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Afghanistan on the Bounce: Reflections on Life on Deployment

As a documentation/production specialist in Afghanistan, photographer Robert L. Cunningham accompanied soldiers of 40 different units on 132 combat missions, following them during their typical on-base routines as well as into hazardous situations. In Afghanistan: On the Bounce (Insight Editions), a book he produced with writer Steve Hartov, he examines the service members’ weapons, uniforms, vehicles, and gear, along with reflections on duty, insights and life on deployment. He shares some of his photos and his observations here:

Shindand Air Base, Herat, Afghanistan-Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and Missouri Governor Jay Nixon receive a command briefing on the mission progress of National Guard forces in western Afghanistan. Photograph by Robert Cunningham
Shindand Air Base, Herat, Afghanistan-Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and Missouri Governor Jay Nixon receive a command briefing on the mission progress of National Guard forces in western Afghanistan.
Photograph by Robert Cunningham

My Grandpa Harry used to say that everyone has their ‘New York’ in life. It’s a place you dream about, a goal to reach, the pinnacle of your aspirations. My New York has always been that I wanted to wake up every day knowing that what I was doing was helping others. But how?

The lightning bolt struck me one day, ironically, as I was aboard a ferry en route to the Statue of Liberty. My cameras. People told me I had a good eye, and I certainly had no lack of reckless courage.

Not even a year later, I found myself in a hotel room in Dubai, staring at a magnificently opulent skyline. Strewn around the floor were my camera bags, digital recorders, notebooks, boots, combat clothing, first aid kit, and 50 lbs of body armor. At dawn, I would be boarding a flight for Afghanistan. There was no turning back. I had the feeling I had too much equipment, and not enough brains. I was bringing a camera to a gunfight.

Over the following days, I was filled with a nervous excitement and anticipation as I moved from Dubai to Bagram Airfield, and from Bagram to bases all around Afghanistan, flying aboard roaring machines filled with gunfighters.

Over the next few months in Afghanistan, I would find myself traveling from base to base, working with a multitude of units, moving quickly from one area of operations to another. All in all, I was embedded with more than 40 different units. Each unit has a different purpose, a different mission.

 

Sabari District, Afghanistan- 1st Lt. Matthew Vitellaro (far right), a platoon leader assigned to the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division reviews mission details with members of Charlie Company, 1-26, in eastern Afghanistan. Photograph by Robert Cunningham.
Sabari District, Afghanistan– 1st Lt. Matthew Vitellaro (far right), a platoon leader assigned to the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division reviews mission details with members of Charlie Company, 1-26, in eastern Afghanistan. Photograph by Robert Cunningham.

Sabari District, Afghanistan — The first order of business when I arrived at a new base was orientation. This consisted of sitting down with the soldiers, getting to know them, and getting to know the region in which they operated. 1st Lt. Matthew Vitellaro (far right), a platoon leader assigned to the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division reviews mission details with members of Charlie Company, 1-26, in eastern Afghanistan. After that, it was time to head ‘outside the wire’.

 

Tani District, Khost Province, Afghanistan- A US Army sergeant assigned to the 1st Infantry Division holds the hand of Raḥmān Akbal Khan, a student at the local elementary school. With the help of an interpreter and a member of the Afghan National Amy, the student and the sergeant shared culture-based education, with the student teaching the sergeant about local customs, and the sergeant teaching the student about security in the region. Photograph by Robert Cunningham.
Tani District, Khost Province, Afghanistan- A US Army sergeant assigned to the 1st Infantry Division holds the hand of Raḥmān Akbal Khan, a student at the local elementary school. With the help of an interpreter and a member of the Afghan National Amy, the student and the sergeant shared culture-based education, with the student teaching the sergeant about local customs, and the sergeant teaching the student about security in the region. Photograph by Robert Cunningham.

Tani District, Khost Province, Afghanistan- A US Army sergeant assigned to the 1st Infantry Division holds the hand of Raḥmān Akbal Khan, a student at the local elementary school. With the help of an interpreter and a member of the Afghan National Amy, the student spent an entire day interacting with the ISAF servicemembers in the area.

 

Photograph by Robert Cunningham.
Photograph by Robert Cunningham.

During a nighttime mission, a US Army Sergeant assigned to the 49th Military Police Brigade takes one last moment of rest before setting out back to the base. This mission consisted of meeting with the local Afghan National Police Chief about increased risks in his area, and what the ISAF can do about it. The box on the table contained police notebooks, radios, and other essential items that the US Army’s Military Police were providing to the Police Chief.

 

Tani District, Khost Province, Afghanistan- Young Afghan girls come out to investigate the presence of U.S. and ISAF personnel conducting a meeting with village elders in eastern Afghanistan. Photograph by Robert Cunningham.
Tani District, Khost Province, Afghanistan- Young Afghan girls come out to investigate the presence of U.S. and ISAF personnel conducting a meeting with village elders in eastern Afghanistan. Photograph by Robert Cunningham.

Tani District, Khost Province, Afghanistan- Young Afghan girls come out to investigate the presence of U.S. and ISAF personnel conducting a meeting with village elders in eastern Afghanistan. Since the ISAF and U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan for over a decade, the presence of a convoy of armed troops may be common, but it still draws the attention of the local Afghans.

 

Photograph by Robert Cunningham
Photograph by Robert Cunningham

With combat resupply missions running daily, and troops being moved around the country, I often found myself aboard the most common mode of travel, a helicopter. Seated on the back of a Chinook helicopter ramp, a member of the helicopter’s crew keeps a watchful eye for any threats that might arise. Threats to the aircraft can be from enemy fire or from obstacles the pilots cannot see. These crewmembers also handle making sure that passengers approach the aircraft in a safe manner.

 

Narizah, Khost Province, Afghanistan- A US Army sergeant assigned to the 1st Infantry Division participates in a meeting with village elders and local children in eastern Afghanistan. The Afghan culture is one of tribes and personal relationships. ISAF personnel must build strong personal relationships with the leaders of the cities in which they work in order to accomplish the mission in Afghanistan. Photograph by Robert Cunningham.
Narizah, Khost Province, Afghanistan- A US Army sergeant assigned to the 1st Infantry Division participates in a meeting with village elders and local children in eastern Afghanistan. The Afghan culture is one of tribes and personal relationships. ISAF personnel must build strong personal relationships with the leaders of the cities in which they work in order to accomplish the mission in Afghanistan. Photograph by Robert Cunningham.

Narizah, Khost Province, Afghanistan- A US Army sergeant assigned to the 1st Infantry Division participates in a meeting with village elders and local children in eastern Afghanistan. The Afghan culture is one of tribes and personal relationships. ISAF personnel must build strong personal relationships with the leaders of the cities in which they work in order to accomplish the mission in Afghanistan.

 

Photograph by Robert Cunningham
Photograph by Robert Cunningham

Members of the Afghan security and military forces train for various missions and capabilities in preparation for the 2014 scheduled withdrawal of US forces.

 

Photograph by Robert Cunningham
Photograph by Robert Cunningham

Members of the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division search a building in Eastern Afghanistan.

 

US Army Captain Julie Snyder of the 212 Infantry awaits an available seat on a flight from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Photograph by Robert Cunningham
US Army Captain Julie Snyder of the 212 Infantry awaits an available seat on a flight from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Photograph by Robert Cunningham

Between flights, I found myself catching extended moments of downtime, from sitting in terminals to sleeping on the concrete outside of the airport, always surrounded by armed soldiers. US Army Captain Julie Snyder of the 212 Infantry awaits an available seat on a flight from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. In spite of the late hour, she shares a laugh with a fellow soldier.

 

Sabari District, Afghanistan- A Solder from the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment scans the area around his base while testing a newly-fielded rifle system. Called the Blue Spaders, the 26th Infantry Regiment was founded in 1901, and has served in World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and the Global War on Terror. Photograph by Robert Cunningham.
Sabari District, Afghanistan- A Solder from the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment scans the area around his base while testing a newly-fielded rifle system. Called the Blue Spaders, the 26th Infantry Regiment was founded in 1901, and has served in World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and the Global War on Terror. Photograph by Robert Cunningham.

Sabari District, Afghanistan- A Solder from the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment scans the area around his base while testing a newly-fielded rifle system. Called the Blue Spaders, the 26th Infantry Regiment was founded in 1901, and has served in World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and the Global War on Terror.

 

Photograph by Robert Cunningham
Photograph by Robert Cunningham

Afghans commonly use motorcycles, as they provide a superior capability in the various terrains of the county.

 

Photograph by Robert Cunningham
Photograph by Robert Cunningham

During the hottest parts of the day, Afghans often stop working, taking a few hours for the sun to start going down before getting back to work.

 

Photograph by Robert Cunningham
Photograph by Robert Cunningham

During a nighttime mission, a US Army solder takes a moment to smoke a cigarette.

There were many good days there in Afghanistan, days in which I accompanied troops working in schools, helped villages get much needed aid, and days I spent with the Afghan people. But there were also bad days. The first time I took my cameras out of their bags for a prolonged time was a bad day.

On the first day I arrived to my staging base in Afghanistan, right after unpacking, my cell rang. It was a US Army Major who asked if I would photograph a Hero Ramp ceremony. I said yes without hesitation. I had no idea as to what I had just gotten myself into. I grabbed my gear, and it was off to the flight line for the ceremony.

As I arrived at the flight line, I found it to be adjacent to the hospital. More than forty soldiers and civilians lined the walkways leading from the hospital to the flight line. The American flag was at half-staff. Two pairs of soldiers stood at parade rest, facing each other in front of a large container that was guarded by a member of the hospital staff. A Chaplain of the 1st Infantry Division stood with his back to the container, facing the amassed soldiers. I was beginning to get very nervous, wondering what I had said yes to.

 

Photograph by Robert Cunningham
Photograph by Robert Cunningham

The Chaplain executed an about face, and the four men snapped to attention. The hospital staff member opened the container’s doors. The men entered the box, and the lead solder was heard giving commands. After a short moment, the men reappeared bearing a stretcher that held the body of a fallen US Army Sergeant, draped in the American flag. The men and women gathered snapped to attention. The detail brought the fallen soldier to the Chaplain, who, after a moment of whispered prayer, about-faced and led the detail slowly down the pathway.

 

Photograph by Robert Cunningham
Photograph by Robert Cunningham

As the detail passed down the ranks, the soldiers individually saluted their fallen comrade. The pace was slow, and reverent. A UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter from the 10th Mountain Division sat on the helipad. The detail approached the Blackhawk’s rear door. The crew chiefs saluted, and held their salute as the wheels of the stretcher were removed. The detail preformed a 180 degree turn, placing the head of the fallen solder into the Blackhawk first. The Chaplain asked the assembly to kneel in prayer. The soldiers took a knee. With eyes closed, the Chaplain placed his hand on the flag, and held his right hand out as he prayed.

 

Photograph by Robert Cunningham
Photograph by Robert Cunningham

When the prayer was done, the soldiers arose. Eight soldiers dressed in black shorts and white shirts, indicating that they were wounded warriors, approached the helicopter. Individually, they stood in front of their fallen brother, and saluted him.

 

Photograph by Robert Cunningham
Photograph by Robert Cunningham

The crew chiefs moved in to secure the stretcher to the deck of the helicopter. The door was closed, and the pilots began their startup procedures. A second Blackhawk was spinning up as escort. With blades turning, and permission granted, the Blackhawk bearing the fallen soldier took the lead, taxiing to the take-off point, and took to the air. The amassed soldiers and civilians then disbanded. My first assignment was complete, a sobering baptism.

I had never had illusions about the nature of warfare, but this assignment was a watershed moment for me. It set the tone, and I knew from that moment on that every photograph I took of an American in uniform might be his or her last. With one shot of my camera I would preserve forever what one shot of a weapon might take away. My mission and goal became to record them and their heroism, their sense of duty and modesty in sacrifice, for themselves, their families, and if fate deemed it, for eternity.

As I look through these images, I realize, Afghanistan is always with me now.

Comments

  1. William Goldberg
    Kandahar Afghanistan
    May 28, 12:19 pm

    I first heard Robert on a podcast while in route to Afghanistan for my 5th deployment to that theater. During the interview, I could hear him explain facts, and express feelings that only veterans normally understand. Combining that understanding with his excellent photography this will be an outstanding book. I am looking forward to my copy arriving.

  2. Andy Milani
    Abu Dhabi
    May 4, 3:31 am

    Robert is a true inspiration to those who know him and is definitely a chip off his Grandfather’s (Harry Robertson) block. Robert and Harry have been close to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment for years, supporting the unit in many, many ways. I am humbled to know them both. Great Americans for sure. – Andy Milani, 9th Colonel of the Regiment

  3. Charles deOng
    Forks, Wa
    May 1, 1:59 am

    Seeing these photos brought back some touching memories for me. I served at Bagram Air Field in 08 and 09. I am honored to have served with some great soldiers! What hurt the most were the Fallen Comrade Ceremonies! My heart and soul goes out to the families and loved ones to the soldiers who have given the ultimate sacrifice!

  4. Jeffrey B. Snyder
    Montrose, Pa.
    April 30, 11:54 am

    Photographer Robert Cunningham’s coverage of our US Army combat troops deployed in Afghanistan is outstanding. Yet the troops themselves humble his efforts. Duty, Honor, Country.

  5. Timothy Whitman
    Vermont
    April 29, 10:41 pm

    I served at COP Narizah in Tani District from March through Dec of 2010. I’m sincerely glad to see that the progress we made has been sustained and improved by our successors. Best of luck to those Americans currently present, and the sincerest best of luck to our ABP/ANA compatriots. Mashallah

  6. Carol Smith
    United States
    April 27, 7:06 pm

    Robert’s words and photography tell the true story of the duty and sacrifice of all those brave and dedicated soldiers who represent the United States; and he does so in a very personal and touching way. A salute to Robert and our troops! Let’s hope they will all come home soon.

  7. Brad Bailey
    United States
    April 27, 1:21 pm

    I gave a signed copy of Afghanistan on the Bounce to my son, a Marine infantryman. He said the book brought so much of his experience back, in a positive way, that he felt he could share it with others who hadn’t been there. It may sow a little understanding of what they, the soldiers, lived.

  8. SGT Fola
    FT BLISS, TX
    April 27, 7:39 am

    As a soldier in the US Army, who has been deployed three times to afghanistan, it is good to know that there are still individuals like yourself that would stick his neck out to show the American people the different types of struggles, trials and tribulations that we as soldiers go through on a daily basis. The heartaches, anger, frustrations, lonliness, and our Army values. Thank you for your hard work and dedication.

  9. David L. Robertson
    Ray, Michigan
    April 26, 8:37 pm

    Robert- The book is beautiful. You did a wonderful job! National Geographic too! Awesome!
    The book will still be referenced 100 years from now to show what life is like for those deployed in service to their country. Fantastic!

  10. Pier Nicola Korinthios
    Rome, Italy
    April 26, 5:04 am

    Thank you for this article,
    I’m proud to have been there twice and to collaborate with us troops.

  11. Pat alblinger
    danville illinois
    April 25, 10:10 pm

    God bless the men and women of our armed forces

  12. Karen O'Neill
    United States
    April 25, 9:31 am

    Congratulations to Robert, I hope that many people have the opportunity to view his work online. I was fortunate in viewing his book just after it was released. I recommend it to all of us who benefit from the sacrifice our military makes to keep us
    safe.

  13. Karen Faith Kuhns
    Paysandu, Uruguay
    April 24, 9:09 pm

    I thoroughly appreciated this article.
    Thank you Robert for your dedicated work!

  14. Joseph E O'Neill
    United States
    April 24, 7:00 pm

    Excellent job Robert. Thank you for showing the country what our men and women face on foreign shores.

  15. Carole K.
    Beach, CA
    April 24, 5:45 pm

    Thank you for telling these stories and showing the faces of Afghanistan, the people and our men and women. So rare for us to see any of this in the news. Our troops (and many contractors) have served this noble cause at a great sacrifice, we should now serve them. Robert Cunningham’s dedication to that cause is doing just that. A picture is worth a thousand words. Thanks you and heartfelt thanks to all our service men and women!

  16. Harry & Linda Robertson
    Phoenix, AZ
    April 24, 4:45 pm

    We’re very proud of our grandson Robert Cunningham’s dedication to our Armed Forces and his resultant book from his time spent as a photographer in Afghanistan. To have a portion of his book, Afghanistan on the Bounce, available to others on this National Geographic online site makes us even prouder. Thank you.