I had to be here, Coach

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor learned the news on Facebook on Tuesday, Oct. 27. His former teammate, Brian O’Malley, posted a link to the story of the sudden impending retirement after 14 years at Allegheny College of Head Football Coach Mark Matlak.

A 2005 graduate in economics, Rob had played football for Coach Matlak for three years, including on the 2003 championship team. The soldier, veteran, husband and father of two made up his mind. He wanted to make it to coach’s last home game on Saturday, Oct. 31.

When Rob was a sophomore, his father and mother flew up to see his first two home games in September 2002. It was Coach Matlak’s first season at Allegheny. Rob knew his father was ill. His dad was waiting outside the locker room to see him after the game. Rob turned back before his father saw him, walked into the locker room and broke into tears. Coach was there.

Rob’s father died in Florida a month later on Oct. 12, 2002. Coach was there again to comfort Rob in his deep grief and in the days and years that followed. He filled a void, Rob said.

I met then Sgt. Robert Taylor in Afghanistan in December 2011, when he served with the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment, stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. On patrol, Rob was the infantryman at the front with a Vallon, a hand-held metal detector used to sweep for mines and improvised explosive devices. It was his job to clear the path, his responsibility to bring the men and women in his unit back safely. When he wasn’t out front with the Vallon, he was often the soldier assigned to walk in front of me, the journalist joining the patrol, in my two months in Afghanistan.

On Halloween morning, Rob left Fort Carson, Colorado, before dawn at 4:30 a.m. At noon my time, I received a text. My connection in Houston was canceled. My new flight has me landing at kickoff. I should make it by the third quarter at best.

I immediately got on the phone with a Holly, an agent in Nashville, with United Premier Service—a perk of frequent flying. I asked about the flights from Houston, which had been delayed by big storms. What about Cleveland? She asked for Rob’s confirmation number. I didn’t have it. There was a flight 6066 to Cleveland, but it was delayed, too.

Rob texted again. The Pittsburgh flight had been delayed once more. He’d be lucky to make it before the end of the game. I called Rob, explained the possibility of the Cleveland flight, which might arrive at 6 p.m.

Watching the game would be nice, but as long as I can be there to shake his hand on the field, all will be worth it, Rob texted.

Later he sent another message. The Pittsburgh flight was delayed until 3 p.m.

It’s all falling apart, he wrote. The customer service line for United is 100 people deep. There is no way I could change to Cleveland now.

I got his confirmation number and dialed Premier Service again. Kelly in Detroit answered. I explained the situation. Active military. Veteran. Trying to make it to his beloved college coach’s last home game. She said she had room on the flight, leaving at 2 p.m. The agents might have closed the doors. I borrowed my roommate’s cell phone and dialed Rob.

Where are you? What terminal? Bravo, he responded. I had Kelly at United on my left ear and Rob on my right. Get to B20, Bravo20 now. Go. Run. You’re on the flight.

Kelly put me on hold and tried to call ahead to make sure the agents hadn’t closed the doors. Several tense minutes followed. Rob said he had a boarding pass. Kelly confirmed he’d made the flight. I was standing in my kitchen, hands in the air, smiling, surprised by the tears wetting my face.

Kickoff at 5 p.m. I monitored my phone as I watched the game from the sidelines. Rob landed at 5:33 p.m. and we began our play-by-play message exchange.

End of first quarter. Later Rob wrote: On 90.

I replied: Where on 90? We’re 10 minutes into the third quarter.

Rob: I’m trying. I might make the end.

Me: There’s a timeout for an injury. Bought some time.

Then: Start of the fourth quarter. Later: 10 minutes on the clock.

30 miles. Maybe I can catch him in the locker room.

Bypass downtown. It’s blocked for the Halloween parade.

8 miles.

Game over. He’s doing interviews.

Coach is in the room by the concession stand now.

I saw Rob’s face appear in the window. He opened the door and coach turned. As Rob would later remark, he could tell by Coach’s face that it took a minute for it to register.

Robbie T., Coach said. He clutched him in tight hug.

I had to be here, Coach.

Coach pulled away, held Rob at arm’s length, looked at his tear-stained face and then hugged him again in a long, long embrace. When they let go, both men wiped away tears.

Allegheny alumnus Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor hugs head football coach Mark Matlak after Matlak's last home game of his 14-year career at Allegheny College on Saturday night, Oct. 31, 2015. Taylor played three years for Matlak, including on the 2003 championship team. A veteran and active military, Taylor traveled from Fort Carson, Colorado to surprise his beloved coach. Copyright 2015 Cheryl Hatch ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Allegheny College alumnus Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor hugs head football coach Mark Matlak after Matlak’s last home game of his 14-year career at Allegheny on Saturday night, Oct. 31, 2015. Taylor played three years for Matlak, including on the 2003 championship team. A veteran and soldier, Taylor traveled from Fort Carson, Colorado to surprise his beloved coach. He wears a Killed in Action bracelet on his wrist for his buddy who died in Afghanistan and his 2003 championship ring on his finger.Copyright 2015 Cheryl Hatch ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

They went to the locker room and talked.

“This is the last place my dad was alive,” Rob said. “The same area. The same place.”

Rob found his name in his locker and took a few photos. They spent barely an hour together before Rob got in his rental car and drove to Pittsburgh. The next day he flew back to Colorado.

Rob said the last three seasons don’t reflect the kind of coach Matlak is.

“The last three seasons have been horrible for Allegheny,” Rob said. “I didn’t want him going out feeling negative. I wanted him to know he had an impact.”

He spent 15 hours traveling to reach the game. Nearly 11 more hours to get home. Twenty-six hours of travel for one hour with his college coach.

So he could shake Coach Matlak’s hand after his last home game.

“It was absolutely worth it,” Rob said. “He gave a lot to me and it felt good to go back and give back.”

Matlak remembered his 36 seasons as a football coach, including the last 14 with Allegheny.

“It was absolutely worth it,” he said to Rob. “You coming here, it reminds me of just how worth it it was.”

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

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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

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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Distressing

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On Friday, I went out and bought flags. It’s a family tradition. My parents always line the the perimeter of their yard with American flags on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

It’s been so long since I had a home in America with a lawn…I was excited to plant the flags along the perimeter of my yard in my new town, Meadville, Pa.

I woke up early today and discovered someone–or several people–had taken the flags and staked them upside down. A couple were broken and a couple were lying on the ground.

I thought it was odd. If it were a prank or an accident, I imagine the pranksters or drunks would have knocked down the flags or taken them. To turn them upside down and stake them in the ground, that takes some reflection, time and energy.

The only reason I know to fly a flag upside down is as a sign of distress. Here’s a link to the first response to a Google search with the words “upside down flag.” No surprise there. As I thought, “an upside down flag is an official signal of distress.”

However, all the references that follow point to a recent trend of people displaying upside down flags as a protest of the election results or as a sign of disrespect for the president.

Here are a few links:

An opinion in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, serving a city just 90 miles south. The opinion writer calls the current protest practice “repulsive.”

It is disappointing to me that big-government/free spending/expanding entitlement society/cradle-to-grave care President Barack Obama was re-elected, but as one who respects the office of the president, I am repulsed that some small-minded individuals/haters have chosen to fly our treasured American flag upside down in protest. by Oren M. Spiegler in Upper St. Clair.

Then there was a link to a story about a MacDonald’s in Follansbee, West Virginia that was flying a flag upside down at half-mast.

“To me it’s about the flag,” said Chris Cipriani, who told the news station he would no longer patronize the restaurant. “Regardless of who you are for, you don’t desecrate the flag.”

Lou Headman, a veteran, said, “I think that’s a stab at us. It doesn’t make sense why anyone would want to do that. That’s a distress signal and maybe they didn’t know that, but we know that.”

Headman told the station he believes the display was a mistake and he will continue to dine at the restaurant.

The owner states in the story that it was a mistake and the flag was removed.

And, again, from a story posted on the CBS Pittsburgh website, the upside-down-flag protest is cited.

“The flag is flown upside down in times of distress,” said Clark Rogers, the acting director of the National Flag Foundation.

Rogers says to fly it in protest risks angering veterans.

“No question about that, veterans are very tender about that flag,” he says. “They fought for that flag; their buddies sacrificed for the flag.”

The story also mentions veterans who are flying the flag as a sign of distress to protest the re-election of President Obama.

I put the flags out to honor veterans and to observe Veterans Day. To remember the men on both sides of my family who have served in combat since WWII. I also wanted to remember the soldiers–men and women–with the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment 1/25 Styrker Brigade Combat Team based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, with whom I spent two months as an embedded journalist.

My neighbors rallied when they heard the news.

“That doesn’t happen around here,” they said.

I have a neighbor who’s a Vietnam vet who’s been flying a P.O.W./M.I.A. flag on his front porch since he returned and his buddies didn’t. I have another neighbor who’s sister is serving in the Middle East. Another neighbor who has two children serving now.

My neighbor, the Vietnam vet, told his wife he keep a lookout tonight.

Tonight I bought more flags.

If I wake tomorrow morning, on Veterans Day, and find more flags have been damaged or “distressed,” I will unfold the new flags and stake them in place.