It Came Without Warning

By Tech. Sgt. Brian Christiansen, USAF (Ret.)

April 27, 2011 – Kabul, Afghanistan
My office sits behind a 60-person auditorium on the second floor of what looks like an old hanger. Our office could have been a projection room and storage area for the auditorium. We have plenty of space, all 4 of us. But there’s no air conditioner. Welcome to sweatville – especially in the afternoons. We sit right above the main entrance of our building, and because of the poor construction, you can hear pretty much every conversation of those coming into the building.

It’s our job to document everything of importance here at the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing. Ask people what “importance” is, and you’ll get 300 different answers. Importance is defined in this office is as, what will turn heads? Grip and Grins… not so much. Some random general making a visit to get his picture taken, to prove he was here? – Not if I can help it. A box of nomax hoods that arrives from North Carolina, donated by funds raised by volunteer firefighters? – I’m on it.

Our “other” job, is to train the airmen of the Afghan Air Force public affairs office how to take photos. It’s time consuming… just trying to land the same day so it’s convenient for the public affairs office. Once we get going in class setting, it’s not that bad. If patience was a belt, I’d be wearing a 2×4.

Getting back to it, our office of 4 – it’s our responsibility to train an office of 8 people. We really didn’t have a plan we I arrived here. After finding indirectly that it was an additional duty, we just knew we needed to start going over to their headquarters building every couple days and talk about photography, video or something to do with public affairs.

No Set Schedule

“For now, Christiansen, I want you to go over there once a week and just talk about photography”, my supervisor delegated to me, without giving me any set details. Um…. ok. I know the Afghans in the PA office. Other than speaking Dari, and not really knowing what they are saying, they’re pretty cool. They always offer me chai tea when I go over. Normally, I always have Yama, our Afghan civilian who’s our translator. Good kid. 20-something.

It was my turn to teach. It was my day. I woke up in the most foul mood. I didn’t want to help them… I walked to work late. I knew I was going to tell my boss I wasn’t ready to teach them. I’d lied. I was in the foulest of moods and couldn’t figure out why… and didn’t care.

I left my dorm around 8:30am. We have to be at work by 7:30am. Ooops. The first time I slept late. Generally, if you are running late to your own office, you might think about bringing doughnuts. There’s not a Krispy Kreme for 8000 miles.

The Foulest of Moods

My boss had made his point a few weeks earlier. If you need a morning that you want to sleep inn, go ahead and take a couple hours.” Since we work 7 days/12 hours a day, we need a breather. This morning happened to be mine. I slept past my alarm. I was in a foul mood. I mean… no coffee, out of coffee, and there isn’t any coffee for miles — type of mood.

My boss had made his point a few weeks earlier. If you need a morning that you want to sleep inn, go ahead and take a couple hours.” Since we work 7 days/12 hours a day, we need a breather. This morning happened to be mine. I slept past my alarm. I was in a foul mood. I mean… no coffee, out of coffee, and there isn’t any coffee for miles — type of mood.

The Long Walk

We have to walk a mile to work. Then we have a mile to walk back to the dorms. Then we walk to lunch, about 3 blocks, and then 3 blocks back. And then another mile back to work. And then a mile back to the dorms at the end of the day. Now that you have all that in your head, there’s a turn style about 1/4 of the way to work. It’s like a turn style made for Oopma Loompas. Seriously – if you have any gear on like a backpack, you have to take it off and have it in front of you, as if it’s another person, in order for you to get thru.

So, it’s 8:30am. I’m walking to work by myself with my leather holster and wearing my 9mm pistol. We wear them every day – it just goes with the territory. I’m walking under this cloud in my mind that was bringing me down. I was pissed at the cloud. I still don’t know why I was mad. I remember bumping my head against one of the railings going thru the turn style, and that pissed me off even more.

Afghan Army Soldier

My long walk became even longer when an Afghan Army soldier walked out onto the street, he was about 20 yards in front of me. He was going in the same direction I was. He kept turning around, looking at me. My eyes were hidden by $10 Target plastic sunglasses. Again, and again, and again, he kept turning around while we were walking that 3/4 of a mile scanning me to see what I was doing, to see my reaction.

While he had turned back in the direction he was walking, I unsnapped my holster, more from anger, and less from cautious observation. He finally turned to his right. I kept thinking about it. What would I do? Could that have been something real, or was that guy just paranoid? My mood returned to me as I got closer to my building, and I could swear it was Monday, I wanted nothing to do with work.

Not Ready to Teach

“Sorry”, I softly and carefully said to my boss; and in the same breath I said, “I don’t think I’m ready to teach this class”. I didn’t want him to know that I was in a foul mood. In the same breath I remember saying to him. “I just really want to give them the best presentation possible.” I was lying thru my teeth. “No problem. We can work on it tomorrow or the next day. Right now I have to go over and see their public affairs officer.” And there went my boss. I was standing there with my backpack still on, and my head still ringing from hitting the turn style and he ran out the door. I thought it was absolutely perfect – I didn’t have to deal with him for the next hour. I could just unwind.

That’s what I did. 2 cups of coffee later, I sat at my desk checking to see what news was happening back home online. We have this young 22 year old Navy kid. He’s an OK photographer. Not great, but decent, that works with us. He sat in his corner of the room, and I sat in mine. We sat there for a little over an hour.

Tech. Sgt. Brian Christiansen standing in front of the last three Afghanistan fighter jets left at the Kabul airport. 




… Action.

Then we heard it. I’ve heard it before, but I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Shots fired in the distance. Yelling. Lots of yelling just outside our door. Boots on gravel running. Our office sits on the second floor overlooking the gravel parking lot… except that we don’t have an overlook. “WHAT WAS THAT!!? I’m gonna go find out!!” I was alone. What I had wished for in the beginning. I suddenly changed my mind. I wanted everyone near me. My photographer came back up the stairs. “SHOTS FIRED! WE’RE UNDER ATTACK! IM GONNA GO HELP WITH SECURITY!!!” “Take your camera!”, I jabbed as he was running out the door. He stopped. He turned around. I’ll never forget what he did next.

He kicked his own desk, and yanked the chair out from it, and it landed sideways on the ground. At that second I was beyond furious with him. How dare he not take a camera? I was livid. I’d retract any focus of anger towards him later on.
Under Attack! 

Someone else came into my office and told me to put my helmet and body armor on. “Holy Shit.” Is all I could even say or think. My boss was out of the office, my photographer was somewhere playing security, and here I am, trying to wrestle my vest on, and I’m thinking… “This isn’t supposed to happen.” Five minutes later I was downstairs where the WOC (Wing Operations Center) was. A room with the sign “Secret”, was above the door, and the door was wide open. About 5 officers were huddled inside the room, talking on radios, cell phones, and one on a dry erase board.

I had my camera. Someone told me to go to “Black”. Black is where you arm your weapon, there’s a chamber in the round, and it’s not on safety. In other words, expect the worse. I stood there listening to the intel that was coming over the phones, and the airman writing down information, and verbally repeating what he was hearing. He said something that will forever change my view of a military exercise to a military operation.

“Confirmed 5 American casualties….. understood… fatalities”

The worst feeling in the world took over the room, and two men exited without making a word and immediately got down on their knees, and prayed.

Less than a minute later, they stood, shook off everything they could, and returned to their office to do their job – monitor the radios and receive any information to help us. To us, we were at war… and alone.

We were in lockdown mode. No one left. No one came inside. Everyone who had body armor wore it. All personnel had their weapons ready to fire — we were all defenders that day, and there was no way in hell anyone who didn’t belong was going to get inside.

The Fog of War

“There’s got to be a mistake. There’s no way that something like this could happen.” I heard several people quietly asked others. “I don’t know.” The information wasn’t coming in fast enough. It was hardly coming in at all. Only a radio inside the WOC (Wing Operations Center) kept coming to life with that hissing tone right before someone would begin their transmission.

There were about a dozen of us huddled in the front entrance of our building that doesn’t have any windows – only the one door. You could see, feel, hear and touch the confusion and shock, and the ready to react – in everyone’s eyes and their voice – if they even spoke. We looked at everything beyond our fence as a war zone.

Several of us took key positions around the building, creating a security perimeter. We didn’t know what we were up against. Information wasn’t coming in. Imaginations were louder than voices.

One man?
Two men?
Suicide bomber?
A truck full of Taliban?

For the next 6 hours we were pinned inside of our building. “How long are we going to stay here?” was the common question. As the day went on, more and more personnel who worked in different buildings were allowed to enter. We were the only safe refuge on our side of the base. They brought their Afghanistan translators. “No cell phones, no calls, no texts!” The order was given to the translators, just in case…

There’s a phrase that is said by everyone, everywhere. “It’s great to see you.” That phrase will always mean something to me from now on. When at first we didn’t know who the 9 were every time another person that you knew came thru the front door, you heard yourself say, “Thank God.” You instinctively ran over to them and hugged them, and spoke to their heart, “It’s great to see you.”

The Names
We didn’t know. All we knew is that our spirits went totally south when someone came on the radio to make an update. “9 Americans….”. People began talking about what they knew. Enough information was exchanged, between everyone, so people figured it out. The 9 names were whispered. People began crying. People huddled together, and sat staring at each other. They avoided looking into others eyes. That’s when it hurts more.
We stood, sat, leaned, and supported each other in the main area of the 1st floor of our building. Normally a huge gym, this area now housed close to 100. Every translator and evacuee from the buildings that were nearby filled it from wall to wall. Some of us had our bullet proof vests on. A handful only had helmets, most of us had both, but we all had weapons. The radio came to life. I scurried to the edge of the room so I could listen “….It all happened inside the Afghan headquarters.”

I’m trying to make sense of something that I just can’t fathom. That’s where I was supposed to teach a photography class that morning…. in that building. My mind did one of those weird flashbacks… I was in a foul mood and I didn’t want to go… I later found out that it was in the room next door. My mind was busy wrapping itself around that I almost missed the announcement. “We’re moving out now!!”

We were told to collect anything we needed to take with us. Needed… not wanted. We were leaving our compound, and going back to the NATO side of the base. We hadn’t left the building all day, except for a small few of us, who tried to find any cover of protection, and provide security, even if it was a 5 inch wide support pole for an awning, it was cover for the time being. Others had left much earlier in the day, but were given the worst possible duty known to anyone – recovering the fallen, and their belongings. God bless those people and the medics on scene. God bless those families.

It was close to 7pm when NATO forces came to evacuate us. It was the Belgian army. Because of the immediate threat, no one could get in or on the base during that period of time. Several large troop trucks were waiting for us in our parking lot. We were escorted out of the building in a single line, and all translators were searched for weapons. The back bumper of each truck seemed to be about 4 feet off the ground. In order to somehow climb it, while we were wearing all the vests, helmets, backpacks, and our weapons, it took pulling from people inside the truck, and people pushing from the ground to get inside.

Our compound sits right next to an entrance of the runway. Once our driver cleared the gate, he floored it. I’ve never ridden in the back of a truck that was going so fast on an open flight line. I felt like we were going to fall out. They drove past the blades of several helicopters with inches to spare from the tops of trucks. I looked to my left to the back of the truck. Beyond exhaustion was everyone’s faces.


We arrived at the NATO side of the base. The drive couldn’t have taken more than 30 seconds. After the trucks parked, we all got out, and walked in single file lines. Military walked on as every translator was searched again.

They had us go into a huge tent to await debriefings. We were agitated, exhausted, irritable, and patience was the last thing on our minds. So was the food. That was our next stop. We took turns clearing our weapons before we all went into the dining hall where we would all synchronously play with our food for the next hour as the realization set in… 9 of us were gone.

Military members pay their final respects during a memorial service for eight Airmen and one retired Army civilian contractor killed on April 27, 2011 when a gunman opened fire during a meeting. The event is the deadliest single attack on Air Force members since the 1996 attack by terrorists on Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Christiansen)

We Will Never Forget Them

Helmets, rifles, dog tags, boots. Nine of them. The striking and eerie memorial you see at most every American hero who is laid to rest. But never had anyone ever seen Nine. 5 had the helmet of a pilot, complete with the dark visor pulled down and oxygen mask and hose. The other 4 were mounted with the basic soldiers’ helmet. 4 of them. Nothing basic about it.

It was Sunday afternoon. It felt like 3 weeks had gone by – not 3 days. People began lining up close to an hour and a half before the service started, to say goodbye to these makeshift statues. As the line slowly moved, every person reached out and held the dog tags of each of the fallen. People were leaving coins, patches, cigars, and even a set of glow in the dark neon glasses on the base of each figure.

The program finally started. It was silent. You could hear the sniffles of so many people trying to keep it together for the next hour. They performed a roll call. It hurt even more when they got to silence. Those stating they were there were deafened by the silence.

“Major Brodeur”. Silence.
“Major Brodeur”. Silence.
“Major David Brodeur”. Even more Silence.
“Major David S. Brodeur. Deafening Silence.

Each name was read 3 times each. People were balling by the end of the end of the service.

It was finally beginning to hit me. The service was over, and I stood there with my camera at my side, towards the front, and knew that I needed to observe with my eyes and heart instead of my lens. People were saying their final goodbyes while they slowly shifted from one statue to the next. It was getting stronger. The knot that starts in your throat and begins to take over your heart. I almost had control over it, except someone touched my shoulder, “We’re going to get thru this”. I was useless at that point.

We returned in force a few days later. No one ever let their guard down. We continued where we left off. Advising the Afghan Air Force. Everyone watched the backs of everyone else. We would not let something like this ever happen again.

Kabul, Afghanistan. Airmen of the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing join in prayer before the dignified transfer of remains begins at the Kabul International Airport. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Christiansen)

The sight was overwhelming. It took your breath away to see that many flags in a row. Many tried to push their emotions aside, and carry the fallen. I was asked to take pictures for the families. In all my years as a photographer, and all the military funerals I’ve covered, including one at Arlington, this was overwhelming. It seemed like thousands of military personnel, from every branch, from every country stood there at attention, saluting our fallen friends as they were being carried to a C-130 cargo plane.

In Honor and Memory of
Maj. Philip D. Ambard, 44, of Edmonds, Wash. He was assigned to the 460th Space Communications Squadron, Buckley Air Force Base, Colo.
Maj. Jeffrey O. Ausborn, 41, of Gadsden, Ala. He was assigned to the 99th Flying Training Squadron, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.
Maj. David L. Brodeur, 34, of Auburn, Mass. He was assigned to the 11th Air Force, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
Master Sgt. Tara R. Brown, 33, of Deltona, Fla. She was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Joint Base Andrews, Md.
Lt. Col. Frank D. Bryant Jr., 37, of Knoxville, Tenn. He was assigned to the 56th Operations Group, Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.
Maj. Raymond G. Estelle II, 40, of New Haven, Conn. He was assigned to Headquarters Air Combat Command, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.
Capt. Nathan J. Nylander, 35, of Hockley, Texas. He was assigned to the 25th Operational Weather Squadron, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
Capt. Charles A. Ransom, 31, of Midlothian, Va. He was assigned to the 83rd Network Operations Squadron, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.
Jim McLaughlin, 55, of Santa Rosa, Calif., worked as a civilian contractor in Afghanistan. He was also a retired Army lieutenant colonel.

Editors Note: Brian is a photojournalist for the North Carolina Air National Guard during “Guard” weekends, and during the week, he works for the N.C. Army Guard – doing the same thing. “It’s my job to capture life — unscripted. Everyone has a story, it’s my job to help tell it in pictures.”