For the soldiers at Nolen base near Kandahar — 80 Americans and 30 Afghans — the tension rarely let up for long.
Gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades struck every day in the 40-degree (95 F) heat. In between firefights with the Taliban, the soldiers would be out on their twin missions: to hunt for insurgents and buried bombs, and to win the trust of the villagers among whose mud-walled homes they were camped.
At 6 a.m. on July 29, I had just woken up when I heard a huge explosion. Rushing outside, I saw a tall column of smoke just 20 meters (60 feet) away, and soldiers walking toward me carrying Spc. Jeremy Kuehl. His squad had been all set to go on patrol when it triggered a homemade bomb or IED, an improvised explosive device. PV2 James Stenett was injured in the face. Kuehl lost a leg.
This summer, an Associated Press photographer took pictures of a wounded U.S. soldier being evacuated from the Afghan battlefield after losing a leg. Months later another AP photographer visited him at a clinic in Washington, D.C. Here are their reports, in words and photos.
As they waited for the rescue helicopter, the soldiers held a tourniquet to Kuehl's leg, assured him help was on the way, and fired a red flare to signal one of the few flat patches that could serve as a landing zone. Kuehl was in shock but remained conscious, answering the troops' questions. The mood was hyper-tense.
Within 20 minutes of the explosion, the Medevac helicopter landed in a thick cloud of dust. Kuehl and Stenett were loaded on board. It took off just a couple of minutes later.
It was the last I saw of Jeremy Kuehl, but The Associated Press would meet him again a month later when my colleague, Emilio Morenatti, visited him.
— By Rodrigo Abd
Sitting in a wheelchair at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., the 24-year-old soldier from Altoona, Iowa, smiles as he stares into the computer screen and sees himself on a stretcher. Flipping from photo to photo, he narrates the last minutes of his war in Afghanistan, 11,000 kilometers (7,000 miles) away. His voice barely audible, he remembers the name and rank of each of the soldiers who got him to the rescue helicopter.
Then he falls silent, swivels in his wheelchair and goes to his room for some rest before his physiotherapy begins.
Kuehl knows that I'm a fellow patient, having lost my leg to an IED while on assignment in Afghanistan, and am back at Walter Reed for a checkup. He's curious to see my leg; is it computerized? I tell him I prefer a mechanical one, because the high-tech kind is apt to break down if you run.
On my visits to the amputee clinic over the course of six months, I have seen the number of patients swell as the war has ramped up. The physiotherapists and prosthetics makers can hardly cope.
Kuehl lies down on a spare bed and asks for a couple of weights to work out his pectoral muscles. "Before, I could lift more than 60 kilograms; now I barely can (lift) 15," he says as he struggles with the dumbbell. His left leg is a bandaged stump above the knee. His right leg, also injured, is in a splint.
He returns to his bed and lies on his back, eyes fixed on the ceiling. Sitting in a corner is his aunt Janice. The day before, he was visited by President Barack Obama, who gave him a Purple Heart, the medal for being wounded in combat.
Kuehl is with 1-320th Alpha Battery, 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, and its symbol, the Screaming Eagle, decorates his sweat shirt, the entrance to his room, and the Airborne's flag hanging on the wall. The Purple Heart lies on his bedside table.
The room is adorned with messages from relatives and friends. The one from Obama says: "To Jeremy, The Nation Is Proud Of You."
— Emilio Morenatti