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June 16, 2010

Photographer recalls last interactions with Sgt. 1st Class Robert Fike

(Continued)

Harrisburg — ‘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.”

Haunting images

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.

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