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.



Stories, ideas and funds needed building local ‘field of dreams’

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Outside the Box,  a weekly column in The Meadville Tribune

In the movie “Field of Dreams,” a voice whispers like a breeze through the corn stalks as Kevin Costner walks through the field on his Iowa family farm.

“If you build it, he will come,” it says.

Costner decides the voice wants him to plow under his crop and build a baseball field. His wife agrees to his project.

I love this movie and I will show it to journalism students in both our classes next Wednesday evening. It’s full of great lessons for life—and journalism.

I was still in a hospital bed in Kuwait in the spring of 2012 when I received a Facebook message from Richard Sayer, who is a photojournalist at The Meadville Tribune. Until this semester, he taught photography in Allegheny’s art department. I had no idea who he was—and he had a heck of an idea.

He wrote me and said he’d heard I was coming to Allegheny. He wanted me to help him create a photojournalism conference, the first of its kind at the college. Since you’re a photojournalist, he said.

What’s not to love about a total stranger and fellow photojournalist finding me on Facebook and inviting me to collaborate with him on a project? I wrote him and told him I hadn’t yet accepted the job—and I loved his initiative and idea.

“Documents of War: the ethics and challenges of visual storytelling” was a resounding success. We received funds and support from departments across campus, including the Center for Political Participation and the Robert H. Jackson Center.

Our keynote speaker was Richard’s college friend, Craig F. Walker, a fabulous photojournalist and human being with a couple Pulitzer Prizes to his credit. Ken Kobré showed his film “A Deadline Every Second” and Pamela Yates and Paco de Onis showed “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator.” I shared the stage with my former student, JR Ancheta, and we presented our work and stories from Afghanistan.

Richard and I resolved to make the conference an annual event. It would help raise awareness on campus and in the community about the power of visual storytelling and of journalism’s vital role in our democracy. It also showcases Allegheny’s new journalism in the public interest minor.

Win. Win. Win. My kind of scenario.

We started brainstorming. Since last year’s conference was international in scope, let’s do a 180. Let’s go local. I’m teaching a multimedia class this semester. Let’s make it a multimedia project and the students will do the research, find stories, host the visitors and participate in the storytelling. On Saturday night, we’ll show the projects the students and our guests have created. Journalists on the student newspaper, The Campus, will create a special edition featuring the weekend’s stories and photographs.

I did my graduate work at Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication, the preeminent program for visual journalists. Yes, I am a believer and a proud alumna. At VisCom, students once participated in an annual project called “Dawn to Dusk,” in which they documented life in a community from sunrise to sunset.

I called Stan Alost, a friend and VisCom professor.

Richard and I felt strongly we wanted students to learn from each other and OU students have plenty of energy, talent and experience to share.

Stan, I’ve got this field-of-dreams idea. I’m putting the cart way before the horse. We don’t have the hardware. We don’t have the software. We don’t have the funding. I have no idea how to do this. I do have this vision of what’s possible. This glorious image in my mind’s eye makes me giddy at the thought of what’s possible.

I’m in, Stan said. Spoken like a true journalist. We’ll figure it out. We’ll make it happen. It’ll be great.

“The Story Next Door: Community Journalism in Action” is a work in progress. We have the dates: March 7-9, 2014. We have a space: the Vukovich Center for Communication Arts, where the lobby will become a working multimedia lab and people can stop by and witness the students and professionals at work. We have a new team since the CPP is focused on the bicentennial events this year and next. Terry Bensel, Lesley Fairman, Steve Prince and Jamie Williams joined our merry band of builders.

And we have a stellar line-up of speakers. Michael Williamson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer from The Washington Post, will speak. Nicole Frugé, a fabulous photojournalist and assistant director of photography at the San Francisco Chronicle, will be an editor and mentor. Preston Gannaway is an independent documentary photographer who won her Pulitzer Prize for feature photography working on a small paper in New Hampshire. She’ll present work from three of her long-term projects.

On Tuesday, Richard Murphy sent me an email with the subject line “Arctic Gator.” An alumnus, Murphy is the former director of photography at the Anchorage Daily News and a Pulitzer Prize-winner.  He confirmed that he will join us as the opening night speaker.

In our JOURN 300 class on Tuesday, we discussed the conference and the students’ roles and responsibilities. We don’t have everything we need yet. We do have a talented group of young people and professional photographers who understand the power of image and initiative. We have a great group of people committed to making our dream a reality.

If you have story ideas about people on campus or in Meadville, let us know. If you know local businesses or people who are part of the history and fabric of Meadville, let us know. If you have fundraising ideas, most definitely let us know. And if you have funding to offer, we would truly appreciate the support.

We are building it. We welcome your help.

And be sure to come.

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



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

One Year Later


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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


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.

31 days


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.

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.


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.

High school reunion

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I had wanted to visit the Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield since JR Ancheta and I had arrived in Afghanistan. The public affairs office hadn’t been able to arrange it on our way into country, so I was insistent we visit before we left. Col. Todd Wood, commander of the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, visited the combat hospital in mid-January, just before he went on leave.

“Every leader, commander soldier [knows] if we can get a soldier here, that soldier’s going to be OK,” Wood said, addressing the hospital staff after touring the facility. “You are our angels. Thank you for what you do. Thank you for your service.”

After Wood left, I extended our stay an extra day in hopes of spending time in the facility. I had worked within the system and gotten nowhere. I wrote Cdr. Todd Stein, an ICU nurse and the public affairs officer, an email and appealed for access. He invited me to visit the following afternoon.

JR didn’t want to go. I told him I was going…and headed toward the hospital, about four blocks from the Media Support Center where we were staying. JR is a go-getter who usually dives into opportunities with gusto. Each time I looked back, he was further and further behind, literally dragging his feet. At one point, he was a full two blocks behind me.

Stein met us and told me there were two soldiers, not Strykers, who had been wounded in separate IED explosions. He said they didn’t like the press and probably wouldn’t talk to me. I asked to be introduced. JR opted to stay outside the ICU.

Pfc. Rex Tharp, 20, from North Manchester, IN, recovers in the ICU of the Role 3 Combat Hospital at Kandahar Airfield. Tharp knelt on a pressure plate IED during a patrol. His injuries required a below the knee amputation on his right leg. He's a member of Charlie Co. of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment of the Third Brigade based at Fort Drum, N.Y. Copyright 2012 JR Ancheta

There were two soldiers in side-by-side beds. In the bed across from them was an eight-year-old Afghan girl, severely burned in an explosion that killed her family.

I walked to the soldier who was awake in the far bed and introduced myself to Pfc. Rex Tharp, 20, from North Manchester, IN. I told him about our embed and following the Stryker soldiers from Fort Wainwright, Ak. I asked how he was doing.

“I’m feeling fine,” he said. “These guys are taking really good care of me.”

We talked about his tattoos.

He has a wolf, which he considers a totem, symbolizing power, strength, cunning and courage.

“My bloodline is from the Trail of Tears,” he said, explaining his family’s history.

He told me that he is a member of Charlie Co. of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment of the Third Brigade based at Fort Drum, N.Y.

Then he told me his story.

“We were helping 4-25 at Combat Outpost Kundar Ghar,” he said. “They had a strong point abut a klick away from the COP. We would do patrol from the SP.”

“We walked about 150 meters. We were about halfway through the formation,” Tharp said, explaining that they were walking past a wall. “Mille (his team leader) and Russell (the Squad Automatic Weapon gunner) had walked past the wall. I got up to the wall and turned around to give security. As soon as I took a knee…Boom.

“Mille had heard a boom and he came running,” said Tharp of his acting team leader, lying in the next bed. “There was a secondary. I’m guessing mine was a pressure plate.”

They speculate that the IED that Spc. Joe Mille hit was a command wire IED, designed to be detonated when a soldier comes to the aid of another.

“I’m just wondering if I can stay in the Army,” said Mille, who plans a career as a soldier.

About this time, JR entered the room. I introduced him to Tharp. I told him that JR is from Alaska. Tharp said that his buddy, Mille, was also from Alaska.

“JR Ancheta, you went to my high school,” Mille said when JR turned to face him. “JR Ancheta, what the f*ck are you doing in Afghanistan?”

Photographer JR Ancheta holds the hand of Spc. Joe Mille, 20, from Galloway, NJ, in the Role 3 International Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on Wed., Jan. 11, 2012. Mille and his buddy Pfc. Rex Tharp, 20, from North Manchester, Ind., were injured in separate IED explosions while on patrol and suffered below the knee amputations of both their right legs. In the ICU, Joe turned and looked at JR and said: JR Ancheta, what the f*ck are you doing in Afghanistan? Ancheta and Mille attended Sitka High School (Alaska) and the same church together. Ancheta gave him a rosary from the chapel at KAF. Both soldiers are based at Fort Drum, Ky. and serve with Charlie Co. 3rd Brigade 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

JR shifted to Mille’s bedside and held the soldier’s left hand. They had attended Sitka High School together. Ancheta had been a senior when Mille was a freshman. He placed a rosary he’d picked up at the chapel in Mille’s hand.

Mille told what he remembered of the explosions.

“I was acting team leader,” Mille said. “This mission was walk south just a little bit and check out this village. We crossed this open field. Came to a wall with an opening. I made it through the opening, which is why I think it was a command wire.

“I was about halfway into the courtyard. I heard a boom. Just dust and rock and shit thrown at me. I could hear him [Tharp.] I ran really. Tharp–I was yelling his name and another boom and I realized I just stepped on another IED.

“I remember a twirl in the air. I ended up on my ass,” Mille said. “My left leg was broken. I didn’t get to see my right leg. I tried moving it and toes and there was no response. I came to terms with I just lost my foot.

“All I could think was my career was done. The pain settled in and I let the pain take me away.”

He called his mom in New Jersey and told her “I’m not dead.”

“I’m 20 years old,” Mille said. “I could have gone to college, live that life only. I wanted to join the Army. Some would say that’s a hard life. I thought it was rewarding. My father’s in the Coast Guard.

“I’m gonna get a prosthetic leg and I’ll be rolling back to Afghanistan shortly.”

Spc. Joe Mille poses for a portrait with his Purple Heart in the Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield. Mille and Pfc. Rex Tharp were injured in an IED blast in Kanadahar Province Jan. 10, 2011. Tharp hit the first IED and his team leader Mille, was running to his aid when hitting a second IED. Both soldiers suffered below the knee amputations on their right leg. The Quilt of Valor was a giftfrom a ladies' group in Maine: pieced by Dorothy Brown from Mild, Maine. and stitched by Meg Bonney from Livermore Falls, Maine. Copyright 2012 JR Ancheta

Mille went in and out of sleep. He was still groggy and medicated from his surgery.

“I had a dream,” Mille said. “I woke up. It’s not a dream.”

Tharp remained alert and talkative.

“It’s pretty crazy that you know Mille,” Tharp said to JR. “It’s a small world.”

Mille kept asking for his uniform.

“The uniform I was wearing. Did we already throw it away,” he asked one of the nurses. “I was kind of hoping to have the IR flag. It was on a friend along with my race bracelet, the KIA bracelet.”

The soldiers were polite to everyone. Tharp and Mille continually thanked the nurses and doctors for taking care of them.

Mille had another request. He asked JR to call his girlfriend, Hillary, in Sitka. He didn’t want her to worry. He wanted her to hear the story from a friend. In his foggy state, he recited Hillary’s cell phone number from memory.

We promised we’d call her as soon as we got back to the Media Support Center.

We stayed with the soldiers until the flight crew arrived to take them to Bagram and then onto Germany.

I held Tharp’s hand, kissed his forehead. JR held Mille’s hand until he decided he’d shoot photos again. I kissed Mille’s forehead and promised him we’d call Hillary before he reached Bagram.

“It’s nice to see you JR,” Mille said. “It’s nice to see a familiar face.”

Photographer JR Ancheta, left, holds the hand of Spc. Joe Mille, 20, from Galloway, N.J. in the Role 3 International Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on Wed., Jan. 11, 2012 while U.S. Navy Capt. Mary Blose, 53, of St. Paul, Minn, checks on him. Mille and his buddy Pfc. Rex Tharp, 20, from North Manchester, Ind., were injured in separate IED explosions while on patrol and suffered below the knee amputations of both their right legs. JR and Joe attended Sitka High School (Alaska) and the same church together. Both soldiers are based at Fort Drum, Ky. and serve with Charlie Co. 3rd Brigade 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

Note: Both soldiers are now outpatients at a facility in Bethesda, Maryland. You can find them both on Facebook. Rex Tharp and Joe Mille. Mille proposed to Hillary when she visited him at the hospital. No wedding date is set yet.

If you want to learn more, here are links to stories about JR and Joe meeting in Role 3.

In the News-Miner, picked up from the Daily Sitka Sentinel.

Alaska Public Radio

KCAW public radio in Sitka, Alaska

The Sitka community held a benefit dinner and desert auction to raise funds for Spc. Joe Mille.

Top Ten Things I’ll Remember about Fairbanks

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I wrote this entry on May 29, as I was preparing to leave Fairbanks after my year as the Snedden Chair, teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It was a glorious year of discovery. I’ve listed my favorite, most memorable things about my time in the Interior.

1. The Museum Of the North

2. The soldiers of the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team and their families stationed at Fort Wainwright.

3. My sublime cabin encircled by birch trees, where moose and a red fox came often to visit

4. The aurora borealis that danced outside my bedroom window

5. Theresa Bakker’s Radio Production Class

6. UAF Yoga Club and Infinite Yoga

7. The journalism students who taught me and trusted me with teaching them

8. Outdoor Adventures: hiking at Angel Rocks and canoeing on the Chena River with Okkar and Qian

9. Gifted Alaska writers Sherry Simpson (“The Accidental Explorer: Wayfinding in Alaska” and “The Way Winter Comes: Alaska Stories” and Peggy Shumaker (“Just Breathe Normally”)

1o. Thai food at Simply Thai and Lemongrass

Blogging in Reverse

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I completed my appointment as Snedden Chair at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on May 20. Unfortunately, I haven’t posted a blog entry since March 26. Though I left the biggest state in our nation in June for the smallest, I still have many tales to tell and insights to offer from my time as a visiting professor.

I propose blogging backward. I know the idea of a blog is to write on a regular basis, present a sort of online diary or commentary. I had the best of intentions. When I started, I planned to write every day. Then every few days. Eventually, I told myself once a week would be satisfactory. Then I simply stopped posting. My energy and commitments had shifted entirely to my students. My departure from blogging corresponds to my return from an amazing and intense learning opportunity with three UAF students: an embed with Fort Wainwright soldiers training in the Mojave Desert for their impending deployment to Afghanistan.

When we returned from our embed in the Mojave Desert with the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team “Arctic Wolves,”  I helped JR Ancheta, Matt Anderson and Jeric Quiliza get their work published. Matt published a story in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner accompanied by JR’s photos. JR also had a photo essay and story, “In the Box,” published in the local paper and a Sunday front-page multi-page feature, “The Long Goodbye”  in the Anchorage Daily News. (A big thank you to Anne Raup for her editing and support).  Jeric Quiliza had two news pieces featuring his video broadcast on News 13 in Fairbanks.

I was so proud of the students and happy for their success. It was hard work for everyone. I spent many hours in the office and a lot fewer hours sleeping. I am grateful for all the help of the news staff who embraced the students’ projects and contributions:  Amy Chausse at News 13, from former features editor Glenn Burnsilver at the News-Miner, Anne Raup at the Anchorage Daily News  and Jerry Evans, Dan Bross and Greta Johnsen at KUAC for helping me air my first radio pieces with the audio I collected. (I took a recorder instead of cameras…that will be another post 🙂

And a special thanks to Maj. David Mattox at Fort Wainwright for keeping us in the loop and paving the way for access for our coverage of the soldiers and their families.

Sadly, the last thing I did before leaving Fairbanks was attend a memorial service for three Fort Wainwright soldiers killed in Afghanistan:

“The three soldiers were on their first patrol of a yearlong deployment with the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division on May 15 when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb.

Spc. Bradley L. Melton, 29, of Rolla, Mo.; Pvt. Lamarol J. Tucker, 26 of Gainesville, Fla.; and Pvt. Cheizray Pressley, 21, of North Charleston, S.C., were killed. A soldier from the unit the Fairbanks-based soldiers were replacing also was killed. Two other soldiers were injured.

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