Return to the Valley of Death

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

When Sebastian Junger returned to the valley of death — the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan — his luck almost ran out:

Bad weather had grounded the resupply helicopters, so I hitched a ride with a 20-truck convoy that took two days to make the drive from Jalalabad Airbase. I was in a lead Humvee when it hit a pressure cooker packed with TNT buried in the road about a mile short of the main base. It was detonated by a man who touched two strands of regular electrical wire to an AA battery from behind a rock a hundred yards away. I happened to have my video camera running at the time, and on tape the explosion looks like a sheet of flame and then an abrupt darkening. The darkening was from dirt that landed on the windshield and blocked the light. The gunner dropped out of his turret and sat next to me, unhurt but scrambled by the blast, and someone came up on the convoy radio yelling, “we just hit an i.e.d.e front of!”

The bomb had detonated under the engine block and completely destroyed the front of the Humvee. The cabin immediately started filling with smoke. I adjusted the filter on my camera to compensate for the new darkness and braced for more impacts—rocket-propelled grenades, probably, or heavy machine gun. We were sitting ducks. Behind us, another Humvee opened fire on the ridgeline with a grenade machine gun: blap-kachunk, blap-kachunk. The turret gunner finally stood up and started firing his .50-caliber into the draw to our right. Big, hot shells clattered next to me into the cabin.

When the smoke became overwhelming, the captain gave the order to bail out, and we stumbled out into the fresh, cold air. There was a lot of gunfire, but I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, so I just sprinted for cover behind another Humvee and waited for it to be over. Even when we were in the burning vehicle I’d been oddly unafraid, as if everything were happening a long way away and had nothing to do with me. The fear came later: I tried to watch the footage that night, but when I got to the part where we were about to get hit, my heart rate shot through the roof. It was a delayed reaction that I recognized from talking to soldiers who had been in attacks.

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