Martin Savidge at the Bagram Airbase with photographer Scott McWhinnie and producer Tomas Etzler. Photo: Martin Savidge
Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge does a lot of flying, but no flight has been so harrowing as one he took over Shahi Kot valley while embedded with troops in Afghanistan in 2002.
Afghanistan is no Iraq…something I realized just before I threw up.
I’ve been to both wars. In Iraq, there were a couple of times I thought I might be killed. In Afghanistan, I was sure of it.
In Afghanistan, the land itself is as much a combatant as the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The environment strips away many of the advantages U.S. forces enjoy in Iraq. Tanks have limited mobility in Afghanistan’s mountains. Attack helicopters find maneuvering in the thin air a challenge. Everything is harder in Afghanistan, including just getting to the fight — something I learned one flight, one night.
It was the early days of March 2002 and the opening hours of Operation Anaconda, a big battle fought in the Shahi Kot valley. It wasn’t going well.
I was embedded with the second wave of troops being flown in to join the fight. I took my spot next to the waist gunner’s position on the big CH-47 helicopter. Following me were about 45 heavily-armed soldiers struggling under the weight of their backpacks. Loaded with all the food, water and ammunition they would need, they weighed more than a hundred pounds. When the seats were filled, the sergeant was still shouting, “Move in!” They began dropping to the floor of the chopper. We were packed so tight, we could barely move. The barrel of the gun of the soldier at my feet was stabbing my leg and the only thing he could do about it was to say “Sorry.” Outside the temperature was in the 70s. We were dressed in multiple layers of polypropylene and body armor, soaked with sweat. How that helicopter ever got off the ground, I still don’t know.
The trip to the box (battle zone) would take a little over an hour. We would be dropped off at 8,000 feet and overnight, in near zero-degree temperatures, climb to 12,000. There would be lots of snow but not a lot of air. Like many of the troops, I had taken pills to prevent altitude sickness, causing us all to pant like dogs. We had also consumed lots of water to fight dehydration.
As we flew, the sun set. The darkness, along with bitter cold air, poured through the open waist gun positions, roaring over us before exiting like a hurricane past the tail gunner as he sat on the still lowered rear ramp. In just minutes, we’d gone from threat of heat stroke to danger of hypothermia. Men struggled to wrap blankets around themselves, wrestling with the wind that tried to snatch them away, the whole scene illuminated by the eerie green light of the soldier’s night vision goggles.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, the CH-47 finally labored over the mountain peaks ringing the Shahi Kot valley. It suddenly tilted and plunged. To prevent being hit by Taliban gunfire or missiles, the pilots flew “nap of the earth” — roaring down the backside of the mountains like some out-of-control roller coaster — then leveling off, “banking and yanking” at over a hundred miles an hour, flying just a few feet off the ground.
They call it “flying in the dirt.” Occasionally, you’d see trees and mountainsides flash past, punctuated by patches of snow — so close it made you wince.
The soldier beside me suddenly pounded my shoulder with his fist, as the wind and the rotor noise made conversation pointless. He pointed at the plastic barf baggie sprouting from my coat pocket. As I turned toward him he grabbed it and threw up. It set off a puking chain reaction. Adding to the suffering? All the water we drank before takeoff. Now everyone’s bladder registered painfully full.
“Ten minutes!” the radio man shouted. “THE LZ IS HOT!” (meaning the landing zone was under attack).
A short time later: “Five minutes!”
At two minutes, the men began to stir, checking and preparing weapons as the radioman shouted “THE LZ IS STILL HOT!”
At “One minute!” a mental stopwatch started ticking backwards in my head…59…58…57…I started thinking of my home, my family — anything to distract me from thinking of what might happen next.
“Thirty seconds!” The radioman’s shout was cut off mid-sentence by an explosion of gunfire next to my head. The waist gunner had begun firing into the darkness. Even with the roar of the rotors, the gunfire made me jump. I started getting hit in the face with hot shells ejected from the machine gun. The gunner on the other side also opened up. It became a trifecta when the tail gunner joined in.
The helicopter banked sharply, and I caught a glimpse of the scene below. The whole area seemed ablaze with the red of tracer fire coming from what seemed a hundred guns. “STAND-BY!”
This was suicide! I thought. I waited for the bump of the wheels on the ground and the thud of impacting rounds. I was sure we would soon be a screaming fireball.
Suddenly, the helicopter banked and rose, leaving behind what little was left in our stomachs. “IT’S TOO HOT!” the pilots shouted back from up front. The solders cursed and shouted back, demanding to land. Some of the gunfire we saw from below was from members of Charlie Company of the 10th Mountain. They were surrounded, and one in three men (out of more than 100) was a casualty. This mission was supposed to rescue them.
The pilots clawed the helicopter back into the night. “We’re going to let the fast boys cool things down,” they said — translated, it meant Air Force jets were going to hit Taliban positions near the landing zone.
We circled and waited. When we ran low on fuel, we were directed to a FARP (forward air refueling point), basically a spot nearby where another big helicopter full of fuel had landed rolling out hoses to fill up other choppers so they didn’t have to go all the way back to Bagram to refuel. On approach we passed over the still-smoldering wreck of an Apache attack helicopter that had limped in and crashed.
On the ground, we begged to get out so we could go to the bathroom. And I mean begged! The answer was no; the refuel was too quick.
We took off again and then landed just moments later. The helicopter’s interior broke into confusion, curses and shouts of “Are we there!?” The pilot leaned back into the cabin and said the LZ was still too heavily under attack; the order was to return to base. On the flight back, the medic passed around a catheter and bag so men could relieve themselves.
The only thing more painful was knowing in less than 12 hours we would do this all over again.
– Martin Savidge
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