Reporter's Notebook:Birth of the War on Terror

Greg Palkot
Sept. 11, 2006 — I think everyone pretty much knows where he or she was at that moment, five years ago, when our world changed. For me, I was just returning to the Reuters television office in Paris with my producer Cicely, after a shoot about illegal immigrants in France. A normally laid-back French cameraman met me at the door and told me in his heavily accented English, “Greg! You must come and see what’s happening!” I went over to the bank of monitors, stood there and watched in disbelief the scene unfold some 3,000 miles away.

When I first started watching, only the first plane had hit. An air traffic control mess-up? I wondered. Impossible. Then the second plane hit, and I knew it was terror, and that Usama bin Laden was behind it.

Calls went to family in the U.S. to make sure everyone was okay. It turned out my nephew Bobby was in the World Finance Center next door. He had made it out okay.

Then, calls to the office in New York. There were only two things I could do from that distance. First, reach every contact I had (terrorism had long been one of my beats) to get any information for FOX about this catastrophe. Second, book the first flight to Pakistan, and try to get into neighboring Afghanistan where bin Laden was thought to be. I knew I had to be there fast, and ever since then, it seems like everything has been on fast-forward.

Incredibly, the next night, I was having tea along with producer Kevin, cameraman Mal, and the Afghan Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. We had been to Afghanistan four months prior, nosing around for bin Laden and almost getting kicked out in the process. We smoothed that over, and tried to convince him to let us in.

For the most part, though, it was watching this first war from Pakistan, especially from the scruffy border cities of Peshawar and Quetta. Later, when the Taliban fell, we watched from various places inside Afghanistan, like Tora Bora, the now infamous bin Laden exit spot and the scene of “Operation Anaconda,” a bloody duel between U.S. forces and Al Qaeda/Taliban. There was also a lot of hanging around with troops, just waiting for an elusive enemy to show.

I do remember one day during my embedment at Bagram air base in late spring 2002. A Marine asked me then if I wanted to go into Iraq with him and his men. I said, “Are you kidding? We haven’t finished here in Afghanistan.” He said, “Trust me, we’re going in.”

He was right. By early fall, we were in Amman, Jordan and then in Baghdad for the beginning of chapter two in the war on terror. Tour, after tour, after tour, would follow — before, during, and after the main combat there, and of course, during the long occupation of Iraq, and the attempted handover of the country back to the people there.

Despite all the time and energy spent in Iraq by the U.S. and by me and FOX, I kept being drawn back to Afghanistan. That, to me, was where the story remained, and where the guys behind 9/11 remained.

In 2004, I was with cameraman Pierre, roaming the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Waziristan, tagging along with soldiers as they quizzed locals about any Al Qaeda sightings. In 2006, we were back again, this time in the Kunar area, with soldiers and Marines — again close to the border, and again chasing a faceless enemy. By that time, bin Laden was thought to be hiding out pretty safely across the border in Pakistan.

With all of this reporting (it seems like I’ve been away more than at home during the last five years), there’s been precious little time to reflect and actually feel emotion about the loss of 9/11. I was back in New York briefly for Thanksgiving 2001. I looked at the gaping hole in the skyline from the New Jersey side of the Hudson. I had lived in Brooklyn Heights before moving abroad and had woken up to the Twin Towers every morning. Finally, it began to sink in.

The following summer, I was moved listening to Bruce Springsteen’s album, “The Rising,” in my apartment in Paris. It’s a pretty apolitical, artistic statement about the heroism and the loss associated with that day. It was a lonely day.

By the time I did finally make it to Ground Zero, it already seemed like a very distant event. Still, the souvenir hawkers were still there, along with the tourists, and a cross made from the gnarled steel I-beams from the fallen Twin Towers.

The most poignant reminders for me of the tragic events of 9/11 came from the troops I spent time with over the years — the mid-rank Marine officer who had left the service and then re-enlisted after 9/11 happened, and the army officer who should have been at the Pentagon the moment the plane crashed into it. Instead, he was home with his family. He quickly pushed to leave his desk job and go out on the hunt.

Then, there are the young troops — what the older officers call the “9/11 Generation.” The young soldiers, sailors and Marines who signed up as soon as they could after the attacks and, at the young ages of 19, 20, or 21, found themselves in dusty foxholes in an Iraqi desert, or windy precipices in craggy Afghanistan, or healing from terrible wounds back home in middle America.

It's been a long five years since 9/11. I need only look at the pile of clothing and gear I’ve collected over the years to remind me of that. At the same time, though, it does seem like it happened just yesterday. Let’s hope all that was done, and all that was lost, was not in vain, and let’s hope that another 9/11 doesn’t happen again.

E-mail Greg Palkot

"Thank you for the article on 9/11. Your reporting is always concise and right on target. Thank you for helping bring the true stories of the war on terror." — Marlene (Charlotte, NC)

“Thanks Mr. Palkot. Our eyes and ears have been on you — and the great war correspondents at FOX News. Your knowledge and experience is vast and your keen mind exceptional. We want to thank you, in particular and all the war correspondents at FOX News, for doing so much for this country and individual citizens. You all give us the truth that we so desperately need.” — Annie and Neatie (Newton, TX)

“I'm a big fan of yours before, during, and after Iraqi Freedom. I'm glad you and your crew stand by fair and balanced reporting. Stay safe in your reporting over seas and God bless you and your colleagues. And, if not watching you on cable, than I'll be checking you out on the God speed to you and yours.” — Robert

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.