An Up-Close Look at the Wrong End of War in Afghanistan

A U.S. News reporter reflects on his experience with Air Force and Army units in a war zone.

The crew from a 10th Mountain Dustoff, Charlie Company medevac unit transports a wounded ANA fighter on a stretcher. (Paul Shinkman for USN&WR)
By + More

The idea for my embed in Afghanistan this summer came from a breakfast meeting in April. I was part of a group of reporters who sat down with British army Brig. Gen. Stuart Skeates, the deputy commander for a U.S. Marine unit that had just returned from a deployment to the notoriously violent Helmand Province. When asked about the most important work facing the coalition as it prepares to leave Afghanistan, he was adamant and clear: training the Afghans to evacuate their wounded.

[">PHOTOS: Inside a Combat Landing in Afghanistan] "I can't emphasize enough how important it is to get these right," he said plainly, adding that work is now "the absolute exclusive focus" of the region in which from which he had just returned.

It was an interesting concept that I had never thought of before, and one that I brought up with military leaders in the coming months, including Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chair, who agreed with Skeates' assessment. Dempsey pointed out to me that any troop regardless of affiliation will only leave the safety of the proverbial wire if he knows someone will come get him if he need saving.

[READ: 5 Things That Did (and Didn't) Happen in Afghanistan in 2013]

I developed contacts with the Air Force's Air Mobility Command, which is essentially the workhorse of the entire military to move people and equipment around the globe. After a series of phone calls, emails and repeated requests, I was able to secure a seat on a flight from the states to Afghanistan, with a quick stop in Germany.

This was my ticket to the better part of two weeks in and around Afghanistan this summer, where I experienced a sharp learning curve for a rookie journalist in his first conflict zone. A lot of the work reporting from a war involves convincing those who make decisions that you aren't going to get yourself killed. That was my first and hardest lesson.

[RELATED: U.S. News & World Report: The Best of 2013]

What resulted was a series of adventures that took me on rescue missions for Afghan troops wounded in distant and violent provinces, detainee transport flights, shutting down forward operating bases at the fringes of the war effort, treating troops crippled by IEDs, and profiling the teenagers front-and-center in our counterinsurgency fight.

It was an up-close look at the wrong end of war. The entirety of my trip and its lasting effects on me were defined by the people who choose to continually put themselves in harm's way to help others -- and, as I learned, those who are struggling to stamp this skill set into the Afghan military. Some of the details of the experience -- details that didn't make it into my news reports -- are below.

A Reporter's Notes From Afghanistan

July 24, 2013

The lights inside the Air Force C-17 clicked off a few minutes before arrival in Bagram, leaving only the high-pitched whine of the engine, the bangs from the wings buckling against pockets of wind and the blackness outside the two circular windows.

Prior to leaving Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the air crew notified the passengers on board -- all military, plus one reporter and his fixer -- that this flight would end with a combat landing. Insurgents hidden in the foothills of the soaring mountains that surround Bagram have learned that U.S. military planes are able to evade many of their rocket propelled grenades and other weaponry, and instead have invested in high-powered lasers they shine into the cockpit in the hopes that it might sear one of the pilots' retinas. Turning off all visible lights on board gives the crew a chance at slipping in to the busiest air base within the entire Defense Department roster before any enemy can zero in on the inbound flight pattern.

After a few moments of darkness, very dim red bulbs click on in the cabin as the plane dips sharply and accelerates. Pilots cannot reveal the maneuvers they employ to avoid the "weapons envelop" of enemy fighters. But my handler, a former Air Force enlisted mechanic for cargo planes and now a public affairs officer, informs me that aircraft this large do not usually engage this kind of alarming dive when approaching a friendly air base.