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LT Grad Directs Photography on New NatGeo Afghan War Documentary

Western Springs native David Clawson spent 49 days in Afghanistan with the “Pararescumen” of Kandahar Airfield for the filming of “Inside Combat Rescue.”

Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The 38th Rescue Squadron.

Two six-man Air Force crews work alternating half-day shifts, helicoptering into combat zones to extract wounded soldiers, civilians and even enemies. Their unique Pave Hawk copters and their specialized training come down to fulfilling one mission: keep the injured alive and get them to the hospital.

For 49 days, Western Springs native and Lyons Township alum David Clawson shadowed these angels of life in Afghanistan as the director of photography for the new National Geographic series, Inside Combat Rescue, which premiers on Monday.

“It was a really attractive project because the subject matter wasn’t really political,” Clawson said. “Their agenda is strictly to save lives, and it doesn’t matter whose… They put the same effort into saving someone who was just firing at them.”

Clawson, a Columbia College grad who also has worked on the miniseries American Loggers and Knights of Mayhem, said he considered the risks of such a project, but decided it was worth it for the best opportunity of his career, and has zero regrets.

After meeting with the 38th in April 2012, accompanying them on training missions and shooting stock footage, Clawson and his crew travelled to Germany, and then to Kandahar, where they lived out of two buildings and had their bunks occasionally rattled by rocket blasts.

They filmed 13-14 hours per day, rigging up the rescue crew with up to 40 cameras so no cameraman would take up valuable space (or get in the way) in the Pave Hawk. Instead, they would meet a returning crew at the hospital to which patients were delivered—where, Clawson recalls, there were some seriously “heavy” images to handle.

“It’s something that we couldn’t really prepare for, how we would react,” he said. “We just had to deal with it however we could.

“Seeing all these young guys come in with missing legs and bullet holes, clinging to life, it was really humbling and kind of angered a lot of us that back home people didn’t really know that that was still going on ten years into the way.”

Just a few days ago, Clawson even got to meet one of the men he’d filmed when the man was wounded in a suicide bombing. (The fellow is doing much better now.) 

Clawson describes the show, in contrast to most war documentaries that focus on the combat, as “the story of when somebody gets injured, the story after that, what happens to them.” 

Besides that, the show is also about the men of the 38th, their lives, characters and families. Over the months he spent with them, Clawson got to know them and their routines very well. The deeply personal touch and the high stakes make it much different from anything he has filmed before.

“I feel like this story needed to be told,” said Clawson. “We were dealing with real consequences. There was no hype drama—it’s all real and authentic.” 

Inside Combat Rescue premiers on Feb. 18 at 9 p.m. Central time (10 p.m. Eastern) on the National Geographic Channel.

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