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:
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 — 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 spent an entire day interacting with the ISAF servicemembers in the area.
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. 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.
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.
Members of the Afghan security and military forces train for various missions and capabilities in preparation for the 2014 scheduled withdrawal of US forces.
Members of the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division search a building in Eastern Afghanistan.
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.
Afghans commonly use motorcycles, as they provide a superior capability in the various terrains of the county.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.