Looking behind the sightlines of an American soldier under Taliban fire

Video: Hear from the Army private whose first-person video of a firefight in Afghanistan has received more than twenty-three million views on YouTube. The small, mountable cameras are often used for tactical means, but hours of combat footage taken by these helmet cams have also been viewed by millions on the Internet. The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe talks about the ubiquity of the cameras and the combat footage that ends up on computer screens around the world.

The video would be viewed more than 23 million times, making it perhaps the most-watched footage of the Afghan war. It began last April when Pfc. Ted Daniels pressed the record button on his helmet camera.

The device captured what he could see: a rocky Afghan hillside dotted with shrubs and boulders, a small village and no place to hide.

(Mathew Staver/For The Washington Post) - Pfc. Ted Daniels strapped a camera to his helmet and recorded as he was caught in a firefight in Afghanistan.

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It also recorded sound: The pop, pop, pop of gunfire, and then Daniels’s voice.

“Hey!” he yells. “I’m moving down!”

The 37-year-old soldier pauses for a second and steps into the Taliban barrage, hoping to draw fire away from his fellow soldiers. A bullet kicks up a cloud of dust inches from his right foot. Another strikes near his left.

Daniels scrambles across the steep hill, breathing heavily. The camera careens from side to side as he looks for cover. He is kneeling behind a small rock when an enemy round slams into his rifle, knocking it from his hands.

“I’m hit,” he screams in pain and disbelief. Then louder and more desperate: “I’m hit!”

He glances at his hand, checking quickly to make sure he has all of his fingers. Another burst of enemy fire bounces off the rock, peppering his arms with slivers of razor-sharp shrapnel.

“Help me!” Daniels yells. “I’m hit! I’m hit” He screams the phrase six more times and falls silent.

Seconds later, his camera battery died.

The next day, in the safety of his base, Daniels downloaded the footage to his laptop computer. His hands and forearms were still bandaged and oozing blood. A small group of soldiers pressed in close to see. The room was hushed as they watched.

For as long as there has been war, soldiers have sought to capture the unexplainable terror and thrill of combat. Previous generations snatched war trophies or snapped photos that they stored away in shoe boxes. In Afghanistan, soldiers have recorded untold hours of video with small cameras mounted on the front of their helmets.

Some of the footage is officially sanctioned for intelligence-gathering purposes. But most of the videos are intended as battlefield souvenirs. Several hundred of them have surfaced on the Internet.

The power of Daniels’s video lies in its ability to deliver the viewer directly to the battlefield. Viewers can hear Daniels panting, his boots crunching on rocky ground and the snap of enemy bullets as they pass by his head. The perspective is familiar — it is the same as Call of Duty and other combat video games.

What the video doesn’t show is Daniels. The footage lacks context. It is an empty vessel that viewers fill with their own opinions about America’s wars, its troops, killing and combat.

Daniels had a different response the first time he watched the video. His hands shook. For the next several days, he couldn’t sleep and he struggled to eat. When other soldiers at the outpost asked for copies, he turned them down. “It’s personal,” Daniels told them.

‘He was scared for me’

In August 2012, Daniels was sent home because the firefight had aggravated a foot injury. As soon as he reached the United States, he picked up his two boys — one from each of his broken marriages — and drove them to his father’s house in northern Pennsylvania.

The boys were asleep when Daniels pulled out his laptop computer and invited his father to join him at the kitchen table. “This is the video where I got hurt,” he said.

Before he joined the Army, Daniels had spent 15 years as a police officer in Maryland and Pennsylvania. His last job was as the deputy police chief for Minersville, Pa., where he and other officers clashed with the chief. Daniels was suspended for 60 days without pay. With his career a mess and his second marriage coming apart, he joined the Army. Daniels was the oldest enlistee in his basic-training company.

Sitting with his father, Daniels clicked play. The menacing snap of gunfire and Daniels’s calls for help filled the small kitchen. His father watched in silence, his eyes growing red. When the video was over, he rose from the kitchen table and left the room without speaking. There was no hug. No warm pat on the back. “That is not my dad,” Daniels said. “He is not one to show a lot of emotion. But I could tell it really touched him. I think he was scared for me.”

Daniels imagined that some day he would sit with his two boys and play the video for them, just as he had done for his father. The best way to preserve the footage, he decided, would be to upload it to a private YouTube channel. When he returned to Fort Carson, Colo., in September, he created the channel and started to upload the file, intending to set the channel to private as soon as the footage was finished loading. The process would take about 56 minutes.

Daniels ran some errands in town in the meantime, and when he returned, he had received a message from Funker530, the screen name of the proprietor of a YouTube channel featuring combat footage from Afghanistan. Funker530 may have set up an alert notifying him when someone uploaded war-related footage. His message complimented Daniels on the video and asked for permission to display it.

Daniels’s hands, voice and rifle are in the video, but he isn’t visible. He figured that only the soldiers from his unit would recognize him. He said okay.

Funker530 sent him a few background questions. The firefight had taken place along a ridge in eastern Afghanistan’s Konar province, Daniels responded. The “rest of the squad was pinned down by machine gun fire,” he wrote. “I came out into the open to draw fire so my squad could get to safety.”

Two days later, Daniels’s first sergeant called him at home. “Is that you in a video online?” he asked. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC had spotted the 4th Infantry Division patch on his shoulder and were asking questions. Daniels’s commanders in Afghanistan wanted the video deleted immediately. Daniels felt sick.

He killed his YouTube channel and wrote to Funker530: “Hey Buddy, I am in a really big jam and my command down range wants the video removed or it’s my ass! This is as high as brigade and division level. Please help me out man. I don’t need the extra stress on my ass! Please take down the video. Thanks Brother.”

Funker530 did not respond.

In the public eye

By early October, Daniels’s footage had become a sensation. “This is not Xbox,” a CNN anchor gushed, five days after it appeared on YouTube. “What you’re about to see is real. The Pentagon is telling us it happened, and it happened in Afghanistan in April.”

No war in history has been videotaped more than the Afghanistan war. Just about every piece of U.S. military equipment that moves carries a camera. There are cameras on military drones, helicopters, planes, trucks and tethered blimps that hover over bases. These cameras are there to make soldiers safer.

Senior military officials see other cameras on the battlefield as threats. The Pentagon goes to great, and at times absurd, lengths to portray combat as controlled and efficient. Pictures taken by official Army photographers on the battlefield are scrutinized before they are released to the public to ensure that soldiers are cleanshaven and wearing the proper uniforms, gloves and eye protection. Rules governing embedded journalists call for photographs of casualties to be taken from a “respectful distance.”

Helmet-cams have the potential to explode the illusion of order and control. Soldiers can click record and quickly forget the devices are there. The cameras capture the brutality, fear and chaos of modern war without filter.

There is no blanket ban on helmet cameras, which are permitted in some units and prohibited in others. Daniels bought his helmet-cam, a GoPro Hero 3, for about $250 at the Army post exchange at Fort Carson. The cameras are so popular with the military that in 2011 GoPro started manufacturing a mount designed especially for combat helmets.

As one of two soldiers in his company’s intelligence cell, Daniels used his camera to record potential enemy activity and capture his personal war experience. Whenever he was on patrol, the camera was on his helmet.

The Army viewed Daniels’s video as a potential propaganda victory for the Taliban. In it, he is helpless, scared and alone. His fellow soldiers appear to have abandoned him. “If I were a Taliban propaganda video producer, I would be personally thanking this soldier for uploading this video to YouTube,” said Maj. Chris Thomas, an Army spokesman in Afghanistan.

Because Daniels recorded the video with his own camera on a military patrol, it is not clear whether he or the Army owns it.

Daniels’s commanders couldn’t control his video. But they could control Daniels, and until recently ordered him not to talk about it in public. Soon it seemed like everyone, with the exception of Daniels, was talking about the video. In four months on YouTube, it has drawn more than 80,000 comments. The people who were watching and commenting did not know anything about Daniels, but that did not stop them from speculating on his intelligence, motives and battlefield savvy.

“This guy’s logic was stupid,” wrote sprayprayanddie. “He should be staying at home playing Call of Duty.”

“This dude is brave as hell!” countered jcg1984. “He’s drawing fire so his team can maneuver!”

Others wondered why Daniels’s fellow soldiers weren’t rushing to his rescue. They criticized the way he shot his rifle, loaded his magazines and scrambled for cover. On CNN a retired general, brought in to analyze the footage, speculated on Daniels’s state of mind. “You don’t want to put this guy off to the side and have him get into his own little dark hole,” said Maj. Gen. James “Spider” Marks. “Get him back into the action. Let him respond.”

A few weeks later the rapper Ice Cube used Daniels’s footage in his “Everythang’s Corrupt” music video. He cast Daniels as the pawn of evil, greedy politicians who treat war as a game. In the music video, footage of Daniels’s hands and rifle cuts to a scene from Call of Duty.

The biggest beneficiary of the footage was Funker530, who declined to release his real name. Daniels has no idea who he is. A spokeswoman for YouTube also said she did not know his name.

Buoyed by viewers flocking to see Daniels’s video, Funker530’s monthly traffic increased fivefold to about 25 million views in October. His advertising revenue surged, as well. A site such as Funker530, which has about 430,000 subscribers and averages 6 million to 8 million views a month, can take in as much as $150,000 a year in advertising revenue, according to analysts.

The proprietor of Funker530 said he served in the Canadian army in Afghanistan, but would speak only on the condition of anonymity because of what he said were concerns about his safety. He declined to answer questions about the video or how much money his YouTube channel generates. He said he donates a portion of his profits to veterans’ charities.

On Funker530’s YouTube channel, Daniels’s video plays alongside 300 clips from Afghanistan and Iraq. As Daniels screams for help, pop-up ads encourage viewers to “click here” to check their “criminal arrest record,” take online business-management classes or watch the trailer for the fourth installment of the “Evil Dead” horror movie series.

Different lives

In November, Daniels was sitting in the small house he shares with an Army friend at Fort Carson. He had not watched the video for several weeks, but he had been replaying it in his head and reliving it most nights in his dreams.

He was sure that he had been muttering to himself when he stepped into enemy fire. “Jesus, I think I am going to die,” he was saying in the dreams.

Daniels located the moment that he was looking for about 45 seconds into the video. He paused and replayed the stretch a dozen times, cranking up the volume on his laptop speakers as loud as it would go. He could hear himself muttering, but he couldn’t make out the words.

The flood of commenters on the Funker530 site and elsewhere had changed the way Daniels saw the video. He had begun to wonder if his decision to step into enemy fire to free up his fellow soldiers was more foolish than brave. “It wasn’t the most tactically brilliant thing to do,” he admitted in an interview.

He grew embarrassed that the whole world could hear him in his most vulnerable moment screaming for help, and wished people could see what happened after the camera battery died. Daniels stopped yelling and scrambled toward the American armored vehicles parked about 350 yards away. A bullet ricocheted off his helmet. Daniels kept moving.

“I don’t know if I held it together, but I tried to,” he said. “I put my ass on the line for other guys. I still functioned even though I was scared to death.”

On a cold Wednesday morning last month, Daniels stood through a brief morning formation. He is currently assigned to Fort Carson’s medical platoon while he waits for the foot he injured in Afghanistan to heal. The assignment leaves him plenty of free time.

The sergeant dismissed the soldiers, and Daniels drove his truck, a 1995 Isuzu with a cracked mirror and crumpled bumper, to the mall where he and a housemate are trying to start a side business teaching self-defense.

The turnout was poor: two middle-aged women. Daniels hid his disappointment and showed a 62-year-old with stringy white hair how to execute a palm strike and break an attacker’s chokehold.

Online, he continued his never-ending battle with the Taliban.

“This is a real man trying to protect his squad,” wrote richsalemv93.

“Dumbass,” budmeister typed.

Daniels drove through the Garden of the Gods Park, stopping his truck to gaze at the 300-foot-tall towers of sandstone rock. “I used to think if I had died, what would it have been for?” he said. “My life would have meant nothing in the big picture of Afghanistan.”

His father called around 5 p.m. to chat. Daniels smoked a cigarette in his driveway and watched the sun dip behind the snow-capped mountains. He skipped dinner. “I have to be really careful about what I eat these days or I won’t make weight,” he said.

Daniels’s video still draws about 10,000 views a day from people around the world who tune in to hear his labored breathing and screams for help.

Daniels no longer watches the footage. “It doesn’t feel like me,” he said.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

 
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