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.
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.