I wanted to see the war with my own eyes, so I spent the last week in Afghanistan, working on stories for Nightline and World News with producer Ely Brown. (I had previously been here once before with President Obama last Fall, but that was a short and in-the-bubble experience.)
We decided to focus on Regional Command-East, in the Northeast corner of Afghanistan, both because it remains one of the most dangerous parts of the country, and because I’m writing a book about a combat outpost that was in the area from 2006-2009, COP Keating.
Over the last few days Ely and I were embedded with a Medevac Company at Bagram — Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 82nd Airborne Combat Aviation Brigade.
Medevacs are truly remarkable — they fly directly into dangerous areas unarmed, taking great risks. Just a few days ago, Charlie Company — “Unarmed and Unafraid” — lost one of its medics on the battlefield.
Staff Sergeant Robert Cowdrey, 39, was killed on October 13 in the middle of a mission evacuating wounded troops from Observation Post Shal, in Kunar Province. The post — on a mountaintop –was under fire, with strong winds and a small helicopter landing zone. It was night and very challenging to land the craft, which there was only room to partly do, with the front two wheels. As Cowdrey attempted to help evacuate a third wounded US soldier, the blade of the Black Hawk hit Cowdrey’s helmet. Cowdrey had a wife and three sons.
We’ve been embedded with Charlie Company for a few days for our spot, which will focus on Charlie Company’s commander, Major Graham Bundy and medic Staff Sergeant Erin Gibson, a 4’11″ spitfire her colleagues call “Mini-Medic.”
On Saturday an IED detonated on an Afghan Border Police foot patrol in Gowardesh, near the Pakistan border. Two Afghan Border Police were killed and four were wounded. The ABP brought the wounded to Forward Operating Base Bostick, in Kunar Province, where they were treated and then Medevaced to Jalalabad.
That afternoon — yesterday — Ely and I rode with two Blackhawk Medevacs to pick up two of the wounded Afghan Border Police at Jalalabad Air Field and take them to an Afghan hospital in the south, Forward Operating Base Lightning in Gardez.
On our way to the Afghan hospital, we were fired upon, at two separate locations. Neither time did the rounds seem to come dangerously close to us, and the Medevacs took evasive action. This was a more kinetic experience than they normally face, Bundy told us, but out there anything can happen.
After we dropped off the wounded in Gardez, we stopped to refuel at Forward Operating Base Shank. Troops there were taking indirect fire from insurgents so they started firing back, and we hovered for awhile.
Once we were given the go-ahead, we stopped, refueled, and returned to base at Bagram.
It was just another day at the office for these troopers. From August 28 through November 4, they’ve flown 829 missions, helping 1,046 patients.
Many of them are Afghan. The day before a young Afghan boy had been out tending to his goats with some other children in one of the valleys to the east of FOB Bostick. One of the older children saw an object and told him to pick it up.
The object was UXO (unexploded ordnance) and it detonated when he disturbed it. Based on the fragments the troops at FOB Bostick found in his body, the explosive was a very old, non-US munition.
Unfortunately, this is a fairly common event up there given the amount of ordnance left behind after so many years of war — before the US the locals fought the Soviets, of course, and civil strife has long marred the region. Earlier in the week, Ely and I spent a few days at FOB Bostick, which is the northern most forward operating base and so close to the Pakistan border you can see a Pakistani mountain from the base.
There we were embedded with another impressive group, troops from the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry, 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry — or the 2/27 Infantry, aka the “Wolfhounds” — who will be featured in a separate spot about the men and women at the tip of the spear.
The 2/27 Infantry has lost nine troops in this deployment, from both firefights and IEDs. In the same battle where Cowdrey was killed, on the same day, October 13, 2/27 Staff Sergeant Houston Taylor, 25, was killed by small arms fire. He had a wife, son, and daughter. Taylor died in the midst of a ferocious round of fighting surrounding a 2/27 effort to secure and pave part of the road from Asadabad to Naray District, where FOB Bostick is located.
The base itself is dangerous. Incoming fire into FOB Bostick has resulted in 4 people — a combination of contractors and Afghans — being killed and more then 20 being wounded.
In any case, the Forward Surgical Team at FOB Bostick stabilized the boy and evacuated him to Bagram to receive a higher level of care.
The executive officer of the 2/27, Major Dom Edwards, had just been telling us how dealing with the wounded children is one of the toughest parts of being up there. He has yet to go a week without seeing a severely wounded child. He believes the medical care the US provides locals helps with the larger fight to connect villagers to the Afghan government — Counter-insurgency — but it’s heartbreaking.
We traveled with a Medevac crew to pick up this boy at Jalalabad Friday night.
Last I saw him was Saturday morning. He lost his left eye and several fingers from both hands, but it looked like he would make it.
Ely and I have worked hard on these stories, to show you what our troops are doing here and how they think the war is going. I’ll let you know when the pieces will air.