September 21, 2006
Have you ever seen a space shuttle launch when they cut to the NASA control room? It's like that. They call it "the Bridge" — a top-secret command and control center for the army at Bagram Air Base located an hour outside Kabul. My friend, Maj. Gen. Ben Freakely, who I knew from the invasion of Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division, invited me inside.
"No notes please," said an officer. It is an honor to be allowed into this room; an expression of trust. There are live feeds from drones over Afghanistan that take real-time photos of the battlefield. The "Commanders' Brief" as it's called, goes through a series of conference calls from across the country — everything from army officers who check in with the latest 'what-happened-where-this-day', to intelligence reports of enemy movements across the border.
Today they talk about 87 rockets that were fired at U.S. bases from just inside the Afghan border, near Pakistan. Freakely tells me, "Fortunately the enemy can't aim." They didn't do any serious damage.
You get the impression in this room that if a mouse passes gas in Afghanistan, you'll know it. But an officer tells me later that the room can be deceiving; you think you know what's going on, but you really only know the full story by getting out. And that's what we intend to do.
September 22, 2006
After sleeping at Bagram Air Base overnight, we are on the tarmac watching an Air Force ballet as big Chinook helicopters "spin up" and taxi for take-off.
A fast-mover A-10 Warthog, followed by a Harrier jet buzz the airfield. We're waiting for Maj. Gen. Freakely to take off in his Blackhawk for a tour of the east of Afghanistan. The helicopter engines run for 15-20 minutes before Freakely shows up. I get a few laughs on the aircraft intercom when I say, "I guess two-star generals can burn all the fuel they want, right?"
We're joined by a local governor who seems cool. I wouldn't be so relaxed knowing in the last few weeks the Taliban killed one governor, and killed 18 more people trying to assassinate a second governor in Afghanistan.
Freakely is super-positive. He thinks the country is getting better every day, and explains away a Taliban resurgence by saying it's because the army is pushing further and further into areas it has never gone, that it is now stirring the hornet’s nest.
We then travel to Gayan for a school opening, but there's a near-riot when soldiers hand out pens to the Afghan kids. I gave them a few Tic Tacs. For some reason Afghan kids hate mints and they spit them on the ground!
September 23, 2006
I don't know what it is, but every time I buy new ones... crunch.
We went to Forward Operating Base Solerno today to interview Col. John Nicholson of the 10th Mountain Division.
We were talking about how the Taliban have been getting bolder and bolder, attacking his forces — losing, but still attacking. Denis Levkovich (my awesome, but forgetful) cameraman walks away from the camera position and a humvee drives right over the new sunglasses.
Solerno has a Green Bean coffee outlet. They sprinkle chocolate that tastes like mud in my coffee.
We work until midnight on a story for "Special Report" on our trip with General Freakely. We get ready for an early start the next day — what we came here to do — get out with the troops and away from the Green Bean place! Chocolate sprinkles? My war zone tough-guy image just went down the toilet.
September 24, 2006
We take off early in a big Chinook helicopter, and just behind us is an Apache gunship flying shotgun.
That's a sign that where we're going is dangerous. It is.
FOB Tillman is named after the U.S. football star who died in Afghanistan. It looks like something out of a World War I movie — rugged, old stone buildings that ook like they could fall down. In fact, the roof fell in on a gym just before we got there, injuring a few soldiers.
Sgt. Morales, whom I will come to admire in the coming days, gives us a welcome tour.
"This is the mortar pit. This is the shelter. We get lots of rockets, and if in the middle of the night we start yelling 'to the wall,' it means we're under attack again. Stay out of the way."
Morales used to be a drill sergeant. He's hilarious, and loves to tell war stories. His patrol came under heavy machine-gun fire, and one of the guys took an RPG in the ribs — and lived!
"First time anyone lived who got a direct hit from an RPG. I helped pull him out under fire," he says. Then he tells us, "you have a very good chance of getting shot at on the patrol tomorrow. Very good."
Thanks Morales. Tell me more after our patrol, would ya?
September 25, 2006
There's not a lot of joking as we roll out. Soldiers at FOB Tillman say we have a fifty-fifty chance of getting attacked as we patrol along the Afghan-Pakistan border. I wear a helmet, which I hardly ever do all day, but I believe Sgt. Morales.
Ten minutes into the patrol, one of the humvees gets stuck in mud. The soldiers say, "don't take our picture." I explain to them that there is no yelling 'stop' in this embed business. If you take us, we decide when to push record, and when to stop. It's a good chance to set the rules.
The patrol lasts seven hours. It's hot. It's uncomfortable. And it's right through the heart of Taliban territory — down roads nicknamed "IED alley." (IED- Improvised Explosive Device or roadside bomb.)
I follow Capt. Scott Horrigan through villages as he tries to chat up the locals. One of the soldiers keeps pointing at the cornfield next to us. "See the corn that is down here, and there? Someone is hiding inside and watching us." I think it's a dog. Maybe it wasn't. No one goes in to find out.
The 10th Mountain Division hires local Afghan security guards called ASG, who scout ahead of us for ambushes.
One of the guys is called "Snoop," because he seriously resembles the rap singer. Thing is, he has killed at least 20 people. A real fighter. I call him Snoop, and he gives me a look like I'm going to be #21.
No ambushes this day. "Sorry we didn't get you shot at,” says one soldier. "That's just fine," I tell him, and mean it. The only shot fired is when we re-enter the FOB. A soldier doesn't clear his weapon, and it goes off. He's doing push-ups while we go off to eat food that has to taste good after a day like this.
September 26, 2006
Capt. Scott Horrigen wants to check out the local Afghan market not far from FOB Tillman. It's an area where, sometimes, Taliban fighters go for medical help after being wounded in gunfights with U.S. troops.
Market? This looks like a barnyard with a few shacks. A wagon in the center sells apples. An Afghan man slices up some lamb covered in flies. Maryam, our producer, somehow finds a shop where they sell Afghan T-shirts. 'Snoop,' our Afghan security guard has decided he likes us, and we get gifts of scarves to wrap over our faces to filter the dust.
At night, I sit in the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) and talk to Spec. Pedro Quezada about the recent Taliban attack on Observation Post 4. Quezada says, "I was scared s***less, I mean I thought I was going to die that night — I think we came as close as anyone. Screw the Taliban, man."
Up to a hundred Taliban attacked the post at 9:30 at night. It was a steady stream of gunfire. The fight lasted two hours and American air support never showed until it was all over. There was so much fighting, the soldiers were down to two magazines of ammo. Quezado says at the end, he started throwing sleeping cots out the bunker window so Taliban fighters would trip over them, "and then we could shoot them before they came inside... it was really bad."
An RPG hit just in front of Quezado, knocking his night-vision goggles off, and knocking him out for a minute or two. The 240 machine gun was knocked out too. "We went through practically everything we had, thousands of rounds." So they started throwing grenades... and ran out of those as well.
Seven Purple Hearts, 6 Valor awards, 3 Bronze Stars, and 3 Army commendation medals for the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry, 10th Mountain Division, — but they almost got overrun by the Taliban they say. There would have been no awards then.
BLACKHAWKS TO BAGRAM
September 27, 2006
Helicopters pick us up in the morning to leave the soldiers — and now our friends — from FOB Tillman. Capt. Scott Horrigan’s wife is going to have a baby in a week or so. I tell him to please e-mail me.
When I spend a few days with these guys, I always feel guilty about leaving them. I wish I could take them with me. We leave them some FOX hats and T-shirts.
Denis the cameraman, and Tom our security advisor are playing football on the LZ (Landing Zone) as we wait.
Capt. Horrigan says, "a Russian and a Brit trying to play American football... good luck guys." He's right, that football looks like a wounded bird.
Sgt. Morales says, "we know whenever visiting reporters leave, we’ll get hit in a day or two. It always happens." I say, "consider me your lucky charm, you won't get attacked." I really wish I'm the 2-87th lucky charm... Stay lucky guys.
The Blackhawks take two hours to get us back to Bagram Air Base, stopping to pick up soldiers at three more FOBs. Bagram, which initially looked like an ugly air base in the middle of nowhere, suddenly, after being at FOB Tillman, looks like the Big City.
September 28, 2006
It's a quiet day as we set up our next story — an embed with British troops — so we go to Chicken Street in Kabul.
They sell everything and nothing here. For example, old British Enfield rifles. From other visits here, I know most of them are not real. The stones, they say, are ruby and emerald. Hmmm. I'm not sure they're real either. And lots of old antiques including Russian service medals from when the Russians invaded in the 80's.
The thing is...Chicken Street tells me a lot about the security of Afghanistan. Usually on a Friday it's bustling with embassy people and NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and even NATO soldiers. At least it was two years ago. But today, it's kind of spooky — just our FOX News team and a couple of guys who look like Aussie contractors. One guy with a gun stays on look-out on the street while his buddy buys one of those glass, I mean emerald, rings.
Most people are too chicken to come to Chicken Street after a string of bombings in Afghanistan.
I tell everyone, "Lets get going... feels like we've been here too long."
Dana Lewis is a FOX News Channel correspondent based in Moscow. Click here to read his complete bio.