Operation Afghanistan: Reporter's Notebook

Channel 2 photojournalist Albert Lutan and reporter Blake Essig traveled to Afghanistan to...
Channel 2 photojournalist Albert Lutan and reporter Blake Essig traveled to Afghanistan to tell the story of JBER's 4-25 Brigade. (KTUU)
Published: Feb. 8, 2018 at 9:59 PM AKST
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"You can leave the 'stan, but the 'stan will never leave you. Enjoy your visit." Those were the words Col. Brian Beckno, NATO Resolute Support said to me minutes after arriving at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. At the time, while I had a few ideas, I really didn't know what to expect from my first trip to a war zone. Two weeks later, I know those words he spoke, for better and worse, were 100 percent the truth.

From Alaska, it took photojournalist Albert Lutan and I five stops, four countries and nearly 30 hours of actual flight time before finally arriving at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. I'm not sure if it was the barbed wire, cement walls, bunkers, soldiers walking around with guns, or instructions of what to do in the case of a rocket attack, but almost immediately, the reality that I was in a war zone began to sink in.

On the front end, we spent about 24 hours at Bagram Airfield before putting on our body armor and boarding a Black Hawk helicopter in the middle of the night, flying roughly 100 miles through the mountains to Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad. As a reporter, I've flown in Black Hawks before, but there was something almost electrifying about this experience. I felt like a kid in a candy store. To fly through Afghanistan in the dead of night, manned by two gunners, all while sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with soldiers from Special Forces, was pretty darn cool.

Over the course of about the next 10 days, we would travel between several U.S. bases, spending the bulk of our time at Tactical Base Gamberi in the Laghman Province, FOB Fenty, and Outpost Mad Dog, which are both in Nangahar Province.

While I could go on and on about the things I saw, people I met and places we visited, I'm only going to highlight a few of the experiences, which I know I will never forget.

Before we made it to Afghanistan, while waiting to catch a flight in from Kuwait, we heard about a soccer game that's played every single day at 3:30 p.m. on a dirt field at TB Gamberi. When hearing about this, not only did we plan to profile the game for a newscast, but both Albert and I had every intention of suiting up and playing. We joined a team with a few Americans, Ugandans and an Afghan translator, and while collectively we spoke several different languages, we all understood the language of soccer. We played until it got dark that night, and had an absolute blast. It wasn't about winning or losing, it really was all about the friendships made on the field.

We all came together, despite our obvious differences, and just played. We only played that one day, but it was enough. It was enough to break through any barriers that might have separated us otherwise. The rest of our time at TB Gamberi, we often ate meals, played other games and forged friendships with the men we met on the field. All because of the beautiful game.

Also at TB Gamberi, it was shortly after midnight when artillery soldiers fired at least two 'charge 5' rounds from the howitzer in support of the counter-terrorism mission. At the time, I was lying in bed half asleep on the other side of the base. When that first round went off, it was so loud and powerful that I thought a bomb had exploded right outside our room. To put things into perspective, artillery soldiers are only allowed to fire a certain number of 'charge 5' rounds per day, because it's so powerful it can literally move your insides. A few days before this midnight mission, I stood only a few feet away from the howitzer when it was fired. I don't know what 'charge' it was, but I do know it nearly knocked my camera over and physically felt like I had been punched.

Another memorable experience took place immediately following an interview with Lt. Gen. Mohammad Zaman Waziri. The interview took place where he lived on the Afghan side of TB Gamberi and focused on the impact JBER's 4-25 advisors have had on the Afghan National Army. We also discussed the recent bombings in Kabul, and why he believes the recent suicide attacks prove that the Taliban and other insurgents are on the verge of defeat.

Once the interview was over, we expected to be ushered out of the compound, but instead, Lt. Gen. Waziri brought in tea, dried fruit and nuts for all to enjoy. There were about six of us in the room, and we all sat and talked for about 30 minutes, getting to know each other beyond what we did for a living. It was a moment that reminded everyone in the room that, even though war is going on all around us, we're still human beings.

My favorite experience during my time in Afghanistan was the 24 hours we spent at Outpost Mad Dog in the Mohmand Valley surrounded by insurgents hiding in the hills.

Just to get there, we were escorted by two Apache helicopters providing a little muscle in case we came under attack. Once on the ground, this outpost is exactly what I imagined the war to look like. The base itself was small, had no running water, no kitchen and almost no Internet connectivity.

While there are other bases that see more direct and indirect fighting with the enemy, this base is the front line in the fight against ISIS and the Taliban in the Mohmand Valley. Despite the beauty of the snow-covered Hindukush mountains, the realization that you're surrounded by insurgents who want you dead, was never lost on me.

When we first arrived, it was early afternoon. The sun was shining and with no wind, it was a warm, 60-degree day in February. By the time the the sun went down, it was a completely different story. Temperatures quickly dropped into the 30s.

Albert and I were staying in the 'transient' tent, along with a platoon of soldiers rotating out after few weeks on the ground. Inside the tent, while it was relatively warm, space was very limited. Each cot was separated by an inch or two, and let this be a lesson to all, if you find yourself in tent with a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan, don't grab a spot near the tent's opening.

From the time the lights went out at around 8:00, I was woken up probably 3-5 times per hour by someone ripping the Velcro open to exit the tent. That sound was accompanied each time by a rush of cold air from the outside.

It's safe to say, I didn't get much sleep. Also playing a factor, from the time the sun went down before the moon got bright, I can honestly say I've never seen the stars shine so bright. It was a beautiful sight to see in the middle of a war zone.

Finally, while I did meet many incredible people on my tour of Afghanistan, the one person who made the biggest impact on me is a young man who I can't name. He's an Afghan translator who is risking his life by working for the U.S. military. I had the opportunity to learn a lot about his struggles, his country and what he thinks it's going to take to bring peace to Afghanistan.

He believes ridding his country of the Taliban and other insurgent groups begins and ends with education. He says the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was a turning point for his country. Since 2001, he says millions of kids have had the opportunity to receive an education that they wouldn't have had otherwise. He says education means opportunity, and opportunity means change. He's a young man I found to be incredibly wise beyond his years-- one I will never forget.