Carlotta Gall was the NYT journalist with Joao on the fateful embed in Afghanistan, and this is her account of what happened at Checkpoint 16, a notorious location for landmines and IEDs. She has kindly offered to let Joao’s friends and colleagues have a full account of what happened October 23, 2010.
by CARLOTTA GALL
CHECKPOINT 16, Afghanistan — Joao Silva, a photographer for The New York Times, and I set out on patrol at 7 a.m. on Oct. 23 with a squad of 10 or 15 American soldiers and a unit of Afghan soldiers and police officers.
As we came to this crossroads, Checkpoint 16, the Afghans took up positions in a field to the north and American soldiers in another to the south. Afghan police officers began checking people passing on the road. The squad wanted to make a thorough search of the place, about a half-mile from its base, for improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s. The day before, another squad found and detonated a fertilizer bomb here.
“I don’t like this checkpoint at all,” Sgt. Michael Ricchiuti told me then as we took cover in a field behind a wall, while some of the men detonated the bomb. “This is where we find most of our I.E.D.’s. Mostly in the doorways.”
There is in fact no checkpoint here anymore, just an intersection that lies on the main road leading into the village of Deh-e Kuchay where a platoon of soldiers from Company C, Task Force 1-66, Fourth Infantry Division, is based at Combat Outpost Brunkhorst. The site became a focal point for attacks earlier this year, when a unit of the Fifth Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division, was stationed in the village. It lost 22 soldiers during its time in the Arghandab District of Kandahar Province.
This day, villagers were moving along the road, too, as the American and Afghan soldiers took up their positions. A boy herded goats. Men wrapped in cotton shawls passed on motorbikes. Children were fetching water on a donkey cart.
The frontmen set to work checking the roadsides. Pvt. Edwin Laplaunt, 19, swept for mines with a metal detector. Sgt. Brian Maxwell, 28, walked with a sniffer dog. Sgt. Anton Waterman kept watch.
Joao went with them. Then they turned down a side alley and into a ruined compound. I remained on the road with the platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Eric Elizey, and a medic.
Minutes later there was an explosion. A ball of black smoke rose from behind the wall of the compound. “That was not supposed to happen!” Sergeant Elizey shouted as he ran toward the edge of the road. There was silence from the other side of the wall. Then the call went up: “Medic!”
As the medic ran forward, the sergeant shouted to him which way was safe to go. After more minutes of silence, the sergeant radioed for a medevac helicopter. “Give me a name,” he shouted over the wall. “Give me a name!”
The reply came back: “It’s the photographer.”
Later Sergeant Waterman told me he had heard Joao step to the left behind him. He was barely a foot away, he said. Joao, one of the most experienced photographers I have worked with, said he had stepped in Sergeant Waterman’s footsteps. “I know that’s what you should do; I’m careful,” he said later from his hospital bed.
He had set off a Russian plastic antipersonnel mine. Later they showed me one, dark gray or black plastic, about the diameter of a CD and about four inches tall, with a small trigger on top resembling the push button of a ballpoint pen.
It was hooked up to a 35-pound plastic drum of fertilizer, but mercifully the detonation cord had been cut and the bigger bomb did not go off.
They carried Joao out on an Army sheet to the road. He was conscious and asked for a cigarette. I had a satellite phone, and he called his wife in South Africa.
Within minutes the medevac had arrived. A Black Hawk helicopter came in fast and low over the trees into the adjacent field of stubble, raising a furious swirl of straw and dust. A soldier slapped Joao’s passport on his chest and told him to hold on to it. An Afghan soldier helped them run him to the chopper.
It was 19 minutes since the blast. Joao reached the hospital at Kandahar Airfield within 30 minutes of being wounded. Doctors later told me they were amazed he was still lucid and talking when he arrived. The soldiers had acted quickly and tied the tourniquets expertly and undoubtedly saved his life, they told me.
Joao lost both his legs in the explosion and suffered internal injuries and is recovering at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.