Reporter Cheryl Hatch, from left, Public Affairs Officer Maj. David Mattox, and photographer JR Ancheta pose for a photograph before the journalists leave Masum Ghar in a Stryker convoy on Dec. 19, 2011. The area was under "air red" so Brigade Commander Col. Todd Wood took the journalists with him to Shoja. As brigade PAO, Maj. Mattox is the primary "tracker."

 “We’re not tracking you.”  This has become the punch line of our embed.
 
The Army prides itself on “tracking” and they’ve got a lot to track from the logistical mundane to the vital-to-safety-and-security critical: new washing machines, vehicles under repair, mail and packages, promotions, investigations into missing equipment, Stryker parts, troop movements, shuras (meetings with local and provincial Afghan officials). And reporters.
 
If they’re not tracking us, they don’t know what we’re doing, which is fine. Conversely, we don’t know what they’re doing, which is a drag…and creates confusion, wasted time and energy and missed opportunities. At this point, two weeks into our embed, we smile when we hear “we’re tracking you” and hope for the best.
 
A few days ago, we were scheduled to go to a shura with the battalion commander. Our schedule had been changed a few times to make it possible for us to attend. There are always two times given: the meet-at-the-Stykers time and the-Strykers-are-leaving time. We need to meet at the Stykers 30 minutes before departure so we can get the briefing.

On this day, we were told the meet time was 0800 with the obvious 0830 departure. JR and I were heading to breakfast at 0730 when we passed one of the gunners from the commanders TAC team.

 “Are you tracking we’re leaving at 0800?” the gunner asked.

Huh? “No, we’re tracking 0830 departure.”

We run to the DFAC. JR decides to stay in the chow hall and eat breakfast in a seated and civilized fashion. I grab a bowl of oatmeal and a biscuit on a tray and dash back to my CHU to eat and pack. I’m taking bites of oatmeal while putting my travel kit and gear together.

We’re ready to go when we learn that the shura has been cancelled and the commander is heading to Kandahar for meetings. We stay behind and work on our story for the News-Miner. We’ll go to the shura in Dand district the next day instead. From there, we’ll go to Khenjakak to join Charlie Company for training/briefing before a two-day air assault mission.

The next day we are again packed and ready to go. We’ve been told 0800 for the meet time. Makes sense based on the schedule from the previous day. We’re up early, packed and ready to go.

We run into the Command Sgt. Major Bowen. We’re tracking 0800. He said, “No, 0930.”

Huh?

“Check with Sgt. Burt. He’s our travel agent. He’s tracking you.”

We head down to the Strykers and the commander’s TAC team. We meet Sgt. C.

“We’re going to the shura and then you’re dropping us at Khenjakak.”

“No, we’re not tracking you. We’re not going to Khenjakak.”

“Command Sgt. Major said you’re tracking us and to talk to Sgt. Burt.”

“We are not tracking you. We are not going to Khenjakak,” Sgt. Burt seconds.

Neither Sgt. C. nor Sgt. Burt looks too happy with us. We head to back to the TOC to speak with Lt. Formica, the public affairs officer who is responsible for tracking us while we’re with the 1-5.

“Of course, they’re tracking you. You’re going with them to Khenjakak after the shura. I gave them that info days ago.”

“Well, Sgt. C. and Sgt. Burt said they’re not tracking us.”

Lt. Formica heads to the Strykers to meet with Sgt. Burt. They step out of our listening.

Nothing is truly resolved until Lt. Col. Payne arrives. We accompany him to the shura then we return to Shoja. He makes certain we have a ride with Charlie Company when they return to Khenjakak…and his TAC team stays in Shoja.

The story of the lack of tracking on our air assault mission merits a blog post unto itself; however, when we returned to Shoja, we decided to use the next morning (Dec. 30) to rest and wash our clothes. We’d seen the commander and the command sgt. major and the public affairs guys. We let them know we’d return safely.

JR had gone to his tent to hang his clothes to dry and returned saying: “Hey, they’re in formation.”

Formation usually means medals, an awards presentation. I told JR to grab his camera and go back. When he returned, the ceremony was finished.

We learned that Lt. Col. Payne presented Spc. Valerie Cronkite with a Purple Heart and a Combat Medic award. JR was crushed. Cronkite is a member of the Female Engagement Team, one of the stories we are working on…and she’s one of only two or three women in the brigade who’s received such honors. That would have been a great photograph.

And we were sitting in the sun about a hundred yards away waiting for our clothes to wash. We had no idea….we were not tracking that there was an awards ceremony. And no one had told us. When we mentioned our frustration and disappointment, the public affairs guys apologized.

So, we do what we do each and every time this happens: we regroup and adapt. We’ll do a portrait of Cronkite. I’ll interview her. We’ll rework our schedule and photograph her at work in the field with other FET soldiers. We’ll find a way.

As a woman, I’m particularly prickly on this point: I want the women represented in our reporting. They’re out here with the men, taking risks and making a difference. I want their stories told and their faces seen.

We are definitely tracking the women soldiers as well as the men.

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