Soldiers from Charlie Co., 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment gather near Molla Dust in southern Kandahar Province in Afghanistan at the start of a two-day air assault mission on Dec. 28, 2011. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch All Rights Reserved

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

We leave at 0557 and land at 0608. The touchdown is delicate, lighter than I thought, like dropping onto a comforter.

We spill out the back ramp and into the dark. We drop to one knee and turn away from the churning dust from the rotors of the leaving-us-behind helicopters.

As he promised, Sgt. David Smith comes by in duck-duck-goose fashion and taps us on the shoulder as he counts. My eyes adjust to the tiny hint of dawn on the horizon. I do a full-circle sweep: we are in the wide-open. My mind flashes to Somalia for half a heartbeat: desert, not a shred of cover in any direction. We’re sitting ducks.

Smith returns and repeats the duck-duck-goose process in the opposite direction. I’m feeling vulnerable though encouraged—JR and I got off the bird without tripping or falling. On our risk assessment report card, we’re off to a good start.

The soldiers have formed a circle, on one knee, rifles pointing out. They’ve placed JR and me in the center. We don’t know any of the soldiers and I can’t ID them in the dark. I recognize Pfc. Jamie Sterna, the Female Engagement Team member who’s in the circle center with us. I can recognize Smith’s voice and shape now.

At 0625, Someone directs the group to move. I don’t hear the command. I simply see the soldiers start to move and I follow their lead. I remember Lt. Col. Brian Payne’s instructions: follow in the footsteps of the person in front of you. JR is in front of me so he can photograph the line of soldiers as they move across the open field.

Soldiers from Charlie Co., 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment move out on patrol near Molla Dust in southern Kandahar Province in Afghanistan at the start of a two-day air assault mission on Dec. 28, 2011. Photo by Cheryl Hatch All Rights Reserved

I spend a few minutes concentrating on the footsteps, doing my best to follow the footprints ahead of me. I quickly realize it’s impossible to follow in the footsteps of the person in front of me. That first march in the pre-dawn light is spooky for me. I shake the thought of Somalia then I shake the small charm I’d carried, believing that if I followed a certain path I would be safe. Security, as always, is but an illusion. Like that ghost of Somalia past.

There are 45 Afghan and 45 American soldiers, divided into two groups. Company Commander Capt. Christopher Zagursky, 27, leads one group; Sgt. 1st Class Bryan O’Neal, 27, from Page, Az., leads the other. Zagursky’s team moves toward a “kuchi” village, with a transient population while O’Neal’s team heads toward an abandoned mud hut compound.

At 0700, O’Neal’s patrol has cleared its first objective and has created a casualty collection point. The soldiers set up guards, survey the surroundings, monitor radio transmissions from Zagursky’s patrol and keep a watch on their own patrol as it pushes forward to the next building.

"We've got a couple of creepers, 800, maybe 600 meters," says Pfc. Troy Vacala, left, 28, from San Diego, CA., to his fellow guard, Pfc. Richard Tostado, "Toast," 24, from Tuscon, Az. Vacala and Tostado are members of Charlie Co., 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment on patrol near Molla dust in southern Kandaha Province on Dec. 28, 2011. Photo by Cheryl Hatch All Rights Reserved

The sun is rising and I can now see the faces of the soldiers.

O’Neal approaches. This is the same O’Neal who, 23 hours earlier, brought JR and me rucksacks and showed us how to field strip our MREs and advised us how to pack our gear efficiently.

One thing I forgot to mention, he says. If we should take casualties, you are not allowed to photograph casualties.

No photos of casualties or I will yank your f*ckin film,” O’Neal says. He stands there, arms folded, resting them on top of the rifle that’s strapped across his chest.

JR stands statue-still. He does not move. Doesn’t say a word. He has three cameras strapped around his neck and he’s supporting them with his hands underneath them.

First, JR’s shooting film, so no problem there.

Second, I’m shooting film and….

A drunk Somali rebel commander waving an AK-47, safety off in my face did not get my film. An Egyptian secret police officer who yanked me off the road and held me in a building for an entire afternoon didn’t get my film. Three hopped-up-on-khat Somali boys with AK-47s pointed at my face did not get my film. I’m not liking your chances, soldier.

I haven’t said a word. The response is in my mind at this point. I’m quiet as I run my options. JR still hasn’t moved or said a word.

I won’t let this guy bully me, nor do I want to piss him off too much, since we will be spending the next two days together—and he’s the leader of our merry band. And, he has a rifle.

I’ve read and signed the ground rules and I know what I can and cannot shoot, I say.

If you had your leg blown off and you were bleeding out, would you want someone to take your picture? O’Neal counters.

Again, I consider my possible responses.

I will shoot the picture.

O’Neal turns and walk away. I’m sure he ran his options through his mind, too.

I assess our situation. He didn’t punch me in the mouth, though I imagine he wanted to. And he didn’t stick his rifle in my face, though he might have considered it.

And I didn’t make any new friends. Off to a great start.

Afghan National Army soldiers (background) and American soldiers take positions on the roof during a joint patrol and clearing operation during an two-day air assault mission near Molla Dust in southern Kandahar Province in Afghanistan on Dec. 28, 2011. Photo by Cheryl Hatch All Rights Reserved

NOTE: The embed ground rule regarding photographing casualties is the last one, #21. I’ve included it here. I italicized the relevant sentence for emphasis.

21. Unless otherwise advised by the host unit PAO or commander, the following procedures and policies apply to coverage of wounded, injured, and ill personnel.

(a) Accommodated media will honor the national policies for release of names and identity of soldiers killed and wounded; national policies differ and are beyond the scope of this document. Media who witness the deaths and injuries of coalition service members will not disclose – through video, photos, written or verbal description – the identities of the individuals until the nation has made appropriate notification to the next of kin. Service members will not prohibit news media representatives from viewing or filming casualties. Casualty photographs showing a recognizable face, nametag, or other identifying feature or item will not be used, except as indicated in (1) – (5) below. Media should contact the PAO for release advice.

(b) Media will not be prohibited from covering casualties provided the following conditions are met:

(1) Names, video, identifiable written/oral descriptions or identifiable photographs of wounded service members will not be released without the service member’s prior written consent. If the service member dies of his wounds, next-of-kin reporting rules then apply.

(2) Media visits to medical facilities are authorized and will be conducted in accordance with applicable national regulations, standard operating procedures, operations orders and instructions by attending physicians. If approved, service or medical facility personnel must escort media at all times.

(3) Patient welfare, privacy, and next of kin/family considerations are the governing concerns about news media coverage of wounded, injured, and ill personnel in medical treatment facilities or other casualty collection and treatment locations.

(4) Permission to interview or photograph a patient will be granted only with the consent of the attending physician or facility commander and with the patient’s expressed, informed consent, witnessed by the escort. “Informed consent” means the patient understands his or her picture and/or comments are being collected for news media purposes and they may appear in news media reports.

(5) Accommodated media will not report the identity of personnel who kill or injure opposing forces without the prior approval of COMISAF.

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