Helmand Province, Afghanistan – First in a series
Helmand Province, Afghanistan – To Americans of my generation and older, Korea is “The Forgotten War.” For this generation, it’s Afghanistan – or to be precise, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).
This seven-year long campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the shadow of the Hindu Kush didn’t start out as a “forgotten war.” On October 7, 2001, less than a month after the 9-11 attack, OEF began with a salvo of Tomahawk cruise missiles and raids by B-1s, B-2s, B-52s and waves of carrier-based aircraft. For the next month the entire world was riveted as Afghan “Northern Alliance” troops – bolstered by U.S. Special Operations Forces and CIA teams – swept south toward Kabul.
The November 9 liberation of the capital was an international press event. When the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) landed at Forward Operating Base (FOB) “Rhino” on 25 November to cut Taliban/Al Qaeda escape routes into Pakistan, reporters clamored to cover the operation. For the next sixteen months, most of the so-called "mainstream media" provided at least some regular coverage of the hunt for Usama bin Laden.
Then came Iraq. The start of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 20, 2003 created a virtual news vacuum in Afghanistan, and it has been pretty much like that ever since. Though there have been brief moments of media interest – like the October 9, 2004 election that brought President Hamid Karzai to power – the potentates of the press have largely ignored developments in Afghanistan and focused on predictions of disaster in Mesopotamia.
Hopefully, that is about to change. Success in Iraq is now an undeniable reality. Here in Afghanistan, the NATO International Security Force Commander, U.S. Army General David D. McKiernan, is calling for more troops to launch a vigorous offensive against a resurgent Taliban. Here in southern Helmand Province, it has already begun.
For the past week, our FOX News “War Stories” team has been embedded with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (24 MEU) – a Marine Air-Ground Task Force, deployed from Camp Lejeune, N.C. We’re now at Combat Outpost “Bravo” with Weapons Company of 1st Battalion, 6th Marines – a unit we last accompanied in Ramadi, Iraq during December 2006. The following accounts are from dispatches we have filed since re-joining this “band of brothers” in the new “forgotten war.”
- Garmsir, Afghanistan, August 2, 2008:
It is more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit – and the Marines who have been fighting here since April, say that it is cooler now than a month ago when temperatures topped 124 degrees. The bright sunlight is oppressive and a fine dust, the consistency of talcum powder, permeates everything. Terrain more than a few hundred meters from the Helmand River or an irrigation canal looks like desolate lunar landscape. In this climate, drinking at least eight liters of water a day is essential for survival.
According to Lt. Col Anthony Henderson, the Commanding Officer of Battalion Landing Team 1/6, nearly half the Marines in this unit were with us in Iraq. Some have made as many as five combat deployments. All of them are volunteers. Though the Marines don’t tally “body counts,” the Helmand Provincial Government credits the Marines with killing more than 400 enemy combatants in this Taliban stronghold. No one here disputes the number.
- Strongpoint “Bravo,” August 3, 2008:
The IED – an improvised explosive device – detonated directly beneath the lead vehicle of our first patrol. The explosion blew Chris Jackson, our FOX News cameraman from his seat on the right rear of the vehicle. Though heavily armored, the HUMVEE was immediately engulfed in flames.
Trapped in the front of the burning vehicle were the wounded driver, Corporal Arnaldo Figueroa, and Sergeant Courtney Rauch. Despite his own wounds from shrapnel, Jackson immediately jumped up and rushed back to the flaming vehicle to rescue Sergeant Rauch.
As ammunition “cooked off” inside the vehicle, Chris helped the Marines drag Sgt. Rauch and Cpl. Figueroa to safety behind the next vehicle in the column. While medical corpsmen, Jose Peña and Gregory Cox administered first aid to the wounded, Lt. John Branson deployed his Marines to secure a helicopter landing zone.
Within minutes of the explosion, an armed UH1N “Huey” and an AH1J “Cobra” gunship appeared overhead – followed immediately by a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter. Less than 20 minutes after the blast that had wounded them, the two Marine casualties were in the air headed for the hospital.
It has been my great blessing to have spent most of my life in the company of heroes – people who put themselves at risk for the benefit of others. That certainly defines the young Americans here in Marine Expeditionary Unit 24. Hero is a word that also applies to our FOX News cameraman, Canadian Chris Jackson.
Oliver North hosts War Stories on FOX News Channel and is the author of the new best-seller, "American Heroes: In The War Against Radical Islam."