By KAREN SCHALER
Karen Schaler, a reporter for ABC15, KNXV-TV in Phoenix, is in Afghanistan covering the Arizona National Guard’s 285th Apache Helicopter Unit. She was at the U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan Tuesday when a suicide bomber targeting Vice President Dick Cheney attacked the front gate. Cheney was unharmed, but up to 23 people were killed.
Schaler was working in a building about a 1 1/2 minute walk from the blast site. Here is her first-person account:
There was this loud boom, an extended boom. The whole building shook. The ground shook. I looked at an Army public affairs officer and said, “It sounds like somebody ran the gate.”
He said, “Oh it’s just a controlled detonation. They do them all the time.”
A few minutes later an announcement came over the P.A. We couldn’t hear it so he stepped outside. He came back in and said, “Everybody grab your protective gear, get in the bunker now.’ ”
He seemed very concerned. It seemed a shock to him. That’s when we moved. Soldiers came out of the woodwork putting on their gear. At this camp, you don’t wear your protective gear all the time. The only ones I see wearing them are the pilots going out on missions.
This is supposed to be one of the safer locations in Afghanistan.
At that point I felt kind of vulnerable. We didn’t have our protective gear with us. It was back where we were staying, which was a mile away. I was herded out with the rest of them into the bunker, which is a very makeshift tube, about four feet tall, curved, surrounded by sandbags.
I had done a standup (TV report) from a bunker the day before, saying ‘This is somewhere we hope we never have to go.’
There was at first this feeling of, “Was this real?” Soldiers were like yeah, all right, this must be a drill. It was very relaxed at the beginning. Then it came over the P.A. system.: “Red alert, red alert, the base is under full attack. There have been mass casualties. This is not a drill.” They kept repeating that over two hours. At one point they said purple alert, mass casualties.
Everyone started getting concerned. There were eight people in the bunker _ me, two civilian contractors, and the rest were soldiers. I was sitting next to two female soldiers, who were very young. They said this was their first deployment. “We didn’t think this would happen here. I hope I don’t have to shoot my weapon.”
I’m thinking, “All right, I’m sitting next to her. She has a weapon.”
At first, you’re like, “This is cool, I can report on this.” Then hearing the soldiers talk about how scared they were, and I’m thinking, “Huh, and they’ve got guns and Kevlar.”
It was less than 10 minutes after getting into the bunker that we heard the F-15s go over. And they roared. The soldiers in our bunker were like, “Go get ‘em.” It made you feel good.
Army folks in each unit were coming by for accountability and checking to see who was in each bunker. They were looking for people. I started text messaging everybody on my Blackberry so they could know where I was. I was looking for our photographer Filip (Kapsa). I couldn’t find him, but it turned out he was in another bunker close by.
We had heard rumors that Cheney was going to be here or was here. But just rumors. So when we came out of the bunker, we heard the talk that Cheney had shown up in the chow hall that we ate at an hour before.
A lot of soldiers were talking about being concerned that whenever a dignitary or someone comes here, they feel like they’re a target. Because the Taliban always wants to show off so to speak or show force to kind of say this isn’t secure. You’re never secure. We can still get to you. So there was some concern from soldiers that they are put in harm’s way whenever someone comes here. “Man, why is he coming here?”
(For additional reporting from Afghanistan by Karen Schaler, go to www.abc15.com)