University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism students JR Ancheta, from left, Jeric Quiliza and Matt Anderson pose for a photo at Fort Irwin, Calif. before they leave for their embed with the 1-25th Stryker Brigade in the Mojave Desert on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2011. The students spent four nights and three days embedded during "full spectrum" training exercises in the Mojave Desert. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

An access pass hangs on the rear view mirror of the public affairs vehicle that carries the UAF students to the National Training Center in a restricted area in the Mojave Desert. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

Note: This is the first of a series of posts about a trip by University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism students and Snedden Chair Cheryl Hatch, who participated in an embed with soldiers from the 1-25th Stryker Brigade, based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. The soldiers spent a month in training exercises in the Mojave Desert, designed to prepare them for their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. The UAF College of Liberal Arts and the Snedden Endowment provided the funds to cover the travel expenses (flights, rental car, gas) for the trip from Fairbanks to Fort Irwin, Calif.

Bright and early Friday morning, our first day “in the box,” we met with Col. Todd Wood, commander of the 1-25th Stryker Brigade, in the Tactical Operating Center, a series of connected tents, in Forward Operating Base Denver in the Mojave Desert. He welcomed us, answered questions and assured us we would have unfettered access to the soldiers and their training.

The students walked out of the tent and into the sunshine. Inspired by their access to the colonel, they were excited to get to work. The colonel rolled away in a Stryker convoy for a meeting with provincial Afghan leaders.

And we spent the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon waiting for our rides, waiting to embed.  Over the next few hours, we had several test runs at embedding. We’d run and gather our gear for an imminent departure, only to learn plans had changed. We rearranged our two-person reporting teams several times. At one point, we had Options A, B, C and D.

UAF journalism students (from left) JR Ancheta, Matt Anderson and Jeric Quilza pose for a photo with Col. Todd Wood, commander of the 1-25th Stryker Brigade, after an interview in the Tactical Operating Center at Forward Operating Base Denver on Friday, Feb. 18, 2011. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

By early afternoon, Matt Anderson, a reporter, and Jeric Quiliza, who’d be shooting video, embedded with the 3-21 Infantry Battalion, “The Gimlets.” They piled into a Stryker, the ramp closed and the convoy headed southeast toward the scenario’s Pakistani border.

Photojournalist JR Ancheta and I eventually embedded with the 1-5 Infantry Battalion,  “The Bobcats.” We met Lt. Col.. Brian Payne, the commander, late Friday afternoon when he and his soldiers returned from a successful mission after recovering a missing United States State Department official. A mission we’d missed because we were sitting in an office, waiting.

We were upset we’d missed the story. He was upset, too. We learned that Payne had sent a convoy through a “kill zone” earlier in the day to pick us up, only to be told we had left with another unit. We assured him we’d been waiting for them and had been told they’d left without us. Due to a series of miscommunications, he’d unintentionally put his soldiers at risk and stranded a reporting team.

A lesson learned, Payne said.

Learning from mistakes is an essential part of training, for the soldiers at the National Training Center and the students embedded with them.

The military has its own culture:  its language, its customs and its terrain are just as foreign to the student journalists as Afghanistan’s culture is to the soldiers.

Over the four nights and three days of the embed experience, the students and soldiers learned they share common ground. As the soldiers seek to conduct an effective counterinsurgency campaign, they learn they need to establish rapport with local Afghans. They learn to establish trust and build relationships. All the while, they maintain situational awareness and adapt to any changes.

The students had to do the exact same things—build rapport, created relationships and adapt to changing circumstances—to work within the military culture and constraints to bring home stories for their readers.

UAF photojournalism student JR Ancheta, from left, photographs the silhouettes of Spc. Mike Blalock, UAF reporter Matt Anderson, Snedden Chair Cheryl Hatch and UAF videographer Jeric Quiliza on a tent at Forward Operating Base Denver in the National Training Center, "the box," on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch