This time last year, JR Ancheta and I landed at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.

I dragged my feet at the beginning of the journey; JR dragged his feet at the end. And in between, we made a journey together–step by step–following in the footsteps of soldiers in the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment of the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska

Tomorrow, JR will fly home to spend this Christmas with his family, and so will many of the soldiers.

It’s a journey that started as a conversation with Maj. David Mattox, a public affairs officer at Fort Wainwright. I was the Snedden Endowed Chair at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, teaching in the journalism department. The students had an opportunity to report on the soldiers as they trained in mock Afghan villages, which led to an invitation to cover their training at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California. JR was one of three students who reported from NTC and his work was published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

At NTC, Ltc. Brian Payne invited us to join them downrange. And the seed was planted.

I completed my teaching and left Alaska in June, though JR and I stayed in touch over the summer; each of us considering the risks and rewards of a self-financed trip to embed with the troops of the 1-5 in southern Kandahar Province.

We took it a step at a time, still wavering on a final decision. We purchased and procured our visas. We submitted our embed paperwork and received clearance. We bought the Death and Dismemberment Insurance ($1150 for 30 days). All that remained was to buy the airplane tickets.

I waited. In my mind, it was JR’s decision. I had spent 10 years covering conflict in the Middle East and Africa and 10 years recovering from those 10 years. I was not entirely eager to return to a war zone. And I didn’t necessarily want JR to want to go.

I had been to war and, for many reasons, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, particularly not someone as young and tender-hearted as JR. At the same time, he was a man and a budding photojournalist and he could make the decision. I knew one thing he couldn’t possibly know–or factor into his decision: once you’ve been to war, you can’t undo it. What you see, what you feel, what you live, it sticks. You can’t shake it.

And that’s why I was dragging my feet. I wasn’t sure why I’d go back. I knew the costs. And frankly, I thought I was tempting the fates. I’d made it out so many times. Going back in seemed like asking for trouble. And I would go with JR if he chose to go.

In early December 2011, JR and I made the decision to go. I purchased the tickets and we met in Portland Airport on Dec. 14. JR called his family from the airport. The hardest part for JR, I believe, was leaving his family, knowing that they would worry.

He passed the cell phone to me. It was his mom. She asked me to keep her son safe. I said I would, hoping I could and knowing that ultimately it was out of my hands. I didn’t call my parents. I’d worried them enough over the years. They did not need to know I’d be spending Christmas in Afghanistan.

We flew to Amsterdam then to Kuwait to catch a military flight to Kandahar. With two hours until our flight, JR called his family again. I caved. I called my parents. I could not fly into Afghanistan without talking to my parents. I was being superstitious.

I think my dad answered. I asked him to put my mom on the other line. Then I told them I was heading to Afghanistan in a couple of hours. I told them I was with a former student and we’d be spending Christmas reporting on the troops.

Looking back, I’m glad I made the call. I’m glad I went to Afghanistan. I’m glad I went with JR.

And I’m glad I could keep my promise to his mother, although I know I didn’t keep him safe.

If you’d like to read our stories from Afghanistan:

http://newsminer.com/view/full_story/16916329/article-The-dog-of-war–Sgt–1st-Class-Zeke-helps-Fairbanks-based-soldiers-deal-with-stress?

http://newsminer.com/view/full_story/16906376/article-Fairbanks-based-Strykers-celebrate-Christmas-while-coping-with-war-in-Afghanistan?

Fairbanks Strykers dealing with air, ground assaults, insurgents, locals in Afghanistan

http://newsminer.com/view/full_story/17030099/article-Fairbanks-Strykers-dealing-with-air–ground-assaults–insurgents–locals-in-Afghanistan?

Female Stryker team making advances in dealing with Afghan women, children

http://newsminer.com/view/full_story/17257258/article-Female-Stryker-team-making-advances-in-dealing-with-Afghan-women–children?

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