Back From The Front Lines In Helmand Province

NPR photographer David Gilkey in southern Afghanistan. i i

hide captionNPR photographer David Gilkey traveled with Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province. The platoon he was embedded with came under extensive fire while he was with them.

Carlos Boettcher
NPR photographer David Gilkey in southern Afghanistan.

NPR photographer David Gilkey traveled with Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province. The platoon he was embedded with came under extensive fire while he was with them.

Carlos Boettcher

More From The Interview

The new U.S. offensive in Afghanistan launched earlier this month is meant to bring stability to a region that has been a stronghold for the Taliban.

About 4,000 Marines are engaged in the largest American military operation in years. They are focusing on rooting out the Taliban in Helmand province in the southern part of the country.

Two NPR staffers — All Things Considered producer Graham Smith and staff photographer David Gilkey — are traveling with Marines with the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment. The unit, known as "America's Battalion," is part of the massive operation.

They have just returned from Helmand province and spoke to NPR from Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Madeleine Brand: I understand that you were split up. You were with two separate companies and have two distinctly different stories.

Graham Smith: I went in with a group called Fox Company. There are three different infantry companies as part of this battalion. We were up north. We came in on helicopters expecting a big fight, and instead, it ended up being establishing a compound and starting to meet with elders and all of the things people are supposed to do as part of a counter-insurgency.

So while you were watching Marines there try to win hearts and minds, David, you were doing something different. First, you went on a routine patrol, and then I understand that you were split off and 24 hours turned into a lot longer.

David Gilkey: Right. The first three days of the operation went pretty much as expected. After that, the platoon I was with was tasked with a 24-hour mission to support another unit. When we did that, we went further south and encountered an incredible amount of resistance, which resulted in a lot of firefights, and that particular unit didn't get back north for almost eight days.

So what you thought would be 24 hours turned into eight days, and you were there the whole time, shooting pictures and walking with these Marines in this incredible heat.

David Gilkey: Correct. And the thing about it was, we weren't only separated from the Marines that formed the company as a whole, but all of our gear, everyone — including the Marines — left their backpacks, so we literally were walking with the clothes on our backs.

In 130-degree heat.

David Gilkey: Right.

David, you took some incredible pictures when you were embedded and in the middle of these firefights. You were really right up in there, right in the middle of those firefights. What were you thinking when you were taking those shots?

David Gilkey: These things start with a "crack." It's someone shooting at you. It sounds very different. I'm sure most people have been around a weapon when it's fired. It's a very, very different noise when it's being fired at you. The first thing is that everybody is in a ditch or on the ground and trying to get as low as possible. But once the Marines establish which direction the fire is coming from, it's a very well-choreographed response to it. I just move with them and almost copy their actions, short of shooting a weapon. I'm shooting a camera instead.

Are you going on autopilot in a sense?

David Gilkey: Absolutely. And the other thing is it's a lot easier when you're looking through the lens. I find that as long as I am shooting pictures, and we're running along, and I'm doing my job, I'm fine. It's when we get to the point where we all have to run as fast as we can or move to a place where I'm not going to be taking pictures that I actually start realizing what's going on.

Graham and David, you two were just a couple of miles apart, and yet you had such different experiences. It's almost as if you were in two different wars.

Graham Smith: It's absolutely true. The Helmand River valley is an area that was completely controlled by the Taliban for such a long time, and I think that in different parts of it, they just reacted differently. It's not as if there is a huge organizing principle that the Taliban seem to be working off of. So, any given stretch of road, any given village is going to have really different dynamics.

David Gilkey: Each village you go to has its own dynamic. I also think because we were moving to the south, we were pushing the fighters out of the way as we were walking. You mention that it was a couple of miles. In this particular case, as we walked, it could be less than that, a couple of hundred of yards. In one village you would have a gunfight; in the next, people would welcome you.

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