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tv   Nightline  ABC  November 24, 2011 11:35pm-12:00am EST

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tonight on "nightline," tip of the spear. we go deep inside one of the deadliest parts of afghanistan, just along the pakistani border, where one brave unit is risking life and limb for this. so, is it worth it? and angels in hell. the elite units who go unarmed into the heat of battle to rescue their injured comrades, either american or afghan. it's an e.r. in a helicopter, and we take you there. plus, what's in a name? there are dozens of them all over afghanistan. bases named for fallen soldiers. tonight, the stories of the
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heroes behind the names. a special edition of "nightline," american valor, fighting on, begins right now. >> announcer: from the global resources of abc news, with terry moran, cynthia mcfadden and bill weir in new york city, this is "nightline," november 24th, 2011. >> good evening, and a very happy thanksgiving. i'm cynthia mcfadden. today, as so many of us gathered around the family table to share food and laughter, we thought it fitting to remember that on the other side of the world, there are 116,000 mostly young americans serving in iraq and afghanistan, whose families are celebrating another holiday without them. as two wars that have told now for more than a decade wind down, they fight on. abc's senior white house correspondent jake tapper and "nightline" producer ely brown traveled to afghanistan to spend time with them.
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>> reporter: we're headed to the tip of the spear. to a remote base in mountainous northeast afghanistan. pakistan is right there. that mountain, under the clouds. this is the northern-most forward operating base. how does that feel? >> differences between you and the enemy, but still. >> reporter: it's morning at forward operating base bostick. the men and women of the 227 infantry the wolfhounds, prepare for their day. >> start off with role call. >> reporter: whatever the pending plans for america's longest war coming from washington, the work, and the fight in this part of the country, feels far from over. more than ten years after the 9/11 attacks, this war is now being waged by soldiers who were in grade school at the time. captain matthew schachman is now 28. only 9/11, he was a teenager, focused on hockey, for which he was drafted by west point. >> there's a couple different points up on the ridge line up
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here where they shoot at us from. >> reporter: this is his second deployment in four years. now, forward operating base bostick is his home. >> whole foods. chocolate chip cookies. >> classy. >> reporter: for the six months that the troops of the 227 have been away from their families, they've been focused on operated rugged sarak, which means road. this road. securing it, having it paved. keeping the enemy from illegal checkpoints. this morning, as part of the ongoing effort, acting commander major dominick edwards and his team head to the local district center. even a short ride just a half mile up that road means massive security precautions. but this road has been costly. a four and a third mile stretch of concrete and gravel for which every day they're prepared to sacrifice their lives. eight members of the wolfhounds have been killed since may.
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one was killed just a few days before we got there. when you find out that one of the soldiers has been lost, what's it like? >> it's just very difficult. you run through a wide range of emotions. you're sad, you're very angry there's guys who say, why are we here? you question that. >> there's that split second where you're happy that, you know, like, it's not your wife and kid and then, you know, you feel like a horrible person because you thought that. and then, you know, you think about their family. >> reporter: schachman says his wife knew what she was getting into. >> when i first met laurie, the first movie i watched with her was "we were soldiers" because the second lieutenant with a new baby gets killed and tried to scare her away. i didn't work. >> reporter: they now have two little girls. ainsley not yet 3, scar let not yet 1. you only know scar let from when she was a few days old. >> she won't remember that i was gone. i think ainsley might but i'll get home and give her the tickle
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hand and i think it will all be all right. >> reporter: back on base, captain schachman meets with a local contractor working on the road. he's finally been able to travel it in order to get paid. how much is that in american? $69,000. >> reporter: but the treasure is nothing compared to the blood spilled. >> this is our heros wall. all the heroes that have died during this tour. >> reporter: the motto of the wolfhoupds, no fear on earth. this is their insignia. but that's not an eye, it's where shrapnel hit. >> that's the hole. and then you can see the splattering on the wall. and that's my room right there. >> reporter: the arab spring, the death of bin laden, all of that seems so far away from
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forward operating base bostick where concerns are more pa roach y'all. it's this road they risk their lives from. edwards recently apologized to his wife and three kids for going a few weeks without calling them. >> my son said, don't worry about it, he's fighting a war. >> reporter: at the end of the day, is building this road worth it? even with all the good things that road means -- >> right, it's difficult to -- it's difficult to put a value on the loss of a father or a husband or someone's son or daughter. you want to make sure that their sacrifice is not in vain. we're making progress. we have making a difference. and i think that helps us resolve it a bit. i don't know if it's going to be worth it. i think time will tell, ultimately.
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welcome back to our special thanksgiving broadcast. in the last decade, 6,319 american servicemen and women have lost their lives in the wars in iraq and afghanistan. countless have come home with injuries from invisible to the eye and others painfully obvious. but so many more would have died, were it not for the heroic amount and unsung efforts by one very special unit, the medevacs, the pilots, nurses and doctors who go into the battle unarmed to rescue the fallen. here, again, abc's senior white house correspondent jake tapper.
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>> we have the patient. >> reporter: in the belly of this blackhawk helicopter, where space is tight and every second matters -- >> shrapnel peppered the face. >> reporter: a battle was being waged to save a life. >> all right. >> reporter: an afghan border patrol officer has been hitan i. the medic breathes for the man as the pilots race the clock. >> all right, guys. going to get a little bumpy going over this ridge line. >> reporter: for 30 minutes, the pilots, medics, nurse, crew chief have one singular focus. to deliver the patient alive to a hospital in kabul. this is all in a day's work for the all american dustoff medevac company, based at bagram airfield in afghanistan. >> a lot of history in this hangar. from the beginning we've been in here. >> reporter: it doesn't feel like the war is winding down here, where the men and women are on constant alert. as the war begins to come to its complicated close, they're called to provide emergency
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medical care for anyone at any time at great personal risk. just last month, this medevac unit lost a medic, staff sergeant robert cowdrey, 39. he was killed as he tried to rescue a wounded soldier on a hill in the middle of the battle. >> he was probably one of my most qualified and best flight medics i had. >> reporter: major graham bundy was his commander. medic and staff sergeant erin gibson loves it here. she's a 4'11" single mom from ohio, nicknamed mini medic. >> we meet people on some of their worst days and our job when that happens is to try to keep their worst day from being their last day. >> reporter: she's been deployed twice to iraq, once to egypt and now twice to afghanistan. her parents take care of her 10-year-old son, elijah. does he understand why mommy's away? >> he has come to the understanding of why i'm doing what i'm doing.
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>> reporter: never before have medics like gibson had such advanced medical technology that they can get to the front line so quickly. these helicopters are stripped down mobile emergency rooms. >> you can do an ekg on here. this is the oxygen saturation in your blood. >> reporter: if a u.s. is soldier makes it to the hospital , he has a 90% chance of surviving. it's saturday, and gibson is preparing her equipment for her latest assignment and what will end up being a long and dangerous night. an ied has exploded near the pakistan border. severely wounding two afghan border police. >> the afghan military hospital that we'll be transporting them to. >> reporter: major bundy will be a pilot. >> you always get a little nervous. >> reporter: the medevacs fly into combat zones in unarmed helicopters. their motto is unarmed and unafraid. >> are you medevac? >> that's affirmative.
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>> reporter: we take off. two medevac choppers on route to pick up the two wounded afghan border police. inside the helicopter, it's freezing cold and stinks of gasoline. for four hours, we're strapped to our cements with ear plugs jammed in, flanked by crew members scanning the ground for insurgents with guns. the sun sets while we're in the air. bundy, gibson and others on the team put on their night vision goggles. >> just overshot it a little bit. we'll come right in a second. >> reporter: on the tarmac, there's miscommunication. war is dark and loud. and confusing. gibson first approaches the wrong helicopter. but then finds her patient on the next one. he's quickly transferred to her bird. >> all right, we're secure. on the tail right now, she's starting to assess. >> work it for us. be safe.
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see you. >> reporter: we lift off again for an afghan military hospital in the south. gibson's patient has burns and damage to his eyes and face. she keeps him stable with fluids and sedation. as we proceed through a mountain pass. bundy asked her if altitude will be a problem. the added air pressure can kill a patient already fighting for his life. >> i think we'll be good. i just don't want to go any higher. >> yeah, that's fine. >> reporter: but soon major bundy does not have a choice than to go higher than 10,000 feet. to our left, insurgents fire at the medevac, which takes evasive action, climbing up and away from the line of fire. >> most conservative response, trying to climb up here to 12,000 feet. >> reporter: we soon land at the afghan hospital, only to sit on the tarmac for half an hour, waiting for the afghans to come pick up their patients. gibson continues to treat the patient. >> where is that vehicle at, sir? >> first pad. >> reporter: the delay is maddeni maddening. whether afghan nonchalance or
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incompetence or something else. but the team says the fact that the afghans showed up and were as professional as they were is a vast improvement from their experience in previous years. caught in the raggedy beginning of a troop drawdown, bundy, gibson and their crew are out there getting shot at to save afghan police. >> little more interesting than normal. >> reporter: in the past two months, they have flown over 830 missions, helping 1,050 patients. >> we were fortunate that they were just shooting at sound. but it could have easily been -- turned cat strof nick a second. >> reporter: you guys see really awful stuff, people at the end of their lives, children that are hurt, soldiers that are hurt and some of your own medics. how do you deal with that? >> this specific company, more than most, i think, is a very tight-knit organization. here, you are able to fly a mission as a crew, talk about it as a crew immediate little thereafter and come to terms
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with what you've seen. and that is sometimes how you deal with it. >> reporter: this is what they do. fly into the horrific aftermath of mutilation and murder, often while it's still going on. gibson was recently awarded a medal for saving a french soldier after lowering herself down from a helicopter on a hoist to get him. that soldier later said he saw this blond woman coming from, floating down -- he thought you were an angel. >> yeah. yeah. maybe i was. who knows? angels come in many forms. intr crest complete whitening plus deep clean. you feel it working, so you know it's working. and that means you're good to go, for whatever the day brings. new crest complete. unlike ordinary toothpaste, you feel a deeper clean. it's a signal that tells you your whole mouth is clean. you're also protected. because most of life happens outside the bathroom. feel it working, know you're covered. with new crest complete,
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what the young servicemen and women who we met in afghanistan most want was not to for you to remember them today but to remember their friends who won't be coming home. here again is abc's jake tapper. >> reporter: our trip brought us to forward operating base bostick to combat boast monti, to forward operating base fenty, to the staff sergeant heath n. craig joint theater hospital in bagram. the names might just breeze by visitors as they hurry to get to the barracks or the mess hall, but they are the names of the fallen. behind each one is a story and a grieving family. forward operating base fenty, here in jalalabad is named after lieu tent innocent colonel joe fenty who died in a may 2006 helicopter crash along with nine other men.
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fenty was commander of the 371 calvary. his wife had just given birth to their daughter, lauren, 28 days before the crash. >> got her dad's muscles. >> reporter: he never got to meet her. kristen says she's now proud that a base in afghanistan is named after her late husband, but first, it prompted other emotions. >> of course i was happy that he was being honored but i had mixed feels that really just came from grace. felt like, gosh, they took joe and now that country has his name on a piece of land, as well. >> reporter: at forward operating base bostick sits a memorial for captain tom bostick, the commander of bulldog trip, the 191 cav. during an ambush in july 2007, he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, leaving behind a wife and two daughters. the hospital at forward operating base bostick is dekated to rob yllescas, killed in october 2008. i sent a picture of the plaque
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to his widow. she had no idea anything had been named after him. some in the pentagon question the policy of naming the bases. they worry that the loyalty the troops might feel because of the name might get in the way of tactical decisions to shut down the base. kristen fenty says there's another way the u.s. can help the troops. >> not every service member has a building or a street named after them. but they have given their life and service and the very least this nation can do is to pay the benefits to their survivors. >> reporter: some day, perhaps sooner than we expect, the u.s. will begin to close down all these bases and outposts or turn them over to afghan security forces and the names will change. or vanish. but their memories will live on here at home. >> the last american servin


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