Cheryl Hatch writes notes as she waits in Tent 1 for a flight to Kandahar from Ali Al Salem base in Kuwait on Friday, December 16, 2011. Photo by JR Ancheta

JR and I traveled from Portland through Amsterdam to Kuwait on Delta/KLM. I looked out the window on each flight, watching the clouds, the light, the blackness of the desert night as we approached Kuwait then the concentrated blast of lights from Kuwait City.

Since we joined the Army at Ali Al Salem base in Kuwait, we traveled on a big white bus, a C-17, a Chinook helicopter and a Stryker vehicle. Since we began our embed with the military, we haven’t been able to see where we are or where we’re going.

We waited three hours for a shuttle to the Army base in the swirling nuttiness and over-stimulation of the coffee shops, glitzy stores, hovering cigarette smoke and garish fast-food joints of the airport waiting area. We boarded a bus I’ll call Moby—a big white bus like the ones that tour Yellowstone with senior citizens peering out the windows—except every view from every window was blocked by black curtains, even the broad front windshield had its view clipped by black gauze. I strained to catch a glimpse of the landscape, the road signs, anything to orient myself. In the black, silent interior of that big white bus, I didn’t dare even crack an opening in the curtain. I was already following unspoken orders, following the soldiers’ lead.

With soldiers and contractors, Cheryl Hatch, center left, disembarks a C-17 (Moose) at Kandahar Airfield in Aghanistan on Saturday morning, Dec. 17, 2011. Photo by JR Ancheta

At Ali Al Salem, we waited a day to hitch a ride on a Moose, a C-17. Wearing our body armor for the first time and carrying all our gear, JR and I brought up the rear as 71 soldiers and contractors boarding the flight to Kandahar. We walked up the back ramp into the belly of the beast and watched as the ramp lifted and sealed us inside. On the three-hour flight, some soldiers slept; a couple played cards. The only things to watch were screens tiny and large. Many soldiers hunched over the glow of iPads with warrior video games, Kindles with book text and laptops playing movies and TV shows.

Cheryl Hatch, right, joins soldiers and contractors on baord a C-17 (Moose) en route to Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on Saturday morning, Dec. 17, 2011. Photo by JR Ancheta

From Kandahar (KAF), we waited a day to catch a helicopter flight to Masum Gahr, the headquarters of the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team. When a contractor named Mason offered to carry my duffel bag to the flight line, I said no. I intended to carry my own weight. When he asked a second time, I said yes. Again JR and I shuffled up a ramp into the Chinook. The ramp closed partially behind us, leaving a narrow horizontal opening at the back. The crew chief/rear door gunner sat on the floor and dangled his feet over the ramp into the open air. He was tethered by a line like an umbilical cord to the interior of the plane. Even with a partial view, we couldn’t see much past his silhouette; the bright daylight blew out the background.

The crew chief/rear door gunner surveys the air and ground from a Chinook in flight from Kandahar to 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team Headquarters in Masum Ghar on Sunday, Dec. 19, 2012. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

At Masum Gahr Monday, we accompanied Brigade Commander Col. Todd Wood to a meeting with the Afghan District Governor Fazluddin Agha. We donned our body armor, protective eye gear and flame retardant gloves and walked up the heavy ramp into the Stryker. We bumped along the road. There are four hatches in the top of the Stryker, two in the front, two in the back. I could see a tiny bit of sky if I leaned hard and looked up past the soldiers who were manning guns on lookout at the back hatches.

On the ride home, Col. Wood allowed JR to stand up in one of the hatches to photograph the now-thriving market of Bazaar-e-Panjwa’i. I sat buckled into my seat, starting at the boots of the gunners, with no idea what we’d driven through until I had seen JR’s photos later that day.