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Just another landmine

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.

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.

Private First Class Edwin Laplaunt carries a doll's foot for good luck. Photo Joao Silva

Private First Class Edwin Laplaunt carries a doll's foot for good luck. Photo Joao Silva

An Afghan National Army soldier with pomegranates. Photo: Joao Silva

An Afghan National Army soldier with pomegranates. Photo: Joao Silva

Joao attended by colleague Carlotta Gall and nurse Getahun. Nov 2010, Walter Reed hospital

Joao attended by colleague Carlotta Gall and nurse Getahun. Nov 2010, Walter Reed hospital

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  • Steve Wicks

    Hi Joao ….. yikes!! what a brief, yet graphic account!! So glad you’re on the road to recovery. See you at Kyalami again one day soon?

  • John Smith

    Thanks Carlotta for the vivid story, and thanks Joao for your works and courage. We work with military wounded warriors, but I want you to know this old soldier appreciates the service you’ve provided with your work.

  • Pam in Tennessee

    I’m blown away by the intensity of the work done to keep my eyes open to the terrible realities of conflict around the world. Thanks so much for sharing this –

  • Claudia Henzler

    Thanks to both of you Greg and Joao for sharing your work. I am impressed and terrified almost at the same time…
    And working in the field of photojournalism in areas of confict & cathastrophes, too, it makes me wonder again and again: is it worth to go “the extra mile”, to shoot the closer shot, to tell the “other” story…
    Where do we make a difference and where do we end up not making a difference any more, because when we dare too much, we won´t be there at all anymore… killed by a granade or whatever…

    Gosh… sometimes I really wonder myself what to do. How often are you doubting your actions, your courage, your visions, your motivations?

    I love to hear from your and exchange experiences with you.
    I know I am working in this field of “conflict and cathastrophe” since a short time, and thus definately “don´t know it all” :)

    I send you greetings and wish you strength, courage and tranquility of mind
    Claudia from Vienna/Austria

  • Elnur Aliyev Ufs

    I proud with you guys

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