I had wanted to visit the Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield since JR Ancheta and I had arrived in Afghanistan. The public affairs office hadn’t been able to arrange it on our way into country, so I was insistent we visit before we left. Col. Todd Wood, commander of the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, visited the combat hospital in mid-January, just before he went on leave.

“Every leader, commander soldier [knows] if we can get a soldier here, that soldier’s going to be OK,” Wood said, addressing the hospital staff after touring the facility. “You are our angels. Thank you for what you do. Thank you for your service.”

After Wood left, I extended our stay an extra day in hopes of spending time in the facility. I had worked within the system and gotten nowhere. I wrote Cdr. Todd Stein, an ICU nurse and the public affairs officer, an email and appealed for access. He invited me to visit the following afternoon.

JR didn’t want to go. I told him I was going…and headed toward the hospital, about four blocks from the Media Support Center where we were staying. JR is a go-getter who usually dives into opportunities with gusto. Each time I looked back, he was further and further behind, literally dragging his feet. At one point, he was a full two blocks behind me.

Stein met us and told me there were two soldiers, not Strykers, who had been wounded in separate IED explosions. He said they didn’t like the press and probably wouldn’t talk to me. I asked to be introduced. JR opted to stay outside the ICU.

Pfc. Rex Tharp, 20, from North Manchester, IN, recovers in the ICU of the Role 3 Combat Hospital at Kandahar Airfield. Tharp knelt on a pressure plate IED during a patrol. His injuries required a below the knee amputation on his right leg. He's a member of Charlie Co. of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment of the Third Brigade based at Fort Drum, N.Y. Copyright 2012 JR Ancheta

There were two soldiers in side-by-side beds. In the bed across from them was an eight-year-old Afghan girl, severely burned in an explosion that killed her family.

I walked to the soldier who was awake in the far bed and introduced myself to Pfc. Rex Tharp, 20, from North Manchester, IN. I told him about our embed and following the Stryker soldiers from Fort Wainwright, Ak. I asked how he was doing.

“I’m feeling fine,” he said. “These guys are taking really good care of me.”

We talked about his tattoos.

He has a wolf, which he considers a totem, symbolizing power, strength, cunning and courage.

“My bloodline is from the Trail of Tears,” he said, explaining his family’s history.

He told me that he is a member of Charlie Co. of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment of the Third Brigade based at Fort Drum, N.Y.

Then he told me his story.

“We were helping 4-25 at Combat Outpost Kundar Ghar,” he said. “They had a strong point abut a klick away from the COP. We would do patrol from the SP.”

“We walked about 150 meters. We were about halfway through the formation,” Tharp said, explaining that they were walking past a wall. “Mille (his team leader) and Russell (the Squad Automatic Weapon gunner) had walked past the wall. I got up to the wall and turned around to give security. As soon as I took a knee…Boom.

“Mille had heard a boom and he came running,” said Tharp of his acting team leader, lying in the next bed. “There was a secondary. I’m guessing mine was a pressure plate.”

They speculate that the IED that Spc. Joe Mille hit was a command wire IED, designed to be detonated when a soldier comes to the aid of another.

“I’m just wondering if I can stay in the Army,” said Mille, who plans a career as a soldier.

About this time, JR entered the room. I introduced him to Tharp. I told him that JR is from Alaska. Tharp said that his buddy, Mille, was also from Alaska.

“JR Ancheta, you went to my high school,” Mille said when JR turned to face him. “JR Ancheta, what the f*ck are you doing in Afghanistan?”

Photographer JR Ancheta holds the hand of Spc. Joe Mille, 20, from Galloway, NJ, in the Role 3 International Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on Wed., Jan. 11, 2012. Mille and his buddy Pfc. Rex Tharp, 20, from North Manchester, Ind., were injured in separate IED explosions while on patrol and suffered below the knee amputations of both their right legs. In the ICU, Joe turned and looked at JR and said: JR Ancheta, what the f*ck are you doing in Afghanistan? Ancheta and Mille attended Sitka High School (Alaska) and the same church together. Ancheta gave him a rosary from the chapel at KAF. Both soldiers are based at Fort Drum, Ky. and serve with Charlie Co. 3rd Brigade 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

JR shifted to Mille’s bedside and held the soldier’s left hand. They had attended Sitka High School together. Ancheta had been a senior when Mille was a freshman. He placed a rosary he’d picked up at the chapel in Mille’s hand.

Mille told what he remembered of the explosions.

“I was acting team leader,” Mille said. “This mission was walk south just a little bit and check out this village. We crossed this open field. Came to a wall with an opening. I made it through the opening, which is why I think it was a command wire.

“I was about halfway into the courtyard. I heard a boom. Just dust and rock and shit thrown at me. I could hear him [Tharp.] I ran really. Tharp–I was yelling his name and another boom and I realized I just stepped on another IED.

“I remember a twirl in the air. I ended up on my ass,” Mille said. “My left leg was broken. I didn’t get to see my right leg. I tried moving it and toes and there was no response. I came to terms with I just lost my foot.

“All I could think was my career was done. The pain settled in and I let the pain take me away.”

He called his mom in New Jersey and told her “I’m not dead.”

“I’m 20 years old,” Mille said. “I could have gone to college, live that life only. I wanted to join the Army. Some would say that’s a hard life. I thought it was rewarding. My father’s in the Coast Guard.

“I’m gonna get a prosthetic leg and I’ll be rolling back to Afghanistan shortly.”

Spc. Joe Mille poses for a portrait with his Purple Heart in the Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield. Mille and Pfc. Rex Tharp were injured in an IED blast in Kanadahar Province Jan. 10, 2011. Tharp hit the first IED and his team leader Mille, was running to his aid when hitting a second IED. Both soldiers suffered below the knee amputations on their right leg. The Quilt of Valor was a giftfrom a ladies' group in Maine: pieced by Dorothy Brown from Mild, Maine. and stitched by Meg Bonney from Livermore Falls, Maine. Copyright 2012 JR Ancheta

Mille went in and out of sleep. He was still groggy and medicated from his surgery.

“I had a dream,” Mille said. “I woke up. It’s not a dream.”

Tharp remained alert and talkative.

“It’s pretty crazy that you know Mille,” Tharp said to JR. “It’s a small world.”

Mille kept asking for his uniform.

“The uniform I was wearing. Did we already throw it away,” he asked one of the nurses. “I was kind of hoping to have the IR flag. It was on a friend along with my race bracelet, the KIA bracelet.”

The soldiers were polite to everyone. Tharp and Mille continually thanked the nurses and doctors for taking care of them.

Mille had another request. He asked JR to call his girlfriend, Hillary, in Sitka. He didn’t want her to worry. He wanted her to hear the story from a friend. In his foggy state, he recited Hillary’s cell phone number from memory.

We promised we’d call her as soon as we got back to the Media Support Center.

We stayed with the soldiers until the flight crew arrived to take them to Bagram and then onto Germany.

I held Tharp’s hand, kissed his forehead. JR held Mille’s hand until he decided he’d shoot photos again. I kissed Mille’s forehead and promised him we’d call Hillary before he reached Bagram.

“It’s nice to see you JR,” Mille said. “It’s nice to see a familiar face.”

Photographer JR Ancheta, left, holds the hand of Spc. Joe Mille, 20, from Galloway, N.J. in the Role 3 International Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on Wed., Jan. 11, 2012 while U.S. Navy Capt. Mary Blose, 53, of St. Paul, Minn, checks on him. Mille and his buddy Pfc. Rex Tharp, 20, from North Manchester, Ind., were injured in separate IED explosions while on patrol and suffered below the knee amputations of both their right legs. JR and Joe attended Sitka High School (Alaska) and the same church together. Both soldiers are based at Fort Drum, Ky. and serve with Charlie Co. 3rd Brigade 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

Note: Both soldiers are now outpatients at a facility in Bethesda, Maryland. You can find them both on Facebook. Rex Tharp and Joe Mille. Mille proposed to Hillary when she visited him at the hospital. No wedding date is set yet.

If you want to learn more, here are links to stories about JR and Joe meeting in Role 3.

In the News-Miner, picked up from the Daily Sitka Sentinel.

Alaska Public Radio

KCAW public radio in Sitka, Alaska

The Sitka community held a benefit dinner and desert auction to raise funds for Spc. Joe Mille.

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