Life in a minefield
The last day of our Reuters multimedia embed at COP Nolen.
0600 July 30th, 2010.
I woke up and watched as two squads of U.S. Army soldiers exited Combat Outpost Nolen, a small base in the heart of the volatile Arghandab Valley. One squad would try to demolish a wall that insurgents used as cover to fire AK-47’s and RPG’s at the base almost daily. The other squad carried concertina wire to surround a couple of nearby abandoned houses in an attempt to deny insurgents locations to plant Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s).
Moments later, the base was rocked by a huge explosion. A column of smoke and dust rose just 20 meters outside the walls and we heard the cries of a soldier in agony. Troops rushed into the base and called for a Medivac helicopter. I threw on my flak jacket and helmet and ran outside the gates to the scene of the blast.
I rounded the corner into a courtyard and saw one soldier sitting on the ground being treated, his face pockmarked with shrapnel wounds. A sergeant yelled at soldiers to secure the landing zone for the Medivac helicopter.
A stretcher was brought to an area behind a nearby wall, and moments later a group of soldiers emerged into the courtyard, carrying a seriously wounded GI. As the litter passed I look into the eyes of the wounded soldier. His face was pale gray, covered in dust, and his eyes were wide open, watching as he was carried to the helicopter landing zone.
I followed at a distance. No more pictures. The stretcher was laid on the ground near where I was standing and for the first time I could see the extent of his horrific wounds. His left leg was missing below the knee and soldiers worked to dress the bloody stump. Bandages were being stuffed into the wound in an attempt to stem the bleeding. On his right leg was a tourniquet, up high near the hip, and there were multiple wounds down to his foot. Amazingly, the soldier was still lucid and I heard him ask someone to make sure he had his wallet.
A radioman called out that the Medivac helicopter was three minutes away, and someone popped a red smoke grenade to mark the landing zone. The medics continued to work on the wounded soldier, cutting away his clothing and wrapping his left leg in layers of bandages. The Medivac helicopter came in fast and low, the rotors kicking up a massive cloud of dust. The wounded soldiers were rushed aboard and it lifted off seconds later, en route to the main trauma hospital at Kandahar Air Field.
The dust settled and a silent numbness seemed to settle over the small outpost. One soldier walked to his room and slammed the door shut. Tragically, they have all seen this before. Since arriving in the Arghandab Valley one month ago, soldiers with the 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment have stepped on six IED’s resulting in the loss of one life and nine amputated limbs. One soldier was shot dead by a sniper while on guard duty and a one million dollar M-ATV armored vehicle was destroyed when it stuck a landmine on the main road less than 300 meters from the base. The paths and fields outside their base are rigged with so many buried landmines that the Colonel in charge labeled it a “No Man’s Land”.
And yet, in spite of the dangers, the soldiers still go out on patrol. Carefully walking in the footsteps of the man in front of them, hoping that the military dog and metal detector will alert them to a pressure plate activated bomb hidden beneath the surface, and never knowing which step might be their last.