Photographer JR Ancheta, left, holds the hand of Spc. Joe Mille, 20, from Galloway, New Jersey in the Role 3 International Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on Wed., Jan. 11, 2012 while U.S. Navy Capt. Mary Blose, 53, of St. Paul, Minn, checks on him. Mille and his buddy Pfc. Rex Tharp, 20, from North Manchester, Ind., were injured in separate IED explosions while on patrol and suffered below the knee amputations of both their right legs. JR and Joe attended Sitka High School (Alaska) and the same church together. JR gave him a rosary from the chapel at KAF. Both soldiers are based at Fort Drum, Ky. and serve with Charlie Co. 3rd Brigade 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

I realize I am so far behind in my list of blog entries I want to post. I have many more stories of the soldiers to share and more stories from behind the scenes. I’m taking this opportunity to make a quick post to tell you to “hang on” a bit longer and thank all of you for following this blog. Many of you have written to tell me that our stories and photos have a meant a lot to you. That means a lot to me.

Photographer JR Ancheta smiles as he sits by the Arabian Gulf on the corniche in Kuwait City, Kuwait on Saturday, January 14, 2012. Ancheta bought gifts, took a stroll and smoked apple shisha before returning to Alaska after a month-long embed with soldiers from the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

Many of you know JR Ancheta‘s photography by now. JR’s my former student who I met when I was the Snedden Chair at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. If it weren’t for JR, I doubt I would have gone to Afghanistan…that’s another post.

We started this story on the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team in the fall of 2010. We followed their training in Alaska, where they conducted exercises in mock Afghan villages and began to learn the skills they’d need in the real Afghanistan.

We followed them to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. in the Mojave Desert. At that point, many of the soldiers invited us to visit them downrange, in Afghanistan during their deployment.

My appointment as Snedden Chair ended in May and I left Alaska. I went to Sitka at JR’s invitation and gave a public lecture on my work at the Sitka Public Library. JR had a couple summer jobs…so we began the conversation about continuing the project downrange during his winter break.

I don’t know many students who would spend the winter vacation of their sophomore year in a combat zone. JR did and he did a remarkable job. He confronted tough ethical decisions and emotional moments. For a big guy, he moves through this world with nothing but grace. It’s his big heart and his enormous faith that lighten his step and help him shoulder burdens. I marveled at his capacity to press on.

JR was always leaving the door open…letting out precious heat and letting in the dust. Drove me nuts. Then I thought about it. I called it the Filipino open-door policy. It’s true, he said, in my culture, we leave the doors open. Once I let go of my annoyance over the fast-disappearing warmth, I realized it’s a beautiful image of true warmth…an open door means all are welcome. And that open door matches JR’s open heart.

He’s been generous with the soldiers and their families, sharing his photos.

So I thought I’d share a few of him. Let you see the face of that big-hearted Sitkan behind the camera.  These are just a few from our last couple days together.

Photographer JR Ancheta buys incense from an Indian vendor in the suq in Kuwait City, Kuwait on Saturday, January 14, 2012. Ancheta was buying gifts for his friends in Alaska before returning after a month-long embed with soldiers from the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

Photographer JR Ancheta smokes apple tobacco in a shisha pipe and enjoys hot tea with mint on the corniche in Kuwait City, Kuwait on Saturday, January 14, 2012. Ancheta spent the day in Kuwait City before returning Fairbanks, AK. after a month-long embed with soldiers from the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

Photographer JR Ancheta stops at the entrance to security for departing passengers at Kuwait International Airport in Kuwait City, Kuwait on Sunday, January 15, 2012. Ancheta returned home a month-long embed with soldiers from the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan. The body armor cost him an extra $100 in luggage fees. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

 

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