What's 9/11 like at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan?
BY TAYLOR MIRFENDERESKI | ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON WCPO.COM | Sept 11, 2014
It’s a Tuesday night ritual for Air Force Captain Sabrina Akhtar and other soldiers stationed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, the largest base in this dusty and desolate land where former Islamic al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden ordered four coordinated attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. The attacks, which destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City, blew out part of the Pentagon and downed a jet in Pennsylvania, killed 3,000 people and shook the world.
That attack is the reason these troops are stationed here -- at least for the next several months as the U.S. begins its full-scale pull out of the country.
EDITOR'S NOTE: WCPO reporter Taylor Mirfendereski has been embedded with the U.S. military for the last 10 days.
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – “We’ve got some fireworks outside, but it’s time to play some bingo!” the number caller shouted aloud.
The game was in full swing just after 8 p.m. on Sept. 9, 2014.
“B-3, 0-36, C-52, D-7…. Bingo! ”
“We jokingly call it Groundhog Day because each day kinds of runs into the next,” Akhtar said.
Most of the rockets miss. The ones that do land on base don’t frequently do much harm.
“I guess it’s always in the back of your mind that ultimately (Sept. 11, 2001) was kind of the match stick that started everything,” Akhtar said.
Soldiers receive intelligence briefings every year about increased enemy threats on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks. A special curfew prevents most on base from going places at night.
And for all the horror and devastation of that day where so many lost so much, the troops that remain half-a-world away are business as usual 13 years later.
“You try and fill up your day as best you can,” said Akhtar. “The small things keep us sane."
But minutes before the game started, everyone hit the ground.
“IDF Impact. Take cover,” a recorded voice said over a wavering alarm. The rocket attack shook the room.
First-timers held their breath. But most others joked as they lay on the floor.
“Looks like we’ve got a game delay!” someone said.
Capt. Sabrina Akhtar plays bingo at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan on September 9, 2014. (Taylor Mirfendereski | WCPO)
But for Charlie Company 3-82, the DUSTOFF medevac team charged with evacuating and treating wounded soldiers, many
The DUSTOFF medevac team unloads a wounded Afghan patient from their aircraft and rushes him into Craig Joint Theatre Hospital at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. (Taylor Mirfendereski | WCPO)
“It’s kind of business as usual,” said Jeffery Myers, a Army medevac pilot.
The medical flight crews are always on-call, confined to a hanger only the size of half a football field. They eat, sleep, and work inside.
“We don’t get outside of the hanger anyways so even if there was (memorials) going on outside at Bagram, most of us aren’t privy to it,” Myers said.
A rocket lit up the night sky just before 8 p.m. on the eve of Sept. 11. It was hard to hear the warning siren over the sound of black hawk engines turned on for a medical training flight.
Two hours later, a second explosion shook several rooms inside. The DUSTOFF crews flooded into the main floor of the hanger, waiting for the “all clear.” Some played Frisbee as security crews on base checked for a continued threat.
had forgotten what month it was—let alone the day.
The rocket landed barely more than a half of a mile away.
“It’s going to be a long night,” two medevac pilots said to each other as they watched their colleagues pick up pieces of shrapnel near the flight line.
The night turned still. A full moon lit up the sky. The threat of the unknown is what keeps most here awake at night.
Crews made it through the night without another rocket attack and without a mission call.
As the sun rose across the mountains on the morning of Sept. 11, the date was not lost.
The DUSTOFF team gathered around a table for their daily morning brief, but first shared stories of where they were
DUSTOFF medevac crews rarely leave this large hanger at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. (Taylor Mirfendereski | WCPO)
when two planes struck the twin towers on that Tuesday morning in 2001.
“I think it’s important to bring up to remember what we’ve gone through and kind of reaffirm what we’re doing here today,” said company commander Maj. Trenten Short.
“But it’s just like somebody’s birthday over here. Just another day at work. It’s the same as yesterday, going to be the same as tomorrow and the day after until we leave.”