Behind in the count

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I told a fellow blogger that I’d support her commitment to write 31 blog posts in 31 days. Tia Sunshine Dye is the wife of a soldier with the 1-5 Infantry of the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. She’s a mom, a military wife and a writer. Here’s a link to her blog.

Writers often work in solitude and sometimes wrestle words to get them on a page….or into a blog post. I offered to match Tia’s efforts as a sign of support and solidarity–and as a way to spark my own writing.

Today is October 9 and I’ve posted six entries on my blog to date. I had originally intended to write a post a day. Clearly, I missed that mark. Now I intend to honor the 31 posts in 31 days.

I wanted to thank those of you who are reading, commenting and encouraging me. I appreciate it.

As a photojournalist and a fan, I’ve seen plenty of batters knock home runs when they’re behind in the count. I’ve seen tennis players and golfers rally to take championships. As a rower, I’ve been in an eight that came from behind more than once to win a race.

I’m behind in the count.

And I’m not counting myself out.

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31 days

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Tia Sunshine Dye started a blog, Military Wife Theology 101, and she declared that she would write and post every single day in October. Tia is the wife of Maj. Jason Dye, with the the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1-5 Infantry Battalion, stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.

She started reading my blog when I was embedded with the 1-5 in southern Kandahar province in December 2011 and February/March 2012. She was always gracious with feedback and comments. On cold winter nights in the dark mud hut where I wrote and filed my stories and blogs, her words and those of others who wrote and thanked me for my posts encouraged me to continue.

I decided to support Tia in her commitment to write daily for 31 days. I committed to do the same. It sounds easy. In reality and in practice, I know it’s not as easy as it seems. For example, it’s almost 2100 now. I’ve had a full day of work and it’s not even a teaching day for me. I still have a stack of papers to grade. If I hadn’t made a commitment to Tia, I would have easily skipped my writing and gone straight to reading my students’ writing.

This past weekend I made a list with two columns. One column I titled “Things to Do for Me” and the other I titled “Things to Do for Others.” On my list, there were three items. Those same three items have been on my list for a few weeks. On my others list, there were 20 items. I made good progress on the tasks I needed to do for my work and no progress whatsoever on the items that would nourish and serve me. I even missed on opportunity to apply for a job that interested me.

I’m hoping by honoring this commitment to support Tia in her writing, I will support my own writing.

And, in turn, I will support and honor myself.

From a soldier’s grandfather

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I haven’t posted in a while and I wanted to offer a brief explanation to my faithful and supportive readers.

I left the hospital in Kuwait and returned to the States for a job interview in Tennessee then to Oregon briefly then on to Fairbanks. I returned to Fairbanks to finish the story I’d started in the fall of 2010. JR and I attended an awards ceremony for Charlie Company (1-5, 1/25 SBCT.) We attended the 1-5 military ball and STOMP (Salute to Our Military Parade) when the soldiers from the entire brigade marched through downtown Fairbanks on Saturday, May 12. We also attended the change of command and redeployment ceremony and the  memorial service for the 21 soldiers killed in Afghanistan (on May 16.) On Thursday morning, May 17, JR and I covered the Wounded Warrior Walk. On May 18, the first soldiers (from 1-5) left on block leave.

Barely 10 days out of the hospital, I was physically and emotionally drained at the end of the week. I wasn’t exactly following my doctors’ orders to rest and recover.

I’m taking some time for myself…and giving my body the respect and time to heal that she deserves. She fought quite valiantly to keep me on this planet (with the help of a lot of fine doctors and nurses and the love, support and prayers of my family, friends and strangers.)

I have one journalist friend who told me she doesn’t write a blog because it’s giving her talent away, i.e. an unpaid gig.

This project was never a commercial venture for JR and me. Of course, we wanted to get paid and have our work published and I pitched our work relentlessly to newspapers, radio stations and magazines. We wanted to do good work and share it. We knew it would be a long shot to even cover our costs–we didn’t–not even close. This is not necessarily an approach I would recommend, though JR and I accepted all the risks of pursuing our project, including the financial ones. I went in with my eyes wide open. My heart broke open as I spent time with the soldiers, as they trusted me with their stories. Those shared moments and the soldiers’ trust are priceless.

As we continued the project, JR and I shared our work…with 1LT Formica for the 1-5 Facebook page he created. We both sent photos by email to loved ones until we were unable to keep pace with the requests.

We came to value the impact our work had on those left behind. Soldiers sent JR’s photos to their loved ones and posted them on Facebook. I received messages from family members telling me how much they appreciated my posts, that the stories and personal insights I was sharing gave them a glimpse into the lives of the soldiers they loved. Those messages sustained me and inspired me to write, even when I was cold or tired or sick in a hospital bed.

Here’s a message I received from a solider’s grandfather (a retired soldier) at the end of April while I was still in the hospital.

UNCLASSIFIED
Cheryl,  great to hear from you. I have been reading your blogs from Afghanistan for several months they are extremely well written and insightful. The story about the cold computer cafe brought back memories of my own time in Iraq.  I noticed that you indicated you had photos of the Soldiers  of the 1st Bn 5th Inf Reg.  Starting with their training in California. My Grandson was with that unit.  He was originally assigned to B Co 1/5 then while in Afghanistan he was transferred to A Co 1/5 and redeployed with that unit. I along with his mother and sister flew to Fairbanks from Harrisburg Pa. to welcome him home on the 13th of April. If there ever was a lucky 13 it was that day.

If you could look through your photos and possibly identify him and fwd them to me I would greatly appreciate it.  Let me know the cost before shipment so I can forward the money to you.

His name is PFC (now SP4) Dan McGlone. I begged him to take some photos of himself but his modesty got in the way.

From your blogs it sounds like you have lead a very interesting life, I see you and a welcome home to your father.

Thanks for your service to the Soldiers of the 1/5th.

DJM

His kindness and support continued in a second message.

Cheryl ,  yes,  please share my comments.     

Dan transferred to A Co  in late February, he was in the Panjawa’i  area.  He told me he was on the Air Assault mission. Your blog referenced that mission. 

I prayed every day for his safe return and the safe return for the soldiers he was with, he did return to Fairbanks safely.
He of course at 21 years of age is immortal and doesn’t think of what could happen.  He survived Afghanistan but he bought a motorcycle so now can he survive Fairbanks streets.   

I hope your hospital stay is over and your well once again.  You have done a great service to the families of  units of the 1/5th.  Perhaps you could create a CD with all the blogs and pictures on it and make it available to the families, for a  price of course.  Even if a family’s Soldier picture does not appear, the written record of your travels will serve as a historical record for the Soldiers and their families.

Congratulations to your Dad, 30 years of service is quite an accomplishment.  Between active duty, National Guard and the Army Reserve I had 38 years, Split mainly between Army Reserve as a Combat Engineer and National Guard and Reserve as an Military Police.   However, service to our county comes with a price.  That price is time with our families that can never be recaptured.  I’m sure your father feels the same way.  How lucky he and I were to have families that supported our career choices. 

I thanked him for his kind words and asked his permission to repost his comments, which he granted. It’s unfortunate that neither JR nor I has located any photos of his grandson.

I haven’t felt like writing lately. When I’m rested, I’ll write again. I have plenty more stories and photos to share.

For now, the voices of my seafaring ancestors, a wide ocean and an island shore with gorgeous surf are calling me.

Remembering Memorial Day: A conversation

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My friend Jeanene asked me to speak on her radio program that she intended to be a conversation about Memorial Day in advance of this weekend’s day of remembrance.

After two months in Afghanistan, three weeks in a Kuwaiti hospital and traveling halfway around the globe, I exhaust easily. And I’ve noticed my emotions are raw. I was concerned I wouldn’t make it through the conversation. I was afraid I wouldn’t be articulate. I was afraid I’d cry. Frankly, at first, I didn’t want to do it…and I didn’t want to disappoint my friend.

It was another opportunity to share stories of the soldiers of the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, particularly the soldiers of the 1-5. So I accepted.

It was a thoughtful and emotional conversation not a political one. At the start of the program, Jeanene said: “I think it’s really important to distinguish the concept of war from our recognition of the warrior. Because while it’s meaningful to debate the virtues or lack of virtues for any given war, it’s not OK with me to debate the virtue of the those killed in action….I don’t ever confuse a political action, which is declaring war, with that very scared action of giving up one’s life.”

At :36.40 until :38.58 in the one-hour program, I read the 21 names of the soldiers from the 1/25th who did not return from Afghanistan.

I invite you to listen to the conversation and start conversations with your friends and families about the meaning of Memorial Day.

Below, I’ve included a link and Jeanene’s description of the intention of the program. Thank you for listening. Thank you for remembering.

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/coffeepartyusa/2012/05/24/louden-clear-with-jeanene-louden-thursdays-at-230-et

This week is a special Memorial Day conversation with journalist Cheryl Hatch, just back after an embed with an Army battalion in Afghanistan where she documented the lives of soldiers before, during, and after deployment. Her years of being in and out of war zones, plus a childhood of waiting for her father to come home from two tours in Vietnam, have brought forth a body of work called THE COST OF CONFLICT. This insightful collection of images capturing what war leaves behind, combined with her reverence and respect for military personnel and their families, should help set the tone for a thoughtful and meaningful Memorial Day Holiday.

Very superstitious

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After two months embedded in Afghanistan and 19 days in a hospital in Kuwait, I was packing to return to the States last week. I was practicing the out-with-the old-in-with -the-new approach.

I threw away nearly everything I’d worn in Afghanistan. My three Hane’s men’s v-neck white t-shirts were irrevocably dirty. I tossed one pair of torn pants and kept the other though they’d grown too big (not a bad thing.) I’d toss them when I could replace them. I’d already lost my favorite wool hat that I purchased at the Farmer’s Market in Newport, Oregon in the fall 2010 when my brother visited me from Germany.

Next, I packed the sweet Donna Karan party dress I’d purchased especially for the !st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment ball. I added a couple new dresses and several pair of new shoes, including a gorgeous pair of Michael Kors heels, again for the ball.  (Thanks to Sarah for the shopping excursions and encouragement to “Just try it on.”) After wearing trousers, dirt and body armor, I was looking forward to putting on heels, skirts and dresses again.

When I had everything packed, I looked in the closet and discovered my sweater. My friend Jeanene had given me the sweater in Oregon a few years ago. I always seem to be in denial about the cold and don’t dress appropriately. She bought it for a few bucks at Good Will.

It’s not an attractive piece of clothing. It’s beige, bulky and tattered with holes. It makes me look eight-months pregnant when I wear it.. But it’s warm, made of a blend of wool and silk. And it was so cold in Afghanistan, I wore it all the time.

I wore it on every patrol under my body armor. At the end of my first month-long embed, Spc. Valerie Cronkhite, a medic and member of the Female Engagement Team, remarked that I’d been lucky. She noted that I’d been out on many missions and traveled significantly in Strykers and helicopters and hadn’t had any contact: no small arms fire, no IEDs. We had returned safely from every trip, every patrol. Her comment stuck with me.

On my second embed, the weather warmed and I continued to wear the sweater…at first, out of habit.

One day at Khenjakak, I was putting on my gear for a patrol with 3rd Platoon, Charlie Co. It was hot. I decided not to wear the sweater. I put the body armor over my t-shirt and left the Khenjakak Resort. I took about three steps and stopped. It didn’t feel right, not wearing the sweater. I didn’t want to risk the run of good fortune–not just for me, but for all the soldiers I was accompanying on patrol. It was a strong impulse…so I turned around, returned to the tent and put on my sweater.

I would not have thought I was superstitious. I remember covering the civil war in Liberia and the soldiers wore “gris-gris,” decorative bands of twisted hemp that they said made them bulletproof and invisible. I thought they were deluded…and dangerous.

I had talked with many soldiers about things they carried and rituals they might observe before patrols. (Inspired by one of my favorite books, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien.)

Sgt. Robert Taylor, of 3rd Platoon, C Co., often carried a Vallon and took point on patrols. He repeated a specific prayer he created before every patrol. Spc. Mazzole Singeo, of 3rd Platoon, C. Co., also carried a Vallon. He said he told himself every time that he’d come back safe and he’d bring his soldiers back to their families. And he did.

Soldiers carried photos of their loved ones. One had a locket with his girlfriend’s picture. Another wore a grandmother’s cross. They carried tokens from their loved ones, tucked in a pocket or wore them around their necks.

I carried photos, too. Of my niece and nephew, so I could look at their bright smiles on the dark days. A photo of my mom holding me as a newborn, to feel all that beaming love when I felt alone.

And the sweater, go figure. I could not let go of that sweater. I tried to leave it in Kuwait. At the last minute, I stuffed it in my duffel bag with the body armor. I tried to ditch it in Oregon. Right now it simply feels wrong, ignoble, to abandon the sweater when it had served me so well.

In the end, when it’s came to following in the soldiers’ footsteps in Afghanistan, I became very superstitious. I’m keeping the sweater.

And, of course, I know it’s not the sweater that protected me. Life wrapped her arms around me and blessed me.

And the soldiers of the 1-5  took responsibility for me and shouldered that burden with good humor (most of the time.)

They took me along with them and brought me back, every time.

Thank you.

Military Moms

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Last year I did a story on military moms for Mother’s Day for KUAC public radio in Fairbanks, Alaska.

I interviewed my mother and wives and soldiers of the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team at Fort Wainwright.

My mother raised four children, often alone, weathering my father’s many absences, including two tours in Vietnam. It’s remarkable how similar her comments and experiences are to the mothers of a new generation of Army wives and soldiers.

The “Arctic Wolves” soldiers returned last month from their year-long deployment in Afghanistan.

The story remains timely so I decided to share it today, Mother’s Day 2012.

Click on this link then press the arrow on the play bar to hear the piece.

http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/kuac/news.newsmain/article/1/0/1800777/KUAC.Local.News/

Christian Science Monitor publishes photos of the 1-5 Female Engagement Team

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The Christian Science Monitor published 19 of my photos of soldiers of the Female Engagement Team attached to the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment in an online gallery. Check out the images and the amazing work these women do at this link: http://www.csmonitor.com/Photo-Galleries/In-Pictures/Soft-power-soldiers-women-troops-in-Afghanistan. A two-page photo essay will run in the May 7 edition of the international newspaper.

For you camera buffs and photo fans, you might like to know I made all these images with a Canon Elph point-and-shoot camera.

I couldn’t have accomplished this project without a lot of support from a lot of people. First, the women attached to the 1-5 FET team: Spc. Valerie Cronkhite, Spc. Malecia James, Pfc. Jamie Sterna, Pvt. Liliana Nunez, language assistant Mary and Sgt. 1st Class Miriam Lopez. They let me follow them on patrol, during PT and in their tents and during their downtime. LTC Brian Payne, battalion commander, brigade PAO Maj. David Mattox, battalion PAO Anthony Formica helped me get the access I needed to do the project. The soldiers of Bravo and Charlie Companies had my back on patrol.

When I was critically ill and hospitalized in Kuwait, CSM Director of Photography Alfredo Sosa extended my deadline and wished me a speedy recovery.

I completed the project from my hospital bed.  I couldn’t have done it with the assistance of Ali and Sarah. Ali got me a laptop and wi-fi so I could work in the hospital. Sarah sent the original email to Alfredo informing him of my situation; I was too out of it to do it. She came to visit me every one of my 19 days in the hospital and encouraged me to finish the project. Leah and Selma offered hugs and praise.

My parents checked on me every day. And so many people offered love and prayers. I truly could not have completed this project without all the love and support of so many.

I marvel at these young women who walk with the infantrymen and committed their time in the Army to making a difference and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible for women in the military.

It was an honor to walk in their footsteps.

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