By Pat Bywater
Most mornings for about a month, the two were the first to rise, enjoying the relative quiet of the forward operating base.
As the other men slept and the orange glow of another day broke over the hills of Afghanistan, the two would try to get online to send a message home. They tried knowing that they probably wouldn’t get an internet connection in the rough country of rural Zabul Province, and when the computer connection went down, they pursued a different kind of connection. Alone in those quiet mornings far away from home, the 31-year-old freelance photographer from Harrisburg and the 38-year-old sergeant from Conneautville would talk.
“We would talk about home, family, his daughter, hunting and fishing,” said embedded photographer Dan Shakal. “He really, really missed his daughter.”
Shakal looks back on those conversations now with deep sorrow and a sense of obligation. Sgt. 1st Class Robert Fike was killed in action last Friday, not long after Shakal left Afghanistan for home. Shakal is grieving Fike’s loss. He also feels a sense of duty to share his knowledge and his photographs so that the work of Fike and his fellow Pennsylvania National Guardsmen is understood and respected.
‘A bad neighborhood’
It was clear from the outset that danger was ever-present, according to Shakal. Zabul’s sparse population, border with Pakistan and proximity to Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold, make it particularly rough territory. Kandahar in particular has been targeted for the next major offensive by coalition forces.
During the month Shakal was present, attacks were commonplace and an American officer was killed.
“We watched it (the attacks) escalate over the weeks,” Shakal said. “It’s a bad neighborhood.”
Nonetheless, the Provincial Reconstruction Team was making progress rebuilding the area’s infrastructure and stabilizing local governments and the services they provide. “They are trying to win the support of locals,” Shakal explained.
Fike was among the leaders of the Reconstruction Team’s security detail. Missions outside of their forward operating base ran the gamut from a few hours to overnight.
“It was very interesting to watch them go out on a mission,” Shakal said. “On base they were like regular guys. But as soon as you got out past the wire it was like a light switch turned on. They were 100 percent professional. Heads on a swivel.”
“You just have to keep your eyes open — constantly looking all the time,” Shakal said. Even he was on alert. “It’s draining after a while.”