Discovery’s new documentary depicts Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley from troops’ points of view
by MATTHEW GAULT
Combat Outpost Michigan guarded the entrance of the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan’s Pech River Valley in the heart of Taliban territory. Just two miles into the Korengal, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington filmed their documentaries Restrepo and Korengal. This is where Marcus Luttrell became the Lone Survivor.
In 2010, Ken Shriver, J.J. McCool and Kyle Boucher, soldiers in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne, patrolled the Korengal from COP Michigan. Almost every day, someone fired on the outpost from the surrounding mountains. Combat was constant. Death was everywhere.
“You realize pretty quickly that there’s not even a place on the base that you’re safe,” McCool says over footage of explosives striking up-armored vehicles. “There’s just nothing you can do about it.”
This is Taking Fire, Discovery’s explosive new documentary series. Airing beginning Sept. 13, Taking Fire follows Delta Company from one of the 101st Airborne Division’s frontline battalions during its bloody year at COP Michigan.
“We were receiving fire from a cave to the southwest,” Shriver, one of Delta Company’s platoon sergeants, recalls in a present-day interview, years after his unit’s deployment to the Korengal.
His eyes roll up and back, as if he’s retrieving the information from a file in his brain. The image cuts from Shriver in the present to a first-person-view on the day of the ambush. The footage is from Shriver’s helmet cam.
“Why aren’t you in a fucking TOW?” Shriver asks a soldier, referring to the powerful tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided missile. “Go get in a fucking TOW truck. Get a kill.”
The other soldier is in a gray Army t-shirt and shorts. He’s wearing sunglasses and carrying a rifle. “It takes five minutes,” the soldier stutters.
“Well fucking get it up,” Shriver replies. “You’ve only got five minutes.” The soldier hauls ass toward the TOW truck. “You procrastinating motherfucker,” Shriver yells after him.
“The reason I love the TOW truck so much,” Shriver explains in the present, “is that the optics allow you to see really well. The gunner can fire a TOW missile that’s wire-guided and put it inside a tiny cave. I’m gonna use the biggest hammer I have for some shock and awe.”
The camera cuts back to 2010 and COP Michigan. An mine-resistant truck equipped with a TOW launcher lumbers across the outpost and stops at the helicopter landing zone. The soldiers inside look for their target along the nearby ridgeline.
“If that’s a TOW missile that costs, each one, $65,000 … okay,” Shriver says in his voiceover. “That’s what I’m gonna use. The Taliban call that the finger of death.”
“Let her rip, motherfucker,” 2010 Shriver shouts at his soldiers. They launch the missile. It cuts across the sky and explodes in the mountains. “Fuck you, motherfuckers!” Shriver hollers.
“It scares the Hell out of them,” he tells the camera in 2016.
What sets Taking Fire apart from similar films, such as Restrepo and Hornet’s Nest, is that it’s the soldiers’ stories, told by them with no editorializing. This is the day-to-day life of an American soldier in the early days of Pres. Barack Obama’s Afghanistan surge.
Taking Fire follows five soldiers in particular, including McCool, Boucher and Shriver, and intersperses their body-cam footage with interviews six years after the events of the series.
Occasionally, a polite British narrator interjects to explain how a TOW missile works or to give a brief history lesson on the Korengal. Those interludes are rare, however. Taking Fire’s main focus is on the mission and the soldiers’ relationships.
“Not everybody gets to really understand what the typical 18-to-22-year-old infantryman goes through on a day-to-day basis in a kinetic combat area of operations,” Boucher tells me over the phone.
“I’m glad that [the show is] gonna be on. Hopefully it’ll open people’s eyes. Goes to show what we’re fighting for and what we’re putting our lives on the line for everyday.”
Boucher enlisted at the age of 21. I ask him why and his answer is simple. “I wanted to fight.”
I ask if he craved adventure or believed in some cause. “A little bit of both,” he says. “I wanted the adventure — that’s why I joined the Army. But I joined the infantry because I wanted to fight for my country.”
He and McCool became fast friends when chance put them in the same platoon. Boucher is reserved, even stoic. McCool is exuberant, outgoing and — it seems to me — a little crazy.
Early in Taking Fire, he pokes his head from behind the rock where he’s taken cover during a firefight, just so he can set a camera on the rock. He wants a good view of an incoming missile strike from a U.S. aircraft.
Later, he walks around the bunks of COP Michigan in a cheap plastic tiger mask, asking his fellow soldiers what they want their last words to be. During the episode, Boucher tells the camera that people either love McCool … or they hate him.
Boucher laughs when I ask about McCool’s attitude and the incident with the camera. “It wasn’t him trying to get the footage as much as gathering intel,” he explains. Boucher tells me that McCool’s job in the platoon was to catalogue as much info as possible to send up the chain of command.
“Whether that be taking photos in a local village to get the lay of the land or, like you see in the episode, filming that bomb drop,” Boucher says. “He was always going above and beyond for the better of the platoon, for the better of the mission.”
Taking Fire follows its subjects into the present. McCool plays poker professionally, now. Boucher left the Army in 2012 and came home to take care of his sick father. He works construction and, as a part-time fireman, rushes into burning buildings. It helps him to feel alive, he says. He says he misses the Army.
“We were really close,” Boucher says of his platoon. “We did everything together. We always had each other’s back. If someone was down, there was someone to the left and right to pick you up. That’s pretty much what I miss the most.”
He tells me he gets a similar feeling from his fellow firemen, but it’s not quite the same. “Fireman’s a dangerous job, too, and your lives depend on the guys to your left and right just the same,” he explains. “However, being on the Pech River in the Korengal Valley is a little bit more regular to have to depend on your buddies.”
He’s right. Time Magazine called the Korengal “Afghanistan’s valley of death.” In 2010, Boucher and his platoon were in firefights every day, sometimes multiple times a day. Boucher says he still misses it.
“It’s hard to explain,” he tells me. “Once you’ve had a bullet so close to your head that you could smell it, you know, the adrenaline rush … you’re so close to death that you’re so alive. There’s nothing that can top that type of feeling.”
“That’s why I wanted to become a fireman,” he adds. “I wanted that adrenaline still. That adventure. But nothing beats hunting armed men.”
Taking Fire is about more than just the hunt and the adrenaline, although it offers heaps of both. For Boucher and his fellow soldiers, the show is a chance to memorialize the fallen. Discovery reached out to the men after seeing their combat footage on a Facebook group.
“There’s 20 million veterans in this country,” Boucher says. “Five thousand-plus [died] in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not everybody gets to have their story told. Two guys in my platoon that got killed are gonna be memorialized. Everyone is going to know who they were and what they did and how they got killed.”
“That’s important because when the news pops up and says, ‘This person got killed,’ it’s just a name. When you can put a face to the name and say these American kids … go over there and get killed, it’s gonna show their story. That’s the biggest part of why we wanted to do [the show].”
“We want to let them know their deaths aren’t forgotten. We think about them everyday. What better way to memorialize your brothers than to let everybody in the country see what they did?”