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Behind the lens: 4th Combat Camera in Afghanistan

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Christine Jones
  • 22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
Seconds can feel like hours . . . pulse racing, heart pounding, hands shaking uncontrollably, as all around lives are changed forever in the blink of an eye.

But in that blink, time doesn't stop.  Life is still happening around you and it is your mission to photograph every part of what is happening in that moment.  Even after an explosion.

As Combat Camera, that is the job.  As a member of the 4th Combat Camera Squadron (4CTCS), March Air Reserve Base, Calif., it's my mission.

Images and video by 4CTCS personnel have been viewable worldwide in publications and media outlets since our arrival here in October.  As the end of the deployment nears the eight Airmen, who volunteered with me, to deploy to Afghanistan and capture a critical time in history reflected on their experiences.  This is what the person behind the camera goes through to 'get the shot.'

The team was attached to 5/2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., and they lived together with Soldiers at forward operating bases and combat outposts throughout southern Afghanistan for the deployment.

For Technical Sgt. Rudy Castro, a videographer from Phoenix, Ariz., the lens acts as a buffer when the world seems out of focus.

"It's easy to separate yourself from the trauma behind the lens of the camera, but if you pull your camera away for a second, you realize the severity of what's going on," said Sergeant Castro.  "At that point, you just have to get back behind your camera."

For another team member Technical Sgt. Francisco Govea, the photographer attached to 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment and the 8th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, the work he did made things real for him and the American public.

"If there is not a photo of a humanitarian mission, then it didn't happen.  The photos are proof for the Americans that the humanitarian missions take place," said Sergeant Govea.

Made up of a photographer and videographer, teams went out on missions with U.S. Army Infantry Soldiers, on both mounted and dismounted patrols, throughout Combat Camera's six month deployment.  It didn't take long for these visual imagery specialists to understand that every time out could be a life or death situation.

"The first mission was a real wake-up call. As I looked at my teammate I emphasized words I learned at Combat Skills Training, 'watch where you step and keep your situational awareness up.'  As moments grew closer to gunfire, I realized this wasn't a movie . . . this was real life, people were dying and it was my job to document," said Los Angeles, Calif.,  native Master Sgt. Juan Valdes, the videographer attached to 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment and the 8th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment.

But it wasn't all about combat for the Airmen living with Soldiers.

"I was out there on the ground with the infantrymen seeing what they do on a daily basis," said Staff Sgt. Dayton Mitchell, a native of Akron, Ohio, and a photographer who now resides in Las Vegas, Nev.

The teams covered all aspects of daily life for service members in Afghanistan.  Joint patrols with the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, humanitarian missions, meetings with village elders, small arms combat with insurgents, improvised explosive device detonations and documentation of the aftermath of suicide bombers were just some of the moments captured by 4CTCS lenses.

During Operation Moshtarak in Marjah, both Sergeant Castro and Technical Sgt. Efren Lopez, also from Phoenix, Ariz., were attached to 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment.  They stayed with the unit for almost a month, going without showers, sleeping outside on the ground, and living as a Soldier lives in combat.  They both ended up capturing imagery during firefights with the enemy.

"We went over a wall and went into a ditch, bullets were flying overhead.  I took cover and I took pictures of the Army as they were engaging the enemy,"  Sergeant Lopez said.  "To document combat was both exciting and a little bit scary . . . It goes through your mind when you're in a combat environment that you might get shot or an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) could go off next to you."

Knowing when to put down the camera and pick up a weapon is an important moment when a Combat Cameraman must react.  On February 13, Castro did just that, engaging the enemy during a firefight he was in, helping the Army suppress enemy fire.

It's not the first time Combat Cameramen have had to defend themselves while executing their job, nor will it be the last.

When asked if there was a message for future Combat Camera teams that deploy to Afghanistan, Sergeant Mitchell, who was attached to Blackwatch Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment made a significant point, "Take your combat skills training very seriously," he said.

/sergeant Lopez may have summed up the experience best.

"The feeling of getting to be part of the first 4th Combat Camera team to go into Afghanistan is a great feeling.  I wanted to earn the name Combat Cameraman, and I think we all did," he said.  "This was an eye-opening and life-changing experience for me."

Sergeant Jones is a photographer with the 4CTCS, March ARB, Calif.  The team is comprised of both photographers and videographers.  On the still photography side are Technical Sgts. Efren Lopez, Francisco Govea, and Staff Sgt. Dayton Mitchell.  The videographers are Senior Master Sgt. Keith Baxter, Master Sgts. Juan Valdes and Robert Carreon, and Technical Sgt. Rudy Castro.  In charge of the team is Major Paul Smedegaard.  This was the unit's first deployment to Afghanistan.