HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- To Americans of my generation and older, the Korean War is the "Forgotten War." For this generation, it's Afghanistan -- or to be precise, Operation Enduring Freedom.
This seven-year-long campaign against al-Qaida and the Taliban in the shadow of the Hindu Kush didn't start out as a "forgotten war." On Oct. 7, 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, Operation Enduring Freedom began with a salvo of Tomahawk cruise missiles and raids by B-1s, B-2s, B-52s and waves of carrier-based aircraft. For the next month, the entire world was riveted as Afghan Northern Alliance troops -- bolstered by U.S. special operations forces and CIA teams -- swept south toward Kabul.
The November liberation of the capital was an international press event. When the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit landed at Forward Operating Base Rhino on Nov. 25 to cut Taliban/al-Qaida escape routes into Pakistan, reporters clamored to cover the operation. For the next 16 months, most of the so-called mainstream media provided at least some regular coverage of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Then came Iraq. The start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, in March 2003, created a virtual news vacuum in Afghanistan, and it has been pretty much like that ever since. Though there have been brief moments of media interest -- such as the Oct. 9, 2004, election that brought President Hamid Karzai to power -- the potentates of the press have largely ignored developments in Afghanistan and focused on predictions of disaster in Mesopotamia.
Let's hope that is about to change. Success in Iraq is now an undeniable reality. Here in Afghanistan, the NATO international security force's commander, U.S. Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, is calling for more troops to launch a vigorous offensive against a resurgent Taliban. Here in southern Helmand province, it has begun already.
For the past week, our Fox News' "War Stories" team has been embedded with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit -- a Marine Air-Ground Task Force deployed from Camp Lejeune, N.C. We're now at Combat Outpost "Bravo" with Weapons Company of 1st Battalion, 6th Marines -- a unit we last accompanied in Ramadi, Iraq, in December 2006. The following accounts are from dispatches we have filed since rejoining this "band of brothers" in the new "forgotten war." --Garmsir, Afghanistan, Aug. 2, 2008:
It is more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the Marines who have been fighting here since April say that it is cooler now than a month ago, when temperatures reached 124 degrees. The bright sunlight is oppressive, and fine dust, the consistency of talcum powder, permeates everything. Terrain more than a few hundred meters from the Helmand River looks like desolate lunar landscape. In this climate, drinking at least eight liters of water a day is essential for survival.
According to Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson, the commanding officer of Battalion Landing Team 1/6, nearly half the Marines in this unit were with us in Iraq. Some have made as many as five combat deployments. All of them are volunteers. Though the Marines don't have a body count, the Helmand provincial government credits the Marines with killing more than 400 enemy combatants in this Taliban stronghold. No one here disputes the number. --Strongpoint "Bravo," Aug. 3, 2008:
The improvised explosive device detonated directly beneath the lead vehicle of our first patrol. The explosion blew Chris Jackson, our Fox News cameraman, from his seat on the right rear of the vehicle. Though heavily armored, the Humvee was engulfed in flames immediately.
Trapped in the front of the burning vehicle were the wounded driver, Cpl. Arnaldo Figueroa, and Sgt. Courtney Rauch. Despite his own wounds from shrapnel, Jackson immediately jumped up and rushed back to the flaming vehicle to rescue Rauch.
As ammunition "cooked off" inside the vehicle, Jackson helped the Marines drag Rauch and Figueroa to safety behind the next vehicle in the column. While two medical corpsmen, Jose Pena and Gregory Cox, administered first aid to the wounded, Lt. John Branson deployed his Marines to secure a helicopter landing zone.
Within minutes of the explosion, an armed UH-1N "Huey" and an AH-1J "Cobra" gunship appeared overhead, followed immediately by a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter. Less than 20 minutes after the blast that had wounded them, the two Marine casualties were in the air headed for the hospital.
It has been a great blessing for me to have spent most of my life in the company of heroes -- people who put themselves at risk for the benefit of others. That certainly defines the young Americans here in Marine Expeditionary Unit 24. Hero is a word that also applies to our Fox News cameraman, Canadian Chris Jackson.
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