Reporter's Notebook: Operation Mountain Lion

Greg Palkot
I've been on a lot of military embedments since 9/11. Some of them have been longer. Some of them have been more dangerous. But none of them has been as physically grueling as the one I was on recently with the D.O. Platoon of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Regiment Marines.

It was part of Operation Mountain Lion, an effort to rid an area of northeastern Afghanistan of remnants of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other terror groups. It is an area of mountains, ravines, and treacherous paths — one of the most rugged sections of a rugged country.

I had no connection to the Internet during the operation, so only now can I offer some notes of my time with the troops.

Tuesday Night/Wednesday Morning, April 11-12

I'm standing with my cameraman, Pierre Zakzrewski, and producer Kim Miller, waiting with the D.O. Platoon for our chopper to "insert us" into the battle space from the Asadabad Forward Operating Base. We all are carrying heavy back (and front) packs. The Marines' packs are filled with ammo and other war gear. Ours are filled with TV gear. It's getting cold.

Pep talks are given to the men. They're young; most are around 20 to 21 years old. And then group prayer. And another group prayer. Not deep and liturgical. More along the lines of, "Oh God, see us through this mission and make sure we get back to see our family and girlfriends."

The Chinook arrives, and we trundle out. The officer barks at us to move faster. Not easy when you're carrying 80-plus pounds. Then, as we stand beneath the whirring chopper blades, we're turned around and told to go back. Our bird has sprung a gas leak. We'll have to find another. Oh boy, that's a great start.

Several other choppers come and go before ours arrives and we pile in. It's about 1:30 a.m. now. Noisy. Crowded. Dark. We only have to travel a few minutes and a few miles, but it's over tall mountains. I look ahead and I can see through the front windshield. It's an incredible sight. The chopper appears ready to crash head-on into the side of one precipice after another, only to veer away at the last moment. It's disorienting, and after watching this for about five minutes, I stop.

We finally stop at our drop-off point. It's the wrong one, but we'll go with it. I was informed by Lt. Desantis, the Commander of D.O. Platoon, that we'd have to hike about 150 feet away and wait a bit. That's when I realized that nothing would be quite as fluid as it had been presented. We marched up sharp sand-shifting ground — altitude about 9,000 feet — as fast as we can. I'm not in perfect shape by any means, but I'm not completely out of shape. I've never been so winded in my entire life.

We learn that another bird had a more difficult time of it. It touched down on a jagged outcropping of rock. Teetering left and right, its blades were almost touching the ground. Some of the Marines had already gotten out. In mid-landing it had to raise its back hatch and fly off, nearly crushing two Marines in the process of disembarking.

After a few minutes of blessed break, we're off again. Pierre tells me climbing up with heavy packs is better than coming down. I suppose, but it's not that much fun when the ground beneath your feet is a shifting mass of rocks, gravel, dirt, sand and tree branches. Oh, and it's dark. Luckily, there's a full moon.

After about two hours of this, we reached our first resting point, at 9,000 feet above sea level. We roll out our sleeping bags on the rocks and stumps. Some poor guys can't sleep. They've got to stand watch. But we don't get too much sleep either. It's teeth-chatteringly cold, no matter how many layers we have on. Oh, and we also have a bite from our MRE, Meals-Ready-to-Eat. But we don't take the time to warm it up. Cold beef patty in mushroom sauce.

Tomorrow: Exploring a Ghost town, and sleeping at an 85-degree incline!

Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.