Photographers' Blog

Big chip gamble in Afghanistan

I’ve witnessed the U.S. military’s interaction with Iraqis and Afghans during several embeds with different units both in Iraq and Afghanistan, my latest embed with the U.S. Marines’ 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in Helmand province was quite an experience.

I was told by an officer that they had a mission the next day to deliver snacks to a village called Deveelak on the second day of Eid al-Fitr celebrations.

Before leaving the camp, I saw soldiers loading boxes of chips, muffins and milk onto their armored vehicles. Each of the Marines practiced how many stacks of boxes they could carry for the upcoming trek.

U.S. Marines from 1st Light Armoured Reconnaisance Battalion, Alpha Company carry boxes of snacks for residents of Deevelak village in Helmand, Afghanistan September 11, 2010. REUTERS/Erik de Castro

We traveled in a convoy of armored vehicles from the camp to a location less than an hour away.

I anticipated seeing a crowd of people waiting for us to distribute the snacks.

We arrived in a remote place and the Marines carried snack boxes and hiked approximately 30 minutes to a location beside a small mosque where two elderly Afghans sat.

Glorifying the war or praying for peace?

On August 15, a few days after U.S. atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, then-Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced in a rare public broadcast that the nation had surrendered.

This surrender ended the Pacific battle of World War II and liberated Koreans from Japan’s often-brutal 1910-1945 colonization.

Since then, August 15 has stirred different feelings in the two neighboring countries: bitterness of defeat for one, joy of independence for the other.

Embedded in Taliban territory

Photographer Yannis Behrakis is seen in Afghanistan.

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.”

Canadian and U.S. Army soldiers board an Australian Chinook transport chopper in Kandahar airbase in southern Afghanistan, May 3, 2010.   REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

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.

A shot in the dark

A soldier from the U.S. Army's 1st Platoon, Alpha Troop, 2-1 Infantry Battalion, 5/2 Striker Brigade Combat Team scans the area with a scope during a night observation mission in Kandahar Province April 15, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

It’s 1:00am, I’m sitting in a small dirt hole. Not sure exactly where but somewhere in western Kandahar‘s Maiwand district. How did I get here? On a journey that has involved too much time spent waiting. Waiting at Forward Operating Bases, waiting for planes, waiting for people, waiting for helicopters, waiting for convoys, waiting for patrols.

The short version is it hasn’t been the most productive assignment. I am itching to get ‘out there’ and shoot. So I have jumped at the offer to join an observation post patrol on a moonless night in a flat and treeless landscape, looking for militants laying IEDs.

I’ve bumbled my way out the back of an armored Stryker, across rocky ground, closely tailing a few soldiers who unlike me are equipped with night vision gear. It’s inky black, no illumination permitted. I even have the small red indictor lights on my camera’s back covered with tape. So now I’m in this little dirt hole. It’s dark, really dark. No light at all…… Well, except the billion or so stars above.

Being a bird

South Korea’s Armed Forces Day is an annual event held on October 1.

seconddive

The country’s military puts on a variety of displays that include performances by military bands, drills by honor guard contingents and martial arts displays by special warfare units. There are also air shows with helicopters and fighting planes. One of the highlights of the event is a skydiving performance by South Korea’s Special Warfare Command soldiers.

The South Korean Defence Ministry invited the media for an opportunity to cover the airdrop exercise from their helicopters. I was one of the pool photographers. I’ve covered these type of helicopter missions several times before, but I was still excited albeit with some tension.

On September 29, 2009, two days before Armed Forced Day, Special Warfare Command parachuting team members prepared for their airdrop exercise.

Warrior Ink

Reuters photographer Tim Wimborne documents the tattoos of members of the U.S. military serving in Afghanistan in the audio slideshow above.

View full coverage of the War in Afghanistan here.

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