It happened one year ago this week. On April 27th, 2011, eight Airmen and one civilian contractor were killed by an Afghan pilot at the Kabul airport. This incident marked the deadliest attack by an Afghan serviceman on coalition troops in the decade-long war.
North Carolina National Guard Photojournalist Brian Christiansen of Charlotte was there that tragic day. This morning, he is one of 36 members taking part in an 80-mile, New York to New Jersey military ruck march honoring these nine:
- Lieutenant Colonel Frank Bryant
- Major David Brodeur
- Major Jeffrey Ausborn
- Major Raymond Estelle
- Major Phil Ambard
- Major Charles Ransom
- Captain Nathan Nylander
- Master Sergeant Tara Brown
- Contractor James McLaughlin
Remembering The Day
The military compound at Kabul airport in Afghanistan was in lockdown mode. Reports of small-arms fire spread fast among members of the NATO Air Training Command. “I heard commotion outside the building…yelling, running. Someone said that there were shots fired on base,” says Christiansen. He was one of the Air Advisors with the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing training the Afghan Air Force.
Customary during a perceived threat, military personnel were equipped with protective gear: helmet, over-sized bulletproof vest, M4 assault rifle and an M9 pistol. Inside one of the three buildings, he was thinking, “This is not suppose to happen. We’re here helping them.” As members peedked through a door, any movement by anyone other than Americans suddenly became a threat.
Information was scarce to come by. Christiansen says people were texting co-workers in the other buildings trying to make sense of it all. Names began to surface. “I wanted to find out what was happening, so I went right to the source – the radio room.”
The radio was on speaker. Standing next to the doorway, he heard these words: “Confirmed five American casualties – Understood – Fatalities.” Two men present in the radio room heard these same words. “They walked right past me to the hallway, knelt down and began praying.”
As it were, a complete accounting of the fallen had yet to be determined. “At that time, they only knew there were five. They didn’t know there were nine.”
In The Moments Of Adversity
As a photojournalist, one of Christiansen’s jobs were to train members of the Afghan Air Force Public Affairs Office on taking pictures. On the morning of April 27th, it was his turn to teach. Waking up cranky with an unsettled disposition on teaching this class, he told his supervisor he wasn’t ready. A little more than one hour had passed when the events of this tragic day began to unfold.
When over six hours had transpired, nearly a hundred were holed up in a gym on the NATO side of the base complex, anxiously awaiting the next update. The announcement came.
Nine American casualties. In the midst of a room full of emotions that could not be concealed, Christiansen learned that the incident took place on the Afghan side of the base, in a room next to where he was to teach the photography class. It was difficult for him to grasp this realization. It still lingers with him, today.
Two words that provoke various emotions and meaning from one person to the next. A familiarity to many, yes, but spoken by those with a heart tempered with suffering from having lost a loved one, not always. Says Christiansen: “A lot of people say ‘Never Forget.’ That never really stuck with me until all this. I didn’t really understand what that meant until now.”
One Year Anniversary
Nine paver stones, each inscribed with the name of one of the fall, are being carried on foot in a traditional “ruck” backpack from the National September 11th Memorial in New York to the Air Advisor Academy at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurt, New Jersey.
The joint base is home to the 25-day Air Advisory Course. An air advisor is an airman trained to assist and equip foreign personnel with their aviation needs, while supporting U.S. interests.
Ground was recently broken at the joint base for an Air Advisor Memorial honoring those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.
A Coin And A Flag
“I don’t know how I kept my emotions intact in seeing the caskets and seeing my friend’s faces absolutely broken.”
This past week, Christiansen has been on the phone and facebook with many friends who have deployed. He received a military challenge coin in the mail last week. It was sent from Mary Grant of Florida. Her son, Captain Nathan Nylander, was fatally wounded that day. She knew Christiansen was participating in the march as one of the 36 ruckers in honor of the nine that were killed. He began the march this morning in New York with the coin and an American flag safely tucked inside his backpack.
Christiansen is photojournaling the march. Go here: www.airadvisormemorial.org. Click on the blog link to follow the latest.
Take part in honoring these air advisors. Consider a financial donation towards the completion of the Air Advisor Memorial. Go here.