On assignment for Vanity Fair, author Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington moved into Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley with a platoon of American soldiers. Out of the experience come these exclusive images and the award-winning documentary Restrepo, a firsthand account from their year of living dangerously. Photography by Tim Hetherington
The small outpost of Restrepo once sat at the furthest point of American control in Afghanistan’s unruly Korengal Valley. It clung to the rugged mountainside, protected on one flank by steep rock walls. It was manned by the soldiers of Second Platoon, Battle Company, Second Battalion of the 503rd Infantry Regiment (“The Rock”), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. I arrived in the valley with writer Sebastian Junger in September of 2007 on assignment for Vanity Fair. The world’s gaze was still firmly centered on events in Iraq, and I had no idea this other place would continue to preoccupy my thoughts for years to come.
Few people were aware that large-scale combat was happening in Afghanistan, and I imagined the assignment would involve a lot of walking, meeting with village elders, drinking cups of tea and perhaps being shot at once in a while. But by the end of October, 16 percent of all combat in the entire country was taking place in that six-mile valley; 70 percent of U.S. military resources in Afghanistan were being deployed in the Korengal; and Battle Company was running a casualty rate of 25 percent killed or wounded.
To say that any part of the Korengal was “under control” was to underestimate an insurgent enemy that, by March of 2010, had killed nearly 50 U.S. soldiers there. Beyond Restrepo was bandit country. As Battle Company’s commander, Captain Daniel Kearney, put it, the southern Korengal was “where the bad guys are at—that’s their safe haven.” Restrepo dominated the high ground and hampered the enemy’s ability to attack the main U.S. base, situated on the valley floor. I imagined it as a game of chess, the outposts as pieces we used to penetrate deeper into enemy territory. Each one needed protecting, but some pieces were left exposed. Restrepo was one such piece.
The outpost was built by hand after a group of soldiers walked up the mountainside in the middle of the night and started digging. They continued the next day, taking breaks every time the enemy launched one of their numerous attacks on their position. For a long time, the outpost was simply a small area protected by sandbags and larger, rock-filled cloth bags. It had no running water or electricity. Soldiers slept out in the open and used red filters on their headlamps at night to avoid being seen by the enemy (red light doesn’t travel far). In the morning, they would clear their kits, ready to fight—and there was a lot of fighting. One time there were seven firefights in a single day. As months passed, the outpost grew: A bunker was added at one end, and later, makeshift plywood huts were erected to protect them from the harsh winter snow.
The outpost was named after platoon medic Juan “Doc” Restrepo, a popular soldier who was killed early on in the company’s deployment. At first, many of the soldiers didn’t like the fact that the “Doc” was being commemorated in this way. They thought it was a dishonor to name such a dirty and ramshackle place after their friend. As time went on, however, and the strategic importance of Restrepo became recognized, the name started to fit the place, and it developed into a point of pride.
Sebastian and I spent months at a time with Second Platoon, chronicling their experiences and documenting their lives. Our work found its way across the media: in magazines and books, on television and now as a feature-length film. It was a profound experience to develop such unusual intimacy with the men, sharing both moments of boredom and intense combat. I eventually left the outpost with the remaining members of Second Platoon when they handed it over to a replacement unit. The guys were happy to see the end of the deployment and keen to get home to their loved ones.
I was tired from the physical and emotional toll of documenting their lives for over a year. Back in New York, I followed news reports as the infamy of the Korengal grew, and this year watched television footage of the Taliban wandering around the debris-strewn outpost after U.S. forces decided to withdraw in late spring. Those images were particularly painful for the men to see. The blood and effort they expended there held meaning while Restrepo still stood.
Similarly, the withdrawal from the Korengal made me consider the film in a new light now that this chapter of the war has closed. And when I’m asked, as I frequently am, what the title of the film means, I say that it refers to an outpost named after a fallen comrade. But it’s also a metaphor for the sense of loss that every soldier is forced to endure.
Restrepo opens in general release at U.S. theaters on June 25th. Chris Boot will publish Tim Hetherington’s book, Infidel, in October. Sebastian Junger’s book, War, is out now.