Assault on Sangin
I plunged off the Chinook's ramp, struggling to keep up with Sergeant Kyle NeSmith of the 82nd Airborne as we ran – or more precisely, hobbled – under the weight of heavy packs through the surreal moonlit, rotor-washed poppy field. The waist-high poppies were soaking wet with dew, and soon I was too. Mud seeped into my shoes and squished between my toes. Apache attack helicopters clacked overhead. I suddenly wished I'd brought a spare pair of socks.
This was the second phase of Operation Achilles, which began on March 6 and was the largest multinational operation in Afghanistan, involved 4,500 troops from the International Security Force (ISAF) and up to 1,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) troops. The 82nd's role in the first phase, searching for Taliban and their weapons caches in the Ghorak Valley just east in Kandahar province, had gone smoothly—a little too smoothly, in fact. The Taliban, intimidated by the numbers and reputation of the paratroopers, had simply melted away rather than face them. The remote area, which hadn't seen a military operation since the Soviets, was beautiful – high desert valleys with the green fading after a wet winter broken up by stark, rock ridges and peaks. But nice hiking through the mountains was not what these Iraq veterans were looking forward to--even I jokingly referred to it as Operation Intense Boredom in e-mails to my editors at WpN.
Sangin was different. A lot different. In Helmand province, Sangin is one of the most productive poppy growing regions in Afghanistan and a traditional Taliban stronghold. After our nighttime drop in the poppy fields, Alpha Company's Third Platoon went to work blowing doors off with shotguns or explosive charges, searching and clearing the mainly empty homes on our path towards the center of the district. By midmorning everyone was fading and the platoon picked a compound to set up a command post for the remainder of the day. The soldiers set up guard rotation on the roof while others napped in the mud rooms below. I filed my pictures and passed out.
The next thing I remember is strapping on body armor and grabbing my camera as small-arms fire cracked overhead and soldiers began yelling orders. I raced onto the roof and glimpsed for the first time what a real firefight is like. Mind you, I've been shot at before – in Iraq and in lame hunting/shooting accidents that happen in the rural area of Northern California where I grew up. However, this was something different. Radically different. Rounds cracked, whizzed and hissed above and around me. They slammed into the low walls that surrounded the rooftop. It was palpable how dangerously close they were coming--terrifying and exhilarating, all at the same time.
I ducked and slid over to a gun team as they desperately tried to spot the enemy. Forward observer Sgt. Dustin Kerrins spotted one of the shooters and began to call in mortar fire as the gun team opened fire.
NeSmith and Lt. Dan Rix organized squads to flank the enemy, just as artillery fire began to drop on us. Confusion with another platoon had led the 82nd's own artillery to begin dropping rounds near our position. "Danger close! Cease fire!" Kerrins screamed over and over as each 105 mm artillery round impacted closer and closer. Everyone took cover and held their breath as the last one impacted less than 60 meters (200 feet) away, the mud-walled compound shuddering as if it might come down around us.
NeSmith and Rix led the squads out of the compound in an effort to flank and engage the enemy. Squads leapfrogged their way through withering fire. Just as I was running through some rocks we came under intense fire again. I tumbled into a mass of legs, arms and weapons with a few guys. Private Chris Patishnock shot off a grenade in an effort to buy us some time. Our cover seemed unbelievably bad and for the first time I thought there was a really good chance I would be shot. And that it would probably hurt. The painfully slow whooshing sound of an RPG streamed right over our heads. Only then did I discover the reality of combat shooting, at least from my perspective. You're either way too close to the action or way too far away. There is very little middle ground. Most of the time the soldiers and I are doing our best to become one with the earth making it difficult to see or shoot anything. Later, while editing, I realize people firing guns make for surprisingly boring photos. For the most part it doesn't look much different than training on the range.
With the help of a British Apache attack helicopter the incoming fire began to taper off to nothing. It felt like only minutes had passed since I'd been awakened by gunfire, but did a double take when my watch showed it had been more than five hours. The platoon walked the area from where the insurgents had fired on them. Frustratingly, they find little evidence of their foe: no bodies or blood trails, just a few shell casings and a flaming pillow. Dusk slid over the simultaneously dusty and lush landscape as we filed back into our compound. Coming off the adrenaline rush drops me like a ton of bricks and we all slept soundly as the mortars and artillery kept the fight alive over our heads.
The next few days were spent advancing into the main town of Sangin, and the platoon settled into their "normal" rhythm. In the contemporary "war on terror," what these guys do boils down to one task that they do dozens of times per day. They kick/shoot/blow down a door, storm in, guns at the ready, and search the home/compound/shack for people/weapons/incriminating documents. Frankly, it's exhausting work and I just watched. Most of the time, they find nothing. Not a damn thing.
As the days wear on, the environment begins to take its own toll on the soldiers. First, it was dysentery. One after another, more than half the guys spent at least a day laid low by violent diarrhea and/or vomiting. Second, it was fleas. Traveling light without tents or sleeping pads, the platoon would appropriate an empty home and use sleeping mats for the night. By the third day everyone had fleas. For most, it was just an itchy annoyance during the day and a biting battle with the little buggers through sleepless nights but some guys got truly eaten up – their entire bodies covered in bites. Eventually this earned some of them a helicopter ride back to the Kandahar base, an embarrassing but welcome respite. Third, it was the triple-digit heat of southern Afghanistan combined with the humidity of the irrigated poppy fields. Talk about stifling conditions: an hour into a patrol and everyone looked like they'd been swimming. On full-day patrols, at least a few soldiers would find themselves vomiting during the final kilometers.
Unlike most operations in Iraq and even many elsewhere in Afghanistan, the guys of Third Platoon have no vehicles. They travel by foot, often carrying all their gear as they search homes and jump irrigation canals.
The platoon reaches its mission objective in three days rather than the five their leadership thought it would take them. After the first day's firefight, the Taliban have been reticent to engage in an open battle. En route to assist some Special Forces and ANA troops in an assault, 3rd Platoon is ambushed but the firefight is short-lived. Tossing grenades ahead of them the soldiers raced through compounds in an effort to capture or kill the ambushing Taliban. They find a weapons cache, and some well-fortified bunkers and tunnels but once again little evidence of their enemy. Not even one shell casing is found despite coming under heavy fire at one point.
Just as they finish their search an elderly man is discovered trying to slide out the backside of a compound. Initially, they treat him as an old man in the wrong place at the wrong time but a search of his home turns up photos and documents that clearly show his three sons are fighting with the Taliban and he'd been assisting them. He stopped answering questions with a dramatic slicing of his finger across his throat, most likely an indication of what the Taliban would do to him if he talked to the Americans. He was probably right. Reports indicate that the Taliban executed Sangin locals who were labeled informers in the days preceding the 82nd's assault.
During the operation, I filed photos over a satellite modem almost daily to WpN, sparking a response I never would have expected: e-mails from family members of the soldiers. I received dozens of e-mails mostly from soldier's wives commending my unfiltered look at the lives of their men in the field. I'm flattered and surprised how much they appreciate the photos, even those that depict their loved ones in tough and dangerous situations. In the field many of the guys in the platoon ask to see the photos and when time and battery power allow, I happily do so. Universally, they love them. As a photojournalist, I've always thought of readers looking at my photos by the ten or hundreds of thousands in mainstream publications, and hoping – but never knowing if – people have been affected by them. Now I know that I'm having an impact but it's one reader at a time courtesy of the Internet and WpN's site.
Unfortunately, not all of the wives are happy with my work. A few days before I planned to leave the unit, I'm told to pack up my gear and hitch a ride on the next Humvee back to Forward Operating Base Robertson. Apparently, the commander believes that I've broken the "ground rules" of my embed, and I'm to report to him immediately.
He meets me outside his air-conditioned tactical operations tent and says, "My wife told me about some disturbing photos you took of dead Afghans." I explain to him that the only rules I've agreed to follow involve detainees and Special Operations soldiers. He disagrees and we go around and around about the rules and our beliefs. He's concerned that the photos may disturb some of the soldiers' family members, and that the enemy may use the photos as propaganda. I tell him that my responsibility is to inform the American public and that people die in war. Shouldn't that be documented? Even more, I'm surprised and frustrated by the disconnect between the guys on the front line doing the dirty work of the war while their commander is safe back at the FOB. Ultimately, after checking with public affairs back at Kandahar, it's determined that I've broken no rules, and I'm allowed to finish my embed.
It's then that I truly realize how digital technology and the Internet have allowed the journalistic process to become much more open and accessible to the general public. It's immediate and transparent. While instant access can make for some awkward moments, perhaps even offend, ultimately it can only serve to inspire greater trust.
© Max Whittaker
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