The toughest assignment of my career

  • Published
  • By Staff. Sgt. Jason Lake
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
I've been an Air Force journalist for more than decade and have covered everything from combat Purple Heart presentations in Iraq to a memorial service for two Airmen killed fighting terrorism in the Philippines, but this past Memorial Day weekend was by far the most difficult assignment of my career...

I wasn't too excited when I first got news last summer that I'd be deploying to Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan for six months starting just after New Years.

After my deployment to Balad, Iraq, in 2004 where we endured more than 140 mortar attacks in three months during the first government transition, I was hoping for a "cush" assignment to somewhere like Djibouti (Africa) or Bosnia.

But after the November elections where soon-to-be President Obama talked about a renewed focus on the deteriorating mission in Afghanistan, I was excited about the "opportunity" to be on the front lines of yet another major military campaign.

After I arrived at Bagram, I decided to hold off on going on any "outside the wire" missions until I got comfortable (or bored) with the base and learned our mission.

Six weeks later, I was starting to get the itch to go on a mission and my birthday was coming up. What better way to celebrate than go on my first helicopter ride to a remote forward operating base in the mountains called FOB Lion?

We took an Army Blackhawk out of Bagram and scanned the still wintry white Afghan countryside just a few hundred feet below. It was an amazing view as our helo maneuvered through the Hindu Kush mountain valleys to find a small river bed where we ended up landing.

My senses were overloaded as we all rushed into convoy vehicles to head from the landing site to the outpost. Suddenly the three weeks of advanced combat skills training at Fort Dix, N.J. all came back to me as our convoy navigated the rough dirt roads of the mountain valley. "Victor one approaching on left," we heard from the lead vehicle ahead of us warning us to be alert of a vehicle approaching on the left side.

We arrived at the outpost and shortly thereafter, had lunch with the band of Airmen, Soldiers and U.S. State Department workers who had been working together for four months to improve the quality of life for Afghans in neighboring villages.

That is when I first met Lt. Col. Mark Stratton, the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team's commander. He and Brig. Gen. Mike Holmes, our wing commander, had a few coins to hand out to some of the FOB's outstanding performers.

The lieutenant colonel told us all about what his Airmen had been doing and how proud he was of the work his team had been doing.  He then took us out on a convoy to show us what he was talking about.

In just a few hours, we convoyed to four sites the team was working to improve - a hydro electric station for villagers, a girl's school, a medical clinic and several bridges in remote areas of the mountainside.

After six weeks in country, I finally saw first hand why we were deployed here and what our men and women were capable of. I went back to Bagram with a whole new sense of purpose and vigor to cover more missions despite the growing dangers of the Taliban's annual "spring offensive."

Six days later, I went on my second convoy with Bagram's Kapisa/Parwan Provincial Reconstruction Team and returned to the base without incident. But just a day later, I was reminded of the dangers when we found out several Soldiers and an Airman were killed by a roadside bomb in a nearby province on a similar PRT mission to visit a school construction project. As the public affairs representative, I had to draft the press release of the Airmen's death.

Over the next few weeks, there were several more incidents, including another roadside bombing a week before Memorial Day that claimed the life of an Air Force lieutenant near Kabul. It was getting harder to handle the growing number of fallen comrade ceremonies.

Memorial Day became much more now than just a holiday for grilling in the back yard and swimming with friends and family. A handful of Airmen volunteered on the holiday to fold flags for friends and family back home and I volunteered to take pictures and make certificates for the flags. It felt good to do something patriotic in light of the past few weeks.

But I was unprepared for what the next morning would bring. With my boss on rest and recuperation outside the country, I was the primary public affairs representative for the unit, and shortly after a change of command ceremony for the base's main hospital, I was recalled for a crisis situation.

Initial reports over the phone was that an injured Airmen was brought to one of the base gates by Afghan National Police who had witnessed a suicide car bombing attack on a convoy vehicle. But on my walk to the senior staff conference down the street, I found out who was involved... "they killed the commander of the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team... a lieutenant colonel Stratton," our casualty affairs representative told me.

I was overwhelmed by what he had just told me, but I still had to attend the meeting so I tried to stay focused as our senior leadership read off the names of the four killed in the incident and began going through processes and procedures. When I heard, "Senior Airman Ashton Goodman," I recalled posting a story she had written to our Web site just a few days before about the team's effort to improve sanitation at a medical clinic in Panjshir.

A few hours later, the announcement for everyone to assemble for an impending fallen comrade ceremony rang out. When U.S. and coalition servicemembers are killed in the northeastern region, the bodies are airlifted back home via Bagram. As a tribute to the fallen, thousands of servicemembers line the streets to salute the humvees as they pass by with the flag-draped casket on their way to the flightline.

Just before sunset, we all assembled on the curb to render one last salute to the colonel and his teammates. I struggled to keep my composure as the lead vehicle approached with a casket draped with an American flag.

Tears began to pour down my face when I saw the faces of some FOB Lion Soldiers and Airmen sitting beside the casket in the back of the vehicle. The last time I had seen their faces they were smiling and laughing at each others jokes inside the small dining facility at the outpost. Now, their faces were torn and filled with grief.

I slowly raised my arm to salute the team as they passed by and then fell out to go clean myself up.

The next morning, I got a phone call from the public affairs captain at FOB Lion who was cleaning out the locker of Airman Goodman to send home to her family. She asked that I come cover the unit's formal memorial ceremony in a few days and I told her I would be honored.

On May 31, five days after the incident, more than 75 Airmen, Soldiers and local Afghan leaders assembled at FOB Lion's dining facility where just a few months before we had shared stories and laughter.

I tried to stay objective as I took photos of teammates struggling emotionally to get through their speeches about their friends who had been taken away forever.  The unit first sergeant called out their names for one final unit roll call and then unit lined up to say their final goodbyes in front of a framed picture and combat gear display.

To capture the emotion of the event to send back to the families, I had to kneel directly beside the display and witness the dozens of faces as they knelt down and honored their friends each in their own way. I tried to hold back the tears, but when I saw the face of one male Soldier I couldn't hold back anymore. My eyes poured as a technical sergeant cried while holding up a pair of her fallen commander's dog tags. 

Over the next few days I struggled with emotion while putting together the article to go with the photos I had taken. It's one thing to write a memorial story about someone you have never met, but it's much more difficult when you knew the people involved. With each quote from the memorial service I added to the story, I relived that moment.

It was the hardest assignment of my career. But I wanted to tell their story.

Two days later, the story was posted on Air Force Link, the Air Force's main Web site. Once I saw the article posted online, I finally felt like I had closure with all that had been going on the past week.

Now people know about the heroes of the Panjshir PRT and the lives sacrificed to improve life and security for thousands of Afghans.