Saturday, December 6, 2008

East

I have been embedded with U.S. Army in Paktya province, Afghanistan, near Pakistan, for the past week. Above is the view from a dusty humvee window.

(Sorry mom and dad. I didn't want you to worry.)

It took a few weeks for the embed to be approved--I went to Kabul not knowing if it would come through at all. But on Nov. 25, I received notice that the embed had been approved and that I was expected at Bagram Air Field the next afternoon.

From Bagram I was transported the same day to Salerno Foward Operating Base in Khost province, where I spent Thanksgiving and the following day waiting for a helicopter flight to FOB Herrera in Paktya province.

So first of all, I haven't been shot at. Just fyi. I haven't come across any IED's, haven't been at the FOB for any rockets or indirect fire. According to the soldiers here, things have calmed down considerably. September was bad. October was quieter but not great. By the time I arrived at the end of November, it was starting to get cold and hopefully the Taliban will go into hibernation or back to whatever country they came from for the winter.


Being able to talk to the soldiers who put their lives on the line everyday has opened my eyes. The soldiers joined the Army for different reasons: ROTC college scholarships, to find some direction in life, and because they believed in serving their country. After 8 months here in Afghanistan, most of the people I have talked to just want to go home. Many of them are on their second or third deployment. Most have been to Iraq for a year or more. They have experienced IED explosions, rocket fire, bullets and ambushes. They have all experienced the pain of losing one of their own.

Having said all that, they are quite honestly doing the best they can. They go out every day and try to keep each other safe, but with courage, toughness and dedication.


I have accompanied two different platoons on missions every day since I arrived. The Calvalry Scouts are part of the 1st Squadron, 61st Calvalry, 4th Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. They are trained to find and kill "the bad guys," as many of them put it. They travel in convoys of humvees. Above, a gunner looks out from the gun turret of a humvee.


A few days ago, one of the missions got sidetracked when one of the platoon leaders saw a group of men parked next to the FOB, taking photographs with a cell phone. They appeared to be taking photographs of the convoy of soldiers as they drove down the road next to the FOB. Photographs of certain aspects of the FOB or the soldiers could be a serious security risk.

When confronted, the group was uncooperative and acting suspicious. They refused to give up the cell phone. Then they took the battery out so the soldiers couldn't see what photographs had been taken. They said they were Afghans, but they could have been Pakistanis, as the border is a short drive.


The man in this photograph was the one with the cell phone. He was actually staring down the individual soldiers. Obviously not a friend of American forces. He was also on his way back to his madrassa, a religious school.

The cell phone was confiscated for a week, and the men were questioned, but other than that, they couldn't be detained further. Being suspicious is not enough. This situation just illustrates one of the many difficulties of this war: the enemy doesn't wear a uniform.


The other platoon that I've spent time with is the first platoon from the 549th Military Police Company. Traditionally, the military police were "combat support," meaning the infantry would be on the front lines and the MP's and many others were in the back, supporting their work in various ways.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Military Police have been moved to the front. They are conducting missions similar to the Cavalry Scouts. Both platoons that I have been following have conducted many "key leader engagements," meaning they visit a village, seek out the tribal/village elders and talk to them. They ask about the welfare of the villagers, security threats from Taliban and foreign fighters, education, health, basic necessities like food and water, power and road projects and voter registration. Often, they end the visit with a distribution of HA: humanitarian aid. Hearts and Minds missions. Above, the MP platoon leader, Sgt. First Class Hermes Acevedo, chats with elders in a village.


I accompanied the MP's to another village, one that hadn't seen many visitors at all. We were there for a long time and the villagers, especially the children, were interacting a lot with the soldiers.

The little girls were very camera shy and the first few times I approached them, they scattered in all directions. I don't think they were less curious about what was going on, but girls just don't get the opportunities for education, fun and outside contact that boys do. It's a cultural thing, but it really sucks. My opinion. The excuse is that they are "protecting" the women, but really it just comes across as selfish.

The girls and women here are incredibly beautiful, even when they are completely covered, because they dress in bright colors--red, green, hot pink, purple, orange. They decorate their scarves and dresses with little mirrors and sparkling jewels. They are the splashes of color in this land of brown and grey.


This particular village was very poor. They were very nice though, and welcomed the soldiers with smiles. At one time the village had a river nearby, which helped them irrigate their crops. But recently a neighboring village built a hydroelectric project and the river dried up.

When the soldiers starting unloading the humanitarian aid, the people immediately began fighting and grabbing at items. Unfortunately, the soldiers had to separate the people from the food, radios and toys until it was all unloaded.


Some of the soldiers occupied the crowds of curious children who gathered around to ask questions and make friends with them. Above, one of the children asks by pantomime if these soldiers are the ones with aircraft that fly overhead.


One little boy, an 8-year-old named Khan, was having trouble walking because he had stepped on a land mine a few days earlier. The platoon medic, PFC Colin Thon, cleaned and dressed the infected wound and told him how to clean it. Some villages are doing better than others and even have their own medical clinics. This village had no medical help nearby.


One of the times I approached the group of girls with my camera, one of the interpreters helped me out by saying something to the effect of: "She's not going to hurt you. Don't you want your picture taken?" A little while later I noticed them smiling and motioning me to come to them. Some of the girls still ran away, but a few stayed right in front of me and let me make some photographs. They loved seeing the pictures on the LCD screen on the back of the camera.

Then the boys came over and told the to go away and shook their fingers at me. It's like they don't want the girls to have any fun at all.


This is Spc. Ernie Ruiz, a gunner with the MP's right before a test fire of the rounds in the humvee gun turret.

The MP's and Scouts have been taking good care of me and watching out for my safety. I am thankful for all of them.


Afghanistan is actually a beautiful place in many ways. Too bad it's so messed up.

9 comments:

FWickeham said...

GREAT story Holly.
You do a much better job with words and pictures than anything we see from the networks or press in this country.
Keep it up and keep your head down.

Erin said...

Once again great photos Holly.
I am so thankful to you for your blog; for being able to see parts of this world I never would otherwise.
And I see now what you meant by Afghanistan looking a lot like MT... That last picture could have been taken along the Yellowstone river, at a place where it bends hard along I-90, between Livingston & Big Timber. That is amazing.

namz said...

Brilliant! Nam

* * * * * said...

Well done, Holly. I'm impressed and can't wait to hear and see more once you get back.

Take care,


Abigail

Kevin Taylor said...

Holly Pickett;

How amazing to see your work from Afghanistan. Bold, brave, beautiful photographs. The portrait of the angry man being questioned about the cell phone doesn't give me hope that this war will be resolved any time soon.

I would love to feature your work in the Inlander. Can we talk?
KT
kevin @ inlander.com

M@ said...

Holly,

Ya know, as different as we are there are some things that we have in common and they just make me giggle like the Pillsberry Doughboy. I know you were thinkin that if that guy with the cell phone got the jump on somebody you were thinking.... Thank God I got insurance on this camera so I can hit him over the head with it if I have to. Watch out Kabul there's a new thug in town, LOL! I love you and I'm glad you are so tough! I wouldn't have one of those prissy princess sisters, I so much prefer you! Love, M@

Peg said...

Holly, thank you so much. PFC Colin Thon, medic for the 549th, is my son. Through your dedication and courage, you have given me a slice of his life and have brought him closer to me through your beautiful pictures. He told me about you, when you were there, and his words, "She's cool." are a tribute to you. Others have not been "cool", you see. You have brought a smile to this Mom's lips and heart. This deployment is long and it is gratifying to see my son's face and some of what he is doing. Thanks again.

Mary r said...

Holly,
Thank you for the great photos. My son just arrived at Herrera. His 2nd deployment.Being able to see these images makes me feel a bit closer to him. Stay safe.

Holly said...

Mary, I am glad for that. Must be tough that he arrived there during the holidays. Be proud. Take care.