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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Now to Afghanistan: 4,000 are engaged in the largest American military operation in years. They're focusing on rooting out the Taliban in Helmand province, that's in the southern part of the country. Traveling with those Marines are two NPR staffers — ALL THINGS CONSIDERED producer Graham Smith and staff photographer David Gilkey. They've just returned from Helmand province. They join us from Kabul. Hello both of you.

GRAHAM SMITH: Hi. How are you doing Madeleine?

DAVID GILKEY: Hi. How are you?

BRAND: Now I understand, Graham and David, that you were split up. You were with two separate companies, and I want to hear both of your stories because you have two distinctly different stories, and let's start with you Graham.

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

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

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.

BRAND: 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.

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, everything -including the Marines left their backpacks. So we literally were walking with the clothes on our back.

BRAND: In a 130-degree heat.

GILKEY: Right.

BRAND: David, you took some incredible pictures when you were embedded and in the middle of these firefights and listeners can see them when they go to our blog. It's called the Two-Way at npr.org. And you were really right up in there, right in the middle of those firefights, those are some incredible pictures. What were you thinking when you were taking those shots?

GILKEY: Well, 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, I mean, it's a very well-choreographed response to it. And I just sort of move with them and almost copy their actions, short of shooting a weapon. I'm shooting a camera instead.

BRAND: And so are you kind of going on autopilot in a sense?

GILKEY: Absolutely. And the other thing, it's a lot easier when you're looking through the lens. I find that as long as I'm 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 sort of realizing what's going on.

BRAND: 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 it seems like.

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

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

BRAND: Thank you both very much for speaking with us.

GILKEY: Thanks a lot.

SMITH: Thank you Madeleine.

BRAND: NPR's David Gilkey and Graham Smith speaking to us from Afghanistan.

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