One last time in Afghanistan
One of the responsibilities of Reuters picture coverage in Washington, besides the White House, Capitol Hill and the State Department, is the Pentagon. As the top-level cabinet secretaries travel overseas, Reuters, along with other agencies The Associated Press, Agence France Press and Getty Images cover these trips on a rotational basis.
In the 4- ½ years serving as Secretary of Defense under two Presidents, Robert Gates’ made his 12th and final trip to Afghanistan this week, primarily to thank the troops for their service one last time. Fortunately for me, it was Reuters’ turn to embark on this historic journey. As we circled the earth clockwise via Hawaii and Singapore and eventually onto Brussels for a NATO Summit, Gates touched down in Kabul on June 4th and began three days of extensive travel around Afghanistan, via Blackhawk helicopter, C-17s and Osprey aircraft over the scorching desert in the south and mountainous east of the country.
As a Washington-based photographer more accustomed to mundane political assignments where making a great and memorable picture is akin to creating a “silk purse out of a sow’s ear”, I relish the chance to mix it up and cover the “real world” outside the Washington beltway. Yes, the Secretary of Defense trips are insanely long (11 days this time) and force you to work in some difficult environments, but I love them because you are given a little more access behind the scenes and are generally allowed almost as much freedom to move around as the Secretary’s own Pentagon photographer, the only other on the trip. In getting the best pictures, access is everything.
It was surreal to land at remote Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) and Combat Outposts (COPs), spend a few hours there and then move onto the next one. Gates wanted to thank as many troops serving in the country as he could during his trip so we included as many as we could fit in each day. On almost every occasion we would hear the emotion in his voice as he addressed those serving their nation. Gates would also present each one of them with his own challenge coin, a military tradition, bearing his name on one side and the Department of Defense insignia on the other.
As is customary, it was suggested that I present my body of work to Secretary Gates on the final leg of the trip home, sort of like a slide show from the family trip to Disneyland. I put together this multimedia piece and, as I played it for him on the flight from Brussels to Washington, I sensed the historical significance of his last trip to Afghanistan was not lost on him.
He said he appreciated the pictures and as we stepped off the plane at Andrews Air Force Base, I was presented with my own Challenge coin, along with those of the traveling press that cover the Pentagon.
The thing that was always in my mind as we left each combat outpost and forward operating base were the troops left behind there to continue their mission. A tour of 12 months or more in this environment is tough. I also take my hat off to all the journalists and photographers that chose to risk their lives right alongside those troops, so that the world may see their story.