The idea to embed with the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment started as an invitation at NTC: Come visit us downrange.

As the Snedden Chair last year at University of Alaska Fairbanks, I took three journalism students on an embed when the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team did their final training in the Mojave Desert. JR Ancheta and I traveled with the 1-5. Matt Anderson and Jeric Quilza traveled with the 3-21.

The soldiers kept asking: will you come see us downrange? And Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Payne and others said: Come see us downrange.

At first it was just a thought, though a seed was planted. I finished my year’s appointment and left Alaska in June. I stayed in touch with JR. I had already spent a decade covering conflict in the Middle East and Africa and had no burning desire to return; however, if my student wanted to go, I would go with him. I wanted it to be his decision.

By October 2011, we started putting things in motion: visa for Afghanistan, embed paperwork, running the numbers, weighing the risks and rewards.

I have a few quotes that guide me and inspire me. Goethe seemed the right fit as JR and I slowly put the pieces together for the trip.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, Begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it, Begin it now.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

On Dec. 7, once we had the last piece of our required gear–body armor, thanks to Maj. David Mattox–we bought our tickets. We were on a plane on Dec. 14. Here’s a few notes from my conversation with JR at the Portland Airport before we left for Afghanistan in December:

“I had two hesitations. The financial stress. I’m a college student and this trip might cost me $5000. My safety. I’m going to a war zone and I’m not that fit. A month away I was still having second thoughts. I kept talking to you.”

Eventually, JR decided:

“I’d be crazy not to do it. You either take it and go with it. Or not take it and regret it and I hate that feeling.”

JR had three goals: 1) Stay alive; 2) Make it out in one piece for my family; 3) Make good work.

We ran the numbers and decided to take the risks…all of them: financial, physical, emotional.

JR’s estimate on the financial costs was in the ballpark. Our major expenses were the flight and the medical insurance.

Airfare Portland-Amsterdam-Kuwait City roundtrip: $2200

War/terrorism Medical, Death and Dismemberment Insurance: $1125 for a 30-day embed. (This insurance is required by the military.) JR and I were lucky to find an “affordable” policy through Reporters without Borders.

We caught a military flight from Ali Al Salem in Kuwait to Kandahar Airfield.

The cost of gear is trickier to pinpoint. JR carried at least $10,000 in computer and camera gear, including my $3200 Canon 5-D, which I loaned him for the trip so he could shoot with two camera.

And even though the financial risks were daunting, I had other concerns. I had made a decision to stop covering conflict in 2003. I’d had enough. I had enough friends killed. I’d seen enough carnage and suffering.

I didn’t tell my friends or family I was preparing to go to Afghanistan. In fact, when I finally told one of my friends–once I was in Afghanistan–she said: Hatch, you don’t remember that email you sent me from Eritrea?

No, what email?

The one you wrote after you’d been bombed and you said: What the hell am I doing here? I’m never doing this again.

You said that was the last time.

I didn’t remember the email. I could believe I had said it was the last time.

I’d kept the promise not to return to conflict for more than a decade. And I was more than a bit unsettled that I was about to break it. I don’t believe I have any control over how or when I die…though I do believe the chances we take can catch up with us. And I’ve had too many colleagues who’d stayed in too long. In April, my friend Chris Hondros was killed in Libya, just four months shy of his wedding. He’d been covering the civil unrest in Cairo and decided to cross into Libya. He made that one last trip.

A few days ago I was out with soldiers with the 73rd Engineer Co. on a route clearance mission. He asked about who I worked for. I told him I was an independent journalist.

He said: You paid to come here?

Yep.

I hope you’re making a lot of money.

No. I’m in the hole. JR and I made enough to cover our one month’s insurance. (When I came back a second time, I erased that gain.)

I’m with JR. It’s the chances we don’t take, the things we don’t say, the things we don’t do…that we come to regret.

I’ve been an independent journalist most of my career. It gives me the ability to go where I want to go and do the stories and images I want to do. And that independence can come with a hefty price tag.

For this embed with the 1/25th SBCT, I came for my student. I came for the soldiers and their families. And I came because I’m really good at what I do and I enjoy doing it.

And the ghosts of conflicts past have left me alone for the most part.

The best things in my life don’t have a price tag. The experiences I’ve lived and the people who’ve shared them with me…my broken body, my broken heart…yeah, I’d put the money down again and let it ride.

And I have always figured that I’ve been given this body and this life to have fun and do good works. And whenever it comes time–if there is a question–it’s gonna be: Did you have fun, Cheryl? And did you make a difference?

Yes, I did.

I have dived in deep waters and listened to whales sing. I have danced under stars in a jungle in Mozambique and at a wedding in Somalia. I’ve huddled around a campfire with peshmerga in northern Iraq and watched tracer fire rain down like fireworks. I’ve broken bread with people who had little to give and shared everything they had with me. I’ve watched an Iraqi mother caress the dirt over her dead infant’s fresh grave. I’ve seen a man gunned down in front of me. I’ve given blood for a dying baby in a battered hospital in Mogadishu. I’ve had my life threatened…and my life spared.

I am a witness and a storyteller. I have carried people’s stories from the far corners of the earth.

And now it’s been my privilege to be a mentor to my student. It’s been my privilege to spend time in the company of the earnest, bawdy, brave and dedicated young men and women of the 1/25.

Did you make money? No.

Did you have fun? Yes.

Did you make a difference? Yes.

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