Oklahoma's 45th Infantry Brigade was in an unexpected, tough, late-summer fight against the Taliban in Paktia Province, Afghanistan. Its casualties were quickly rising. I was only one province away, Paktika, where the 101st Airborne's Easy Company was also encountering tough resistance.
On the last patrol of my yearlong embed with the 101st Airborne, Easy company was surrounded in a fierce Taliban ambush near the Pakistan border. I was caught in the open with little cover from incoming Taliban rounds. Video I shot that day would later show a bullet, heading straight for my camera, deflected at the last millisecond by a piece of wood. A lucky break, but luck in war is a limited commodity that quickly runs out.
A year of this had taken its toll, physically, mentally and emotionally. I was ready to return home, say goodbye to Afghanistan forever, and resume my teaching duties at the University of Oklahoma.
Days before my departure, U.S. Army commanders in eastern Afghanistan asked if I would do one last embed with my fellow Oklahomans. I reluctantly declined. My family was waiting back home.
For weeks, that decision weighed heavily on me, especially after seeing the 45th's death toll reach 14 in a little over three months. Oklahomans noted the heavy losses with alarm, but there were no reporters embedded with the Thunderbirds to tell their story. I plotted to go back.
I met with my OU teaching partner, John Schmeltzer, to lay out the plan. John is a world-class journalist — a Pulitzer Prize winner — who supervised our Afghan 101 project for the past year. While I was embedded with the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan, he led students on seven trips to Fort Campbell, Ky., where they reported on the families of the 101st who were dealing with the consequences of another long deployment.
Our new “Thunderbird Project” would have the same goal, but this time we'd be covering our fellow Oklahomans.
Without hesitation, the Oklahoma State University School of Media and Strategic Communications agreed to co-produce the Thunderbird Project. Cameron University, with close ties to the military due to its proximity to Fort Sill, also joined the effort.
The next step was to get the story out. The Oklahoma Press Association enthusiastically agreed to help and will distribute students' stories to almost every state newspaper.
Stories to tell
In the days preceding my trip back to Afghanistan, I pretended I was excited by the prospect. I wasn't.
Only two months earlier I had returned from a yearlong embed with the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan. Now I was back on a plane to Kabul before I had a chance to completely put that year at war behind me.
No one held a gun to my head and made me do it. It was my idea. I felt a responsibility to cover my home-state soldiers in the same way I had told the stories of the 101st Airborne's Screaming Eagles the previous year. Oklahoma's Thunderbirds were suffering heavy casualties and their story needed to be told.
But it is jarring to turn from war, to peace and back to war, again. Those are sharp corners that must be carefully and patiently negotiated. I knew that, but ignored my own instincts and was now cutting those corners and returning to Afghanistan with less than a two-month break.
However, the dark cloud of dread began to lift a bit when I arrived at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul. Afghanistan has been my home two of the last three years and strangely I felt more at ease when the jet's wheels touched down in the war zone. I can't begin to explain why except to say that the thought of returning is worse than actually being here.
I cover wars for a living and now I was back in my element with a job to do — find the 45th and tell their stories.
I was given rare access to the club — The Blue Light Club at Combat Outpost Zerok.
A soldier from 3rd Platoon, based at Zerok, extended the invitation. He and his fellow platoon members had been part of a bloody close-quarters battle fought in the ruins of an abandoned farm compound last summer. When the fighting was over, all the Taliban attackers had been killed, but three Oklahoma National Guard soldiers also lay dead.
The experience had made 3rd Platoon a close-knit group. Between two plywood barracks they built a wooden patio deck. Festooned with blue blinking lights they, of course, called it the Blue Light Club — a place where they could smoke cigars and guzzle energy drinks at the end of a long day.
That morning, Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn, commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, had honored several members of the platoon for their bravery. As I listened to them recount details of the battle, I noticed that two of the soldiers who wore Oklahoma National Guard patches on their left shoulders, also had Pennsylvania National Guard patches sewn on their right shoulders.
The right shoulder patch signifies the soldier's previous wartime unit. I asked, “How did you get Pennsylvania patches?”
“We're from Pennsylvania,” they responded. They explained that in any National Guard unit deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, there will be a significant number of soldiers who are not native to the state. They are essentially national guardsmen for hire. When they finish a deployment with one state's guard, they join the next guard unit being deployed.
In all my years in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of war, I had never come across this soldier subculture. One high-ranking officer told me that they comprise about eight percent of deployed guard units. Driven somewhat by their addiction to action and partly by a scarcity of civilian jobs when they return home, they move from unit to unit a year at a time.
War is truly their profession and this year the boys from Pennsylvania are temporary Okies.
Back in the saddle
Time to get back in the saddle. On a pitch-black night we waited at Combat Outpost Xio Haq's helipad for the transport helicopters that would airlift us to the next mission's objective — a Taliban safe haven.
I say “back in the saddle” because as the adage goes, if you fall off a horse, to overcome your fear, you have to get right back on. The last air assault I covered turned ugly, quickly.
At that time, last April, I was embedded with No Slack Battalion, 101st Airborne. No Slack soldiers were airlifted to a mountaintop near the Pakistan border, but they landed in the middle of a Taliban stronghold. By morning, six U.S. soldiers lay dead, but many more Taliban were killed in the battle. The 101st had prevailed, but at great cost. I swore on that day that I would never cover another air assault.
Now, on a chilly evening, with body armor strapped on and camera in hand, I waited with soldiers from the Oklahoma National Guard for the arrival of helicopters that would take us on another air assault.
A soldier, whose face was obscured by the darkness, asked me if I'd ever been on an air assault. I said, “Yes.”
He asked, “How did it go?”
“We'll talk about it after this mission is over,” I responded. I was trying to put last April out of my mind, but couldn't.
All around me were other voices, fellow Okies, making small talk to pass the time while we waited. I listened to a lieutenant who was Barry Switzer's nephew. A college dean. A Norman schoolteacher and a young man from a small town who'd only been out of high school a year.
Rank didn't matter, nor did social status. We were all headed to a fight and everyone was going to need each other.
An hour had passed and I convinced myself to just go and get it over with, but the wait was excruciating. Then the call came in. Mission scrubbed for 24 hours. The helicopters could not penetrate low cloud cover that obscured the mountain passes in their path.
The next night I didn't even inquire if the weather had improved enough to allow the mission to proceed. I quietly suited up in my room and walked to the flight line. There were no voices in the dark. I was alone. The mission had been canceled and would not be rescheduled.
For now, I could stay out of the saddle, but the memories of last April still follow me.