You get a lot of advice when you tell people you’re about to embed with the Army in southern Afghanistan.
Don’t go, your grandmother tells you.
Pack a tourniquet, well-meaning friends suggest.
Give ‘em hell, rabble rousing editors bellow.
Don’t try to interview al Qaida, your practical fiancé says.
I take the advice to heart, and appreciate all the more the couple reporters and veterans who say simply, “Have fun.”
Fun? In Afghanistan? While lugging around body armor, satellite equipment and your own expectations to do you best work ever every single day?
That’s enough to bring some color back to your face. I hope grandma cracks a smile, too.
The News Tribune is sending photographer Peter Haley and me to Afghanistan this week to report on Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers who are guiding the war from Kabul and executing efforts to hand over more responsibility for security to local forces in southern provinces.
Whatever we see, the embed will be the second most important thing I do this year. I’m getting married this summer back home in California.
I want to do this embed to learn more about the men and women I write about here in the South Sound. I’m hoping the experience will be just as safe and productive as my two reporting trips to Iraq for McClatchy Newspapers. If all goes well, I’ll return with a better perspective that I can put to use on the military beat at home.
It’s a dark moment to begin this journey just after this weekend’s massacre of 16 Afghan civilians in Kandahar Province at the hands of an American soldier. We’ll do our best to report on how those homicides impact the scene on the ground for Lewis-McChord troops.
We’re mostly flying with the Army to Kuwait and then on to Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan.
From there, we plan to spend several weeks reporting on soldiers from Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in Zabul Province. We also have plans to spend a week with commanders from Lewis-McChord’s I Corps in Kabul.
We have extra time built in our trip to catch other Washington state soldiers in southern Afghanistan if opportunities arise to meet them, though we understand traveling around the country is challenging because of its terrain and climate.
We’ll be sending stories and photos home for print in The News Tribune, and posting updates when we can to the blog here at FOB Tacoma.
Lewis-McChord has a large and growing imprint in Afghanistan this year even as the Defense Department withdraws its “surge” level forces. About 4,700 Lewis-McChord soldiers are serving there today, and nearly 5,800 more are on their way this spring. Most of them will be serving in the southern Afghanistan provinces Peter and I will see on our embed.
Zabul offers us a great setting to learn about the war and about what it might take for NATO to withdraw from Afghanistan. A Special Forces major wrote in The New York Times last month that Zabul has some of the first Afghan army units that are certified as capable to fight on their own. Meanwhile, Stars and Stripes last month reported on a Taliban leader who changed sides in that province.
Lewis-McChord’s soldiers there are supervising an international coalition of forces, partnering with the Afghan army, steering resources to the local economy and preparing for the annual summer fighting season.
They face the same dangers threatening the rest of NATO: A man in an Afghan uniform in January killed a Fort Wainwright soldier at a Zabul base while the young man played a game of volleyball in his downtime. Six American service members have been killed in the same fashion since the Feb. 20 uproar over burned Qurans at Bagram Air Base.
Peter and I bring different experiences to this embed. He reported from Iraq three times on embeds for The News Tribune early in the war. I spent four months overseas between my two assignments in McClatchy’s Baghdad bureau in 2008-09.
Peter’s past work more closely resembles what we’ll likely do over the next couple months – traveling with American soldiers and learning everything we can about what they’re asked to do.
My Baghdad assignments, by contrast, largely kept me covering Iraqi violence, politics and everyday life for a country rocked by the American invasion and ensuing sectarian war. I lived and worked in a hotel outside of the Green Zone and traveled the city in soft cars, never staying in one place long enough to draw too much attention to myself.
My embeds over those periods were generally short and targeted to specific stories. For example, I spent a few days with California National Guard soldiers at a remote base in northern Iraq, and I reported on a provincial reconstruction team that was working to restore agriculture businesses in southern Iraq. The daily grind of Baghdad news as the Bush administration prepared for the withdrawal of U.S. forces kept calling me back to the bureau instead of hitting the dirt with the Army in late 2008, as did terrible violence targeted at Iraqi institutions in the summer of 2009.
My best stories from those assignments were helped by an outstanding crew of Iraqi journalists hired and developed by former McClatchy Baghdad bureau chiefs Hannah Allam, Nancy Youssef and Leila Fadel. I had a team of half a dozen Iraqis who wanted America to understand how the war impacted their countrymen, and they risked their lives to get those stories to McClatchy readers. I had even more resources when you count McClatchy’s Iraqi drivers who became security experts as they hustled us from story to story.
My team was too good to let me flail.
This embed will be different. I’ll be seeing this conflict almost entirely from the Western angle and learning more about what war does to our own countrymen.
Insha’Allah, Peter and I will tell you some stories you can’t find anywhere else.