Preparing for a combat zone deployment

By Jonathan Landay

No story is worth getting killed or wounded for. Yet being killed or wounded is an ever-present risk that you take when you embed with U.S. troops in Afghanistan — or any war zone. Even if you are accompanying soldiers who are not involved in combat operations, but are mentoring or training local security forces, there is always a chance that you could find yourself in the middle of a firefight or an ambush or the target of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) strike.

There also is a good possibility that your embed will take you from a well-established base to a far-flung Forward Operating Post (FOP) with spartan living conditions. You could find yourself sleeping in a tent with 25 troops or in your own trailer or prefab. You might end up on an operation on which you spend several days hiking in the outback or in the mountains, sleeping on the ground, eating Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), drinking water from local sources and relieving yourself in ditches. I once spent three days rolling in a small convoy of HUMVEEs from desert village to desert village, sleeping and relieving myself in the open, with just the turret gunners for protection.

Whatever the circumstances, there is no substitute for being prepared in ways that maximize your comfort and safety, and reduce the odds — although these can never be eliminated — of being killed or wounded.

At the same time, it is also important to try to keep the amount of gear you take to an essential minimum because you almost certainly will be lugging it onto and off of crowded helicopters, cramming it into the trunks of HUMVEEs or carrying it on your back. Often you are doing this while wearing a heavy ballistic vest and Kevlar helmet.

Of course, the amount of gear you take depends on whether you are a writer, photographer or with the electronic media (and you often will be taking photos or video even if your main job is writing — or filing stories even if your main job is taking photos). Being fit makes a huge difference, as does spending sufficient time in Kabul getting used to the altitude before heading off for an embed in the mountains.