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Getting out

Second of three parts: Tuesday, March 5, 4 p.m.

Martin Savidge reports from the field for CNN on major breaking news stories and has anchored several of the network's regularly scheduled newscasts.
Martin Savidge reports from the field for CNN on major breaking news stories and has anchored several of the network's regularly scheduled newscasts.  

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.

By Martin Savidge

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Drained, sunburned, filthy and dehydrated, cameraman Scott McWhinnie and I begin loading our backpacks to head to the "PZ," or pickup zone.

We climb to the next ridge for a quick interview with the colonel-on-scene, then scamper down the mountainside. We don't want to miss our ride.

Two scout soldiers take us out, following a twisting route between the small hills near the valley floor. They're steep, rocky and sometimes slick with mud but they're also cover from mortars and guns.

We hunker down in the shelter of one small hill. Our chopper will land on top. Soon we hear the familiar thud-thud-thud. We're told there will be six helicopters.

CNN's Martin Savidge reports that after nearly 19 days, largest battle of war against terrorism completed (March 19)

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Images from Operation Anaconda 
Map of Afghanistan  showing the location of the fighting

Savidge reports: The Battlefield

A reporter's reflections
The road home
Getting out
Mining snow

First come the Apaches. These heavily armed birds ride shotgun on the troop carriers. They sweep into the valley and continually roar over suspected enemy positions as if to say, "Well, punks, do you feel lucky?"

Next come the CH-47 troop carriers. I'm always amazed at how low they fly -- "down in the dirt," the pilots say, for their own protection. They weave their way through the hillocks and knolls barely six feet off the ground.

They blast over our heads. The air is filled with their sound and thick with dust. It's blinding.

Suddenly the scouts realize the pilots have all missed their positions. They're big targets. Getting down and up safely is the primary objective -- getting exactly on target is secondary. But to be honest, most times they do. This just isn't one of those times.

One of the scouts says, "That's your ride over there." He's pointing to a helicopter setting down on another hill only about 100 yards away. "Run!"

In a straight line, the distance would be short but there's a steep valley between us and the landing zone. We run anyway, stumbling, falling, getting up again, choking on dirt and gasping for breath. Our packs weigh a ton. We're not really running at all, just lumbering with haste and not too well.

Scottie and I manage to make it close to the lip of the PZ -- only to be nearly blown backwards as the huge helicopter bolts into the air.

Baptized in dirt and sweat I fall to my knees wasted by the effort -- and shout not-so-pleasant words that are swallowed by the thundering departure of our would-be lift.

Scything blades

We wait for an hour but no other choppers are going to come. It's growing dark and too dangerous to climb back onto the ridge with the main body of soldiers. Instead we bed down for another bitter cold night in No Man's Land -- guarded by the two scouts and serenaded by the war sounds that go on without rest.

At 5 a.m. the next day we're up in the dark, repacking our sleeping bags.

Soon the sound of rotors returns and the air parade of the day before is repeated.

One of the scouts climbs onto the PZ on the hill and begins swinging an infrared chemical light above his head. To the naked eye there's no light -- to a pilot wearing night-vision equipment it's like a whirling beacon, basically saying, "Yoo-hoo, over here."

Scottie and I wait in the shallow gap between two hills. We see the chopper coming right for us ... Too right for us! Instead of landing on the hilltop, the pilot's bringing the bus down on our heads.

Only seconds before touchdown, we frantically try to scramble up the hillsides, so as not to be landed on. I have this terrifying thought that the distance between us and the scything blades is too short and that we'll be cut in half.

The rotor wash sends us tumbling head over heels. We pick up ourselves and our stuff and run back down the way we fled -- right into a man-made tornado. Debris whips past. With our eyes nearly shut, we follow the sound. I know we're getting close when I feel the searing heat of the helicopter's twin engines scorch us.

We somehow manage to step up onto the ramp, aided by the rear gunner. Blindly I walk forward and collapse into the chopper's web seats attached to the sides. I feel us rising into the air and turning.

Gently the green cradle heads for Bagram and carries me off to sleep.

Coming: Savidge on the road home: "Perhaps the war on terror will never end. I'd like to continue to see my mission through. But that must wait. First I need to savor the comforts of home and family ...




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