Images courtesy: Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell
Since arriving in Afghanistan in October, Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell has witnessed a lifetime's worth of tragedy and triumph. As a military journalist attached to the U.S. Army's 210th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, his job is to carry the news.
"It's a long war, but there's progress," Burrell told The Unknown Soldiers from Jalalabad, Afghanistan. "Just the littlest things like going out, and maybe you got shot at for a month in this one village, and then, a month or two months later, they're giving you (food) and shaking hands with you."
Getting shot at is a part of life for this 30-year-old soldier from Highland Park, Ill., who was at Forward Operating Base Fenty when we talked over Skype. Burrell, who appeared upbeat and focused, had just returned from several days in the field, two of which he spent holed up while the unit he was on patrol with took enemy fire.
"Eastern Afghanistan, in Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan, where I operate, is one of the — if not the most — volatile areas in Afghanistan," Burrell said. "And (the Taliban) is still here, but these guys have really good morale, and we're doing some really good stuff in terms of kicking butt."
Burrell, who spent two years in Iraq, calls recent events in eastern Afghanistan "the most ferocious fighting I've seen in all my tours." He has experienced some terrible things.
"In combat, I've seen such different reactions," the soldier said. "When bullets start flying around, people act different."
After recently meeting and bonding with Staff Sgt. Bryan Burgess, 29, and Spc. Dustin Feldhaus, 20, Burrell learned that both of his buddies had been killed, along with four other 101st Airborne Division paratroopers, during a chaotic Mar. 29 battle. Instead of meeting again and sharing some laughs with his friends, Burrell packed up his gear and traveled through the mountains to photograph their memorial service.
"I was in an eight-hour firefight with those dudes, you know?" Burrell said. "I got pretty close to them. I heard about their passing, and I really wanted to go and cover (the memorial service) for them and for their families."
Less than two weeks later, Gen. David Petraeus arrived at a remote forward operating base to award Silver Stars to Capt. Edward Bankston and Sgt. Joshua Bostic, two of the many surviving heroes who helped the 101st win the crucial battle. After the emotional ceremony, Burrell became overwhelmed when several grieving soldiers thanked him for caring enough to interview them and take their photos.
"To me, that's a better feeling than any sort of award or any sort of recognition that someone else could give me," Burrell explained. "It's the dudes that I'm actually with telling me thanks."
Like many fellow troops in Afghanistan, Burrell is frustrated that stories of sacrifice from the 10-year conflict aren't filling up television, computer and smartphone screens at home.
"That's the stuff that the media — the mass media — doesn't care about," Burrell said. "They have a 24-hour news channel that doesn't cover things as important, I think, as the soldiers and their loved ones."
Regardless of where his stories end up, Burrell will be in Afghanistan until at least the late summer, giving his countrymen a window into a war that's mostly out of the spotlight. When asked how he copes with his job emotionally, Burrell, who usually asks the questions, paused.
"It's sort of cathartic to write about it — it's cathartic to take all those photos and keep them all," he responded. "It's crazy; I've seen guys pick up their battle buddies and run through a hail of gunfire to get their guys to a medevac.
"Sometimes, I feel happy with a camera in my hand — I almost hide behind it," the humble warrior admitted. "I feel like I'm looking at (war) through a movie screen or a video."
Along with his camera and heavy backpack, Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell hauls scores of haunting images around the treacherous mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The news he risks his life to send home — always unpredictable, sometimes unforgiving — carries tremendous weight.
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