It’s the second day of cold, soaking rains in southern Kandahar Province.

We all got up at 0630 and dressed in preparation for our mission…many were secretly or overtly praying that it would be a no-go. At 0800, the company commander made the call. Most soldiers returned to their bunks. Some are smoking and looking out at the gray, dripping skies. A few are in the MWR, where I am now.

I decided to use the down time to catch up on a couple blog posts.

I was rereading old journal entries from my last embed. I made note of a few soldiers I wanted to thank…and those notes hadn’t made it from a private entry to a public one.

As I prepared to leave last time (in mid-January), I thought about our reception as members of the press among the soldiers. And there were many soldiers who I will remember…and thank.

Brigade Commander Col. Todd Wood: for the invitation and ultimately the authorization to join the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team downrange.

Maj. David Mattox: for making Fort Wainwright, its soldiers and their mission accessible to us, in Alaska and Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. Brian Payne (Battalion Commander 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment): for giving us unfettered access in order for the stories about his soldiers to reach their families back home. He put his name on a line and authorized our inclusion on an air assault mission–a personal and professional risk–again on behalf of his soldiers. I was grateful for his trust and deeply impressed–moved actually–by his willingness to take that risk. He said: I’m proud of my soldiers. I’ve got nothing to hide. If the media finds something we’re doing wrong, we can learn from it and correct it.

Command Sgt. Major Ernest Bowen: He’s the quiet guy behind the scenes–unless he finds a soldier exhibiting unprofessional behavior. His door was open–and he made time for us. A first-class guy. He hates latrines and unprofessional conduct…and he’s not the least bit concerned about ticking people off in the course of doing his job. A great role model for me.

Certain soldiers downrange stand out for me.

Sgt. 1st Class David Smith: Charlie Co. He had our backs on the air assault. When things didn’t go according to plan, he stuck with us from the chalk to the Chinook to the compounds they cleared. His South Carolina accent, easy manner and smile were definitely southern comfort on that mission.

Spc. (then Pfc.) Mazzole Singeo: Charlie Co. Another soldier who emerged from the crowd and the scramble on that dark chalk before the air assault. We knew he kept an eye on us–and his clever wit and jokes were a highlight of the two-day mission.

Spc. Malecia James: A member of the Female Engagement Team on the air assault. When we’d find ourselves at the back of the line, James would fall back. She said: Let me fall back so you have a U.S. soldier behind you. She went about the mission with a quiet grace and strength. She won my heart when she refused to give her last pen to the clamoring boys (who’d already acquired several pens) and instead made a point to give the pen to a shy young girl. That’s one small step for girls and one giant leap for the empowerment of women.

Spc. Valerie Cronkhite: A tough, humble medic and member of the Female Engagement Team. We first met her on at NTC–in fact, she’s one of the first people we met. She welcomed us then and she welcomed us again in Afghanistan. She was generous with her time and so proud of her fellow FET members.

Sgt. Tirsa Cole: At Sperwan Ghar (attached to Bravo Co.) A fabulous cook and person. I walked in my first morning in Sperwan Ghar and she asked me if I wanted eggs cooked to order. Her simple offer/gesture stopped me in my tracks and made my day. She serves seasoned, tasty food and her DFAC is always stocked, clean and open.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the soldiers who made an impression.

Soldiers, as a general rule, are not fans of the press. They either have a preconceived idea about the media’s agenda or they’ve been burned or know someone they believe has been burned.

We met soldiers who’ve been friendly, open and welcoming. There are others who mistrust us–and show it with their disdain and derision, by ignoring our questions or our presence.

And there were plenty of soldiers who surprised me by shaking our hands and thanking us for coming and telling their stories to the families back home.

Imagine that: soldiers thanking me for doing my job.

It got to me every time.

I appreciate the thanks.

And I think we all know where the thanks belongs.

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