By Pat Bywater
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.”
‘Morale was good’
Fike and Shakal met in January during training before the group deployed to Afghanistan. The encounter left an immediate impression. Fike “was just one of those guys you just liked instantly,” Shakal said.
During his time with Fike in Afghanistan, Shakal spent every moment with the troops — they ate, slept, worked and patrolled together. There were no special arrangements for the press. As a result, he got to see Fike’s leadership and its impact up close.
“He was amazing,” Shakal said of Fike. “The guys respected everything he said. They trusted and liked him. They were like his kids. They got along so well.”
The bond between troops and officer and the trust extended in that relationship was key to managing the stress of an environment that demands hyperalertness. Thanks in no small part to Fike, the troops were in good spirits and retained their focus, Shakal said.
“Everybody was on their A game. They knew what they are doing is important. Morale was good. But I can’t say what is going on there now.”
One of Shakal’s photographs shows Fike kneeling, pausing during a patrol. Another shows Fike working with Staff Sgt. Bryan A. Hoover of West Elizabeth. Both pictures were taken in Bullard Bazaar, the spot where Fike, Hoover and several civilians were killed by a suicide bomber on Friday.
The bazaar is not far from the troops’ base and, as a regional hub, the bazaar was frequently patrolled.
If the pictures had a soundtrack it would be a cacophony of beeping horns, revving engines, raised voices, pounding, sawing and rumbling machines.
The Bullard Bazaar is a nearly mile-long strip of one- and two-story mud and brick buildings, most with rollup garage door entryways. They’re swarming with people and bulging at the seams with commerce ranging from groceries to metalworking shops, Shakal said.
“It’s pretty much like the gathering place where everyone goes and hangs around. There isn’t too much to do in rural Afghanistan.”
It is also the site of one of the Reconstruction Team’s projects — coordinating the placement of speed bumps by local contractors.
“The people used to drive through there like Andretti,” Shakal said.
Although the bumps slowed traffic and cut some of the noise, the bazaar, with its warren of shops, constant movement and crowds, remained one of the most challenging security environments the troops faced.
“There are so many people,” Shakal said.
Pat Bywater can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Meet the photographer
Dan Shakal is not your regular embedded freelance photographer.
The 31-year-old Harrisburg resident had no formal photographic training, media experience or any prospects of publication the first time he went to Iraq to take pictures of the troops back in 2003.
“I had stopped seeing stuff in the local newspapers about the wars. I thought maybe someone should do something to get the word out about these guys (U.S. soldiers),” he said.
So he flew to Turkey and caught a cab into the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Up to that point the furthest he’d been from home was Las Vegas. He didn’t know any Arabic.
Now he’s been to Iraq three times and Afghanistan once, mostly embedded with Pennsylvania National Guard units. In between he comes home and finds what work he can long enough to fund his next trip. There’s been no big payoff in taking the pictures, but he finds the work very satisfying.
Once his pictures were featured in a spread by the Patriot-News, and he was still with the soldiers when their families wrote to them about seeing the pictures.
“The guys were happy and their families were excited and that made me feel really good.”
You can help
A fund to aid the 12-year-old daughter of a local soldier killed in action has been established at Citizens Bank.
Donations can be made at any branch to the SFC Robert J. Fike Fund, according to Fike’s brother, Chris. Fike, a Conneautville resident, was on patrol in Afghanistan on Friday when he was killed by a suicide bomber. His daughter is Mackenzie Bliscik of Meadville.
Funeral arrangements are not yet complete.