Editor's note: The broadcast aired a story Friday night by Jim Maceda about his week embedded with the Army's 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan. Click here to read or watch it. After getting that story on air, Jim called to offer his additional thoughts on what was obviously an exhausting assignment.
Afghanistan is an intriguing assignment -- here is the world's superpower, trying to win over the people of one of the world's poorest, almost medieval countries, because they both share a common enemy: al-Qaida and its Taliban surrogates. American soldiers are dying here -- now more than 220. Billions of dollars ($12B to date) have been spent on reconstruction.
Covering this war has never been easy. And it's only getting harder. Nowhere else is a reporter's strength quite as sapped by the elements -- the almost impenetrable mountains and valleys, and the stalking presence of disease or infection. You spend as much time cleaning yourself and everything you touch as you do reporting the story.
I've been embedding with U.S. forces since long before it was called embedding. Since 1983, with U.S. Marines in Beirut, many of whom were killed in a truck bomb by a group called Hezbollah few had even heard of. On a scale of 1 to 10, the Afghanistan embed rates little more than a 2. Coming in at a 1, my embed with Chechen rebels outside Grozny, where my cameraman Kyle Eppler, and I literally "embedded" -- sleeping on the living room floor next to the local Chechen commander's terror cell.
Covering Operation Mountain Lion, embedded with the 10th Mountain Division in eastern Afghanistan, was no exception. I knew we were in for an unforgettable journey when our Chinook helicopter almost tipped over as we landed, in the dead of night, on the edge of a 7,000-foot precipice. This was to be our perch overlooking the most ambitious offensive by U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war.
My cameraman (once again Kyle Eppler) and I decided it was best to be with the Headquarters Company, which would command and control the operation. For good measure, Col. John Nicholson, the 10th Mountain commander, brought along a platoon of Marines to watch his back. It was a smart move. We came under attack only hours after our arrival on the mountaintop. Just as soldiers -- and the NBC team -- were settling into their sleeping bags, bursts of automatic weapons fire cut through our camp, with bullets zinging past our unprotected heads. As calmly as if he were talking to his wife about dinner plans, Nicholson called his troops into action. Soldiers jumped out of their bags and into their pants and flak jackets, grabbed their weapons and responded with overwhelming firepower. This was just a probe. Maybe two or three insurgents, testing the U.S. forces' resolve. One of the intel scouts picked up radio chatter before the attack. "Just shoot and try to injure the Americans. And God be with you." The Marines wounded at least two insurgents as they fled back into the mountains.
Kyle and I spent the night wide awake, wondering when a large group of Taliban with revenge on their minds would counterattack. The temperature dropped from the 70s to the 20s. I couldn't tell if my shivering was from the cold or my fear.
At dawn we were packing for the 4,000-foot descent down to a lumberyard in the Korungal Valley that had been a Taliban safe house but was soon to be the 10th Mountain's new headquarters. I expected the descent to be much easier than a climb. I don't remember ever being so wrong. With 50 pounds on my back (Kyle was lugging more than 100 pounds, including a car battery we would use for power) we accompanied 26 soldiers, and a platoon of Afghan Army scouts – slowly -- down the mountain, which got steeper as the signs of Taliban movement grew more evident. Two soldiers went down with dehydration. Another soldier tore a ligament. Eleven and a half hours later, we made it to the bottom, our route actually ending with an 800-meter climb up to a road above a river which we had to cross by foot.
The lumberyard did become Nicholson's new base camp. But it was the camp from hell. One standing structure with no window glass meant that every time a chopper landed with supplies or took off with the general, tons of dust flew into our "hooch" and shut down the computers we used to feed our stories to New York.
Through it all, despite the dusty, dangerous environment, the soldiers and Marines with us took it all in stride. I marveled at how the 48-year-old Nicholson could spend the same amount of time as I humping gear, eating dirt, taking incoming and punishing his body, and still find the energy to plot out the next phase of the offensive in a province neither U.S. forces nor the Afghan government had ever been to before.
It takes a long, grueling day-by-day effort to win this war... and, it seems, it's just as hard to cover it.