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Deborah Gembara recently returned to Washington from a six-week reporting stint in Afghanistan. In the following story she recounts a night mission last month with U.S. soldiers in eastern Afghanistan.
By Deborah Gembara
BABO KHEYL, Afghanistan (Reuters) - It's just after midnight and I am in the back of a helicopter, jammed in with two soldiers on either side. We are in darkness, save for slivers of moonlight illuminating the door gunners.
I'm tagging along with members of the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment from Alaska, as they conduct a raid on the town of Babo Kheyl in eastern Afghanistan.
It's my first night operation and I'm digesting what I've been told about Babo Kheyl. Taliban stronghold. Surrounded by muddy trenches. Armed to the teeth.
Another night in the war for these soldiers, who are among about 67,000 U.S. troops and 40,000 allied forces trying to beat back a Taliban insurgency and stabilise the country.
Our ride is a Chinook. Chinooks are the workhorse of the chopper fleet, transporting several dozen people at a time as well as major cargo. They're also excellent at high altitudes. If Blackhawks are racehorses, Chinooks are Clydesdales.
The helicopter begins dropping in altitude. The thigh muscles of the soldiers on both sides of me stiffen at the same moment. Weapons that had been resting on the floor are now pulled up to the soldiers' chests.
The chopper lands with a clumsy thud. We are on our feet and shuffling single file towards the rear of the helicopter. Ahead of me, two soldiers bound off the end of the ramp, sprinting into the darkness.
By the time I reach the ramp, the momentum behind me is so great it feels like a stampede. As a general rule, soldiers run off of helicopters as if they were on fire. The more time a chopper spends on the ground, the greater the chances a sniper will shoot out one of the rotors.
I'd been sold on the idea of covering an air mission after being told: "You're in and then you're out." That turned out to be only partially true.
The chopper leaves without incident and we walk briskly across a field. Our ride has spared us a six-hour trudge through minefields and muddy riverbeds also known as wadis.
WORLD TINGED GREEN
My world is the green images I see through the night vision eye piece. It isn't long before the soldiers are going into the first home.
Fuelled by adrenaline and energy drinks with names like "Monster" and "Rip It," they spill into the house and round up the men, separating them from the women and children.
Tonight, the soldiers are looking for weapons, bomb-making materials and answers about recent mortar attacks on their base.
By 9 a.m., they've searched the entire town, arrested one man, confiscated a handful of weapons and issued stern warnings to several others.
We learn that the choppers won't be able to retrieve us until 4 p.m. and plant ourselves in the courtyard of one of the homes. The soldiers remove their assault packs and flop onto the ground along the wall.
The next time I look up, they are all asleep. Weapons and gear are strewn all around them as they grab a precious moment of rest. Soon, a sergeant screams at the soldiers to wake up, ordering several of them to stand guard outside.
Dusty-haired children stream into the courtyard throughout the morning, begging us for pens and enticing us to chase them. By early afternoon, I've handed over pens, lip balm, breath mints and hair elastics.
We leave the town hours later and are standing in a field when the first burst of gun-fire rings out. I drop to the ground and press my cheek into the dirt. The soldiers are on their bellies and knees, returning fire.
"Move over to the wadi. Get your asses into the wadi," someone yells.
I turn my head and realise we are exposed on all sides. The flat fields that are ideal for landing helicopters are also perfect for a ground attack. A soldier grabs my arm and we sprint for a wadi nearby.
The shots are getting closer. A cluster of bullets scream past me, buzzing so close to my shoulder and arm, my entire right side feels singed. Bullets are penetrating the dirt all around us. With my body armour and helmet, I'm top-heavy and awkward. The wadi still looks miles away and I worry I might get shot in the back.
Within seconds, a chopper is overhead, preparing to land on the tiny patch of flat ground. It skids violently and before it comes to a stop, we launch ourselves into the back of the chopper. We're in the air before we can even take our seats.
(Editing by Sue Pleming and Frances Kerry)