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Advice for first-time embeds to Afghanistan

Over the past year I have been emailed frequently by photographers inquiring the “how to’s” of embedding to Afghanistan, especially those who are first-timers. I wrote very similar emails like this to very experienced colleagues (such as Alan Chin, John Moore, and Teru Kuwayama, to name a few) before I embedded for the first time in 2009. To save us all a lot of trouble (those asking the questions and those having to repeat the advice) I decided to compile a document entailing a list and series of frequently asked “Q and A’s”, as well as information given to me from these colleagues in the field; without their help my embed would have been much more difficult. Each section of advice is listed under the photographer’s name who gave me that particular advice. (If you find your name listed in the following document, and you prefer to NOT be listed here, please email me and I will remove you). Otherwise, I think this will be rather helpful for everyone, as it covers a variety of topics including, gear, mobility, terrain, contacts, etc. It is quite long, so may need to be sifted through to pick out the best parts. Please feel free to also add your own advice, and THANK YOU to all of the photographers who helped me before my embed. All best, Erin Trieb


The following is compiled information and advice from various photojournalists on embedding / traveling to Afghanistan. All information was compiled from emails written from the spring of 2009 – summer 2009. Some information might be outdated, depending on the conflict and army regulations, etc.


South is were the temperatures get to insane levels. I just spent 3 weeks there, and it was February and it was like 75ºF during the day and 30’s during the night…. imagine it in July! Every where outside of Kandahar/Helmand you shouldn’t be at so much risk and so much heat. And it’s very hard to say were you will see some action, depends on many things and I haven’t seen much there.

Kandahar is much worse then in 2007. There are no foreigners outside of the military bases and you ARE a target. I did spend a day out of the KAF, it was fun, but I looked a lot like a Pashtu. If you are a women, not using a burka on the streets should call a lot of attentions there, but saying that I know women who did it last year.

For flak jackets and helmets, Reporters without borders in Paris do give you one if you give them a deposit for about 900€ and when you return it, they will give you the deposit back. It might be an option. Lightstalkers might be another. Be aware that man flak jackets are different from women’s

I haven’t dealt with this company before, but their prices look real good. they list surplus kevlar helmets starting at $40. I also see a german flak jacket for $70 or so – you would still want plates/plate carrier for high velocity rounds, but I won’t go into ballistic fine print. you’re from texas, you probably know more about guns than me.



Regarding gear to buy at PX. Don’t rely on the PX anywhere to have what you need in stock. While they usually have something usefull at the large bases. Think about buying eyepro, camel back etc before you come. Usually they will have it at PX though, and at a better price than stateside for many items. Earth colored body armor, clothes, helmet. Anything else will be like a beakon for the Talibs to aim at.
I HAVE FULL BODY ARMOR FOR RENT IN KABUL. Kit includes a light plate carrier with level IV plates (one size fits all), also a full flack vest,level IV w/ neck protector (spartan II – full battle rattle, size Large fits between 5’9 and 6’2, 165 – 190 lb man) and a brand spanking new MICH helmet size large (fits most men, sorry ladies). All kit is basically new, but worn enough not to be stiff and shinny new looking. Presently the kit lives in Wazir Akbar Khan hood of Kabul. Contact me for details.

Hostile environment training: Unless its free, screw it. If you need to be told how to hide from gunfire or how not to step on an IED, this is not the job for you. Better to take a first aide trauma course instead of paying ex SAS guys to tell you what the kill radius of an RPG is.

Bring a healthy dose of patience and small 500 gig hard drives if you are a still photog. Bring an extra power cord if you use MAC. Make friends with PAO’s. They work thier asses off, and if you piss them off too much, you will get no love. Behave yourself. Dont be sneaky, ie, don’t set an audio recorder up when a bunch of soldoers/marines are sitting around bullshitting without telling them first. Dont be a demanding ass, and MOST OF ALL BE FAIR IN YOUR REPORTING. If you see a 19 year old soldier lift a pack of smokes from an abandoned shop, dont make a big deal about it. In the scope of war, this is not important. We have a job to do, but when you go out of your way to publish something minor ignoring the big picture just for the ooooohh factor, it screws us all. The military is already largely suspicious of the press at best, and this usually comes from either prejudice, or the fact that some reporter miss represented a situation, or of course, that many times the truth hurts and the military just doesnt dig what we have to say. But at least we can report in a fair manner. Think Big Picture, what is the core of your reportage?
BE FIT. WORK OUT. If you cant keep up, dont go on patrol. The rest you’ll figure out along the way. At the end of the day, this shit can kill you, or worse. But so can an auto accident back home. Lif is dangerous, but to quote Michael Herr quoting a GI in Vietnam: “You gotta’ bring some to get some.”


Regarding “intense conflict areas” – there are areas that are traditionally hairier than others, anything along the pakistani border would be included, including paktika, and all the trends in Afghanistan are negative, so expect Kandahar or anywhere else to be worse now than in 2007 or 2008. that said, it would be bad thinking to expect that because mazar-i-sharif, bamian, herat, etc have been relatively (and it is all relative) safer that they will stay that way. think like an insurgent and expect them to strike where they have not struck before and there are softer defenses. (put sun tzu’s art of war on the reading list too).

Q: Do you carry multiple bags? you mentioned duffel bag… do you have a backpack for clothes, a camera bag and a spare bag for armors and such?

yes, I carry an extra duffel bag – when traveling overseas on planes, etc, I put the backpack inside the duffel bag (will protect the straps from getting ripped off, easier to lock up, etc, and will keep more dust/dirt out). When you are stationary, in a hotel, military base, etc, you have an extra bag to lock up your extra gear in, etc. I also carry a small chain/cable to lock the bag to something).

Another thing that I find useful is a small hardcase (like pelican, etc) to put fragile items inside – like hard drives, card readers, etc – I’m talking about pretty small cases, that cost $20 – then you can use small pieces of styrofoam packing material or plastic bags, etc to pad the items – when you are traveling by road, or by helicopter, etc, your bag will get thrown around and banged up – so try to get your gear protected inside – the cases will also help keep dust out.

also useful is a duffelbag – they fold up really small when empty, but you can use to carry your body armor, extra gear, etc, and can use it to stash and lock the stuff you
are not carrying on your person.

here’s a backpack I’ve been meaning to try out – waterproof, looks rugged, but not military – waterproof isn’t necessary, but not bad – almost more useful for keeping out dust than for water, although falling into a river and killing all your digital gear is always a
possibility too.


For getting to Bagram – it’s not too dangerous to go via Kabul, although there is always a risk – it’s really a question of what you want to do. if you want to go straight to Bagram, you might as well just go directly by DFS – if you skip the afghan visa and car ride to bagram, its not really going to cost much more to go direct.

For luggage – I’d take a daypack, a medium sized back pack, and a duffel you can haul the backpacks and extra stuff, like body armor, etc – when you’re on the go, you duffelbag becomes your storage depot whereever you’re staying. That could be a tent, a base, who knows – generally speaking, your stuff should be safe while you’re embedded, but it’s the military, not the boy scouts – so not a bad idea to have a bag you can lock, even chain to a bunk, etc…


Don’t expect world war III. I was embedded for a month and only saw one fire fight. And even that was at night so didn’t see much. At the same time, you should have level IV body armor, medical insurance, and ideally a surviving hostile environments training course under your belt.

Don’t expect to sell anything either unless you have a commission lined up before you go.

Basically the situation is that the Americans and NATO have reached a military stalemate. NATO are so thinly spread they can only hold the ares they have now and are not push into any of the Taliban safe havens. Until the new troops arrive, there is only one unit that conducts real ‘kinetic ops’ (army talk for fighting) and that is the British 42 Commandos.

I was most recently with the US 2-2 Infantry in Maiwand District. They are the only other US unit besides the Marines in RC-South. It was a real hassle getting an embed with them as it goes through ISAF approval. Just so you know what to expect, in the 7 months they have been there, the Colonel said he could count the numbers of times of direct fire on one hand, but it was probably the first or second most heavily IED’ed area in the country. The main FOB (forward operating
base) is Ramrod- barren place in the middle of the desert with only route clearance operations. There are two small outposts called Terminator and Hutal where they conduct dismounted operations. I was at Hutal and there are Taliban in every direction, but I didn’t see any action in the couple of days I was there, but two soldiers were killed two weeks before by a suicide bomber.

So, not sure if I recommend it as on top of that, transport out there and to the smaller bases is terrible. It is not uncommon to get stuck for two weeks. Then again, there is more activity Kandahar province than any other province except Helmand. I also spoke with the Marines, who are in Helmand and that was an option, but they were only doing route clearance and building bases, so it sounded very boring.

Don’t wear anything synthetic, as in a blast it will melt into skin and make burns much worse. I wear nomex which is fire resistant. You must have your own body armor, helmet, and ballistic eye wear. The army provides transport, food, and a cot. I have insurance that covers medical evacuation from Afghanistan, going there without it really rolling the dice.

Civilian flights are the most reliable way to get into afghanistan. use the taxi company afghan logistics to get yourself to bagram airbase. I usually give myself a week to get to a location and a week to get out, so by doing that many embeds in a row, you will be spending a lot of time traveling. Better to choose one and stick with it. The units are in different regions and have different embed procedures, so that adds to the hassle.

Have good Level IV body armor and be inn excellent physical shape. Be prepared to carry everything you need for several days in extreme heat (50+ pounds in 120 degrees). If not, you will be a liability to yourself and the soldiers.

Wear nomex clothing to prevent burns

Have insurance that covers medical evacuation from afghanistan. The military will stabilize you if you are wounded, by after that you are on your own.


1. Outside the wire: How often do you get to go outside the wire and
how long do these trips last.

i give myself usually a week to reach the small outpost and to actually start shooting. there are usually patrols everyday and they range from a couple of hours to several days.

2. Gear: How much gear would you pack for a 3-4 weeks embed? What do
you pack for an extended patrol outside the wire (assuming it does

I have attached my gear list. for an extended trip carry the miniumn-sleeping bag, sleeping mat, batteries, and camelbak. I would say insurance that cover war zones is probably the most important thing to have.

3. Filing photos: Is it easy to file photos from whenever you are based or do you have to bring your own transmission equipment?

there is internet on the bigger bases, but is very slow. Most journalists bring a BGAN satellite modem for filing from in the field.

4. Security of personal equipment on base? Lockers, etc?

Security is good. I sometimes use locks on my bags, but usally don’t and never had anything stolen.

5. Availability of body armor in Kabul?

6. How cold is it right now in the mountain areas of the eastern regions?

google weather for kabul. its above freezing at night now, and warmish during the day. khost is warmer than everywhere else.

7. Visa extension. Are these easy to obtain and is Kabul the only
place to do that?

I have done it before in kabul and it was a pain. you will need a fixer, cash and a couple of days to get it sorted, but it can be done.


Suggested Packing List:

-tan pants, muted, colors to fit in with landscape, make sure your helmet or vest is not blue.
-converse special forces boots ( or good boots you like)
- make sure you can carry everything yourself
- the px at bagram sells almost everything . Go there and buy a camel back and a good pocketknife when you arrive.
-petzel headlamp with red filter
- Ballistic glasses ( you can get these at the px as well) a must have !

The PAO people at bagram will help you with as many questions that you have but i would think of them as a speed bump on your way to the real people you want to impress. i mean, the people at FOB shank are teh ones you need to get to really know and get to trust you. Bagram is a horribly boring place and the sooner you get to FOB Shank the better. There is a USO building that has free wi-fi ( although it is slow! ) and you can watch movies there as well to pass the time. ask your PAO guys to show you where it is. The PX ( army store)is a great place to get supplies, soap, toals, flashlights, knives, books) They also sell camel backs and stuff like that… so dont worry about packing too much because you can get it there if you forget it. Definately buy ballistic eye protection glasses and wear them when you get on and off helicopters. There is A LOT of rocks and stuff flying around from the wind and you will be happy that your eyes are protected.

There is a ATM on bagram but it hardly ever works so make sure you have cash, the PX will only give back $20 in change. for each purchase if you use a debit card. There is a cell phone store near the PX, you can go there and buy a cheep cell phone with a afghan number, it will cost roughly 80 bucks and you also will need to buy a few cell phone cards to "charge up " your phone with minutes.
it was EXTREEMLY HELPFUL to have a phone. Actually now that i think about it, it was one of the most important things i purchased while there because if a flight changes or moves the PAO people can call you and tell you to hustle to make it out, so get a phone, give your PAO guys the number…, it should also work at FOB shank too.

Another thought… I know a woman who teaches at bagram, she is a civilian but shoul be there for a while. she is really nice and helpful. If you like i can put you in touch so at least you will have a friend to have coffee with while you are there (but hopefully you wont be at bagram long)
AND … i dont want to alarm you but sexual assualt is a HUGE problem on bagram. It is a fact that no one talks about and doesnt get reported but it is real and you should be aware of it.

My first trip was entirely self funded. I spend 5k of my own money to go. IF you fly to Kabul I can put together a LONG list of thoughts, including where to stay, etc. My recommendation though is to NOT fly to Kabul. On my first trip I was detained by the airport police for having the wrong visa stamp. It’s a scam where they stamp your passport with the wrong info when you enter and shake you down for cash when you leave.

I had to bribe security at every checkpoint to even get INTO the airport. Seriously, it was one of the worst experiences ever and it’s not worth it. I dont think it is TOO dangerous, but traveling to Kabul adds a risk that is really unnessicary given that you can fly straight to Bagram and cut out all the potential problems. Also keep in mind that you will have to pay for someone to take you to a guest house, and to Bagram, as wel as the rent for a guest house while in Kabul. Another thing about Kabul, it is like the New York City of Afghanistan but it is STILL AFGHANISTAN. Women are treated like crap and as a blond American you will certainly stick out as a target.

I would not advise walking around the streets of Kabul unless you have a trustworthy guide and make sure to cover your head with a scarf.

This website is a good place to get info, post questions, etc.:
Its helpful to sign up for updates and then you will get emails from the website as other people post questions and answers.

My advice is to fly to Bagram directly with DFS. Go to shank and then have the PAO people there get you out to a nearby COP (combat outpost) or go on patrols in the area of Shank. Focus on doing the kind of photography you are good at and building relationships with the unit you are with at Shank and you will be fine.

I don’t think getting ISAF credentials is necessary unless you are hoping to go to a specific area in the south for a specific story. To be honest, both areas will present themselves with the same types of images ( soldiers in an environment ) but one is more newsy.

One bag for vest and helmet. Make sure vest and helmet has your info on it and have a copy of your embed forms attached to them. When you get to Dubai the security guys will take it and hold it till you get to your next gate which is in a different terminal. Once you get there you have to find a security gaurs to get it for you. When they take it they give you a form, don’t loose that form. When you arrive at bagram you can take the vest out and wear it and ditch the bag, them mail it home when you are done

I’ll have to look it up. I had 3 bags,
- one duffle that fit my vest and helmets with plates ( and they are ceramic but not the kind that breaks so you can check it )
- one medium – large bag for my cloths, etc
- one medium backpack that held my cameras and laptop.

When I got there I ditched the duffel that held my armor. When you get to the base they will give you a room or tent and you can leave your gear there. One tip though… When you are at bagram keep your stuff packed an ready to move. If they call you suddenly about flying out you don’t want to miss the helicopter because you new to pack. Roll up your bag everyday and pack it away.
When I went out with troops on patrols I brought my backback with 2 camera bodies, a camel back and extra food. I also had a fleece and a rain coat.

When you get to Dubai they will take your armor at customs and give you a receipt for it ….don’t loose it.
Make sure you have a copy of your embed approval and flight info to leave with your vest so they know when you are leaving. When you show up at the terminal ( a different terminal than you arrived at) find security and have them get your vest. They will bring it to you and you are set. Make sure you arrive super early at the terminal for the flight from dubai to bagram. And at the bases there is gravel everywhere so you won’t be able to use your rolly suitcase. I used a “3 day assalt pack” and made sure I had extra space in it so if needed I could throw my camera with lens into it quickly.

If you have time mail I back . Here is why ; having the right gear sends an instant message that you know what you are doing, soldiers will respect you more if you are aware of the enviroment.
A blue vest in a sea of tan makes a great target to aim at. Also – why not go on patrols? What’s the point of embedding if you sit on base? and if you are the only person wearing a blue vest the bad guys don’t think you are a journalist, they think you are in charge… Tan vest, tan helmet.

My advice is to get to a small fob as fast as possible and get away from bagram. Bagram is a waste of time and like a american city.You will get nothing interesting there.


Were you embedded with ISAF or CJTF?

I was embedded with ISAF on my first trip and CJTF on my second and third trip. I wanted to go to helmand province in the south on my last trip and had clearance to embed with a great unit there but I didn’t do it because to embed with ISAF you need ISAF credentials that can only be obtained in Kabul. So logistically that would have been a nightmare. The taxi takes about an hour and a half from Bagram to Kabul one way. I simply didn’t want to add that risk onto my trip when I worked so hard to get a flight straight to Bagram.It seems silly to me to have to go to Kabul to get credentials but that is the way it works. I did it on my first trip while I was in Kabul but those credentials have expired. I am guessing that the Marines will not be at the Forward Operating Base where you are going and if they are you will not be permitted to go on patrols with them if you are embedded with an Army unit. Don’t worry though, get to know the people around you and ask about going out and it will happen.

Also, up until now I have thought that i need a level IV vest to get on the base. Is this correct?

If there is a solid plate in the front and back of the vest then it is more than likely a level 4. The plates look like this:


if the vest is soft it is more than likely a level III.

Most vests are level three, then they become level IV by inserting the plates.
This is my vest. It has level III inserts, and Level IV plates.


To be honest, all you REALLY need is a plate holder with level IV plates. Level III will slow down and stop shrapnel and bullets from pistols but plates will stop an AK-47 bullet. So if you are wearing a level III vest and get hit with an AK-47 round it will go right through. The army wont check it though so really it doesn’t matter.

If you are just riding in a humvee or MRAP (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MRAP_(armored_vehicle))
You will want to wear it all because in a blast it will help.


Almost all travel is done in MRAPS , NOT HUMVEES, and you should avoid riding in humvees as much as possible, actually don’t ride in one at all. Because if you are in a MRAP and hit an IED you will live.

Can you use a credit card at the Bagram px store?

Yes. Bagram is VERY far from nitty gritty and in fact you cant even carry your camera around unless you are escorted by a military person. Think of it as a weigh station that you have to go through on your way to the real story.. I am pretty sure that you can just get a SIM card there but I am not sure because I just bought the whole phone. The cell phone store is in a separate kiosk close to the burger king ( yes , there is a burger king)

You can buy the glasses at the Bagram PX but I am not sure what they carry… most of them look pretty silly. I had these ones and like them a lot ( mine were clear)


But really you just need something simple. Like this


How long did you have to stay at Bagram? Meaning, were there long waits in between patrols that you went out on… did you have to wait a week or just a few days? Did they fly you most places or did you have a take a HumV? What posts / areas were you in mostly?

I was only at bagram for a short time on all my trips. Make it clear to your PAO that you want to ge to Shank as soon as possible. You might wait a week or more to get off bagram depending on the weather. I was at FOB Kamdesh (called keiting now) , and The Korengal outpost, and FOB Orgun-E.
I’ll be gone about 6 weeks and I am hoping that is enough time to make a good story. I was there for six weeks on my first two trips and 2 months on my last trip.

You mentioned sexual assault on the bases for women?

The woman I know who teaches there has a student who was raped and she told her that there were 20 assaults in the last month. I don’t know if its true or not but I know that at the smaller bases they are “blacked out” which means only red lights at night time so its easy to get away with it.

Also – if you go on a patrol ask your doctor friends to give you an “IFAK,” which is a personal first aid kit.


Get a canvas duffel for your vest and helmet, after you finish your embed mail it all home from bagram the case will cost 20 bucks ( a plastic foot locker from the px) and shipping is 20 bucks
Super easy. As for your cloths bag. Think light. You will wear your vest and carry everything else.

Your friend will do alright at Shank. I landed there a couple of times enroute someplace else last year in choppers—to refuel. Never got a chance to do anything there. But it’s a really new FOB and has been made a major Battalion HQ, I believe. It’s grown twice or three times just in the past year. She’ll be in Logar, and if she can arrange it, tell her to try and get out to the smaller COPS in and around the other big one up there.


- Should there be a reliable way for me to charge my laptop/camera batteries/mobile phone during the embed (generator,vehicle dc, etc)?

-Judging by the mobile network coverage maps ive been able to find I guess I will need to rely mostly on satellite for communication and transmitting my pictures?

-Is there any chance at all of pinching a bit of bandwith from the troops’ connection to check email/upload a few quick pics or do I need to start scouring the internet looking for a cheap used BGAN terminal?

-For the transport would you recommend taking a civilian flight to Kabul and working it out from there or trying to sort a military flight into Bagram?

-Regarding the embed application: I am hoping to do 3-4 embeds in succession (2nd Expeditionary Marines, 5th Stryker/2nd Infantry, 82nd Airborne Combat Aviation), in your oppinion would it be better to apply for them all at once or separately?

-And finally, I was planning on sending the application to kabul-presscenter@cfc-a.centcom.mil and bagrammoc@swa.army.mil but would you possibly happen to have a more direct contact?


My Cam gear and Armor I don’t check. I carry it on because if it gets lost you can’t go on. As for clothes… nothing synthetic. Only cotton and also no ink prints of any kind like picture art. Just solid color cotton clothes. You may have to wear long sleeve. Check with the unit your assigned to. Some require it. If you can afford to go to an Army Surplus and buy BDU’s. Not tops just bottoms. Some military officers have issues with civilians wearing complete uniforms. BDU bottoms are acceptable. If your with the Army they have new under garmet shirts that are way cool. I’ll try to find a link. There like a long sleeve BDU shirt with camo arms and t-shirt torsos. Boots. DO NOT buy a new pair and go. I HIGHLY recommend a pair of Merrell Continium. They will glove fit right out of the box and work awesome. Take at least two pair. I recommend 3 but it’s your call. You can always sell them there. Socks, socks and socks. Did I say socks? Beware thick boots and thick socks will result in crappy feet. It’s hot and you’ll sweat. Merrells are awesome with medium thickness socks. It will get COLD at night. Not sure if you be out and about but at least prepare for it. Buy a few pounds of hard candy too. It’s great for the kids there. Hope this helps.


you guessed it – most of the things your friend will need will be obvious ones. and besides, the PXs at both Baghram and Kandahar are very good for most of the extras. bgan and body armor/eyepro aside, i find that the headlamp, babywipes, extra socks, camelback and small tubes of sunblock and mosquito
repelant all make my life over there a little less miserable.


Depends on where she is going. some places are all decked out with showers and stuff like that. others like this place are just getting on their feet. so, we are sleeping on the ground. I would say a bivy sack sleeping thing would be important as well as a red filter for headlamp. having a light day pack is also pretty important. she could end up going out on a day or two mission with just the essentials. also, if she comes down here I hope she is in great shape :-)


It is the fighting season over here, sooo… duck, and move fast. The threat isnt really IEDs as much as small arms, but that really is determined by the specific area you are at. Logar might be more IED plagued, but I am not sure about the particular province. If you should find that your area has more of a problem with small arms fire and your unit plans to be dismounted, then you really only need plate carriers with some ceramic plates. Explosions might make you want to get more body coverage with more Kevlar, but it is really hot, and can slow you down when you dont want to be slow. The new armor that is slowly trickling down to the soldiers is just the plate carriers. It took the army long enough to figure out that is all they needed. But I digress.

Yeah, level IV is what you need. The difference between a plate carrier and a vest is that a plate carrier only has plates, no kevlar. This doesnt give you the same coverage as a full vest but it will stop anything that will come at you out here. But only against you vital organs. In an IED blast larger surface areas are effected and potentially you could bleed out despite non-vital organs being hit. Hence more coverage with Kevlar is an advantage. A lot of the special forces move on the ground and dont worry about IED’s and would rather have lighter body armor to help them move quickly, so they go with the plate carriers. But the choice is yours.

Also, I have a buddy who has a set of military issued body armor, level IV, size small, complete with plates, and he has a nice helmet that should fit you. He said that he is really just looking to sell it, but I talked him down on the price, for a Baubauite. It is expensive gear, but he says he will get it all to you for 800 bucks. Actually he is having me get it to you. It is his extra gear, but he was worried about selling it, since he can keep it but not really sell it, so I ended up comforting him by saying I would do it all in his place. I can have it mailed back to you asap if you want it. The mail here is surprisingly quick, so I think I could get it to you fine. Also there is a new camel-back for it that he says you can have too, as well as a “Combat Life Saver” medical kit ( gauze, tourniquet, blood clotter stuff )


Should I check my Kevlar / Armor Vest?

Definitely, check it in. You can just leave the plates in the vest “flip” one half of it if you can so both sides curve the same way put in duffel bag type bag, cushion with your clothes definitely keep it to two bags. Do NOT carry too much on an embed. you want to be able to travel light. If you can get it down to 1 bag, that’s the way to go, maybe, with the flak jacket just in a duffel bag that folds up and fits in the other bag once you’re there and either wearing or carrying the flak jacket flapped around your back most of the time.


Here are a few tidbits of info that I wish I had known before I had embedded in Afghanistan in 2009. I embedded only with the Army in Eastern Afghanistan, so my advice might not be applicable to those embedding with marines:

Prepare Early:

Fill out your embed application at least a month (if not longer) before you would like to travel. Some areas, such as RC South with the Marines, can take up to 5 months to get into since they are so popular with journalists.

-Become friendly with your PAOs (Public Affairs Officers). True, they can be a bit clueless when it comes to what makes a good photo. And some of them will try to discourage you from shooting firefights to instead shooting soldiers handing out candy to kids. But in the long run, I have found that there are a good number of PAOs who do support good journalism and can point you in the right direction. And ultimately, if you have their good graces, their authority supersedes that of unit that you are embedded with. Meaning, if your PAO says “we approve”, in which case you would have been approved by the Colonel of that Task Force, very few can argue with this. Also, if you have a chance to meet any of the army’s photographers, do this as well. They usually know were the action is, what units are good to embed with, and can be very helpful with advising. And finally, for each different unit you have to apply for an entirely new embed with a different / separate Task Force and PAO. So make sure you prepare accordingly if you plan on visiting different COPs (Combat Operating Post)

Talk directly to those in charge:

-About half way through my embed I was setting up a few trips to and from Kabul, and various other locations, etc. This took up to a week to coordinate with my PAOs and there was a lot of red tape involved. However, I found out who the Captain was in charge of transporting people on birds (Army terms for helicopters or planes). I introduced myself and spoke directly to this Captain instead of going through the customary channels. Soon we had a system worked out where I could come to him the DAY BEFORE to put in a flight request, and he would make it happen. This worked out great and I ended up getting rides to Kabul, would disembed for a few days, and then fly back to the base (which was basically unheard of). So, again, it helps to make friends with those in charge!

-Know your terrain and units: I cannot stress how important this is. Before I embedded I was clueless on “who does what and where they are located”. So for weeks, I spent time with an FA unit (Field Artillery) unit who for the most part patrolled in MRAPs, which means you are stuck in the back of an armored vehicle with no windows for about 8 hours a day = no photo opps (this is not true with all FA units, just the one I was with). THEN, I embedded with a unit who saw action, but 95% percent of it was IEDs and no firefights. IEDs can make for good news coverage but are also a lot scarier and more dangerous, meaning, you are more likely to also get injured. Finally, my last embed in Afghanistan was with a unit who saw firefights daily, and if you are looking for “action” photographs (which most photographers are) this was the type of unit I found that was best to be with. I spent 6 weeks with a medical unit in Afghanistan and about 85% of the patients who came in injured in combat were victims of IEDs, not small arms fire. IEDs are very dangerous and if I could I would avoid them completely. So know what regions see what you want to see, whether that be action, training, patrolling, community building, etc. Know what units are where (which can be found out on the ISAF website), and what the terrain is like (is it flat, is it mountainous?) This info will help determine what your patrols will be like. In my experience, the smaller the COP, the better the story. Unless you want to do a story on a unit based out of a big FOB, such as a aviation or medical unit.

Somewhere on this site it lists what units are in what areas of Afghanistan:


Make friends with the Chain of Command: Also very important and something I learned late in the game. The officers, especially the CO (Commanding officer of the company, the Captain) and the XO (the Executive Officer, the lieutenant under the CO), along with the NCOs (the Non Commissioned Officers) basically set the mood of the unit you are embedding with. I have been told time and time again by the soldiers themselves that they are taught to be suspicious of the media… especially the infantry more than any other unit type. So you will already be stigmatized when you get there. If the NCOs don’t like you / are suspicious, the lower ranking soldiers will follow suit. Because ultimately, at the end of the day even if you have the soldiers’ favor and approval, they will not give you any of their time if their NCOs won’t either. So humble yourself to win their trust and favor. Bring cigarettes (esp American Marlboro Reds, Lucky Strikes, or Newports) or sodas or red bull energy shots to hand out to the soldiers and you will make friends quickly.

-Socks and Underwear and Hygeine: Socks are important, especially if you are not going to be at a big FOB (Forward Opporating Base) with washing facilities / running water. I had some “Smart Wool” socks that I loved and that kept my feet warm and dry. And I bought some ExOfficio underwear, that basically was made of a mesh, synthetic material, which was great. I could wash them with bottled water and soap, and in the arid, desert temperatures they would dry outside in about 15 minutes…Much better than cotton undies. ☺ Babywipes are a MUST over there (to avoid itching in places you don’t really want to itch), but instead of packing 100s of these, you can always buy them at the PX once you are there. Even some small COPs have babywipes for sale at the local Afghan shops (but don’t count on this). When you run out, the soldiers should have some that they might share with you. When I was at a remote COP, the soldiers got so many babywipes in the mail they were throwing entire cases in the trash (1,000s of babywipes went to waste)… so I would just hang around and ask if I could have them before they got thrown in the trash ☺

Prepare With A Course:

Before I left for Afghanistan, it was stressed to me by several colleagues to take a “Conflict zone training course”, which I ended up receiving a bursary to attend from the Rory Peck Foundation. Basically, this is a course that preps journalists and NGO workers who want to travel to dangerous places in the world. It teaches how to handle being kidnapped (not much you can do if that happens in Afghanistan, though), how to look for IEDs or landmines, how to handle firefights, and most importantly FIRST AID. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have learned most of these skills on the ground once embedded. However, the course I took (with Centurion Risk Assessment Inc) helped me to become much more comfortable while I was there, and helped me feel confident that if a soldier was injured and there was no one around to help (or if I was injured) I would know what to do. Here is a list of website’s who offer these types of courses:





Pack Light: At the end of my embed I did not use HALF of the clothes equipment that I had packed. So my advice: pack once, then take out half and pack again. Do this twice. You need very, very little over there to get by and anything that you do not have, most people will give you / let you borrow if you ask politely.

Things I did not need:

-Thermorest. If you are going on long patrols with infantry units you might be walking 5 – 10 miles a day. Unless it is really cold outside, the thermorest (which typically, when put under your sleeping bag provides extra padding and insulation) won’t make a difference and will just add extra weight that you have to carry. At the end of the day you will be so exhausted you will pass out regardless of how comfortable the ground is.

-Kevlar: It’s hot, uncomfortable, and heavy. As it does not stop bullets, it’s unnecessary if you are in firefights. It does stop shrapnel, but so do plates, so my advice would be to wear a simple “Plate Carrier”, which most of the army is currently switching to, anyhow. Because let’s face it, if something blows up 5 feet from you the Kevlar is not going to do too much to stop it. Though plates will block flying shrapnel just as well as bullets. However, pate carriers do NOT provide any protection for your neck and sides.

Things I wish I had packed:

-Boots. I did pack mine, but because I did not break them in before hand they were very uncomfortable, and I ended up wearing my running shoes the entire time which did not offer a good foothold when patrolling through the mountains. Buy boots and break them in a month before your embed. Do this by soaking them in warm water and them walking a few miles in them while still wet. This will help break them in and mold them to your feet.

-A light scarf. Not just to look like a cool photojournalist ☺. But more importantly, you can use it to cover your face and camera when a bird lands and kicks up dust (this happens more times then you would think, and the dust and wind are so great, it will literally knock you over, not to mention, can potentially ruin lenses). On really hot days, you can dip the scarf in water and put it under your helmet to cool off. And if you wad it up, it can serve as a pillow on overnight patrols.

-Sunscreen (at least two bottles). Unless you want to look like a raccoon and get skin cancer and wrinkles.

-Eye-pro. This is like an advanced pair of sunglasses. They serve as normal sunglasses by blocking light but also have the added feature of protecting your eyes if something explodes near by. And sunglasses are a MUST unless you plan on blinding yourself the entire time.

-A headlamp with a “red light” feature. A MUST!

-A Gerber knife. I found that at least ONCE a day I had to cut or sever something, whether it be 550 cord to tie something down or an MRE package. The soldiers all carry these and I felt annoying after asking them time and time again to use theirs.

-A Small backpack. This can be used for many things. I found that when I went out on small overnight patrols, it was very helpful having a small backpack. You will be expected to transport your own possessions, so the back pack you bring needs to be big enough to fit a few MRE packages, water bottles and your sleeping bag (which you will be carrying on small patrols) but small enough that you can hike 10 miles with it without it becoming a burden.

-Medicine: All COPs have medicine and a medic or a Physicians Assistant, so you will never be sick and not have someone to help you. However, if they tend to be low maintenance (meaning, if you go to them with a cold, they will just give you Sudafed) so if you are a med-head like me, come prepared. The dust over there is very bad and can cause severe allergies which really dampens your mood and distracts you from your work. Muscinex, Sudafed (the kind you get BEHIND the pharmacy counter) for nasal decongestion, and Nyquil are helpful. Also, this is a bit gross, but also if you already have digestive problems maybe some type of herbal laxative tea or fiber supplements. Easting MREs for days on end can really cause your stomach to get clogged up (some of the soldiers told me they didn’t go number 2 for five days at a time, ech).


Some of the best advice I received before my embed was to NOT expect to sell my images unless I already had an assignment and NOT to expect anyone to send me over there. I know this sounds harsh, but I found it to be true… esp if you are a freelancer who is traveling and embedding on your own dime and who thinks you are going to make it big by shooting the same thing that every other photographer over there is already. Magazine editors are inundated with photojournalists’ “My trip to Afghanistan” pictures which, unfortunately, mostly consist of images of soldiers pointing a gun or running through the desert. Most editors are not interested in these, especially given the current climate of our industry. They already have experienced photographers (who have been in the field for 20 plus years shooting combat) who are consistently in Afghanistan who can provide them with these types of photos, or, the alternative is that they use stock images. My best advice: Come up with an ORIGINAL AND UNIQUE story idea and pitch it before you go. If you already have a close relationship with a publication, perhaps they might even offer a guarantee. But the story needs to be good… think about pictures that you have NOT seen coming out of this war: soldiers installing water treatment facilities for a village, soldiers teaching at a near by Afghan girls school, etc. Surprise them with what you come up with! OR, shoot the same boring pictures that a lot of photographers are shooting, but shoot them better than everyone else, sell them, and prove me wrong ☺

Internet: is more available than you would imagine. Though it is usually very slow. All FOBs have an MWR, where soldiers can use computers and the internet. They also have phones you can buy “minutes” to use. The army will provide you with a pin number that you type in before making a call. I paid about 20 dollars for about 20 hours of phone time to the states, amazingly cheap. However, most of the computers in the MWR are “government restricted” which means you can not download anything from them / or plug in a hard drive to transfer images. Best advice: find an area on the FOB that has wireless internet and use your lap top (which most FOBs do have wireless internet, you just have to find it). When it comes to COPs, most of them also have computers, especially in the TOC. However, again, probably won’t accept a hard drive. An alternative would be to have a satellite phone, if you most shoot for news wires and need to get images out quickly, but I never tried this.


This is an obvious one, but can be tricky, having a few gray areas that I would like to address, and that I wish I had paid more attention to before these circumstances arose:

Respect the authority and knowledge of the NCOs and officers. If they say “Don’t go into that building” listen to them. You could end up unnecessarily jeopardizing your own life and the lives of others.
-I knew of several journalist who were thrown out of their embeds in an INSTANT by shooting something that was questionable. I am not saying that you should restrict yourself on what to shoot, but if you are shooting something questionable, move quickly and discreetly. Use discretion when moving your work to publications. For instance, I know of a journalist who photographed plans for a future operation (like images of maps, Afghan terrain, army tactical plans) and moved his photos to the wires. The next day he was kicked out of the country. Ultimately the PAO and the contract that you signed at the beginning of your embed should outline and address specifically what you can lawfully photograph. However, if you don’t have the approval of the Platoon sergeant or Company Commander, or they don’t like your attitude or what you are photographing, they have the authority to throw you off their COP (and they WILL do this in a heartbeat).
-Do not exploit the soldiers, and use careful judgment and journalistic integrity when moving your work to publish. If you photograph an injured child or an Afghan civilian who was caught in a crossfire, make sure you indicate in your caption the DETAILS of the event: how did this person get injured? Was it US troops or an insurgent who shot the civilian? Be thorough. There is nothing more that soldiers hate
-and nothing that will make it more difficult for future embeds and photographers—than inaccurate information being published, which unfortunately happens more often than we’d like to admit.
-If an NCO tells you to back off, show humility and respect, but continue to shoot if you believe that it is an important moment. THIS WILL HELP YOU IN THE LONG RUN. Explain to them why it is important for you to photograph that moment. Again, it might outline that it is lawful for you to shoot specific situations in your contract, but if the NCOs think that you are jeopardizing the welfare of their soldiers, they will make your job very difficult.
-Show your appreciation. Whether you agree with the war or not (and most of us journalists do not) do not go into a unit with an extremely liberal or arrogant attitude. Be open-minded, do not going in thinking that “US troops are baby-killers” which I have heard some journalists say. This will get you nowhere. Soldiers can read your attitude immediately, and ultimately it will hurt your relationship with them and your ability to work effectively if you have preconceived notions about them, just as it hurts our work when they have preconceived notions that all journalists are “biased and anti-military”. Regardless of your political stance, realize that the soldiers are still risking their lives on a daily basis; most of them are straight out of high school, inexperienced and scared. Do what you can to earn their trust, and protect that trust.
-Finally, PROVIDE THEM WITH PICTURES. If they are giving you the privilege of photographing them, then the least you can do is send burn a CD or upload images to their hard drives before leaving their unit (And they ALL have Hard drives so this should not be a problem).

Learn your acronyms:

The army LOVES to abbreviate everything. When I first arrived to Afghanistan, and since I knew no one in the military prior to my embed experience, speaking with soldiers was literally like interpreting a foreign language. I had to keep asking, “What does that stand for? What does that mean? Come again?” It helps to familiarize a bit with what I call “Armyese” for the sake of being able to talk fluently with military personnel. Here is a list of acronyms that are used in everyday spoken military language:

-MOS: Military Occupational Specialty: Ones’s job in the military
-FOB: Forward Operating Base: A larger base where units refit and re-supply with ammunition and gear. FOBs tend to me quite large and centrally located, having washing and dining facilities, beds, MWRs, etc.
-COP: Combat Operating Post: remote posts where infantry and some FA units operate from. These are usually remote, more dangerous than FOBs, frequently are attacked (depending on what area you are in). Most do not have running water, or high-maintenance facilities / supplies
-OP: Observation Post. The most remote “base” you can go to. Usually situated on top of high terrain and serves as an overlook point, consisting of 5-10 soldiers (or a squad) and is a shack made of plywood or hescos.
-MWR: Morale, Welfare and Recreation. A room / tent / area for the soldiers, usually has TV, books, computers, etc. Good place to check email.
-MRAP: Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. These replaced Humvees and if you are on a patrol or convoy you will most likely be riding in one. They are the safest vehicle you can ride in
-NVGs: Night Vision Goggles
-ASV: Armored Support Vehicle. The army does not typically convoy in these, but just in case the opportunity arises, I would highly recommend that you NOT ride in one. I saw several of these after they blew up and just like Humvees they basically incinerate on the spot, unlike MRAPs
-NIPR and SIPR: Non-classified Internet Protocol Router Network and Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, the two internet / phone systems that the army uses. These two lines cannot make outside calls, but you can call military personnel on SIPR
-TOC: Tactical Operations Center, the nerve center of a unit at any base, which has the phone system, radios, maps, computers, etc. On a COP it’s where the officers, the CO, XO, and Headquarters Platoon work. A good place to get coffee, supplies, ask questions, and transfer images
-Outside the Wire: Outside of a the base
-MRE: “Meal Ready to Eat”, highly processed food in a bag, what you eat on long patrols
-ANP: Afghan National Police
-Wash Rack: A washing facility that may include but is not limited to water treatment, water recycling, or the washing of industrial and or commercial equipment.
-Hesco: A type of fence the army builds around Cops, made of chicken wire, sand, and thick cardboard. These are safe-ish to hide behind if the COP gets attacked.
-IOTV: Improved Outer Tactical Vest. Basically, the army issued Kevlar soldiers wear. These are soon to be replaced with plate carriers.
-Mic: minute
-Click: kilometer
-TIC: Troops in Contact (being shot at)
-Bird: aircraft, either helicopter or airplane
-Chinook: Cargo helicopter, usually used for carrying large loads of supplies or people
-Blackhawk: Utility helicopter, transporting soldiers, wounded, or supplies
-Apache: Attack helicopter
-M4, The Saw, The 240: All times of weaponry. M4 is the most commonly carried. The Saw and the 240 are machine guns.
-FlashBang: a non-lethal grenade that is used to scare the enemy, usually makes a big sound and a flash of light, imitating a grenade. I haven’t seen these used in Afghanistan, but they are talked about.
-NCO: Non-Commissioned Officer: they are in charge of the privates and specialists
-CO: Company Commander, the Captain of the company
-XO: Executive Officer, the Lieutenant in charge of the Company, ranks directly under the captain. Go to
him if you need supplies
-Hot A’s: A hot meal on a tray: aka: Grub, chow
-Defac: Dining Facility, aka: chow hall
-Tracking: What soldiers say when they are following what you are saying. “I’m tracking”
-Redeploy: Returning to the states from Afghanistan. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, it does not mean going back to Afghanistan. It should be “Dedeploy” or “Undeploy” if you ask me.

This is a list of more comical yet slightly vulgar and derogatory acronyms that I wrote about in my blog; funnily enough, these are actually used quite often by infantry soldiers:

-Grunt: An infantry soldier (usually derogatory but infantry soldiers also call themselves this)
-FNG: F**king New Guy (new soldiers)
-Cherries: New soldiers
-BCGs: Birth Control Glasses. Basically, these are big, thick glasses some soldiers have to wear under their eye-pro. It is said that these are a form of “birth control” because no woman will sleep with a soldier if he wears these.
-Fobbit: Military personnel who live or reside on a FOB (Forward Operating Base)
-Leafeater: Another term for Fobbits.
-Pog (originally spelled “Pogue): An acronym standing for “people other than grunts”, referring to any military personnel who are not in the infantry. SEE Leafeater and Fobbit
-Piss Pipe / Piss tube: A long pipe usually made of pastic that is secured in the ground surrounded by Hesco, providing a discreet way for infantry soldiers to urinate
-Highspeed: a term soldiers use referring to anything or anyone that is “cool”
-Monkey Butt: A condition that occurs when an infantry soldier has not washed their genitalia or changed under garments for long durations of time, resulting in one sounding monkey calls while jumping up and down and grabbing their buttocks.
-Swamp Ass: A serious condition of Monkey Butt.
-Burn-shitter: A temporary latrine typically housed in plywood, designed for large amounts of waste which is then periodically dumped and burned near infantry housing.
-Battle Rattle / Full Kit: Full body armor attire which may include but is not limited to IOTV (improved outer tactical vest) ammunition, weaponry, helmet, eye protection and gloves
-Haji: Infantry soldiers favorite word used to refer to Afghans.
-Dune Coon: A derogatory term used to refer to Hajis.
-Moon Dust: A fine, chalk-like dust found in most areas of Afghanistan. Penetrating clothing and difficult to remove from hair and skin, moon dust is usually 6-8 inches deep and especially prominent on paths that are necessary for traveling.
-Manjamas: A term formed by the combination of the words “Pajamas” and “man”, used to describe the pajama-like day attire worn by most adult Afghan men.
-Broke off: Describes the condition of infantry soldiers after long and exhausting physical exertion, such as climbing up a mountain
-Smoked: 1. SEE “Broke off”. 2. Also referring to the punishment infantry soldiers receive from NCOs, usually involving long periods of exercise. 3. A term also used to refer to the condition of the enemy after he / she is killed in action by an infantry solider.

Some good reads before / embedding:

-War Reporting for Cowards, Chris Ayres. A hilarious account of an inexperienced journalist embedding for the first time during the invasion of Iraq
-On Killing, Dave Grossman. Gives an interesting look at the psychology behind soldiers and war
-Decent Into Chaos, Ahmed Rashid. The entire history of Afghanistan and why it is in its current state.
-The Art Of War, Sun Tzu

This is all I can think of for now. I am not the most experienced person to give advice, as I have only embedded once. But I was there for 3 consecutive months so I did learn a lot! For more information (and for a few stories) you can check out my blog that I kept while embedded: www.erintrieb.blogspot.com. Good luck and Have fun!

by [a former member] at 2010-05-15 02:05:37 UTC | Bookmark | | Report spam→

Erin, This is great information.
Much appreciation for taking the time to compile,
post and add your own experiences.

by Shannon Gabriel Gold | 17 May 2010 04:05 | NYC, United States | | Report spam→
Thanks Erin, lots of useful information here.

by Liam Maloney | 19 May 2010 20:05 | Beirut, Lebanon | | Report spam→
This sentence from Eros Hoagland resume all you need to know about the dangers of embedding: “Hostile environment training: Unless its free, screw it. If you need to be told how to hide from gunfire or how not to step on an IED, this is not the job for you. Better to take a first aide trauma course instead of paying ex SAS guys to tell you what the kill radius of an RPG is”.

by [former member] | 19 May 2010 21:05 | Santiago, Chile | | Report spam→
I would also add, read a few books on Afghanistan.
Maybe, we can start a ‘to-read books’ list.
Learning a few words of Dari-Pashtu is not stupid.
It helps to interact with people and you won’t have the impression to photograph monkeys or alliens.

by Philip Poupin | 24 May 2010 07:05 | Kabul, Afghanistan | | Report spam→
Get paid to learn all about embedding. Enlist in the US Army.

by [former member] | 24 May 2010 13:05 | | Report spam→
Still a good read is:

“The Great Game” by Peter Hopkirk. Contemplate the last stand of the 44th Regiment at Gandamark.

see also,

“Ghost Wars” by Steve Coll
“Taliban” by Ahmed Rashid (his first book)
“Jinnah Of Pakistan” by Stanley Wolpert (biography of the founder of Pakistan. Not an Islamist but a chain smoking, whisky drinking, cosmopolitan and secular British trained lawyer. Gives a good insight into how idealism becomes tragedy, over time…)

There aren’t so many great books on the Soviet War of the ’80s in Afghanistan, a good place to start is the wikipedia article:


Nancy Dupree’s “A Historical Guide To Afghanistan” is the Baedecker’s for the country. It was published in 1977 right before the start of the wars, so it reads like the European Baedeckers from before the First World War — a heartbreaking portrait of a whole culture about to be destroyed — I got mine in Kabul for $20 in 1996, I see that they sell for $200+ on Amazon, I don’t know if you could still rustle up a copy in Kabul…

Finally, for the more scholarly, Louis Dupree’s “Afghanistan” is the book to read…I never have, actually (just ordered it)…but his reputation towers over the study of Afghanistan.

by [former member] | 24 May 2010 14:05 | Brooklyn, United States | | Report spam→
Glad this post is getting some attention. :)

I agree with Eros that a training course can be a bit silly if it is teaching you how to duck from gun fire (you simply get down!) However, most of the courses that I mentioned DO concentrate heavily on first aid, which I found to be quite useful. For instance, if you do get injured and the unit’s medic is busy helping other wounded… what do you do? Unless you know how to use a tourniquet on yourself, where the main arteries are to apply pressure, or how to help other wounded soldiers with very specific wounds, such as severe burns, etc, you will be SOL. I knew general first aid, but had no clue about the more extreme first aid situations before taking the training course, which ended up providing a lot of valuable, life-saving skills and information. After the training course I felt much more confident in my capabilities to help myself and others.

by [former member] | 25 May 2010 19:05 | New York City, United States | | Report spam→
and watch the following video, and see the world we’ve lost:


read the comments too…

by [former member] | 27 May 2010 03:05 | Brooklyn, United States | | Report spam→
Never. Nor have I ever heard of that happening to anyone. If you have something less then a class III plate you might as well not use it all.

by Bill Thomas | 21 Sep 2010 22:09 | NYC, United States | | Report spam→

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Shannon Gabriel Gold, Shannon Gabriel Gold
Nyc , United States ( JFK )
Liam Maloney, Photojournalist Liam Maloney
Beirut , Lebanon
Philip Poupin, Tourist Philip Poupin
Saint Malo , France
Bill Thomas, Photographer-Videographer Bill Thomas
Nyc , United States


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