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 second in a series of posts about the air assault with Charlie Co. with the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment.

When I got closer to deciding to embed with the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, I wrote Troy, an Army medic who’d done two tours in Iraq. I asked him what he thought I’d need in Afghanistan.

A tourniquet.

Right. I packed my usual assortment of things I like to have and added a tourniquet.

On Wednesday, Dec. 28, JR and I got a ride to Khenjakak to join Charlie Co. before the soldiers departed on the air assault early the next day.

We arrived at 1600 and the soldiers quickly found us housing. JR got the transient tent. I got the MWR game room that had been quickly converted in to a “female” tent, since two Female Engagement Team soldiers were joining the mission.

The guy said: “This is a warm tent.” I’ve learned from experience that it’s almost always the exact opposite–the you’d-be-better-off sleeping-outside-if you-want-to-be-warm tent. I’ve had several of those.

We heard they were having a briefing with the Afghan National Army soldiers. We asked to join it. When we arrived at 1615, the briefing was wrapping up. There was a roughly 6-by-10-foot section of dirt featuring a mock-up of the their objectives: a few abandoned buildings and a kuchi village, where the population is transient.

We were disheartened when we saw the briefing break up. We were still clueless about the mission. I asked Charlie Co. Commander Cpt. Christopher Zagursky, 27, for a brief run-through. He looked at me then explained the plan to JR and me.

He said we’d been assigned to the patrol lead by Sgt. 1st Class Bryan O’Neal, 27, from Page, Az. Then he said: “No, you’ll come with me.”

Change of plans with 12 hours till mission. I asked why the change. No answer. And he left.

JR and I were left standing there, wondering about the training, the prep, the briefing we’d been told we’d have before the mission. Neither of us had been on an air assault.

We eat dinner alone in the DFAC and by 1900 we realize there isn’t going to be any training and we were cast adrift in Khenjakak.

About 1930 O’Neal appears in the “female” tent with Staff Sgt. Freddy Rivera. He’s come to help us pack and actually helps unravel our last threads of confidence as well.

We ask him about the training, which soldiers we will be with, i.e. the security detail that Lt. Col. Payne assigned that made him feel secure.

“That didn’t filter down to me,” O’Neal says. OK. No training, no security detail. No problem.

He takes one look at our packs and tells us they won’t do. He and Rivera return with rucksacks for us. He offers me his camo blanket to supplement my sleeping bag. He and Rivera teach us how to field strip MREs. Removing as much of the contents as possible. he shows us how to take only the minimal amount necessary. Just the food. Consider discarding even the warming packages.

He instructs us to put our sleeping bags in the bottom. The large bottles of water (I took three 2-liter bottles. JR took four.) go next so the weight is distributed on our backs. In the outside packets, we put the things we need to reach easily.

I wish you’d been able to spend more time with us prepping for the mission, O’Neal says.

No kidding. Rivera comes back with some hand and toe warmer packets for us. At least we have tourniquets.

When Rivera and O’Neal leave, we are completely demoralized. JR is crushed and obviously nervous.

OK. Let’s talk this through JR. We have none of the things that our risk assessment indicated we’d have to minimize our risk. Should we stay or should we go?

We go to the dark DFAC and talk through it. JR and his well-being are my only concern and priority. I know I would go on the air assault, even with all the breakdowns; however, I want JR to work through it for himself without any idea where I stand.

“I think we’ll be OK,” he says. “I was expecting something and got something else. The security detail–that was my comfort. That’s a bit unnerving. It feels like I’m not integrated so I’m a little nervous.

“I don’t feel included. We’re not part of the team,” he says. “We aren’t accepted and people look at us funny. I’m not sure they’ve had any encounters with the press.

“We don’t know exactly who’s going to be tracking us. We were at the butt end of that stupid meeting. I don’t know what’s going on. I can’t assess the risk if I don’t know what’s going on.”

OK. Options JR.

Call Lt. Col. Payne and tell him things aren’t going according to his plan. We rule that out. We don’t want to bother him and we don’t want him to pull us.

Cpt. Z. Nope. He’s already asleep, or so we’re told.

Let’s talk to somebody JR.  We go in search of 1st Lt. Matthew Millsaps, the assigned public affairs officer for Charlie Co. He shows us the plan for the mission on his hand-held device. Looks pretty straight forward. There will be two chalks. JR and I go with chalk one and Cpt. Z.

We go back to the DFAC. I’m waiting for JR to decide.

“Have you got my back, Cheryl?” JR says.

“Absolutely, JR. I’ve got your back.”

“And I’ve got yours.”

OK, let’s do this.

Next: Part 3 in the series. The working title is “Where the F— is he?”

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