A promise is a promise

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Last fall, my friend Melanthia asked me when I might return to Seattle.

We’d been colleagues at the Associated Press, where I was a staff photographer and she was a military reporter. I left the job and the state and had returned only periodically. For her wedding. To meet each of her three children. Her youngest is now four and it’s been nearly four years since I’d been back in the Emerald City.

Why, I asked.

I’m going to run the Seattle Rock ‘N’ Roll Half Marathon for my 40th birthday. OK., I said. I’m in. I’ll be there.

I said this in the fall of 2016. I had plenty of time to train. I knew what it would take and I knew I was nowhere near prepared. I had two marathons under my belt; they were both in the distant past. I was lighter, younger and better trained the last time I’d run any distance.

I had gained weight and lost muscle and endurance since I’d returned from Afghanistan in 2011. All my attempts at a return to fitness had fizzled and fallen short of my goals. I’d pushed too hard. I wrestled with too much stress.

I chose a fresh start with a new job in a new state in the fall of 2016. Melanthia and I now live in states that border different oceans on separate coasts, three time zones and a continent apart.

When I set a lofty goal, I draw inspiration from a quote by William Hutchison Murray from his 1951 book entitled The Scottish Himalayan Expedition. (The original of the couplet at the end, which Murray attributes to Goethe, has been debated.)

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”

I had my share of setbacks and excuses to bail. I hung onto the quote and my promise to my friend.

It took me several months to find a place to live. It looks several 20-hour solo roundtrips by car to move my things. By the end of the year, I hadn’t started training. I hadn’t even unpacked.

I had started shedding pounds though. I knew I needed to be lighter if I were going to pound the pavement for 13.1 miles. I started walking and I watched Melanthia’s posted training runs. My trepidation increased with her increasing mileage. I was not matching her miles or dedication.

By April, I still hadn’t run much and I hadn’t bought my airplane ticket. I called Melanthia. I didn’t want to let my friend down and I didn’t want to hold her back.

And yet, a promise is a promise.

Are you doing this? I wanted to know before I booked the ticket. I also wanted her to know that I wouldn’t be a pace-setting partner. I explained that I hadn’t trained enough and I wasn’t as fit as I once was.

We set a simple goal: finish the race. The race rules warn runners that they will be yanked if they don’t finish in under four hours.

I’m going to run-walk, she said. I can can keep pace–and keep her company, I thought. I booked my ticket.

Yesterday we picked up our race bibs and packets.

See you at the finish line.






Keep playing your game no matter what anyone says


From my weekly column Outside the Box, in The Meadville Tribune

Two Sundays ago, I watched the Allegheny women’s soccer team win the NCAC Division III championship at Robertson Field. I’d given my camera to a student who was covering the event and watched her dash down the field to photograph the hugging mob of players and spectators.

A few minutes later, I turned and noticed one player with her legs and arms wrapped around a man, hugging him tightly as he spoke in her ear. I lifted the only camera I had, my iPhone 4s, and recorded the moment—two frames.

I approached the young woman, wearing the No. 20 jersey, and asked her name. Brianna Layman. The man? Her father, Jeff Layman. Ever the curious journalist seeking—perhaps sensing—a story, I asked her about the moment I’d photographed.

“He was giving me a kiss and telling me how proud he was of me and how far I’d come,” Layman said.

How far you’d come?

In fifth grade, Layman explained, she had a coach when she was younger who told her soccer wasn’t her game.

“He just didn’t think I had any talent in soccer but soccer was what I wanted to do, so I kept playing.”

Before she left to see other family members and gather more hugs, I asked for her phone number. I might want to follow up with more questions.

I couldn’t get her story out of my head. As I pursued the story, I interviewed the team captain, Michelle Holcomb, a senior. She, too, had a coach who didn’t believe in her abilities on the pitch.

“You’re just not cut out to play competitive soccer,” Holcomb said, reciting her coach’s words. “Every one of us on this field has a story like that.”

I thought of my own parallel experiences with people in positions of authority or influence who had cast doubt or dumped buckets of cold-water negativity on my dreams and aspirations.

I imagine we’ve all encountered people who have offered us unsolicited, often uncharitable, advice. They seek to define us, shape us with their limiting words and narrow vision. They tell us what we can’t do. They tell us how we’re lacking in some way, missing the mark, falling short.

Too tall. Too short. Too young. Too old. Too soon. Too late.

Women don’t do that. Or worse, women can’t do that. Boys don’t do that. You don’t have the right training. You don’t come from the right family. You don’t have enough money. You’re not creative enough. You’re not smart enough.

When I was nearing college graduation, I was looking for an internship. I found a great opportunity: a Pulliam Fellowship. There were 10 positions each at two different papers, one in Phoenix, Ariz., one in Indianapolis, Ind. Paid summer fellowships with mentoring on a major metropolitan paper. I wanted one.

I showed my adviser the fellowship application. He told me I’d never get it. He told me I didn’t have the experience or the pedigree for such a lofty program. He told me that fellowship was for students who’d already had internships at USA Today, The New York Times or The Washington Post.

I applied. I earned one of the 10 spots at The Arizona Republic.

When I arrived, I learned I’d received the top, coveted spot on the state desk. I was naïve; I didn’t understand the implications. My fellow fellows wanted to know how someone like me—with no prior impressive internships—got the spot.

I asked my editor.

I had first choice, he said. I read your résumé. You speak multiple languages. You scuba dive. You fly planes. You’re an athlete. I knew I could send you anywhere and you’d come back with a story.

My editor didn’t look at what I didn’t have; he looked at what I did have. He read between the lines—and yes, thought outside the box. He saw my potential and gave me the opportunity and confidence to stretch as a young journalist, to grow, to channel my curiosity and chase stories wherever they led.

A good journalist is curious. A good journalist is persistent. A good journalist rarely takes no for an answer.

And champions, like Layman and Holcomb, refuse to let anyone tell them what they can and can’t do.

As a college athlete, I remember well our final day at the Pac-10 Rowing Championships. We were eight rowers lying on our backs in circle, heads facing in, the bare soles of our feet pointed out. With closed eyes, we listened as our coxswain described our race and we visualized every stroke—visualized crossing the finish line first.

The coach of the team we’d soon meet in the finals approached. He mentioned how nice it was for us to be at the competition then hinted that we were wasting our time since his team was favored to win.

Psychologically super uncool. Not to mention discourteous and unsportsmanlike. And intended to get under our skin and unhinge us.

It made me want to beat his team.

In crew, when a team wins a race, each member of the losing team literally gives the winner the shirt off her back.

I still have the shirt from the woman rowing three-seat on that favored-to-win crew team.

I wouldn’t have had half the fun or achieved much of what I’ve done in my life if I’d listened to others when they tried to define me, deny me, dissuade me.

It’s my life. I’ll live it. You live your life. And be blessed living it. It’s yours to define.

Take a cue from the fifth-grade Brianna Layman. Keep playing your game, no matter what anyone says.

And take inspiration from the college sophomore and NCAC champion Brianna Layman.

“Succeeding feels so much better when you prove people wrong.”

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.


An Army of Acronyms: UAF Students Embed with the 1-25th Stryker Brigade, Part 2

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We arrived at Fort Irwin, California, Thursday afternoon (Feb. 17, 2011) and Gus, PAO, (Public Affairs Officer) gave us our press passes and a lift to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Denver, “In the Box” at the NTC, (National Training Center).

Here’s the mission statement for the NTC featured on a brochure: “The NTC provides tough, realistic joint and combined arms training in interagency, intergovernmental and multinational venues across the full sprectrum of conflict in order to prepare brigade combat teams for combats.”

The brochure offers more explanation of the training: “This is as real as it gets short of war. 12 villages and 2000 role players, 250 of which are actual Iraqi nationals, all threaded together with detailed scenario scripts. Our mountains also conceal seven tunnel complexes. (Afghanistan Terrain Replication.)

When we reached FOB Denver, Maj. Joel Anderson, the new PAO for the 1-25th SBCT (Stryker Brigade Combat Team), was unavailable, tied up in meetings with Brigade Commander Col. Todd Wood and other leaders on the eve of the commencement of “full spectrum exercises.” Full spectrum exercises are the “scenario,” where the soldiers drop into a week of role-playing, acting as if they are in Afghanistan, conducting KLEs (Key Leader Engagements) and other counterinsurgency activities. All the participants wear MILES, a vest with a system of sensors that react to an infrared beam. If a soldier is “tagged,” he or she is a casualty in the role playing.

Over the course of our four nights and three days “in the box,” soldiers frequently mistook us for “role players.” They would ask if we were “in the scenario” or “in play” and we would assure them we were actual, real, legitimate journalists covering the training. We were not pretending to be journalists.

On Friday, we waited hours to be assigned to a unit for our embed. Eventually, we were given a tour of the TOC (Tactical Operations Center), a high security, high-tech command center where no cameras, cell phones—or journalists, usually, are permitted.

During our embed, our vocabulary of acronyms and understanding of the Army’s unique language improved.

We had meals in the DFAC (Dining Facility.) As a kid growing up in the military, we called it the mess tent or chow hall. We moved to a COB (Combat Operating Base) near a mock Afghan village, Erbat-Shar. We spent 24 hours with the soldiers of Third Platoon, Bravo Company, 1-5 Infantry Battalion on their QRF (Quick Reaction Force) rotation.

On two separate occasions, the QRF was called to respond to an incident involving an IED (Improvised Explosive Device.) On the first mission, we escorted an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Detail) to the site of the IED. When our Stryker gunner spotted an unknown vehicle, we pursued. He told us to prepare for a bumpy ride. The soldier across from me said: “Did anyone teach you what to do if a Stryker rolls?”

No. He said we need to shove our forearm forcefully behind the knees of the nearest soldier standing at the back of the vehicle. Two soldiers protrude from separate hatches and serve as eyes and guns for the vehicle. They risk being crushed if the vehicle rolls.

Throw your arm behind his knees so the knees buckle. Then grab him and drag him inside the vehicle. Once the two soldiers are in the Stryker, put your arms up and brace yourself.

The Stryker roll drill. Good to know. The “bad guy” got away and we reduced speed and returned to FOB King, home of the 1-5 Infantry “Bobcats.”

During the down time between missions, the troops shared Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) and stories. We learned the vegetarian omelette is universally loathed. I tried it. It has the consistency of Silly Putty and smells..well, the smell is indescribable..and not in a good way.

When we left “the box,” we had an MP (Military Police) escort.

This blog post is intended only as an introduction to the Army’s acronyms and the story of our embed experience. I’ll continue to add posts and photos. It’s been a month since we returned and this post will serve as priming the pump for future storytelling.

In the Box: UAF Students Embed with 1-25th Stryker Brigade, Part 1

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University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism students JR Ancheta, from left, Jeric Quiliza and Matt Anderson pose for a photo at Fort Irwin, Calif. before they leave for their embed with the 1-25th Stryker Brigade in the Mojave Desert on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2011. The students spent four nights and three days embedded during "full spectrum" training exercises in the Mojave Desert. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

An access pass hangs on the rear view mirror of the public affairs vehicle that carries the UAF students to the National Training Center in a restricted area in the Mojave Desert. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

Note: This is the first of a series of posts about a trip by University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism students and Snedden Chair Cheryl Hatch, who participated in an embed with soldiers from the 1-25th Stryker Brigade, based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. The soldiers spent a month in training exercises in the Mojave Desert, designed to prepare them for their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. The UAF College of Liberal Arts and the Snedden Endowment provided the funds to cover the travel expenses (flights, rental car, gas) for the trip from Fairbanks to Fort Irwin, Calif.

Bright and early Friday morning, our first day “in the box,” we met with Col. Todd Wood, commander of the 1-25th Stryker Brigade, in the Tactical Operating Center, a series of connected tents, in Forward Operating Base Denver in the Mojave Desert. He welcomed us, answered questions and assured us we would have unfettered access to the soldiers and their training.

The students walked out of the tent and into the sunshine. Inspired by their access to the colonel, they were excited to get to work. The colonel rolled away in a Stryker convoy for a meeting with provincial Afghan leaders.

And we spent the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon waiting for our rides, waiting to embed.  Over the next few hours, we had several test runs at embedding. We’d run and gather our gear for an imminent departure, only to learn plans had changed. We rearranged our two-person reporting teams several times. At one point, we had Options A, B, C and D.

UAF journalism students (from left) JR Ancheta, Matt Anderson and Jeric Quilza pose for a photo with Col. Todd Wood, commander of the 1-25th Stryker Brigade, after an interview in the Tactical Operating Center at Forward Operating Base Denver on Friday, Feb. 18, 2011. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

By early afternoon, Matt Anderson, a reporter, and Jeric Quiliza, who’d be shooting video, embedded with the 3-21 Infantry Battalion, “The Gimlets.” They piled into a Stryker, the ramp closed and the convoy headed southeast toward the scenario’s Pakistani border.

Photojournalist JR Ancheta and I eventually embedded with the 1-5 Infantry Battalion,  “The Bobcats.” We met Lt. Col.. Brian Payne, the commander, late Friday afternoon when he and his soldiers returned from a successful mission after recovering a missing United States State Department official. A mission we’d missed because we were sitting in an office, waiting.

We were upset we’d missed the story. He was upset, too. We learned that Payne had sent a convoy through a “kill zone” earlier in the day to pick us up, only to be told we had left with another unit. We assured him we’d been waiting for them and had been told they’d left without us. Due to a series of miscommunications, he’d unintentionally put his soldiers at risk and stranded a reporting team.

A lesson learned, Payne said.

Learning from mistakes is an essential part of training, for the soldiers at the National Training Center and the students embedded with them.

The military has its own culture:  its language, its customs and its terrain are just as foreign to the student journalists as Afghanistan’s culture is to the soldiers.

Over the four nights and three days of the embed experience, the students and soldiers learned they share common ground. As the soldiers seek to conduct an effective counterinsurgency campaign, they learn they need to establish rapport with local Afghans. They learn to establish trust and build relationships. All the while, they maintain situational awareness and adapt to any changes.

The students had to do the exact same things—build rapport, created relationships and adapt to changing circumstances—to work within the military culture and constraints to bring home stories for their readers.

UAF photojournalism student JR Ancheta, from left, photographs the silhouettes of Spc. Mike Blalock, UAF reporter Matt Anderson, Snedden Chair Cheryl Hatch and UAF videographer Jeric Quiliza on a tent at Forward Operating Base Denver in the National Training Center, "the box," on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch