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.

On Dec. 28, the morning of the air assault, I wake at 0300. Showtime–military for you-better-be-there-so-you-can-wait-at-least-an-hour– is 0400.

I can see my breath as I put on my wool underlayer. Spc. Malecia James and Pfc. Jamie Sterna are still wrapped in their green army sleeping bags, lying on top of a pile of USO blue bean bag chairs. They look like caterpillar larvae.

At 0315, the women begrudgingly leave their cocoons and start preparing. We haven’t spoken much. I ask James for an assist with my rucksack. She helps me adjust the straps and tells me to buckle the waist strap: it will distribute the weight, ease the load on my back.

A pack of soldiers arrive at the door. Reporters. You’re with us.

OK, hang on. Who’s us?

Chalk 2. O’Neal.

Hang on. Capt. Z switched us. We’re going with him.

Nope. With us.

OK. I feel like I am being swept up by a bunch of frat boys on a beer run. The swarm moves on. Then they come back.

Nope. You’re right. You’re with the commander. James, you’re with the commander. Sterna, you’re with us.

There is no sign of JR. And no sign that anyone is tracking us.

I follow the swarm to the meet point. No JR.

It’s dark. There’s a bigger swarm of soldiers, really silhouettes of soldiers, bodies bumping into each other, confusion to my naive eyes. I start looking for JR.

I figure he got caught up in the sweep for Chalk 2, so I find the Chalk 2 soldiers. Keep asking for JR. No one’s seen him. Heck, I can’t see anything. I’m getting a bit concerned.

I try to find one soldier who will remember me. I find a guy, Sgt. David Smith, from Dillon, S.C. Yes, ma’am. I could find that sweet southern accent in the dark. No problem. And I figure this southern man will keep his word.

I let him know I can’t find JR and I’m going to look around. Don’t leave without us.

Yes ma’am. I gotcha.

I go back to the transient tent. I call JR’s name. Nothing. I go to the DFAC. The TOC. The MWR. No JR.

I go back to the meet point where all the soldiers have gathered.

Now I feel like that bird in my favorite childhood book “Are You My Mother?” The bird falls out of the nest before it has a chance to imprint its mother’s face and runs around asking everything–a cow, a dog, a boat, a plane–if its his mother.

That’s me. Grabbing soldiers by the shoulder shouting: Have you seen JR?

At one point I turn on my light.

A soldier’s head swivels and locks eyes on me. “Kill the f*ckin light.” I stuff the light in my pocket.

I find Cpt. Z. I tell him JR was missing.

“Where the f*ck is he?”

Right. If I knew, I wouldn’t be asking. These guys are in mission mode and I’m a giant nuisance.

Cpt. Z says: That’s it. You’re going with O’Neal. We can’t wait.

OK. We’ve switched units again. I find Smith. Let him know Cpt. Z switched us back to Chalk 2. Don’t leave without us.

Don’t worry, ma’am. I gotcha.

Twice more I run the circuit: transient tent, DFAC, MWR….I run every scenario I can think of…I can’t figure what’s happened. He’s stuck in a latrine. He’s at the wrong meet place. It does not make sense.

I go back to the gathering point again.

Someone yells: choppers are three minutes out.

I can’t find JR. I can’t find Smith. I need another soldier who will acknowledge my existence. There. The tall soldier moving through the crowd. Easy going. Not the frantic worker-bee buzz of many of the others. Pfc. Mazzole Singeo. Huh? How do you say your name? Singeo.

Singeo’s an island guy. From Palau/Hawaii. I figure I can easily find his tall silhouette in the dark and his island ohana vibe reassures me. Same thing. Hand on his chest. I can’t find JR, the photographer.

We’ll find him. I’ll send someone for him.

I’m out of ideas. And my brain synapses are firing away on multiple decision tress.

I cannot find JR. Nothing I can think of makes sense. He knows the showtime. He’d hear the choppers. He’d ask for help. He’d find the place. Where is he? An alien abduction starts to seem plausible.

I run the scenarios. I cannot–will not–get on a bird without JR. I can only hope that JR would not go on the mission without me. And I believe that to be true, even though I can’t believe that he hasn’t shown for the mission.

The choppers arrive. JR doesn’t.

Cpt. Z.’s soldiers run on and off the Chinook…a practice loading.

Singeo or Smith…I don’t remember now…tells me they’ve found JR. He was in his tent. He was asleep. He’s on his way. Of all the scenarios I’d imagined, JR oversleeping wasn’t one of them.

JR arrives, dragging his backpack. We gather with the other soldiers. He’s just in time to run the loading drill. We run on and off the Chinook. We feel so utterly ill-prepared for this mission. And JR has stuff falling out of his pack and he’s trying to swim up to consciousness like a diver ascending from the deep.

JR is flustered. It’s dark. He needs to pack his ruck. Singeo floats by and helps JR heave the pack on and adjust it.

Smith tells us to get to the back of the line. We’re up against the wall, in the cold rotor wash. He explains what will happen. He’ll count off. We’re at the back. We’ll be the last on, first off. He yells to be heard over the chopper noise and we strain to hear him.

We’ll disembark, run out, drop to a knee and wait for the helicopter to leave. I’ll pass by and do a count. Then we’ll move out.

We spend an hour huddled against the wall. Mechanical problems with one of the escort helicopters. Our 0430 departure arrives just before 0600.

The delay gives JR time to collect himself. And I get to quiet my screaming synapses.

Smith and Singeo are both tracking us.

On command, we run to the Chinook. We’re neither in the front nor the back, but we’re on the bird. We’re on the mission.

And we are sitting next to each other. JR reaches out and holds my hand.

I gotcha.