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Reporter's Notebook

Staying cool under fire in Afghanistan

KOR JALAL, Afghanistan — I sat on the ground in a copse of trees near this village in southern Logar province, listening to Sgt. Sean Casey lay out his plans for postmilitary life. The Army combat photographer was covering a joint patrol mission conducted by soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division and the Afghanistan National Army.

The troops were taking a midmorning break after searching houses in Kor Jalal, a rural hamlet in eastern Afghanistan. The sun was high and the sky clear, and for a few moments, one could imagine this beautiful region in a time of peace.

But with war the status quo, Casey had begun a countdown. In 20 days, he said, he would be out of here. He would head home to Atlanta to shutter his construction business and embark on a new career as a disaster insurance adjuster. The better part? He would work only six months a year, saving the other six to indulge his passion for sailing so he could travel the world.

I don’t remember exactly what we were discussing when the bullets started thudding into the earth around us. Casey swiftly rolled onto his stomach and grabbed his automatic rifle in one smooth motion, as he prepared to return fire into the mountain where unseen attackers lurked.

After a few minutes, the shooting stopped. Casey seemed as relaxed as he was before the exchange. He lit a cigarette and explained that we had just experienced “harassing fire,” a not-so-friendly greeting for coalition soldiers who earlier had combed the village for weapons and other signs of Taliban activity. Fortunately, nobody had been wounded.

A short time later, as the troops moved through an open field, they came under fire again. I heard someone to my right growl, “I’m hit!” and recognized Casey’s nicotine-tinged voice.

Spc. Kaleb Ivanoff rushed over to Casey. A bullet had ripped through his left shoulder. Ivanoff quickly ushered him to cover behind a small berm and, as calmly as if he were still talking about sailing to South America, Casey provided direction on how to bandage the wound.

“I’m going to be fine,” he said. “I just want to shoot those [expletive].”

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He then asked me to take photos of him, unclipping his camera from the front of his bulletproof vest. As I pointed the lens, he flashed a thumbs up.

The deaths of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya last month has magnified the perils that await photojournalists in conflict zones. The military’s combat photographers face those perils daily.

Casey traveled across Afghanistan to capture images of U.S. servicemembers engaged in the hard work of war. (Check out a sampling of his photos at www.dvidshub.net/tags/image/sgt-sean-p-casey). He did so without forgetting his primary duties as a soldier, as he proved by reaching for his rifle, not his camera, during the day’s first attack outside Kor Jalal.

I last saw Casey as he walked toward the helicopter that evacuated him to safety, and I’m told he’s making a full recovery. Smooth sailing, sergeant.

••• 

Pfc. Ryan Ward was shot in the lower back during the same skirmish that left Casey wounded. I glimpsed him lying face down in the field that U.S. and Afghan soldiers had been crossing, the white bandage wrapped around his midsection shaded crimson with blood.

It was evident Ward would not be able to walk to the helicopter landing site about a quarter mile away. Sgt. Maj. Doug Maddi, standing near him, yelled for help to carry him. Four Afghan soldiers rushed over to lend a hand. (Ward is recovering and will soon rejoin his platoon.)

The next morning, when I asked Maddi for his opinion of the Afghanistan National Army as it attempts to assume more responsibility for national security, he had a quick answer.

“You see those four guys carry Ward? That’s pretty good [expletive]. I’d say they’re doing a good job.”

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