Mast Fall 2001
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From the Front Lines:

Saying goodbye

D-Day for Operation Anaconda

Entering the fray

Left in the dark

Weathering the combat

Realities of the job

Making hard choices

 

Other Features Stories:

We're Changing Things

A Degree of Difficulty

United by a Friend

From the Front Lines

Saying goodbye

The night before the mission, he talked to his wife by phone. He knew if he told her where he was going, he would risk losing the opportunity.

"We usually talk once or twice a day. I was trying to be as natural as I could on my end, yet I knew in my heart it was anything but a normal phone call. The moment we didn't talk for 24 hours I knew she would begin to get very worried."

The next day, the soldiers and media representatives were picked up by a C-17 for a 1 1/2-hour flight to Bagram, the airbase outside of Kabul.

"On the ground there it was dark, and I remember the greeting from aircrews shouting at us, 'Don't step off the runway,' because it was heavily mined." They carefully disembarked, dumped their things in a tent and reported to a briefing in a main command tent outside an old Russian hangar.

"When we walked inside we could see spread out at our feet a massive map, made out of clay and three-dimensional, of the lower Shah-e-Kot valley. By the markings on it and the number of officers in the room, we knew this was no simple operation. In fact, the very first words we heard were, 'Welcome. You are going to be part what is likely to be biggest operation in Afghanistan so far.' So we knew this was not just a mission -- this was the mission. We were allowed access to everything."

As part of the mission, called Operation Anaconda, journalists would be "imbedded media," meaning they would be assigned to specific military units. Savidge and McWhinnie were assigned to Charlie Company of the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, N.Y.

"So you train with them, you live with them, you eat with them, you sleep with them. They get to know you and you get to know them. Initially I don't think they were keen on having us. It was an uneasy marriage in the beginning. We quickly got over that as we spent more and more time with them and they understood what we were about and how we worked."

One area of concern was where Savidge and McWhinnie would be within the formation of the soldiers.

"They didn't want us in front of them because if fighting erupted we would be shot by our own men. We needed to be in middle of the V formation."

That meant practicing to be in the right place at the right time, especially since they'd be in the pitch dark and running quickly to and from a helicopter.

"One day was spent on nothing but a rehearsal of getting on, getting off, over and over." There were 45 people assigned to each helicopter. "You literally needed a shoehorn to pack us on."

He carried 100 pounds gear, including a limited amount of spare clothing along with food and water for about three days. Temperatures would be around 80 degrees during the day, falling to freezing at night.

"I got stuck with carrying the camera batteries. They were 15 pounds each, and I had, I believe, four of them. Of course, the cameraman had the camera. We had rehearsed getting to the helicopter, walking about a mile and a half three times. Each time we'd stagger back to our tent and say, 'We've got to get rid of some of this stuff.' We lightened to the bare essentials."

Conversations with the soldiers brought up two difficult issues. First, they wanted the journalists to carry body bags.

"That came about not so much because we were going to be killed but because we had sleeping bags but didn't have proper covers to sleep out in snow." The body bags were meant to provide extra warmth. "Just the idea of sleeping inside one of those was so repulsive that we couldn't bring ourselves to do it. We left them behind."

The other issue involved weapons.

"They wanted us to be armed, for a couple of reasons. One because they said it was going to be extremely dangerous. Two, they said, 'The two of you are joining this platoon and two soldiers will not be going.' It was simple substitution. The troops would be down two guns. Everything is taken into account."

Savidge was vehemently opposed to carrying an M-16 rifle. The next idea was to give him an M-9, a Beretta 9-mm handgun.

"I said, 'No, I just can't see it. If it really comes down to Marty armed with a pistol saving the day, things are pretty grim.' We made a final concession we would at least learn how to properly load, fire and use the weapon should it come down to that. If we get into the most dire of circumstances, we'll decide whether to become combatants."

NEXT: D-Day for Operation Anaconda

 

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