Note: Since we completed our Dec. 28-29, 2011 Air Assault mission and the story has been published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, I feel comfortable sharing the details behind the scene, the story behind the story. This is the first in a series of posts about the air assault with Charlie Co.

The Army loves a spreadsheet about as much as I loathe one.

When JR and I showed up at FOB Shoja, 1st Lt. Tony Formica, the public affairs officer, met us with bundle of enthusiasm and a multi-colored, multi-celled schedule for our visit. It was packed—bursting—with dates and engagements; the psychedelic presentation alone was enough to cause a seizure.

One item on the menu caught my eye: Dec. 28-29 AIR ASSAULT!

Air assault? When we’d left our arrival briefing with Col. Wood in Masum Ghar, we were under the impression we wouldn’t be allowed on patrols. We were concerned, naturally. How could we tell the soldiers’ stories if we never left the confines of the wire? If we never walked in their footsteps? This sounded like a great patrol possibility.

A few days later, Formica sat us down with a three-page risk assessment sheet that he had prepared (mercifully, no colors). Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Brian Payne would sign it after we’d reviewed it and acknowledged the risks. Formica went over it line by line.

It listed all the perils that might befall us and assigned each one a risk level from the mundane to the menacing.

The headings:

5. Subtasks:  6. Hazards; 7. Initial Risk Level; 8. Controls; 9. Residual Risk Level; 10. How to Implement?; 11. How to Supervise? (Who); 12. Was the Control Effective?

A couple examples:

5. Dismounting from Chinook; 6: Tripping on the ramp; 7. Medium risk; 8. Cold load training conducted at SQD-PLT-CO level to ensure all Soldiers and reporters are thoroughly familiar with getting on and off the aircraft; 9. Low risk; 10. Reporters are to participate in and be supervised during cold load training. 11. PSG or above, Security Detail Team Leader.

Remember this one. It will come into play later in our story. JR and I both looked at each other and made a mental note: Thou shalt not trip on the Chinook ramp. Our biggest concern at this point was disgracing ourselves.

After disgrace comes dismemberment:

5. Possible Exposure to IEDs; 6. Injury, severe dismemberment and/or death; 7. High risk; 8. Ensure reporters are trained to recognize signs of an IED; reporters wear properly designed PPE; reporters provided with tourniquets prior to PZ posture; 9. Medium risk; 10: TL in charge of security detail conducts PCC of PPE prior to SP to ensure proper fit and wear; 11. Security Detail Team Leader.

We read through the entire document and we definitely wanted to go. Formica took the document to Payne for his signature. The commander was putting himself on the line for us and I respected him for it. He is proud of his soldiers and he wanted us to tell their stories for the families back home.

Lt. Col. Brian Payne, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, poses for a photograph in his office at Forward Operating Base Shoja in Kandahar Province Afghanistan on Dec. 22, 2011. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

A few days before we were leaving to join Charlie Company at Khenjakak, I had an interview with Payne. We talked about the air assault.

He asked if we still wanted to go. I said yes and I thanked him for the opportunity.

Here’s the deal. I can’t guarantee your safety, he said; but, I’ve done everything I can to minimize the risk. I asked what made him feel more secure about our participation. He said that he had assigned a three-man security detail to us. We would each have a soldier who would have our backs and there’d be a third team leader to supervise the two soldiers with us.

I asked Payne for one piece of advice. He emphasized following precisely in the footsteps of the in person in front of me. Then we talked about taking risks and death. I told him I had no illusions that I have any control over when or how I will die. I said I don’t think I’m reckless. I have a profound inner knowing that I am not in control of my departure. And of course, I would follow in the footsteps of the person in front of me.

Aside from tripping on the ramp or stepping on an IED, JR’s other concern was getting separated from the group. Again, that would be handled. We would each have a locator beacon.

We were nervous, of course. Neither of us had been on an air assault. I didn’t want to be a burden to the soldiers or have a negative impact on their mission. I wanted to be sure I could carry my weight, literally and figuratively. And I wanted to do a good job.

The day we were to leave for Khenjakak, a soldier on patrol with Alpha Co. in the Horn of Panjawa’i stepped on an IED. Luckily, he was not grievously injured, though he was transported to the hospital.

Payne called JR and me into his office and asked if we still wanted to go on the mission. It wasn’t too late. He could pull us and he’d own it: no one would know we backed out. The commander would have our backs. He’d take responsibility for the change in plans.

We said, thank you but no thank you. We were going.