Photo Essay

From the front

First Snow

"The Taliban will not be ready for negotiations until the U.S. and its allies leave our country, we will pursue our jihad against America and its allies until they leave our country. After that ... then the Taliban will be ready for negotiations." - Qari Yousef Ahmadi, Taliban spokesman. All too familiar rhetoric in the now six year long 'war on terror'; and that was what we were expecting when we deployed to Afghanistan in February 2006. What we found when we arrived in country was another story entirely.

It was shocking to witness the absolute poverty of so many people in Afghanistan. We had been briefed repeatedly on what to expect but for so many of us it still came as a shock because we hadn't seen or experienced anything even remotely similar to relate it to. I recall watching the local workers collecting trash from our dumpsters around FOB Salerno shortly after we arrived; the workers would wade through the dumpsters fishing out broken odds and ends to keep and take home with them, some even fighting over particularly large finds. And in all their generosity the US Army paid the poor wretches a dollar a day for 8 hours hard labor. Outside of the FOBs it only got worse. Many of the people around Camp Keating (locally called Kamdesh) live in the most basic mud huts with thatch roofs. A good majority of the population of the village of Kamdesh are still subsistence farmers, working small back yard sized patches of land with primitive hand tools in order to support a family of in upwards of four people at times. These were not people whose livelihoods had been devastated by the war, this is just how they lived, and have lived for the last two thousand years. Of all the things we could have done to effect change on this Neolithic community our squadron devoted almost all of our humanitarian resources to 'micro-hydro' power supplies in a ridiculous attempt to provide electricity to a people most of whom don't even have doors on their houses or food on their tables. If not for the AK-47s and RPGs you could argue with some credibility that the people of Nuristan Afghanistan have remained unchanged since Alexander the Great first conquered the region.

Our unit, 3-71 Cavalry 3rd Brigade Combat Team 10th Mountain division, spent a majority of our deployment in the Nuristan province, the eastern most portion of Afghanistan. The entire eastern boundary of our operational area was defined by the Pakistani border, and indeed much of our mission revolved around attempting to stem the tide of insurgents and weapons flowing in from Pakistan. During our time in Nuristan we essentially built three combat outposts from the ground up; Naray, Camp Keating and Camp Lybert (the later two named after deceased soldiers). It was out of these three small bases that we were expected to control a patch of rugged mountainous terrain larger then any other operational area in theater. The mountains were so constricting to our movement that outside of the single road connecting the small bases we were never able to conduct any successful operations more then a couple kilometers from our camps or the road. Even those few missions that we did run into the mountains were by and large unsuccessful due to the extreme conditions.

In Nuristan we were not fighting the Taliban at all but another group called Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin or HIG. The HIG presence in the area was primarily a response to our presence in the area. Before the arrival of US forces in Nuristan a robust lumber smuggling operation had been the biggest concern in the area but US forces upset the status quo and turned previously neutral smugglers into an anti-US insurgency. The tactics employed by the HIG were fairly simple in character but deadly in effect. The insurgents built many fighting positions along the mountains and ridges overlooking the one road in our operational area and would ambush convoys with RPG and small arms from these positions then fall back into caves or over the ridges out of sight when indirect assets were brought to bear. Ambushes could be stretched out over a stretch of several miles and commonly came from across the river from our convoys ensuring that we could not pursue them when they ran. Typically they would attempt to disable a vehicle in front of the convoy to block the road and trap the rest of the vehicles on the road. Using this simple strategy the HIG were able to hit us almost at will, disappear when it got to intense and prevent us from ever pursuing them after the initial contact.

The missions we ran while we were in Nuristan had all of the strategic and tactical use of Pickett's charge; and our command seemed to desire the same effect. One of our primary missions was transportation of food and supplies back and forth between Naray and Camp Keating. There is only one road connecting the two camps and it was usually in a sorry state of repair. The road is entirely dirt, at it's widest there was enough room for a HMVEE to turn around but little more, at it's narrowest your wheels were be hugging the edge; and a majority of the road ran on the sides of the mountains with hundred foot drops the consequence of any deviation from the narrow dirt lane. The typical plan consited of us drive down the road waiting for the insurgents to attack us. During one daylight mission D Company drove a LMTV (a large military transport truck) from Naray to Camp Keating with a convoy that day. When they arrived at Camp Keating the convoy reported that it had been a very difficult for the LMTV to make the trip. Heedless of the report from the convoy that had brought it up and the better judgment of almost everyone involved the command ordered the LMTV to make the trip back to Naray with a convoy at night. The soldiers on the ground were so sure of the mission's failure that they manned the LMTV with minimal personnel in the eventuality of a roll over but they couldn't sway the command to cancel the mission. Less then two miles from the gate of Camp Keating the road fell away under the tires of the LMTV and sent the truck and its occupants plummeting down a 300 foot cliff and into a river. LT Benjamin Keating (post-humously CPT) was killed and another solider was badly injured in the accident. In another similarly planned mission a small team of soldiers was inserted on top of a mountain out of range of all indirect assets and without immediate medical evacuation plans. The resulting firefight left four US soldiers dead, including SGT Lybert whom Camp Lybert was named for. In all 3-71 suffered 9 KIA and a great many WIA from both combat and non-combat injuries.

Written by SPC Thomas Walton

11 Sep 2007

17 responses

  • Jacqueline

    Jacqueline gave props (17 Dec 2008):

    This was beautiful. You are a wonderful writer. Thank you so much for sharing your story and images.

  • Adam Rose

    Adam Rose gave props (17 Feb 2009):

    Great stuff, powerful images.

  • Dave Palazzolo

    Dave Palazzolo gave props (19 Feb 2009):

    Brilliant! Thanks for sharing!

  • Alex Manne

    Alex Manne gave props (2 Apr 2009):

    Great photos!! Can't wait for my chance.

  • Angki Purbandono

    Angki Purbandono gave props (22 May 2009):

    salute!

  • Dee Brown

    Dee Brown said (29 May 2009):

    First and foremost... Thank You for serving Our Country. I know it's not an easy job, I for one am glad you did yours. Once a Navy wife, I can appreciate what you have done and the sacrifices you and your family made. Your photos and story have given the World an idea of what Our soldiers deal with on a daily routine. Again, Thank You for your great service to Our Country and for sharing your wonderful and expressive photos. Hoorah!

  • Scott Loop

    Scott Loop said (3 Aug 2009):

    Dee thank you for saying what i'm thanking. And Thomas I thank you for showing us your life on the other side. Keep up the photo's.

  • Alexandru Iedu

    Alexandru Iedu gave props (10 Aug 2009):

    Congratulation for this impressive story !!!

  • Nicole Mickle

    Nicole Mickle said (13 Aug 2009):

    You are absolutely amazing...One of my biggest inspirations as a military photographer....

  • Sean-Michael Gettys

    Sean-Michael Gettys gave props (2 Oct 2009):

    Thank you for sharing your experience through your words and photos.

  • Karen Foto Fiddler

    Karen Foto Fiddler (Deleted) gave props (3 Nov 2009):

    Powerful. I STAND AND SALUTE ALL OUR SOLDIERS! Great story.

  • Brenda Woodham

    Brenda Woodham (Deleted) gave props (29 Nov 2009):

    My oldest son spent almost a year and a half in Iraq at the begining of the war. My youngest just joined the AF. A mother's heart fills to the point of exploding with so much; fear, love, thankfulness...Thank you for this...

  • Tim Narraway

    Tim Narraway said (19 Jan 2010):

    Thank you for what you wrote, for your honesty. the world needs to hear. Its the old lie again: Dulce et declorum est pro partium mori.

  • Helle Bolther

    Helle Bolther said (24 Apr 2010):

    I just say wau !! Good reportage

  • Chris Preedy

    Chris Preedy (Deleted) gave props (22 Oct 2010):

    Thank you for sharing

  • Epin Hervin

    Epin Hervin gave props (2 Jul 2011):

    I cry pulitzer for your essay

  • Sandra Bilokonsky

    Sandra Bilokonsky gave props (28 Jul 2011):

    thank you

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