Honor those in uniform and their families on Veterans Day

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Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

These past few years as Veterans Day approached, I’ve had a thought: Hey, I’m veteran.

Of course, I am not, by definition, a veteran. Here’s the definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

vet·er·an noun \ˈve-tə-rən, ˈve-trən\ someone who fought in a war as a soldier, sailor, etc.; someone who has a lot of experience in a particular activity, job, etc.

I never served in a uniform in combat. I did, however, grow up in the military and I feel I served.

On Veterans Day, I remember and honor those who served, including the families of those men and women who braved combat, who bled and who died on battlefields far from home. I remember those who came home, some wounded, some shattered. And those who did not come home.

I was a young girl the first time my father went to Vietnam and I don’t remember much. I was a few years older the second time he went to Vietnam. I remember well that long year he was gone. The Vietnam War marked my childhood.

I remember I wanted a puppy and I had saved my small allowance for weeks, probably months. I asked my mom if I could get a puppy at the animal shelter. She told me I’d have to get permission from my father.

My father was an ocean away on the other side of the world. I wrote a letter and I waited a child’s eternity for my dad’s response. I remember his answer to this day.

A puppy is a big responsibility, Cher. You must take care of it. You must feed it and walk it and clean up after it. Your mom will need your help while I’m away.

Yes, mom needed help.

We had been living at Fort Lewis, Washington. When the Army shipped my father to Vietnam, they booted his family off base.

In my father’s 30-year career, we moved at least 26 times. My mom made a list once, trying to recall our many residences.

While my dad was on his second tour in Vietnam, my mom was left alone to raise four young children; the youngest was 9 months old.

New town. No friends. No support. No family. Husband away at war.

I have been on both sides of the equation. As a child, I was the one left behind. As an adult, I was the one to leave others behind and travel into conflict zones. Liberia. Somalia. Iraq. Afghanistan.

I’m a journalist. I carried a camera not a rifle.

In my opinion, it’s much tougher to be the one who’s left behind.

I was doing my job, just as the soldiers who deploy. It was my choice.

In Somalia, there were days when a sniper’s bullet would hit our truck, missing us. Days when young men hopped up on khat screamed and shook their loaded rifles in my face.

There were also long stretches of boredom—waiting for a ride, waiting for a flight, waiting for something to happen. And there were plenty of times when I’d be on a rooftop drinking under a desert sky and watching red tracer fire stitch up the shiny stars.

Ninety percent of the time, I was fine. Ten percent of the time I was in danger. OK. Maybe 80/20.

For those left behind, the worry and fear are present 100 percent of the time. Sitting at home, loved ones follow the news and fear the worst.

As a child, I watched the black-and-white evening news, looking for my dad. There was one update each day. Now the news is a 24-hour infernal loop. Imagine the impact on the husband, wife and/or children when they hear about a car bomb or a helicopter crash near where someone they love is deployed.

When I finished this column, I headed to the opening of the Faculty and Alumni Exhibition at Doane Hall at Allegheny College. I am showing seven photographs from my time in Afghanistan when I embedded with the soldiers of the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1st Battalion 5th Regiment, based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. I focused on the women soldiers for part of my project.

There were young single women and single mothers. One woman left two young sons behind. In the transit tent in Kuwait, I met a mother and soldier from another unit who had served more than one tour. She left her three children with her mother.

How do you do it? I asked. How do you leave them behind?

She paused for a long time. Her voice caught as she started to speak. She turned her head to hide her tears.

It’s hard, she said. Her voice cracked. It’s hard. But I’m doing it for them. So that they can have a better life and better opportunities. I’m doing it for them.

I once asked my father, who doesn’t talk about the war, why he did it, why he went to Vietnam.

It was my duty, Cheryl. I gave my word.

On this Veterans Day, I remember, honor and thank my mother and my father. I remember those in uniform and their families.

For those who give their word and for those who are left behind, it’s hard.

I believe they all serve.

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

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http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/outside-the-box-honor-those-in-uniform-and-their-families/article_783f94b0-653a-11e4-b189-f3aca0be1e87.html

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When it comes to U.S. war veterans, ‘nobody outranks anybody in death’

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Writer’s note: I am a journalist in academia, a woman who has traveled among many cultures. I live outside the box and I like it — and I want to share my perspective with you every Thursday.

When I was in graduate school in Ohio, I was working on a documentary project on military families and I decided to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day.

As the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, I had visited the wall a few times since its inauguration in 1982. I loved that Maya Lin, who designed the memorial, envisioned the black granite structure as a wound in the earth.

On this visit, I carried a family photo, a classic square Kodak print with the pastel colors and white border. Sitting with our backs straight (shoulders back, my dad would say), four Hatch siblings flashed our shiny grin-grimace smiles for the camera for a photo destined for a Christmas card that would find our father in Vietnam.

As I approached the back of the wall, I broke into deep sobs. Ambushed. I dropped to my knees.

An Army officer’s kid, I was raised to shake off slights, scrapes and wounds. I didn’t shed tears. I looked at the photo, then at the wall, then at all the people making the pilgrimage to the black granite memorial etched with the names of the more than 58,000 who had served and died in the Vietnam War. I sat on the grass and sobbed.

My father came home, twice. So many men and women didn’t.

While I was a Snedden Chair at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the photojournalism students and I had embarked on a project documenting the lives of the Fort Wainwright soldiers as they trained and their families as they prepared for an upcoming deployment. Lt. Col. Brian Payne invited a student photojournalist and me to join the soldiers of the First Battalion Fifth Infantry Regiment downrange.

For Christmas 2011, JR Ancheta and I were embedded with the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team “Arctic Wolves” in southern Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

Days after Christmas, we joined Charlie Company on an air assault mission. It was their first since their previous air assault when Pfc. Brett C. Wood, 19, was killed walking on patrol when he hit an improvised explosive device. Every soldier in third platoon wore a black metal K.I.A. bracelet in honor and memory of Wood.

Allegheny College 2005 graduate Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor was on patrol with Wood that day.

“No chance,” Taylor said. “He died instantly.

“I was the first one there. I’m not glad it was me but I’m glad it wasn’t anyone else. I take comfort maybe even. Sgt. O’Neal and I were the only ones to bear the burden.”

The soldiers followed protocol, swinging a hand-held metal detector, a Vallon, to sweep for and clear the area of other possible explosive devices.

“Sgt. O’Neal made the decision,” Taylor said, recalling his leader’s words that day. “’Taylor, you’re holding your s— together. I need you right now.’”

The two men then gathered the remains of their fallen fellow soldier.

“The memories aren’t something I enjoy, but I wouldn’t have wanted it to be anyone else,” Taylor said. “I’m happy I was able to protect those guys from that.”

On Memorial Day 2012, “Arctic Wolves” soldiers, family members, JR and I attended the service for the 21 soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

The dead: Spc. Bradley L. Melton; Pfc. Cheizray Pressley; Pfc. Lamarol J. Tucker; Sgt. Jeffrey C. S. Sherer; PV2 Ryan J. Larson; First Sgt. Kenneth B. Elwell; Pfc. Tyler M. Springmann; Pfc. Douglas L. Cordo; Pfc. Brandon S. Mullins; Spc. Douglas J. Green; Spc. Christopher J. Marquis; Pfc. Brett E. Wood; Sgt. Rodolfo Rodrigues Jr.; Sgt. Timothy D. Sayne; Spc. Ryan J. Cook; PV2 Danny Chen; Spc. Calvin M. Pereda; Spc. Johnathan “Bryant” McCain; Spc. James R. Burnett Jr.; Pfc. Matthew C. Collin; Pfc. Dustin P. Napier.

My friend and fellow journalist Larry James is a veteran journalist and a veteran. We met in Cairo, covered conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. We once crossed paths in the middle of Liberia: I was on my way out; Larry was on his way in to cover the civil war.

James was a 22-year-old first lieutenant when he arrived in Vietnam. As an infantry platoon leader, he joined the men of Charlie Company, Fourth Battalion, Ninth Infantry Regiment (Manchu) in May 1968. The unit had suffered grievous losses in the previous five months, including an ambush on March 2, 1968, in which 49 soldiers were killed.

Decades later, James wrote a book about the soldiers, the ambush and the events surrounding it. He opens “Unfortunate Sons: A True Story of Young Men and War” with a quote by Desiderius Erasmus, a 15th century Dutch humanist: “War is delightful to those who have no experience of it.”

James wrote the book to remember the young men and to record their history and service since the story remained unknown outside of the small group of Manchu. In the acknowledgements, James wrote he intended the book as “an overdue tribute to a group of young Americans who did what was asked of them and paid with their lives.”

The dead: Jose Luis Alvarez-Tapia; Gerald Lawrence Avery; Charles Edward Bonds; Harlan Ray Brandts; Jerry Walker Byers; William Brace Cawley Jr.; Gary Virgil Frazier; Michael Dennis Frost; Raymond Leroy Gallagher; Cal Duain Johnson; Lawrence Johnson; Jack Joseph Jordan Jr.; Lee Roy Lanier; Charlie Frank Lee; James Rufus Mathis; Robert Junior McGee; Charles Edward Melott; Leonard David Moore; Thomas Lee Mork; Barry Lee Moyer; James Francis O’Laughlin; Kenneth Lindle Oldham; William Rassano; Jose Angel Reyes; Roy Donald Page; Ronald Landon Salvani; Willard Skaggs Jr.; Michael Ross Rivers; Aristides Sosa; Clifford Geoffrey Stockton; Ronald Allen Slane; Warren Lee Tall; John Michael Thompson; Danny George Swazick; Walker C. Velvet Jr.; Larry Huston Walden; Carrel Jean Titsworth; Paul Edward West; Darrell Eugene Wheeler; Gary Winston Watkins; Joseph Jerome Williams; Virgil Lawrence Williams; Larry Allen Widener; Danny Stephen Young; Willard Frank Young; Kenneth Wayne Winget.

I asked James if he intentionally listed the soldiers’ names without their ranks.

“Yes, I did,” James said. “Nobody outranks anybody in death.”

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/x1667062542/When-it-comes-to-U-S-war-veterans-nobody-outranks-anybody-in-death

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

Women: Celebrate your bodies and revel in your strength

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

When I was a college student, I would often leave my apartment and go for a 12-mile run for fun, to unwind after a tough class or a long week. I would swim two hours nearly every evening, conjugating French verbs or writing a story in my head as ticked off laps like a metronome.

When I was younger, I would see middle-age women in loose T-shirts and running shoes, laboring under extra weight and shuffling along the sidewalk at a barely-more-than walking pace. In my youthful ignorance, I’d think ‘how did she let herself get like that?’

Now, I am that woman.

My first semester at Allegheny, a student mentioned my pregnancy. I wasn’t pregnant. It was a wonderful teaching moment in our journalism class. Get facts. Don’t make assumptions. And never ask a woman if she’s pregnant. As a professor, I handled the moment gracefully. As a human being, I was devastated.

Two years ago, I was preparing for my second embed with the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team in southern Kandahar Province. I’d returned to do a story on the women soldiers of the Female Engagement Team for The Christian Science Monitor. I walked on daily patrols with 19-year-old soldiers. It was a point of pride to hold my spacing and keep pace with the young men and women, even though I felt my age and extra weight on those long marches.

By late March 2012, I was in a hospital bed in Kuwait, struck by some “fever of unknown origin” and a wicked infection that set up camp in my lungs so fast it was like a flood of refugees fleeing a war zone. The disease threatened to take my life. It didn’t win though it left me weak. The doctors warned my recovery would be slow and I needed take it easy.

I asked about yoga, running and swimming. Swimming? The doctor looked at me. No, he said. Walking. Only walking.

Surviving Afghanistan and its aftermath, I have a newfound appreciation for my lungs, my life and my body—the very body I disparaged as a young woman.

In college, I was lean with a mere 9 percent body fat. I was on the crew team and we usually worked out when the guys on the football team lifted. My friends on the offensive line would spot me when I bench pressed more than my body weight. They pushed me to make a record 13 pull-ups.

I was an accomplished college athlete and a Pac-10 champion. And I never felt strong enough, fast enough, pretty enough or good enough.

It hurts me to think about it now.

I have become the woman I mocked in my youth. I want to believe I’m also a wiser and more compassionate woman. I’ve learned that things happen that change our bodies and challenge our health: bearing children, bearing witness to suffering and death, battling diseases, exhausting ourselves banging on some glass ceiling or mirror.

This past year, four women dear to me were diagnosed with breast cancer. They’ve taken different paths to healing: surgeries, chemotherapy or a combination of interventions. Each one is finding her way back to health, into her body and into her life.

I want to find my way back to health and fitness, back to my body.

I called one of my friends who is recovering well. Let’s swim the Save the Bay this summer, I proposed. (It’s a two-mile swim in open water.) She accepted and she’s already started training for the July 16 event.

I may not have much muscle at the moment. I do have muscle memory. The athlete I’ve always been is still there; she’s simply out of practice—and yes, a bit overweight.

I know I have plenty going for me on my road to recovery. I still have the mental toughness that kept me upright on those Afghan patrols. I have the will that kept me rowing when I wanted to bail. I come from a long line of athletes, including my mother. She played college basketball and volleyball long before Title IX changed the rules and opportunities for women.

I hope young women—and all women who read this column—will not judge, as I once did, any woman who is doggedly pursuing her personal path to wellness. Especially, if that woman is you.

I encourage you to celebrate your bodies. Be grateful for your health.

Revel in your strength.

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

 

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I believe the most precious gifts cannot be bought

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2013

In our journalism classes, I encourage students to write thank-you notes. I tell them that it’s an invitation not an obligation; and, I offer incentive points to the students who thank others who have given generously of their time and expertise. Each semester, 10 to 20 percent of the students make the time and take the initiative to write personal thank-you notes.

My mom taught me to write thank-you notes as a child. She always made sure that we kept the tags from our Christmas and birthday presents so we could keep track of the people we would write. As a kid, I would sometimes grumble at the task. As an adult, I realize that it takes time to choose the stationery or card. It takes time to write a thoughtful, sincere note. It’s the time as much as the thought that counts.

‘Tis the season.

On TV. On the radio. On websites and highway billboards. In newspapers. Everywhere I look, advertisements are pushing, prodding and cajoling me to shop. Buy. Buy. Buy.

I believe the most precious gifts cannot be bought. The most valuable gift we can offer others—and ourselves—is time.

We tend to live as though life and the future are guaranteed. I’ll do it later. I’ll call her tomorrow. I’ll go home for Christmas next year. I’ll make that trip when I’ve lost more weight. Or saved more money.

Spending time as a journalist in conflict zones taught me to value life, even as I repeatedly risked my own. In Somalia, a sniper’s bullet missed me and ricocheted out of the bed of the truck transporting me. In Liberia and Somalia, child soldiers pointed guns at me more times than I can count; each time they chose not to pull the trigger. In Mozambique, our jeep hit an antipersonnel mine; it damaged the vehicle while we escaped unscathed.

And this time two years ago, I walked on daily patrols in southern Kandahar province in Afghanistan with soldiers in the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team. I came home. Not all the soldiers did.

All the loss and near misses clarified for me what I would miss. The weddings. The graduations. The great loves. The heartbreaks. The road trips. The bumpy detours. I understand in my bones, to the core of my being, that my time on this Earth is a gift.

This season of giving, I encourage you to consider that the simple things are indeed priceless. Take your time and be present. Make time for your life and the people and beauty that share it with you.

Listen when someone talks to you. Not the kind of listening when you’re not truly paying attention, when you’ve already moved on to the next thing on your list of things to do. Or worse, you’re texting or typing while your friend or loved one shares a story, woe or concern with you. Listen with your ears, heart and spirit. Stop whatever else you’re doing and listen.

Offer to run an errand for a friend. Drive someone to the airport. Shovel the snow from your neighbor’s sidewalk. Read a book to a stranger in a hospital or assisted living facility. Babysit for friends who love their children and would also love some time alone with each other. Write a thank-you note to someone for an act of kindness or a gesture that altered the course of your life. Write a thank-you note to someone who has loved you, to anyone who has made a difference in your life.

For years as a journalist, I gave everything to my job. I worked 60, 70 hours a week. Ninety-hour weeks were not unheard of. I sacrificed my well being in service of a never-ending news cycle and a profession I adored and in which I excelled.

It took me years to learn to make time for myself. And I learned that lesson the hard way. It’s not selfish. It’s self-aware. It’s self-care.

You cannot give to others if you are depleted. You will have nothing to give.

Rest. Relax. Make time for prayer. Meditation. Coffee. Conversation. Make time to enjoy the beauty around you. Watch your breath in the cold night air under a twinkling-star sky. Make snow angels. Make a fire and watch the flames.

Have fun this holiday season—and every season. Your mind, body, spirit, your breath and your life are sacred.

Each moment is an invitation.

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

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On Veterans Day, remember those who did and didn’t make it home

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch (click here for the online version)

I am the daughter of a soldier who grew up in the military.

I don’t have childhood friends. I don’t remember most of my teachers. I don’t even know where I was in third grade. My mom once created a timeline of our travels—we moved more than 20 times before I graduated high school.

When people ask where I’m from, I have no easy answer. Everywhere. And nowhere. My brother used to say he’s from planet Earth.

As a young man, my father worked in a nursery in his native Rhode Island. As a retired combat engineer, he now tends his lawn and garden in the withering Texas sun. Dad likes azaleas and dogwood trees. Neither is indigenous to Texas; neither is hardy enough for the climate.

I remember visiting one summer and my dad decided to move four azalea bushes from the front of the garden to the back near the brick wall. In the middle of the day. In the middle of the summer.

I remarked that it wasn’t a wise move. They’ll be fine, he said.

Two of the plants managed to take root and keep their green leaves; the leaves of the other two turned brown and withered. They weren’t fine.

I couldn’t help but think of the four Hatch children when I saw those four azalea bushes.

As a child, I didn’t understand what my father did for a living. He’d polish his boots and brass at the table while I ate my cereal. He was out the door before we left for school.

And a few times, he left for war.

I’d wait for a single letter or, better yet, a yellow box with a reel-to-reel tape that would carry his voice from Vietnam to our house. We’d jump on the bed and gather around my mom and listen to the tape.

Those tapes and letters are long gone. Dad travels light.

Once he dumped all his medals and commendations in the trash; Mom rescued them. Another time, he tossed paintings my mom had done—her renderings of one of Dad’s many tours—when she was home alone, waiting. She learned their fate too late to rescue them.

As an adult, I went to war as a photojournalist. My military upbringing and its many moves taught me plenty that was useful. Dodging military police at curfew as an adolescent proved useful training for crossing borders illegally as a reporter. I was resourceful. I had good instincts. I could read body language and I had an ear for foreign languages. And yet, I knew nothing of war.

For more than a decade, I documented those left in the wake of war, those uprooted by the brutality and depravity of their fellow human beings. And when I lost my bearings, I turned my back on war. I didn’t know it followed me.

A decade later, I was teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and our class started a documentary project, covering the soldiers and their families at Fort Wainwright as they prepared for an impending deployment to Afghanistan.

“I have a love-hate relationship with the military,” I told the public affairs officer.

“That’s OK. I have a love-hate relationship with the media,” he said.

Breaking a promise I’d made to myself and against my better judgment, I returned to war, taking a student with me to follow the soldiers of the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team to the Horn of Panjawai’i in southern Kandahar Province in the winter of 2011-2012.

Many soldiers don’t talk about their experiences—not to civilians. And certainly not to journalists. Soldiers don’t like journalists, as a general rule.

I quickly learned not to ask my father about Vietnam.

“What do you want to know, Cheryl? I got up. I brushed my teeth. I flew in helicopters.”

I had plenty of experience with reticence and hostility in response to my questions when I embedded with the 1st Battalion Fifth Infantry Regiment.

In Afghanistan, I walked behind one Charlie Company soldier day after day on patrol. Sgt. Robert Taylor. I followed in his footsteps in a way I couldn’t follow my father.

An infantryman, Taylor would toss bawdy jokes over his shoulder as we walked or took a knee and killed time while others cleared the path ahead.

“Trust and loyalty. Whether you’re in war or in life, you need someone who’s gonna do more than his job,” said Taylor one night when we were talking about the glue that bonds soldiers on a battlefield. “You need someone who’s gonna hold you; someone who’s gonna pick you up. Most people have that with your family.”

Taylor’s right bicep is inked with the word “Pops” and a 1977 Chevy El Camino, a tribute to his father, who was diagnosed with cancer in February 2002 and died Oct. 12, 2002. Taylor was then a student at Allegheny College and played on the football team.

“And my dad wouldn’t let me come home,” Taylor said. “He grew up poor and he wanted me and my son to go to college. That was his dream.”

When Taylor returned from Afghanistan in the spring of 2012, he married his sweetheart, Liza Jane, and they welcomed their son, Robert Taylor, IV the following March. He was wearing an Allegheny football T-shirt when he held his son for the first time.

I sent the newest Taylor a onesie, bib and hat with Allegheny gator logos. I told Taylor I’d already shared the good news with his former coach, Mark Matlak, who had held him up when Taylor’s father died.

“I am happy you shared with coach already. Thank you,” Taylor wrote me. “As for the T-shirt, there was nothing else I wanted to wear to meet him in. I chose it specific for his entrance. The doctor who did the C-section was actually from Pittsburgh and she was very familiar with AC. It’s a small world filled with amazement.”

As I considered writing this column, I remembered the men in our family who have served in combat. My late Uncle Bill served on a ship in the Pacific in World War II. My dad and his brother each did two tours in Vietnam. And there was my grandma’s brother, Charlie.

I called dad for more information on the uncle I would never meet. My dad talks more now.

“He went ashore near Anzio,” Dad said.

Killed in action. Buried near Florence, Italy. He never made it home.

On Veterans Day, I remember those who made it home and those who didn’t.

And those who are still searching for home.

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

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Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming

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This time last year I was preparing for my second embed with the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team in southern Kandahar Province. I’d spent a month embedded in December 2011-January 2012 and I’d returned to do a story on the women soldiers of the Female Engagement Team for The Christian Science Monitor.

By late March last year, I was in a hospital bed in Kuwait, struck by some “fever of unknown origin” and a wicked infection that set up camp in my lungs so fast it was like a flood of refugees fleeing a war zone.

I am grateful beyond words that the illness didn’t take me. It gave me new-found respect for the importance and beauty of my lungs and the power of my body to heal herself.

The docs cautioned me to take it easy. I didn’t honestly. Job interviews. A move cross-country. A new teaching job in the fall, teaching two new classes. I asked if I could do yoga, run, swim. My doctor looked at me: swimming? No! Walking.

With the illness, the steroids that probably saved my life and the inactivity that followed, the pounds on my body went up and my confidence went down.

I banned my family from taking photos of me and I asked friends not to post images of me on Facebook. It was too painful. I did not recognize myself.

A student first semester asked if I were pregnant. It was a great teaching moment in my journalism class; however, it was heartbreaking for me, doubly cruel in its implications. And I thought I looked great that day.

I followed the doc’s orders. I did my best to rest and take care of myself. I didn’t want to relapse.

Over the break, the doctor gave me a green light to swim. My lungs were clear, my heart strong.

I decided I’d join the Master Swimmers group at Allegheny College. The pool is walking distance from my home.

People often tell me I’m brave. They might mention my considerable public speaking. Or my years spent in combat zones, most recently walking on patrol with an infantry platoon in the Horn of Panjawai’i.

True, I do take risks. I do things that scare other people…and scare me sometimes.

I’ll tell you though, it took real courage last Sunday to put on my Speedo swimsuit–too many pounds overweight than I’d care to mention–and walk onto the pool deck.

Kirk, the coach, is a young, kind man. I told him I’d swim in the outside lane–the slow lane. I had no idea what I’d be able to do.

300-yard warmup. No problem.

As I swam, I realized I hadn’t swum since I left my beloved swimming group at Oregon State in 2010. I spent a winter in Alaska and another winter in Afghanistan. Three years.

The workout continued. I kept swimming. The woman sharing the lane with me said: “You’re a strong mama.” I smiled.

My body is a miracle and she continually surprises me.

At the end of the workout, the coach said I’d swum 2,600 yards. That’s probably enough for your first time back in the water, he said.

2,600 yards!

Sure, I didn’t have the core or the arm strength for more than 15 yards of butterfly at a stretch. And I didn’t do many flip turns because I didn’t know if I’d have the stamina.

I didn’t get winded. I did feel strong. I called my friend in Rhode Island and she said: “Two hundred more yards and you could do the Save the Bay Swim. Now there’s a goal. July 2013.

I went back this week and I swam 3,000 yards.

It’s a start.

This year I made a commitment to myself. To regain my health and strength. To uncover/liberate the athlete who was once a Pac-10 rowing champion, who ran marathons.

Mostly, I have to admit, I’m happy to be here. I’m happy my lungs are healthy.

And I think Dorie the blue tang in “Finding Nemo” has it right.

Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.

Blindsided

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On Sunday, Oct. 28, I woke up and discovered I couldn’t see out of my left eye. My shooting eye.

Later that morning, I learned my friend Anthony died on Maui. At 48.

My eye. That was annoying. Frustrating. My friend’s death. That blindsided me.

It took a few days for the finality of Anthony’s death to sink in, for his loss to settle on my heart. When talking about Anthony, I mentioned my loss of vision to a friend. He suggested I get it checked immediately. He said it several times until the potential seriousness of my situation sunk in.

I am an optimist, though I have friends who’d probably tell you I make my tent awfully close to the border of the Land of Denial.

Between my morning photojournalism class and my afternoon news writing class, I went to see an ophthalmologist.

A troll. He belonged under a bridge not in a doctor’s office. He barely looked at me when he told me that he couldn’t see a thing and I’d have to see a specialist. He said I shouldn’t eat or drink after midnight since I might have to have surgery in the morning.

I returned and taught my afternoon class with sadness pushing against my heart, seeking escape.

My sadness deepened when I couldn’t find a ride to Erie. I realized I was alone in a new town. I wasn’t in Kuwait or Paris or Oregon or LA or Alaska anymore. I’ve discovered it’s easy to say “let us know if you need anything.” It’s a whole different matter to honor those words.

I called my parents and they called my eye doctor in Houston. He called me and said: “Cheryl, I’m so sorry this has happened to you. You just get down here and we’ll take care of you. It’s going to be OK.”

That’s all I needed to hear.

Long story short. I had the surgery two weeks ago. The doctor is surprised my sight hasn’t improved much though he said he wasn’t worried. My case was atypical. Something he hadn’t seen. Something he couldn’t explain. That’s something I’d already heard in the hospital in Kuwait. Atypical. We’ve never seen this before.

It would take more time to heal. It takes time to heal. That’s also taken a while to sink in.

I realized that I didn’t take the time I needed to rest and recover after my hospitalization in Kuwait. I did a job interview from my hospital bed. And another a day after I returned from the hospital. I jumped on a plane and did a two-day interview stateside then flew back to Alaska to cover the troops’ homecoming events. I left Alaska for Oregon, where I packed then drove across country and started my new job at Allegheny College.

All the while friends and family reminded me to rest. I didn’t. I plunged into my new job.

Losing my sight showed me that I had lost sight of what’s important.

We’ve all been blindsided this year. By unexpected illnesses. By the death of dear ones. By the cruelty of others, intended and unintended. By inexplicable violence: the brutal shooting of a school girl in Mingora, Pakistan and the murder of school children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.

Losing sight of what’s important can help us refocus. It’s often the things that are right in front of us, the things we cherish most, that we overlook.

Our friends. Our loved ones. Their steadiness in times of trouble. Their love and laughter in times of joy. The very breath we take and the life that infuses our body.

Our precious health and our days on this precious earth.

Tis the season. To be kind. To be thankful. To be there when your friends and family–even strangers–need you.

And to take the time to grieve what is lost–and give others the time to grieve–and heal.

Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch All RIghts Reserved

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