In Afghanistan With the 101st Airborne: 'We Have to Make a Difference'

In Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne.

June 6, 2011 — -- One day, one mission six months ago keeps coming back to me: U.S. troops, risking enemy fire to carry a badly wounded Afghan soldier to a Medevac helicopter.

What I saw and can't forget tells me this: They desperately want for him what they also want for his country; for both to survive.

A lot of American and Afghan blood was spilled during this "surge" year.

Lt. Col. David Flynn's battalion was one of the hardest hit as it fought bullets and thousands of homemade bombs to take the Arghandab, the Taliban's heartland.

"A jug this big will blow a man's leg off and, unfortunately, I have a lot of soldiers who have lost legs to this kind of wickedness," said Flynn of the 101st Airborne's 1-320th Artillery Regiment.

Flynn's battalion did take the Arghandab and, after months of hard fighting, Flynn could begin to think the unthinkable; maybe some day getting out of here, with honor.

"It was unthinkable to me four months ago that we'd be standing here right now," he said. "On a day like today, with no gunshots. No gunfire. No IEDs."

The 101st Airborne Division's Triumphs, Tragedies

My son Carlos and I have crisscrossed the Afghan battlefield since August documenting the triumphs and tragedies of the 101st Airborne Division, which bore the brunt of the past year's fighting.

My son and I ran for our lives when insurgents ambushed us at 9,000 feet in eastern Afghanistan. But the 101st's War Squadron fought back hard, saving us and each other for a reason.

"We have to make a difference," said Lt. Col. Steve Lutsky, the squadron's commander. "Coming here and just running around and just killing the enemy and looking back and saying, 'I didn't make a difference. I didn't make a change,' will cause us never to leave."

For American sacrifice to mean something, the fledgling Afghan Army and police have to mean something.

Success -- if it ever comes -- is Afghans fighting for Afghanistan but first they have to believe in their country and themselves. It's a goal still not achieved, despite their growing numbers and billions of U.S. dollars in training.

On the patrol near the Pakistan border during the winter, they ran down the mountain, not up the mountain toward the Taliban. It was the 101st that moved to engage the enemy.

American soldiers are trying to teach them, by example. We saw it ourselves.

A few weeks ago, surrounded by Taliban on a mountainside -- six of their buddies dead -- the 101st kept pressing forward and the Afghan army finally fought with them.

101st Airborne Soldiers Speak

A few days after that horrific, nine-day battle, soldiers came to us asking to speak about buddies who'd died.

"He did that for you," said Cpl. Thomas Shelton of the 101st Airborne's No Slack Battalion. "He did that for me. He did that for his family back home so that the fight stays here. ... Does not come to our country. ... Does not come to America."

"I specifically joined so my kids wouldn't have to," said the battalion's Spc. Patrick Harper said. "So they wouldn't have to come to this place and see these terrible things and see this kind of combat."

"I feel like if I don't live my life the best I can, it's sacrilege to the ones who sacrificed," said the battalion's Spc. Taylor Marshall. "So I feel compelled to do my best service in this world."

They've given their best here, whether fighting to save an Afghan's life or just fighting for the soldier to the right and left of them. All they want is for it to mean something."