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Ultimate sacrifice

David Guttenfelder / AP

U.S. Air Force pararescuemen ride in the back of their medivac helicopter with the American flag-draped bodies of U.S. soldiers who were killed in a roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan's Kandahar province on Oct. 10, 2010. The pararescuemen and pilots from the 46th and 26th Expeditionary Rescue Squadrons responded to the attack which killed two American soldiers and wounded three others.

AP photographer David Guttenfelder was aboard an Air Force Expeditionary Rescue Squadron helicopter that responded to a call about a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle that had been struck by an IED in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.  Two of the American soldiers aboard the armored vehicle were killed, and three had been seriously injured.

Guttenfelder describes the scene:  “We landed in a huge marijuana field, which is growing everywhere in the area, and I could see as we were coming in that the vehicle was completely destroyed; there was nothing left of it and the soldiers were kneeling by the side of the road with their two fallen colleagues, waiting for the helicopter to land.

  “On the flight back, they took two flags out of the back of the helicopter and unfolded them and carefully took the bodies of the soldiers and placed them in bags and then wrapped them in American flags in the back of the helicopter.  And the helicopter is flying at 150 miles an hour, very low, tactical flying because they’re taking contact often from the enemy.

 “When the pararescue guys were covering the bodies in the back of the helicopter, they had only two flags with them. The wind was whipping through the open window … A medic was unfolding one of the flags and handed it to me to free his hands when
the wind caught it and it blew out the window and they lost it. So they only had one flag.

"They were talking to each other on the radios, ‘What are we gonna do?’ One of the pilots had a flag that he kept inside, behind the plate of his flak jacket that he’d kept with him for every deployment he’d ever done – in Iraq, and Afghanistan, he flew over Washington D.C. with it, his children had kissed it and his friends had signed it and he carried it in his flak jacket since he started in the Air Force.  He took it out and passed it to the back of the helicopter and that was one of the flags that they used to cover one of the guys.”

When asked how the soldiers reacted to him shooting pictures during such a personal, sensitive moment, Guttenfelder said, “The soldiers were as respectful of me as I was of them.

“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was important, because it’s not an easy thing to do.”

Guttenfelder has been covering the war in Afghanistan for nine years. 

David Guttenfelder / AP

U.S. soldiers carry the body of one of the two American soldiers killed to a medical evacuation helicopter.

David Guttenfelder / AP

Soldiers carry the bodies of fellow soldiers toward the helicopter.

David Guttenfelder / AP

U.S. Air Force pararescuemen place the bodies of U.S. soldiers into body bags in the back of their medivac helicopter.

David Guttenfelder / AP

U.S. Air Force pararescuemen pass an American flag to one another in the back of their medivac helicopter as they prepare to wrap the bodies.

David Guttenfelder / AP

U.S. Air Force pararescuemen wait in the back of the medivac helicopter while the door gunner mans the .50 caliber machine gun.