JR Ancheta stands near the top of a hill at Masum Ghar in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan early in his embed with the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

I first met JR Ancheta when I was the Snedden Chair at the University of Alaska Fairbanks last year. In October 2010, he attended a lecture I gave at the Morris Thompson Cultural Center in downtown Fairbanks.

During the Q & A that followed, JR asked me a question in French. That got my attention; a) He was not afraid to ask a question; b) He was confident enough to ask it in French in front of a large audience. I asked the audience members to bear with me while I answered in French.

After that lecture, JR changed his major from Elementary Education to journalism and attended my Journalism in Perspectives class just for fun (it was too late to join for credit.) He launched into his photography career with boundless passion and energy. He’s already had his first exhibit and he attended the prestigious Eddie Adams Workshop in New York this past October. JR’s on a roll for his first year as a photographer.

And a little over a year since we first met, we’re traveling on an embed together in Afghanistan…and believe me, I wouldn’t do that for just anybody.

JR is the best kind of student and human being…he has a kind, curious, light-filled heart…and a great instinct for people and opportunities. And what I admire and appreciate about JR is that when an opportunity presents itself, he jumps. He jumped at the chance to embed with the soldiers of the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team during their training at Fort Irwin, CA. (National Training Center) in preparation for their April 2011 deployment.

At 24, he’s the same age as many of the soldiers. “Hey, guys. How’s it going? I got a great picture of you.” JR has been relentless in his thoughtfulness to share his photos with the soldiers and their families. He connects with the soldiers. He spends time hanging out with them late into the night. He remembers their names and calls to them whenever he sees them.

Pfc. Sean Carroll, 20, from Greenville, S.C., looks over photos with JR Ancheta in the DFAC of Sperwan Ghar on Jan. 2, 2012. Carroll is with Third Platoon Bravo Company, a group of soldiers JR has spent a lot of time with. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

The other night, we were looking at the soldiers’ faces in the photos from NTC. We recognized two of the 20 soldiers who’ve been killed. And as JR noted, all of their faces have changed. The hardships, the loss, the time away are etched on their faces and in their altered eyes.

At NTC, many of the soldiers invited us to visit them downrage. In February 2011, it was an idea. In November 2011, we had a visa and credentials. By December 2011, we had body armor and plane tickets to Kuwait. By Dec. 18, 2011, we were in Kandahar.

I kept checking with JR over the past six months to make sure he wanted to make the trip, to go to a war zone. I am his mentor…though I made sure he knows I consider him a grown man capable of making his own choices…and those choices remain his responsibility.

We dubbed ourselves Team Goofy because we look so riduculous in our body armor, JR with two Canon digital cameras and a plastic Holga around his neck. Me, I just look goofy.

JR Ancheta, left, and Cheryl Hatch pose for a New Year's Eve photo in the DFAC at Shoja FOB in Kandahar Province on Dec. 31, 2011.

We look out for each other in all situations: in the DFAC, in the field, boarding a Chinook in the dark. Before we set out on a patrol we tell each other: “I’ve got your back.” I’ve listened to him snore and smelled his notoriously stinky feet; he’s stood guard outside  a mud hut for my “combat squat.”

He shares chocolate. He sings themes from muscials like “Hello Dolly.” He’ll give me a pat on the back when I’m tired. And he has this uncanny habit of leaving the door open. I call it the Filipino open-door policy. And it’s true, in his culture, the door is always open. That just doesn’t work so well in this wicked cold weather.

His motto is “whatever happens, happens.” When things weren’t going exactly as planned for the air assault mission we were slated to join, we had a long talk and decided to go for it.

Here’s my favorite memory of JR on this trip thus far: JR is in the dark waiting to board the Chinook, huddled against a mud wall in the cold rotor wash. He’s nervous. There’s roughly 250 pounds of JR and he’s wearing 40 pounds of body armor and carrying a 35-pound rucksack, plus the two cameras around his neck and all the gear in his photo vest.

When the order came to load, JR yelled: “Game on.” He stood and raced after the soldiers. Never missed a beat. Didn’t falter. Didn’t lag.

And then he started making photographs.