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Spec. Andrew Kimbell, 25, of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, center, is welcomed back to Afghanistan after a 15-day R&R leave with a cloud of dust from a Chinook helicopter that had just dropped him off at Forward Operating Base Jalawar. Kimbell spent his leave in Spencer, Iowa where he grew up. Flanking him are PFC Ben Hoffmeister and Sgt. Benjamin Amato, who came to pick him up from the landing zone. The 82 Airborne Division is fanned out in Arghandab, a region in Kandahar plagued by Taliban resistance.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

A Canadian armored personnel carrier leaves a police substation after conducting a patrol through the area.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Staff Sgt. Christopher Nealis of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, yells for a soldier before heading out on patrol from their combat outpost in Kuhat, in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Pfc. Preston Young immediately alerts the command post of a blast that hit his patrol as they walked down a dirt road that connects farmland in a rural area. Two soldiers from the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division were thrown to the ground in the incident, but they were not seriously injured.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

U.S. Army Spc. Jacob Lind watches over the Arghandab Valley at sunrise from a hilltop observation post.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

The village of Kuhat lies below the U.S. Army observation post above the Arghandab Valley. Residents were originally unhappy about the Army post but many have since warmed to the soldiers.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Urmel, a playful and loving dog off-duty, can turn into a bomb-sniffing attack dog while on duty. Off-duty after an earlier patrol he relaxes with troops by trying to steal their frisbee during a toss around.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

1st Lt. Jordan Ritenour talks to a farmer who offered him some information about where members of the Taliban might be hiding in a nearby stand of trees.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

1st Lt. Jordan Ritenour drinks chai with Haji Beardad, left, and his brother Kharu Jan, center, in a pomegranate orchard under decades-old grape vines in Kuhat. Ritenour has built a relationship with Beardad, a village elder, in hopes of fostering greater cooperation with the local populace as the military tries to rid the area of Taliban influence.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Members of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division inspect a bomb from the year of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in hopes of being able to remove it from a cemetery. The bomb, a longtime concern for local residents, was too big to be removed with the equipment they had, so the task was left to be done on another day.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Mohammed Shah Farooqi, chief of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Afghan national police, exits one of several compounds searched during the sweep in Kandahar's District 8.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Kokaran village elders frustated with a raid carried out by coalition forces talk with U.S. military officials as well as Canadian and American civil affairs representatives. About a dozen elders were invited to the meeting after a May 22 sweep of a Kandahar district that is known to be a Taliban stronghold.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

An interpreter working for the U.S. Army questions a village elder about a bomb that went off near his home in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Shabarat Sageed is escorted onto a medevac helicopter in remote southern Afghanistan. Sageed, who had suffered chest pains, was being flown to a clinic at the U.S. air base in Tarin Kowt. About 70% of the unit's 130 missions have been to help Afghans.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Afghan and U.S. forces patrol a neighborhood in Kandahar's District 8. A U.S. government official said the May 22 sweep was "an early snapshot" of a planned summer campaign to control the Taliban stronghold.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

An Afghan national police officer showers and washes his uniform at the same time at a police substation in Kandahar.


An Afghan soldier shoulders a machine gun while on patrol with the Afghan national police and U.S. military police in Kokaran, a neighborhood in western Kandahar known for Taliban activity.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

An Afghan national police officer suits up inside a fortified post on the western edge of Kandahar, a city in southern Afghanistan. A red-laced curtain hangs in the doorway to keep out flies and mosquitoes.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Afghan workers in Kandahar prepare a field for grapevines. Almost 1,000 civilians labor for roughly $6 a day as they participate in the USAID-led effort to revive the country's once-vibrant grape industry.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

An Afghan worker digs alongside several dozen other workers on a USAID funded project near a police substation in Kandahar.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Sadullah is treated at a U.S. outpost after a roadside bomb killed five people and injured him and three others. He had been traveling to the district governor's office to plead for the release of his jailed son.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

An Afghan youth goes about his routine of cleansing in the river as U.S. and Afghan forces patrol his neighborhood in western Kandahar.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Memorial Day tribute: U.S. Airman 1st Class Sean J. Vazquez holds a wreath dedicated to Americans killed in the Afghanistan war during a ceremony at Kandahar airfield in that country.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Pockmarks from past battles are seen on walls in a neighborhood in western Kandahar. U.S. troops and Afghan forces have been heavily patrolling the city in an effort to root out Taliban militants.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Arnaldo Colon peers into the broken window of a car parked along the road with an Afghan sitting inside. Troops keep vigilant, given the consistent threat of car bombs.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Sweat beads on the face of U.S. Army Spc. Matthew Bunch, 21, of Quincy, Il. just after he finished the second of two foot patrols in heat that topped 100-degrees in Kandahar.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

U.S. Army Spc. Victor Smyrnow and Spc. Jacob Lind of the 82nd Airborne Divsion are framed by camouflage netting that helps obscure their position on top of a hill as they watch over the Arghandab Valley and their Observation Post Kuhat. Both the U.S. Army and the Afghan army man positions in this volatile area of Kandahar province. Shifts rotate every few days and the soldiers eat, sleep, pull overnight watch and occasionally take fire from the valley below.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

An Afghan national police member smokes a cigarette before the start of the May 22 operation in western Kandahar's District 8. U.S. commanders say the Taliban exercises more autonomy in the district than anywhere in the city.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

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Embedded with troops in Afghanistan

By Rick Loomis, Los Angeles Times

Cameras. Check.

Passport. Check.

Bullet proof vest.  Check.

And so it begins. My ninth trip into Afghanistan, a captivating country where I’ve now spent about two years of my life.

These trips are never easy, before, during or after.  A lot of time is spent fighting through a logistical nightmare just to get to a place from where you have a better than average chance of not coming back alive.

Afghanistan is the first place I was ever shot at, the only place I’ve ever traveled around in disguise (dyed hair, full beard, traditional shalwar kameez and prayer cap), and the place that somehow lures me back time and time again.

It’s a place of unbelievable extremes. I’ve spent my coldest nights there sleeping in the elements in the dead of winter.  And the hottest days, such a stretch in 2006 when a meat thermometer placed in direct sunlight read “baked ham” and pegged itself at 140 degrees.

It’s a place of unforgettable kindness where Afghans living in extreme poverty give you their last piece of bread.  Others, staring through you with cold, angry eyes, would prefer you meet a violent end.

Traveling there is often an exercise to see just what you can endure, physically and mentally.

This trip is strictly to be embedded with the military.  Usually I split my time between military and civilian stories but a big buildup of troops in southern Afghanistan had the focus of our reporting centered there.  Most often, my trips there are with Times staff writer David Zucchino.  We first met in Kabul in January 2002 and have experienced the excitement, the danger and the boredom that each trip holds in unequal measures.

He’s beaten me a thousand times at horseshoes on some remote base while we were waiting on a mission.  And I’ve left him deflated during marathon rummy games played on top of MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) boxes. Our duo has been dubbed Strawman and Dirtdog — among other monikers — but most recently, Scoop and the Papparazzi.

The latter nicknames came from soldiers we were embedded with this summer in some of the toughest territory in Afghanistan — Kandahar province’s Arghandab Valley.

To get to this place, let’s backtrack a bit.  It all starts with visa applications and filling out a stream of embed paperwork for the U.S. military.  This is a weeks-long endeavor that begins long before you step on a plane.

But once you do, it goes something like this:

A 16-hour flight to Dubai. Another flight to Kabul. A trip to a U.S. base to pick up embed ID cards which are usually never asked for again. A flight south to Kandahar, the main base in the south. A helicopter ride to a smaller base. And finally, two armored convoy rides until, phew, you are there.  That’s as concise as it can be written, leaving out hours of waiting, lugging pounds of gear, and the variety of hassles along the way that always seem to conspire against you getting where you are supposed to be.

And where I am supposed to be is with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division under the command of Lt. Jordan Ritenour. He looks no older than 18, yet he leads men into the fray every day.  His men gently tease him, asking him if he made sure to get a permission note from his parents before he goes out on patrol.  He takes it all in stride.

Zucchino and I go on several patrols with them.  These patrols are on foot and the feeling is one of vulnerability.  Even though I am traveling with heavily armed men, the threat comes mostly from remotely triggered roadside bombs.  They are pervasive, maiming and killing indiscriminately.  It’s roulette really and each step could be your last.

On one midday patrol, the sun is scorching down on the troops as they walk a dusty rural road.  The sky is deep blue and the only noise is footfalls on gravel.  Suddenly, shockingly, the silence is shattered with a boom that reverberates in my chest.  A cloud of smoke erupts just ahead.  An IED has hit the patrol. I shoot a few frames immediately and then run toward the front of the column, as does a medic.

I see another soldier radioing about the attack, preparing to call in a “9-line” which would dispatch a medevac helicopter within minutes for the wounded.  I stop to shoot the scene there and then continue forward a few more yards.

A thick white cloud of smoke and dust obscures the road in front of me but in an instant soldiers come rushing back in my direction.

The bomb had narrowly missed but was powerful enough to knock the nearest soldiers to the ground.  They were all right, but one was in a bit of shock and had hearing loss.  He kept trying to bark out orders for a proper response, which unbeknown to him, was already being handled.  The medic studied his pupils, asked him questions, and conducted a quick field examination to check his injuries.

The rest of the patrol was furious and went searching the nearby wooded area for the trigger man.  He was, of course, no where to be found.  And Urmel, the bomb-sniffing attack dog that led our patrol, was quick to point out where the bomb WAS shortly AFTER the attack.  Thanks Urmel!

Soldiers banged on the door of a nearby compound and questioned a frail old man to see if he knew of Taliban fighters in the area.  He looked bewildered.  He was a simple man in a rural farming area coming face to face with irate American service members.  He had zero information to share with them and they decided it was best to return to base.

They walked through farm fields, broke through mud walls and took indirect routes all in a effort to keep from being hit again.  This bomb only came close, but the situation could easily have been like what is reported so often these days.  ‘An American service member was killed in southern Afghanistan today by a roadside bomb….’

Twice on the return march roadside bombs could be heard exploding in the distance.  Another billowing cloud of smoke.  Another moment of terror for somebody.  It’s enough to keep you on edge.

Everyone, including Urmel, who is thoroughly unaware of his olfactory shortcomings on the patrol, is excited to rest upon returning to base.  Within minutes, he is racked out on my bunk, which is situated directly under one of several air-conditioning units in the room.  During the day, all of the units collectively blow hot air, but at night the conditions could best be described as arctic.  There seems to be no middle ground.  The soldiers prefer to freeze at night in equal proportion to how hot they are during the day.

Urmel’s immovable, so I work around him on the cot to upload my photographs onto the computer.  A selection of best are sent back to the office in Los Angeles via portable satellite link. They accompany a story that ran the next day under the heading “A bomb, followed by breakfast.”

One story done.  Check.

Zucchino and I spend a couple more days with the platoon. We watch members of an explosives detonation unit scratch their heads over a 1,000-pound Soviet bomb half-buried in a local cemetery. Then we hike through pomegranate groves and grape orchards with them as they locate and detonate a daisy-chain of homemade bombs hidden in a mud wall. When one of the soldiers shouts “Fire in the hole!” to warn of an impending detonation, Urmel whimpers and flinches. He knows what the phrase means.

We leave Arghandab the same way we came in — ground convoys through treacherous terrain, helicopter rides from dusty landing zones, and long treks on foot, hauling our gear in blistering heat. It’s all so that we can fight our way to our next embed and, ultimately, gear up for the long struggle to make our way back home, until the next trip.

See more of Loomis’ work here.


  1. August 30, 2010, 12:22 pm

    the image of the dog on the cot is beautiful and loaded

    By: Chris Strickland
  2. August 30, 2010, 7:38 pm

    Thank you for your story. I am grateful there are those who care enough to write about our Soldiers' experiences with such passion and beauty.

    By: renee
  3. August 31, 2010, 5:36 am

    […] Embedded with troops in Afghanistan – Framework – Photos and Video – Visual Storyt… This entry was posted in Photojournalism, Portfolios, Essays & Galleries, War. Bookmark the […]

  4. August 31, 2010, 3:12 pm

    […] of Britain: Up in the airDisaster deja vuWhen images don’t happen, make them happen NPPA Rick Loomis: With The Troops In Afghanistan. Again.New Documentary On Peter Turnley's CareerRetired Photo Editor Frederick Keesing, 97Tom Kennedy […]

  5. September 14, 2010, 4:29 pm

    Terrific set of evocative images, thanks for your struggle to bring them to us and the Times for underwriting it.

    By: loyly
  6. October 6, 2010, 12:43 pm

    […] Posted On: 12:42 p.m. | October 6, 2010 On Oct. 7, 2001, the United States launched its assault on Afghanistan in retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks. Bombs from the air and missiles from the sea hit Osama bin Laden’s adopted nation and his Taliban supporters. In the nine years to follow, Times photographers Carolyn Cole, Don Bartletti, Irfan Khan, Wally Skalij and Rick Loomis were on the ground covering the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here are some photos from the start of the war in the gallery above. Also read about Loomis’ most recent embed with troops in Kandahar here. […]

  7. January 10, 2011, 1:32 pm

    Bless you for doing this. I'm sure the loved ones of all the soldiers hang on every word, and scrutinize every picture.

    By: Maggie45

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