As soon as the helicopter landed at Keating, I jumped out. I wanted to clear the doors so I didn't block the soldiers carrying the wounded. It was then that I realized I was standing by myself, on a landing zone, in complete darkness, without a weapon, on a base that was under attack.
The landing zone was at the bottom of a steep incline and the high moon was bright enough for me to see plumes of smoke from the burning buildings and spent artillery. I pointed the camera towards the moon, hoping to capture something, anything. The smell of smoldering pine trees and spent ammunition assaulted my nose. The burning pine reminded me of Christmas -- a confusing contradiction to my senses, a thought I later shared with the team.
"It smelled like death and hell," the crew chief screamed at me.
As I stood outside the helicopter, hands slightly shaking, I felt movement to my right and saw soldiers carrying the wounded and placing them on the bird. I jumped in the side window, sat on a pile of medical equipment and filmed the doctor and medic working on Stephan and two other soldiers.
As soon as we landed back at Bostick, we jogged along a path made with glow sticks. The wooden door of the field hospital swung open and light burst through the night. I filmed the medic as he relayed stats to the waiting medical team. And then, just as we were being pushed out of the hospital, I turned my camera to the left. It was there that I captured Stephan laying on the operating table, his shirt off, revealing his large "Mace" tattoo.
Stephan had been shot early that morning, and after more than 12 hours, he had finally reached the operating table at Bostick. He died soon after.
I couldn't find Vanessa when I first arrived at the Arlington National Cemetery's visitors center. I finally called her on her mobile until we walked towards each other.
We hugged and I handed her a bouquet of lilies I'd brought. She introduced me to her family and Stephan's teammates who were visiting his grave for the first time. I was worried about them being angry at me for being there.
"I thought you'd be tan, coming from India," she said, observing my pale face and white legs.
She's disarmingly good at flinging insults as ice breakers. I loved her immediately. With the large bouquet of flowers in her arms, her blonde hair and huge smile, Vanessa looked like a beauty queen accepting an award. Except this was no award. She was a Gold Star Mother leading a reporter and soldiers and friends to her son's grave in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery.
I rode with Vanessa and her husband Richard to the gravesite. Vanessa walked towards his gravestone. We formed a scattered horseshoe around Stephan and then one of the soldiers started searching to the right.
"What are you looking for?" I asked.
"Major Bostick is buried near here," he said.
FOB Bostick, the base from where the medevac team launched its rescue mission, was named after Major Thomas Bostick, the former commander who was killed near COP Keating in 2007. FOB Bostick was also the new base for soldiers after Keating and Fritsche were closed shortly after the attack.
We walked down the rows of white tombstones, a sea of sorrow in every direction, until I spotted him.
"He's there," I said.