Las Vegas native JJ McCool had always taken videos of the stunts that he would pull with his friends. Like so many of his peers, he was obsessed with capturing every experience on camera and then sharing it. So there was no question when he found out that he was being deployed into Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, known as the most dangerous place on the planet, as part of the 101st Airborne Division, it would be documented.
“I walked into my local electronics store and picked up a Contour HD,” says McCool. He placed it on his helmet and painted it the color of his camo. Over the course of a year, McCool and fellow platoon members like Private Kyle Boucher, Sergeant Chris Adams, and Sergeant Ken Shriver used the cameras to record their experiences returning fire, locating explosive devices on patrol, and interacting with the local population around Combat Outpost Michigan.
The footage made its way to the Discovery channel, which jumped on the chance to air it as a special series called Taking Fire. “We knew it was going to be an operation that people write books about,” says McCool. “I felt like I wanted to document that.” The result is an unparalleled view into the life of our armed forces — required watching for all civilians.
McCool and Boucher have since returned back home and discussed with us the importance of putting ourselves in their boots.
How did you feel when you found out you were going to the Korengal Valley?
McCool: We got word on where we were going about six months before we were sent. They were sharing the situational reports on what was happening in the area and what the previous unit was dealing with, and the reports showed that there was significant activity. They sat us down then and told us that we had a 50 percent chance of coming back. Immediately after you’ve finished basic and all of your training you are excited to get into the field regardless, so that didn’t deter me.
Boucher: I chose not to do a lot of research into it. I was going to go wherever they pointed me. We got our briefings and there was a lot of contact. You start to consider the possibility of not making it back, but you’ve trained so hard for this job that you can’t wait to do it. For me it was more of a personal record. It just turned into something much bigger.
Did you have to get special clearance to film your deployment this in-depth?
McCool: Once I had the camera I talked to Sergeant Shriver, but nobody in my command had any issues with it. I wouldn’t say we got “clearance” per se, but as far as we knew there was never any issue with it. I think to a point there is no reason for there to be a problem, since like a police cam, we shouldn’t be conducting ourselves in a way that couldn’t be recorded either. Honestly I completely forgot that it was on most of the time. It wasn’t part of the interactions we were having. I don’t think it changed how we behaved at all.
Boucher: Nobody really cared about the cameras. We were just operating as we would in any case. Now we get to look back and see how close we got to death a couple of times, but while we were there it wasn’t on our minds at all.
Do you feel like you were prepared when you first touched down in Afghanistan?
McCool: Most of us were very green. You think you know what to expect, but you never really know what to expect. But as soon as a bullet hits right next to your face, it becomes real. Immediately in your mind you are aware that there aren’t any resets and you don’t have multiple lives. That was the first time I had been shot at, and it was three bursts of 10–15 rounds that went right over my head. Until that happens you have no idea what you’re going to do in that situation. You get right into fight-or-flight mode. But luckily we had good training to fall back on.
You were getting engaged constantly, how did you deal with that?
McCool: It became so commonplace for us to get into a firefight or have contact that we preferred when it was happening. It was harder for us to deal with the time that it wasn’t happening, because all you're anticipating is that first shot. It wasn’t wondering if it was going to happen, it was when is it going to happen. It was just about us going to work. For us, going into work was getting into some kind of firefight.
Boucher: Everywhere you walk you are scanning for where you are going to find cover when the bullets start to fly. If we weren’t getting into contact, we were wondering what they were planning, which could be worse.
You can hear guys in the video sounding pretty gung-ho. It seems both flippant and a coping strategy.
McCool: It is hard to explain. You start to feel invincible. Especially after you’ve been in a few firefights and you haven’t gotten hit. They’re trying to kill you and apparently it isn’t working so far. You are going to do what any alpha male is going to do in that situation. You become bit of a different person. The bullets would be flying over our heads and we would find ourselves laughing.
Boucher: It honestly feels like kind of a game. You know what to do. You know how you are supposed to react. You hope that all the training that you’ve gone through and your ability to recall those decisions are going to get you through the next day. Most of the time it is. Sometimes it is not. You look back on those times when someone got hit or someone stepped on an IED, and it stays with you. There is a habit guys have of looking back and thinking of what they could have done. You can’t really do that to yourself.
What kind of bond is formed in those situations?
McCool: I don’t know if I can express how close you get. There is something special that happens when you are only going to get out of a situation alive when your buddy executes in just the right way, at just the right time. You need to grow that trust in such an immense way over such a short period. Pretty soon you are trusting a guy you didn’t even know last year more than your family, because you have seen them put to that test. They’ve saved your life so many times.
One of the men involved with this production is Sergeant Ken Shriver, who was your platoon sergeant. It is clear there is a lot of respect there.
McCool: Sometimes he’ll be the most fierce and mean guy, or he could be the sweetest. There is nobody that I admire more, besides my parents, than him. That feeling still exists five years later.
Boucher: There is really no man that I respect more than Sergeant Shriver. He is a bona fide badass. Having him really put us at ease. Having him by our side made us all better soldiers.
What was it like to patrol the neighboring village, in an area that you were so often under attack?
Boucher: There were multiple villages in our area of operation. You could tell that some of [the villagers] liked us, and some of them not so much. There would be instances where we knew we were in the room with Taliban, but because their key village leaders were involved, we couldn’t do anything. He may not have a gun on him. These are guys who were probably shooting at you from the mountains just yesterday.
You were dropped in a pretty incredible situation, and I have to imagine that you saw a lot of heroic actions.
McCool: In every engagement there would be a moment where someone did something that would be considered incredibly heroic in any other context. It is really interesting like that. They would get a bronze medal. Because of that context, acts of valor were made regularly, whether it was protecting their brothers, or covering up bodies on the battlefield. It was so commonplace that it is hard to pinpoint one specific moment.
Boucher: We didn’t care about the awards when we were over there. But acts were being done every day that deserved them. There was a guy in our platoon that ran out to save our interpreter, who had run the wrong way into enemy fire. All he got was a pat on the back, but he wasn’t asking for anything more. That is the job.
Can you explain the feeling of being back home after an experience like that?
McCool: I will say that there is something about waking up and not having to expect getting shot at. There is some hyper vigilance that stays with you when you first get back. You remain pretty aware of your surroundings and who is around you. Loud noises are going to make you duck, and I might avoid really crowded areas. Every day I think of the guys we lost. You remember what they did. You live your life as best you can, in honor of them.
Boucher: The first meal that I ate without having to use plastic utensils and paper plates was more special than I could have ever imaged. It is just those little things that you take for granted, like using real silverware. There are hard moments too, like remembering the guys you lost. It is like the worst feeling at the pit of your stomach.
Have you gone back to watch the footage yourself?
McCool: I’ve gone back to watch a few videos, but for the most part I’ve left it alone. It is almost too much to deal with. I think my family is curious, but ultimately they aren’t interested. There is lot that you try to protect them from while you are over there.
Boucher: I’ve watched the footage a couple of times. I look back, and it may sound a little strange, but it was the best year of my life. I’m obviously not just talking about the firefights; I’m talking about hanging out with the guys there. The friends we became. I miss that.
To catch all available episodes of Taking Fire, go to DiscoveryGo.com.