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June 1, 2012—
Editor’s Journal: On a recent visit to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, I was permitted to fly along with a C-130 crew delivering supplies to the forward operating base at Jalalabad—known as "J-Bad" for short. Jalalabad is in the far eastern part of the country, not too far from the Tora Bora area.

The mission was an "airland" delivery, meaning the C-130 would actually set down at the FOB's small runway, rather than airdrop the supplies. Once on the ground, the aircraft would taxi to a revetment constructed of old conex containers, unload its cargo, and make a swift departure.

The area was considered "hot," and the pilot made a series of highly aggressive turns in making his descent, so as to offer enemies on the ground as small and unpredictable a target as possible. Everyone on the aircraft was required to wear helmets and body armor, given that C-130s sometimes return from such missions with extra holes after taking hits from small-arms fire.

After the airplane landed and taxied in, two security forces airmen leaped off the C-130 and took up positions at the wingtips, ready to protect the crew and aircraft, if necessary, while ground personnel unloaded the cargo. The operation went smoothly, and the pallets of food, water, fuel, and equipment, which had taken about 45 minutes to load, were off the airplane in less than seven minutes.

However, the C-130 did not quickly button up and taxi back out. It remained in the revetment, engines turning. When I asked why, the crew said they had received instructions to stand by.

In a few minutes, a small group of figures appeared from around one of the conex containers. Soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division, as advertised by the "Big Red One" patches on their sleeves, were leading three men in traditional Afghan attire. However, these particular men were being escorted to the C-130 while also wearing blacked-out goggles, "mickey mouse" ear protectors, and plastic handcuffs. The soldiers were in full battle gear.

As I took my seat at the front of the cargo bay, just behind the cockpit, there seemed to be a delay at the back of the aircraft as the soldiers brought the detainees aboard. The detainees were effectively blindfolded by the goggles and unable to hear, and the soldiers patiently but firmly led them to seats across from me. The troops steered them around the rollers, raised rails, and other obstacles that could cause them to fall.

One of the crewmembers then pointed out to me that one of the detainees, despite being blindfolded and handcuffed, had just attempted to take a weapon away from one of the soldiers. Under the circumstances, it wouldn't have surprised me to see that detainee thrown to the floor and held down with a knee or boot, at gunpoint.

Instead, the three were simply positioned to sit down in the canvas troop seats. One of the soldiers—baby-faced and red-haired—spoke loudly and sternly to them in what sounded like Pashtun. The only rebuke from these soldiers was to insist the three men sit straight up and not recline in their seats. They did so, and remained flanked by soldiers wearing latex gloves.

When one detainee continued to complain that his handcuffs were too tight, a soldier cut the plastic bonds and firmly placed the detainee's hands on his knees, to let him know that's where they should stay. The prisoner, obviously grateful, took the hint.

At all times, the soldiers treated the detainees with firmness but civility. The detainees suffered no humiliating treatment, and one soldier even steadied a fearful detainee as the aircraft climbed out on what was, in all likelihood, the detainee's first flight in an airplane. The soldier gave him a small bag, just in case. This was the man, I was told, who had tried to take the weapon.

Upon our arrival at Bagram, the soldiers led the detainees off the airplane.

It is highly unlikely that this little scene was staged for the benefit of the visiting journalist. Clearly, neither the pilot nor loadmasters knew they would be taking detainees back to Bagram, and when the prisoners appeared at the back of the airplane, my escort quickly warned me: "no pictures of this."

Later, one of the crewmembers told me that if the commanders at Jalalabad had known that I was on the plane—this was a spur-of-the-moment trip—the detainees probably wouldn't have been boarded.

From time to time, we see the sad evidence that soldiers in this war, perhaps frustrated by its length and the losses they have suffered among their comrades, have resorted to treating the enemy in humiliating ways, sometimes posing for the camera as they do so.

But on a hot day in Jalalabad several weeks ago, all I saw were soldiers treating their enemy professionally, despite being given incentive to do otherwise. As far as I could see, they are doing it right.