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)
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Once on the ground, the medical crew traveling with us began unpacking supplies from the 10-foot tall square box with large Red Cross "+" locked to the deck of the plane. These airmen are responsible for picking up any critically wounded troops and returning them safely to Ramstein for the medical care unavailable at this forward post. I ask a major, who has been doing these missions for 17 years and is currently on his fourth rotation, what to expect when the doors open. He pauses and says, "This is one of those jobs where you hope you won't be busy." He offers a melancholy smile and turns to meet the ground crew that just walked up the ladder to the cabin floor. He comes back with a manifest: Fourteen total evacuees, four critically wounded. Two have traumatic brain injury, likely from an improvised explosive device. One has a broken ulna after getting shot in the arm, and another suffers from paralysis due to "terrorism."

I want to stay to see more of the enduring effects of the 66,000 troops we still have on the ground in Afghanistan, but my fixer insisted we had to leave to catch the bus to the terminal. The medical crew I spoke with say that the numbers of U.S. wounded have sharply declined since turning over more of the fighting responsibility to the Afghans. But that doesn't seem to make much difference on board this plane.

July 28, 2013

Perhaps I should have predicted this, but the moments that have been the most notable for me on this embed included close proximity to an Afghan.

The first was a flight by C-130 down to Camp Bastion/Camp Leatherneck, the seat of the coalition presence Helmand Province and one of the historically most violent regions during the war. On the way down, we flew a Taliban fighter who was sent up to Bagram to seek medical attention. He described pains to his captors consistent with kidney stones, so the coalition assigned him two (very) British guards to escort him up to Bagram for a full body examination. (It turns out he's fine).

He was a rather squirrely young man who fidgeted for most of the trip in the jump seat across from me on the plane. His armed guards were nonchalant for the most part, until he lifted his manacled hands to try to lift up the blacked out goggles covering his eyes. His handlers warned him once, then forcefully returned his hands to his lap.

I almost wasn't allowed on the flight because the powers-that-be thought it could be a security risk for a civilian like me. I was able to convince one of the Public Affairs Officers with whom I'd been working that I wouldn't cause any trouble and wouldn't take any photographs, in accordance with the Geneva Convention's policy toward detainees.

It struck me how dangerous everyone considered this young man, whose skinny ankles protruded from loose fitting pajamas and barely filled the insides of his rubber sandals. He was confused about whether he should remove his traditional beaded cap, which he thought might make him too hot, and casually asked for a barf bag when he thought he might be airsick.

He seemed much more of a frightened refugee than a hardened fighter of whom we should all be afraid.

The next time I saw an Afghan up close, he was on a ventilator with gauze stuffed into a bullet hole in his left shoulder. A medevac crew from storied callsign "Dustoff" (Look it up. They're pretty cool) allowed me on their HH-60 Blackhawk helicopter for a night mission to the increasingly violent Jalalabad, where they picked up the wounded Afghan National Army Soldier. He had been fighting in the also increasingly violent Kunar Province, near the mountainous border with Pakistan, when he had been shot.

The crew chief on the plane turned around to me after their had secured the patient, and began to explain to me what all the dials and gauges meant on the computer screens mounted over the litter onto which the ANA trooper was strapped. After pointing to his breathing rate, I asked if he was breathing on his own. "Nope," he responded. "The medications sedate him and basically paralyze him. We've taken control of his body. Pretty cool, huh?"