In Depth

ABC News, Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger for ‘Nightline’: ‘Nightline—The Other War: Afganistan’

Six months behind enemy lines in Afghanistan.

That’s how long a team of journalists spent embedded with the United States Army’s 2nd Platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, gathering dramatic stories and footage for “Nightline’s” “The Other War: Afghanistan” for ABC News.

The half-hour report aired on Veterans Day in 2007. With the unprecedented access given to Vanity Fair contributing editor Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington, chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross reported on the physical and emotional struggles of the platoon’s soldiers fighting in one of the deadliest regions of the war on terror.

“We have a good relationship with Vanity Fair, and we knew they were embedding for a magazine piece, and saw the possibilities of it being an important, striking piece of television, and agreed to collaborate,” said “Nightline” executive producer James Goldston.

The piece documents U.S. troops being set up for fatal ambushes after trying to make peace with village elders in Taliban-controlled areas in the rugged terrain of northeastern Afghanistan. The elders often are suspected of tipping off fighters to the troops’ whereabouts, setting up deadly confrontations in which they are surrounded by enemy fire.

“I found myself having a very hard time sticking my head above the wall to shoot anything with my camera,” Mr. Junger said after an attack. “That was very, very hard for me. But the soldiers, they stood up, returned fire. Every soldier was, as far as I could tell, essentially operating in their unit and fearless.”

Mr. Hetherington broke his ankle and had to walk a long distance with a 50-pound pack on his back in order to get help.

“One big problem is fire coming from the houses in the village where Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters put women and children on the roof so U.S. forces, under their rules of engagement, cannot return fire,” reported Mr. Ross. “It is a huge frustration for U.S. forces, and has led to repeated showdowns between the village elders and the company commander, Capt. Daniel Kearney.”

The embedded journalists witnessed a major battle, Operation Rock Avalanche, which was meticulously planned on what became a deadly battleground in the Korengal Valley. The operation targeted suspected hideouts of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. Three U.S. troops were killed, including 25-year-old Sgt. Larry Rougle, who had been shown predicting on camera that someone would get hurt. Six others were wounded.

“We went from being the hunters to the hunted,” said Mr. Hetherington, who was with the soldiers when they were attacked. “It was a really awful sight, a very hard sight to digest, where men were in such a state of shock. I think I was in a state of shock too.”

Despite the heavy toll, commanders of the platoon said they achieved their goal of disrupting cells of enemy activity in the area. Meanwhile, in the heat of battle, there was no time to mourn their fallen comrades.

“The important thing I want to pay tribute to is the bravery of the people in the company and Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, who were in an incredibly exposed position, essentially getting shot at all day, every day, for weeks at a time,” Mr. Goldston said. “It is an unprecedented glimpse, the ferocity of it and the brutal conditions they were living in every day. There are very few places on network television to give a half-hour to this kind of story. ‘Nightline’ is the only place to devote the time, energy and resources to these kinds of stories now.”

Months later, the program did a lengthy follow-up piece in which it found conditions in Afghanistan were no better, and possibly worse. “It remains unclear what is going to happen,” Mr. Goldston said.