The Star Tribune begins a four-part series today in the newspaper about Afghanistan through the eyes of several Minnesota National Guard units there (the first day will be available on-line Tuesday). One of them is the 114th Transportation Co., based out of Duluth. We followed them on a convoy north in volatile Helmand Province to deliver supplies to several British bases.
It was the first time the Brits and the Americans coordinated their efforts and the 100-truck convoy presented an easy target for insurgents. Travelling with the convoy proved to be one of the most physically taxing and emotionally ambiguous four days in my career.
We took small arms fire at least twice on the way up and waited while the explosive detonation crew worked on blowing up an IED (they eventually decided to leave it). Starting at 3 a.m. and arriving at one British operating base, we were told a group of the Americans and Brits would be leaving again at six to deliver additional supplies. They were likely to be back by six the next morning.
 The scene at Camp Nolay before the convoy departs.
It’s hard to explain the physical demands the terrain and these vehicles put on your body. The route was specifically designed to avoid the obvious so it was almost exclusively desert driving, lucky to pass 10 mph for a short period before a truck in front would get stuck and require a 30-minute delay. The vehicles are designed to protect and do an amazing job. Think a combination of the trucks in “Mad Max” and “Children of Men.” But they are not designed for comfort. Movement is restricted. At best you can pop a hatch at an opportune moment to stand up to relieve yourself in a Gatorade bottle (Note to Gatorade marketing department: Gatorade is preferred because the top lip is wider than a water bottle, making for an easier egress target), doing this while wearing body armor.
Soldiers welcome their colleagues back after an early morning firefight.
I made the decision to stay at the operating base rather than venture the additional 12 hours in the MRAP armored vehicle. It was a difficult decision. The first rule in an embed, of course, is to stay with the people you are covering. But the day had been exhausting and I really thought I had reached the point where, if something were to happen, I would be in no condition to react. The trucks pulled out and I set up a cot on an edge of the grounds.
I called my wife on the satellite phone and she could tell something was wrong. I told her I had a gut feeling about something and decided to pull back, but was now regretting it. I hoped the distorted transmission of the sat phone would mask the emotion in my voice. I fretted over the decision all night, awakening to the sound of the call to prayer at a nearby mosque and a rooster crowing shortly before daylight. At around 8 a.m., I could hear the sounds of thumps and then gunfire.
A firefight was breaking out in the nearby village. It was the convoy.