fit for the embed. After a series of emails with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and a bit of paperwork, I received the approval for a three-week embed with the 2-508 Infantry Parachute regiment, (the Red Devils) part of the 82nd airborne, based in Arghandab valley near Kandahar. I was very happy and relieved to get the go ahead. I arrived at Kandahar airfield (KAF) on April 30. After a two day wait at the airbase, and a few rocket attacks, I got the green light to fly on an Australian Chinook chopper to my base in the valley — a region considered the most dangerous on earth at that time. To whoever is a fan of extreme games, I suggest a flight with that “bird.”
We flew at a maximum of 300 feet over fields and small villages at high speed, zigzagging all the time with the gunners occasionally shooting their machine guns. The flight was supposed to be less than 20 minutes, but the “bird” stopped at several small bases to unload or pick-up soldiers. The flight ended up lasting for more than two and a half hours. At some point it had to go back to the KAF for refueling. Most of the soldiers were throwing up after the first 10 minutes of our long flight. Myself and two Canadian soldiers were the only ones not vomiting. We joked that our Australian crew had made a bet to see how many of us they could make sick.
After arriving at the base and getting a camping bed in a big tent with another 10 soldiers, I tried to find out who was who on the base and if I could start my work as soon as possible.
I met with LT Brett Gilberrt, a 24-year-old in charge of the 1st platoon Delta Company 2-508. I told him that I would like to follow his platoon as they conduct their daily activities and to see if we could work well together. I guess he liked my sincere spirit and agreed to accept me into the platoon.
The daily routine was long foot patrols, sometimes mixed with mounted patrols. We would go out of the base early in the morning for a 5, 10 and occasionally 15 km patrol. On some days temperatures reached 37 degrees Celsius (98 degrees Fahrenheit) and I carried all the necessary photo gear, water and safety equipment, which weighed some 20 kilos (44 pounds). We followed different routes to avoid possible ambushes or IED’s. We would jump several walls, creeks, irrigation channels and eventually swamps and the Arghandab river.
I was surprised how well I coped with the extreme situation. After all, I was working with highly trained soldiers half my age, some the same age as my 22-year-old son. Half of the platoon would rest the day after a long patrol, whereas I was going on patrols every day without any days off. It was no secret that the Taliban were everywhere in the area. The region was littered with IED’s and many Canadian and U.S. soldiers had been killed or seriously wounded over the last 2-3 months.
Every afternoon, after returning from our patrol, I would eat with the guys, exchange jokes and then I would rush to my tent to edit and send my pictures. Most days I would finish late in the evening since I had several problems with my Bgan’s satellite internet connection. The soldiers would often give me their laptops and internet connection to send, by email, my images to our picture desk in Singapore.
One evening, after a 10-hour patrol, I decided to give myself the next morning off, in order to rest but also have a shower (finally) and wash my clothes. Captain Thomas from the scout platoon came by my tent and asked me if I would be ready the next morning, at 7 am, to climb the mountain to an observation post from where you could see the valley and Kandahar. It was one of my earlier requests, but I was too tired and the mountain looked large and intimidating. “Well if don’t turn up, don’t wait for me” I said to the young American Captain. “We are doing it for you man!” he said, frowning. “Ah,well, sure… I’ll be there,” I said. How could I say no? After all this time working with the paratroopers, I had to show some character.
The next morning, myself and four very fit-looking scouts started our ascent. Captain Thomas had said the night before that I should only take the necessary equipment and I should put everything inside a bag because the climb was dangerous and tough. After climbing the mountain for a while, the soldier behind me, a huge muscular medic said, “The hard part is coming up, we’ll start climbing soon.” I asked, “Do you have ropes and climbing equipment?” He replied, smiling “No… nothing, just climb.” An hour later we were on top of the mountain. Several soldiers were waiting for us at the Observation Post (OP). The six soldiers manning the OP were on a 10-day rotation. An hour later a Chinook chopper hovered over the OP and lowered some supplies. The pictures looked dramatic and the view was breathtaking.
Every day had a new experience in store, though not always pleasant ones. On several occasions we faced life-threatening situations. One afternoon, while returning to the base after a very long (15 km) patrol, the soldier in front of me, a tall New Yorker, had a clumsy landing after jumping over an irrigation channel and broke his ankle.
We had to call an aerial med evac while somewhere ahead of us, a small firefight broke out. Later, we had to walk through a swamp in order to get back on the road to the base.
Another day we went to stand guard at the site of an IED, found earlier by the Afghan National Army (ANA). After a five hour wait, the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team arrived and blew up the IED with the help of a robot. The explosion was massive. The IED was placed on a dirt road on the outskirts of a nearby village, on one of our usual routes.
The soldiers of the platoon treated me well, and some even searched for me online to find out about me and my work. Most of them sent me invitations to be friends on Facebook. They also knew I had served in the army in my youth and had covered several wars in my career with Reuters. They felt I understood them and they trusted me. After almost three weeks in Arghandab valley, I was asked if I would go to Bangkok to help with Reuters’ coverage of anti-government protests and I gladly accepted. The soldiers of the 1st platoon were a bit disappointed with me leaving, so we all met for a last patrol and a “family photo.”
Over the following days in Bangkok, I received many emails from the soldiers but also from their relatives and spouses.
“Hello! My husband is currently serving with the platoon you have been embedded with. I wanted to personally thank you for the recent photos that have been shared on Yahoo and throughout Facebook by the guys. We rarely get to see images of our guys in action, and you have managed not only to capture them, but to portray them in a way that helps tell their stories. My appreciation for your photos is multiplied, first by your current subject matter, and again by my own passion for photography. I know that under normal conditions, it is an art to find the right balance of lighting, angles, and depth of field. The fact that you can do this in a war-torn country under intense conditions speaks volumes for your own passion and talent. Again, thank you for sharing your images and for your dedication to telling the story of 1D, 2-508. I have no doubt that these guys will forever have a place in your heart.”
Proud wife of SGT Jeff Lewis”