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.

From a soldier’s grandfather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DJM

His kindness and support continued in a second message.

Cheryl ,  yes,  please share my comments.     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very superstitious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

Getting clean

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I left Afghanistan yesterday and it was very, very hard to leave the soldiers.

This is a trip I’ve made many times…from a war zone in a remote corner of the world back to the rest of the world.

I have a ritual of sorts…I start with a bath, with getting clean.

Last night I drew a bath of steaming hot water.  I grabbed a loofah and poured strawberry body scrub on it and scrubbed my skin. Then I soaked, just to enjoy the luxury of a tubful of water and the time to soak in it. To soak in the quiet and the calm, until the water lost its heat.

I drained the tub: the water was filthy. I could not believe the layer of dirt I was carrying.

I took a shower to rinse my skin then scrubbed again and washed my hair–twice.

I started to feel clean.

Next I tackled my clothes. (I’d already tossed a few items in the trash in Afghanistan…no sense in carrying something that’ll never get clean and I’ll never wear again.) I threw everything in the washer and set it for presoak then wash. This is the clothing equivalent of the bath/shower for my body.

When the clothes were washed, the sink the water drains into was full of grit and dirt. When I looked at the t-shirts –and my clothes–I realized it was futile–they cannot get clean.

I knew it.

It’s just that way–leaving a war and heading home–I cannot wash everything away.

On this trip, as compared to many in my past, I dared to feel like I got out clean. I was not fired upon. I was not bombed. I did not watch children die. I did not watch a man bleed out before my eyes. I did not witness brutality and death.

I had a much cleaner exit than those from Liberia, Somalia, Iraq, Eritrea or Mozambique.

Then I remember the soldiers I’ve spent time with. I know a small piece of what they’ve lived because they honored me and trusted me with some of their stories.

And though I’m far away now, I am thinking of the soldiers of Charlie Co. Tonight the soldiers of Charlie Co., especially 3rd platoon, and especially 1st squad, will remember Pfc. Brett E. Wood, their brother, killed by an IED explosion on September 9, 2011.

And I am reminded…

if you’re a witness, a soldier or a civilian caught in the crossfire…

if you’ve been to war, you cannot get out clean.

Better late than never

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My beloved and faithful Mac G4 decided to quit me during this second embed in Afghanistan. I haven’t been able to look at images or post much on my blog.

I’ve got a loaner computer for a few hours so I decided to play catch up…even though what I really need is sleep.

In late December 2011, JR Ancheta and I accompanied members of Charlie Co. of the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment on an air assault mission near Molla Dust near the village of Khenjakak in southern Kandahar Province. I did a few posts about the mission (which earned both praise and ire.)

I know I’m backwards blogging again…it’s going to be like that for a while while I try to write and post all I want to share.

I have learned that soldiers and their families love photos, so I’m posting these images for them. I also learned that soldiers can identify each other in the dark and from great distances….by their boots, their body language, the way a soldier smokes a cigarette. I don’t have all the soldiers in these images identified, though I know the soldiers in Charlie Co. can ID each other without difficulty. Shoot me a message or comment and I’ll add names where they’re missing. Thanks.

Spc. Jamie Sterna, left, and Sgt. Travis Nowling take a smoke break while medic Spc. Eric Gomez, right, tends to a cut on Nowling's nose durng a break on the first day of an air assault mission with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment near Molla Dust in southern Kandahar Province. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

Pfc. (now Spc.) Mazzole Singeo uses his rifle scope to watch Afghan civilians from the rooftop of a compound Charlie Co. has cleared during an air assault mission near Molla Dust in southern Kandahar province. Below, other soldiers take a break and lighten the load of their packs. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

Spc. Jamie Sterna, center, and medic Spc. Eric Gomez, right, rest during the first day of an air assault mission with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment near Molla Dust in southern Kandahar Province. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

A Charlie Company soldier bumps fists with an Afghan boy during a break in patrol on an air assault mission near Molla Dust in southern Kandahar Province. The soldiers are members of the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

Pfc. Zuber, left, drinks tea offered by Afghan civilians during a break in patrol on an air assault mission with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment near Molla Dust in southern Kandahar Province. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

Spc. Jamie Sterna poses for a photo with an Afghan boy during a break in patrol during an air assault mission with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment near Molla Dust in southern Kandahar Province. Sterna is a member of the Female Engagement Team, women soldiers who are attached to the infantry to engage with the Afghan women and children. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

Spc. Malecia James poses for a photo during a break in a patrol on the second day of an air assault mission with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment near Molla Dust in southern Kandahar Province. James is a member of the Female Engagement Team. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

Spc. Malecia James gives candy to Afghan children during a break in patrol during and an air assault mission with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment near Molla Dust in southern Kandahar Province. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

Khenjakak Resort

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Members of the Female Engagement Team attached to the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment pose for a photo with the sign outside the '"resort" the soldiers of Charger Company created for them. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

Members of the Female Engagement Team attached to the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment pose for a photo with the sign outside the '"resort" the soldiers of Charger Company created for them. Pictured from left: Mary, the FET language assistant, Spc. Malecia James and Pvt. Liliana Nunez. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

Khenjakak is a remote strong point in the Panjawa’i District of southern Afghanistan and home to  the approximately 140 male soldiers of Charger Co. 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment.

All men. Not a single female soldier.

So when the soldiers of the Female Engagement Team arrive for a mission, the men have to make accommodations–and they have to create accommodations for the women during their visits.

I’ve been to Khenjakak several times. The first time we arrived, we stayed in the game room and we slept on USO blue bean bag chairs and rattled in our sleeping bags because there was no heat.

The second time we had cots and the heat still didn’t work.

Third time’s a charm.

When we arrived a couple days ago, the soldiers had created “Khenjakak Resort.” They constructed a plywood wall divider in the game room to give the women a separate living space. They lined up cots with mattresses. Each mattress had a blanket and an assortment of hygiene items laid out it. Each USO table next to every cot had a book on it. There was even a table and chair to serve as a desk/workspace, which I especially appreciated.

The soldiers of Charger Co. left an assortment of hygiene products and goodies for the soldiers of the Female Engagement Team during their recent visit for a mission. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

Each bed in the Khenjakak Resort had USO table next to it with a book carefully placed on it. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

I asked around to learn who had envisioned and created the “resort.” I was told the resort was just “soldiers having fun.” Perhaps an infantry inside joke.

And yet, the soldiers took time and care to go to the effort to put that room together. And to put the extra touches of the shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant and foot powder. Right down to the USO shower slippers and the book on the cot-side table.

And the heat worked.

I’ll admit that the idea of a resort in Khenjakak is funny.

If the soldiers were having fun, they succeeded. I smiled.

And if they were secretly being thoughtful, they succeeded. I can’t stop smiling at the thought of the soldiers arranging that room for us…and their attention to detail.

Thank you, Charger Co.

No Complaints

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I had a message from a friend yesterday who said she enjoys reading my blog posts, but she gets concerned when she doesn’t see me post for a while. I hadn’t thought about how people might interpret my delay in posting.

No need to worry.

My beloved G4 is being a bit cranky at the moment. My hard drive is nearly full with images. Even though I have everything backed up on one external drive, I won’t feel comfortable deleting any of my images from Afghanistan until I have them all backed up a second time on another external drive.

Redundancy, in this case, is a good thing.

I can’t process any images at the moment and I won’t have a new drive until Feb. 20. In the meantime, I decided I could write one or two blog posts that won’t necessarily require photos.

I’m currently focusing my reporting on the Female Engagement Team with the Ist Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment. I pitched a story on the women soldiers to the Christian Science Monitor for next month, since March is Women’s History Month and March 8 is International Women’s Day. The project will be a photo essay, with an emphasis on a visual narrative rather than the written story I produced for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in January.

We just spent four days and four chilly nights with the soldiers of Charger Co. in Khenjakak. Our tent didn’t have any heat and I felt like bones rattling in a coffin in my sleeping bag.

One morning I spent a shift with two soldiers in a guard tower from 0500 to 0730. (I’ll be writing about that guard shift in a blog soon. I want to include a few photos.)

After a couple hours in the Tower 3, I decided I’m not going to complain about my cold tent anymore. In fact, I’m going to remind myself not to complain about much of anything after hearing some of the stories of what the soldiers have lived here. And these soldiers said they don’t have any right to complain when they think about what soldiers endured in WWII and Vietnam.

The soldiers have been generous with their stories.

And with their acceptance of a reporter amongst them.

 

 

Walking the line

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Soldiers from Charlie Co., 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment gather near Molla Dust in southern Kandahar Province in Afghanistan at the start of a two-day air assault mission on Dec. 28, 2011. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch All Rights Reserved

Note: Since we completed our Dec. 28-29, 2011 Air Assault mission and the story has been published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, I feel comfortable sharing the details behind the scene, the story behind the story. This is the fourth in a series of posts about the air assault with Charlie Co. with the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment.

We leave at 0557 and land at 0608. The touchdown is delicate, lighter than I thought, like dropping onto a comforter.

We spill out the back ramp and into the dark. We drop to one knee and turn away from the churning dust from the rotors of the leaving-us-behind helicopters.

As he promised, Sgt. David Smith comes by in duck-duck-goose fashion and taps us on the shoulder as he counts. My eyes adjust to the tiny hint of dawn on the horizon. I do a full-circle sweep: we are in the wide-open. My mind flashes to Somalia for half a heartbeat: desert, not a shred of cover in any direction. We’re sitting ducks.

Smith returns and repeats the duck-duck-goose process in the opposite direction. I’m feeling vulnerable though encouraged—JR and I got off the bird without tripping or falling. On our risk assessment report card, we’re off to a good start.

The soldiers have formed a circle, on one knee, rifles pointing out. They’ve placed JR and me in the center. We don’t know any of the soldiers and I can’t ID them in the dark. I recognize Pfc. Jamie Sterna, the Female Engagement Team member who’s in the circle center with us. I can recognize Smith’s voice and shape now.

At 0625, Someone directs the group to move. I don’t hear the command. I simply see the soldiers start to move and I follow their lead. I remember Lt. Col. Brian Payne’s instructions: follow in the footsteps of the person in front of you. JR is in front of me so he can photograph the line of soldiers as they move across the open field.

Soldiers from Charlie Co., 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment move out on patrol near Molla Dust in southern Kandahar Province in Afghanistan at the start of a two-day air assault mission on Dec. 28, 2011. Photo by Cheryl Hatch All Rights Reserved

I spend a few minutes concentrating on the footsteps, doing my best to follow the footprints ahead of me. I quickly realize it’s impossible to follow in the footsteps of the person in front of me. That first march in the pre-dawn light is spooky for me. I shake the thought of Somalia then I shake the small charm I’d carried, believing that if I followed a certain path I would be safe. Security, as always, is but an illusion. Like that ghost of Somalia past.

There are 45 Afghan and 45 American soldiers, divided into two groups. Company Commander Capt. Christopher Zagursky, 27, leads one group; Sgt. 1st Class Bryan O’Neal, 27, from Page, Az., leads the other. Zagursky’s team moves toward a “kuchi” village, with a transient population while O’Neal’s team heads toward an abandoned mud hut compound.

At 0700, O’Neal’s patrol has cleared its first objective and has created a casualty collection point. The soldiers set up guards, survey the surroundings, monitor radio transmissions from Zagursky’s patrol and keep a watch on their own patrol as it pushes forward to the next building.

"We've got a couple of creepers, 800, maybe 600 meters," says Pfc. Troy Vacala, left, 28, from San Diego, CA., to his fellow guard, Pfc. Richard Tostado, "Toast," 24, from Tuscon, Az. Vacala and Tostado are members of Charlie Co., 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment on patrol near Molla dust in southern Kandaha Province on Dec. 28, 2011. Photo by Cheryl Hatch All Rights Reserved

The sun is rising and I can now see the faces of the soldiers.

O’Neal approaches. This is the same O’Neal who, 23 hours earlier, brought JR and me rucksacks and showed us how to field strip our MREs and advised us how to pack our gear efficiently.

One thing I forgot to mention, he says. If we should take casualties, you are not allowed to photograph casualties.

No photos of casualties or I will yank your f*ckin film,” O’Neal says. He stands there, arms folded, resting them on top of the rifle that’s strapped across his chest.

JR stands statue-still. He does not move. Doesn’t say a word. He has three cameras strapped around his neck and he’s supporting them with his hands underneath them.

First, JR’s shooting film, so no problem there.

Second, I’m shooting film and….

A drunk Somali rebel commander waving an AK-47, safety off in my face did not get my film. An Egyptian secret police officer who yanked me off the road and held me in a building for an entire afternoon didn’t get my film. Three hopped-up-on-khat Somali boys with AK-47s pointed at my face did not get my film. I’m not liking your chances, soldier.

I haven’t said a word. The response is in my mind at this point. I’m quiet as I run my options. JR still hasn’t moved or said a word.

I won’t let this guy bully me, nor do I want to piss him off too much, since we will be spending the next two days together—and he’s the leader of our merry band. And, he has a rifle.

I’ve read and signed the ground rules and I know what I can and cannot shoot, I say.

If you had your leg blown off and you were bleeding out, would you want someone to take your picture? O’Neal counters.

Again, I consider my possible responses.

I will shoot the picture.

O’Neal turns and walk away. I’m sure he ran his options through his mind, too.

I assess our situation. He didn’t punch me in the mouth, though I imagine he wanted to. And he didn’t stick his rifle in my face, though he might have considered it.

And I didn’t make any new friends. Off to a great start.

Afghan National Army soldiers (background) and American soldiers take positions on the roof during a joint patrol and clearing operation during an two-day air assault mission near Molla Dust in southern Kandahar Province in Afghanistan on Dec. 28, 2011. Photo by Cheryl Hatch All Rights Reserved

NOTE: The embed ground rule regarding photographing casualties is the last one, #21. I’ve included it here. I italicized the relevant sentence for emphasis.

21. Unless otherwise advised by the host unit PAO or commander, the following procedures and policies apply to coverage of wounded, injured, and ill personnel.

(a) Accommodated media will honor the national policies for release of names and identity of soldiers killed and wounded; national policies differ and are beyond the scope of this document. Media who witness the deaths and injuries of coalition service members will not disclose – through video, photos, written or verbal description – the identities of the individuals until the nation has made appropriate notification to the next of kin. Service members will not prohibit news media representatives from viewing or filming casualties. Casualty photographs showing a recognizable face, nametag, or other identifying feature or item will not be used, except as indicated in (1) – (5) below. Media should contact the PAO for release advice.

(b) Media will not be prohibited from covering casualties provided the following conditions are met:

(1) Names, video, identifiable written/oral descriptions or identifiable photographs of wounded service members will not be released without the service member’s prior written consent. If the service member dies of his wounds, next-of-kin reporting rules then apply.

(2) Media visits to medical facilities are authorized and will be conducted in accordance with applicable national regulations, standard operating procedures, operations orders and instructions by attending physicians. If approved, service or medical facility personnel must escort media at all times.

(3) Patient welfare, privacy, and next of kin/family considerations are the governing concerns about news media coverage of wounded, injured, and ill personnel in medical treatment facilities or other casualty collection and treatment locations.

(4) Permission to interview or photograph a patient will be granted only with the consent of the attending physician or facility commander and with the patient’s expressed, informed consent, witnessed by the escort. “Informed consent” means the patient understands his or her picture and/or comments are being collected for news media purposes and they may appear in news media reports.

(5) Accommodated media will not report the identity of personnel who kill or injure opposing forces without the prior approval of COMISAF.

“Where the f*ck is he?”

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Note: Since we completed our Dec. 28-29, 2011 Air Assault mission and the story has been published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, I feel comfortable sharing the details behind the scene, the story behind the story. This is the second in a series of posts about the air assault with Charlie Co. with the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment.

On Dec. 28, the morning of the air assault, I wake at 0300. Showtime–military for you-better-be-there-so-you-can-wait-at-least-an-hour– is 0400.

I can see my breath as I put on my wool underlayer. Spc. Malecia James and Pfc. Jamie Sterna are still wrapped in their green army sleeping bags, lying on top of a pile of USO blue bean bag chairs. They look like caterpillar larvae.

At 0315, the women begrudgingly leave their cocoons and start preparing. We haven’t spoken much. I ask James for an assist with my rucksack. She helps me adjust the straps and tells me to buckle the waist strap: it will distribute the weight, ease the load on my back.

A pack of soldiers arrive at the door. Reporters. You’re with us.

OK, hang on. Who’s us?

Chalk 2. O’Neal.

Hang on. Capt. Z switched us. We’re going with him.

Nope. With us.

OK. I feel like I am being swept up by a bunch of frat boys on a beer run. The swarm moves on. Then they come back.

Nope. You’re right. You’re with the commander. James, you’re with the commander. Sterna, you’re with us.

There is no sign of JR. And no sign that anyone is tracking us.

I follow the swarm to the meet point. No JR.

It’s dark. There’s a bigger swarm of soldiers, really silhouettes of soldiers, bodies bumping into each other, confusion to my naive eyes. I start looking for JR.

I figure he got caught up in the sweep for Chalk 2, so I find the Chalk 2 soldiers. Keep asking for JR. No one’s seen him. Heck, I can’t see anything. I’m getting a bit concerned.

I try to find one soldier who will remember me. I find a guy, Sgt. David Smith, from Dillon, S.C. Yes, ma’am. I could find that sweet southern accent in the dark. No problem. And I figure this southern man will keep his word.

I let him know I can’t find JR and I’m going to look around. Don’t leave without us.

Yes ma’am. I gotcha.

I go back to the transient tent. I call JR’s name. Nothing. I go to the DFAC. The TOC. The MWR. No JR.

I go back to the meet point where all the soldiers have gathered.

Now I feel like that bird in my favorite childhood book “Are You My Mother?” The bird falls out of the nest before it has a chance to imprint its mother’s face and runs around asking everything–a cow, a dog, a boat, a plane–if its his mother.

That’s me. Grabbing soldiers by the shoulder shouting: Have you seen JR?

At one point I turn on my light.

A soldier’s head swivels and locks eyes on me. “Kill the f*ckin light.” I stuff the light in my pocket.

I find Cpt. Z. I tell him JR was missing.

“Where the f*ck is he?”

Right. If I knew, I wouldn’t be asking. These guys are in mission mode and I’m a giant nuisance.

Cpt. Z says: That’s it. You’re going with O’Neal. We can’t wait.

OK. We’ve switched units again. I find Smith. Let him know Cpt. Z switched us back to Chalk 2. Don’t leave without us.

Don’t worry, ma’am. I gotcha.

Twice more I run the circuit: transient tent, DFAC, MWR….I run every scenario I can think of…I can’t figure what’s happened. He’s stuck in a latrine. He’s at the wrong meet place. It does not make sense.

I go back to the gathering point again.

Someone yells: choppers are three minutes out.

I can’t find JR. I can’t find Smith. I need another soldier who will acknowledge my existence. There. The tall soldier moving through the crowd. Easy going. Not the frantic worker-bee buzz of many of the others. Pfc. Mazzole Singeo. Huh? How do you say your name? Singeo.

Singeo’s an island guy. From Palau/Hawaii. I figure I can easily find his tall silhouette in the dark and his island ohana vibe reassures me. Same thing. Hand on his chest. I can’t find JR, the photographer.

We’ll find him. I’ll send someone for him.

I’m out of ideas. And my brain synapses are firing away on multiple decision tress.

I cannot find JR. Nothing I can think of makes sense. He knows the showtime. He’d hear the choppers. He’d ask for help. He’d find the place. Where is he? An alien abduction starts to seem plausible.

I run the scenarios. I cannot–will not–get on a bird without JR. I can only hope that JR would not go on the mission without me. And I believe that to be true, even though I can’t believe that he hasn’t shown for the mission.

The choppers arrive. JR doesn’t.

Cpt. Z.’s soldiers run on and off the Chinook…a practice loading.

Singeo or Smith…I don’t remember now…tells me they’ve found JR. He was in his tent. He was asleep. He’s on his way. Of all the scenarios I’d imagined, JR oversleeping wasn’t one of them.

JR arrives, dragging his backpack. We gather with the other soldiers. He’s just in time to run the loading drill. We run on and off the Chinook. We feel so utterly ill-prepared for this mission. And JR has stuff falling out of his pack and he’s trying to swim up to consciousness like a diver ascending from the deep.

JR is flustered. It’s dark. He needs to pack his ruck. Singeo floats by and helps JR heave the pack on and adjust it.

Smith tells us to get to the back of the line. We’re up against the wall, in the cold rotor wash. He explains what will happen. He’ll count off. We’re at the back. We’ll be the last on, first off. He yells to be heard over the chopper noise and we strain to hear him.

We’ll disembark, run out, drop to a knee and wait for the helicopter to leave. I’ll pass by and do a count. Then we’ll move out.

We spend an hour huddled against the wall. Mechanical problems with one of the escort helicopters. Our 0430 departure arrives just before 0600.

The delay gives JR time to collect himself. And I get to quiet my screaming synapses.

Smith and Singeo are both tracking us.

On command, we run to the Chinook. We’re neither in the front nor the back, but we’re on the bird. We’re on the mission.

And we are sitting next to each other. JR reaches out and holds my hand.

I gotcha.

Have Tourniquet, Will Travel

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Note: Since we completed our Dec. 28-29, 2011 Air Assault mission and the story has been published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, I feel comfortable sharing the details behind the scene, the story behind the story. This is the second in a series of posts about the air assault with Charlie Co. with the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment.

When I got closer to deciding to embed with the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, I wrote Troy, an Army medic who’d done two tours in Iraq. I asked him what he thought I’d need in Afghanistan.

A tourniquet.

Right. I packed my usual assortment of things I like to have and added a tourniquet.

On Wednesday, Dec. 28, JR and I got a ride to Khenjakak to join Charlie Co. before the soldiers departed on the air assault early the next day.

We arrived at 1600 and the soldiers quickly found us housing. JR got the transient tent. I got the MWR game room that had been quickly converted in to a “female” tent, since two Female Engagement Team soldiers were joining the mission.

The guy said: “This is a warm tent.” I’ve learned from experience that it’s almost always the exact opposite–the you’d-be-better-off sleeping-outside-if you-want-to-be-warm tent. I’ve had several of those.

We heard they were having a briefing with the Afghan National Army soldiers. We asked to join it. When we arrived at 1615, the briefing was wrapping up. There was a roughly 6-by-10-foot section of dirt featuring a mock-up of the their objectives: a few abandoned buildings and a kuchi village, where the population is transient.

We were disheartened when we saw the briefing break up. We were still clueless about the mission. I asked Charlie Co. Commander Cpt. Christopher Zagursky, 27, for a brief run-through. He looked at me then explained the plan to JR and me.

He said we’d been assigned to the patrol lead by Sgt. 1st Class Bryan O’Neal, 27, from Page, Az. Then he said: “No, you’ll come with me.”

Change of plans with 12 hours till mission. I asked why the change. No answer. And he left.

JR and I were left standing there, wondering about the training, the prep, the briefing we’d been told we’d have before the mission. Neither of us had been on an air assault.

We eat dinner alone in the DFAC and by 1900 we realize there isn’t going to be any training and we were cast adrift in Khenjakak.

About 1930 O’Neal appears in the “female” tent with Staff Sgt. Freddy Rivera. He’s come to help us pack and actually helps unravel our last threads of confidence as well.

We ask him about the training, which soldiers we will be with, i.e. the security detail that Lt. Col. Payne assigned that made him feel secure.

“That didn’t filter down to me,” O’Neal says. OK. No training, no security detail. No problem.

He takes one look at our packs and tells us they won’t do. He and Rivera return with rucksacks for us. He offers me his camo blanket to supplement my sleeping bag. He and Rivera teach us how to field strip MREs. Removing as much of the contents as possible. he shows us how to take only the minimal amount necessary. Just the food. Consider discarding even the warming packages.

He instructs us to put our sleeping bags in the bottom. The large bottles of water (I took three 2-liter bottles. JR took four.) go next so the weight is distributed on our backs. In the outside packets, we put the things we need to reach easily.

I wish you’d been able to spend more time with us prepping for the mission, O’Neal says.

No kidding. Rivera comes back with some hand and toe warmer packets for us. At least we have tourniquets.

When Rivera and O’Neal leave, we are completely demoralized. JR is crushed and obviously nervous.

OK. Let’s talk this through JR. We have none of the things that our risk assessment indicated we’d have to minimize our risk. Should we stay or should we go?

We go to the dark DFAC and talk through it. JR and his well-being are my only concern and priority. I know I would go on the air assault, even with all the breakdowns; however, I want JR to work through it for himself without any idea where I stand.

“I think we’ll be OK,” he says. “I was expecting something and got something else. The security detail–that was my comfort. That’s a bit unnerving. It feels like I’m not integrated so I’m a little nervous.

“I don’t feel included. We’re not part of the team,” he says. “We aren’t accepted and people look at us funny. I’m not sure they’ve had any encounters with the press.

“We don’t know exactly who’s going to be tracking us. We were at the butt end of that stupid meeting. I don’t know what’s going on. I can’t assess the risk if I don’t know what’s going on.”

OK. Options JR.

Call Lt. Col. Payne and tell him things aren’t going according to his plan. We rule that out. We don’t want to bother him and we don’t want him to pull us.

Cpt. Z. Nope. He’s already asleep, or so we’re told.

Let’s talk to somebody JR.  We go in search of 1st Lt. Matthew Millsaps, the assigned public affairs officer for Charlie Co. He shows us the plan for the mission on his hand-held device. Looks pretty straight forward. There will be two chalks. JR and I go with chalk one and Cpt. Z.

We go back to the DFAC. I’m waiting for JR to decide.

“Have you got my back, Cheryl?” JR says.

“Absolutely, JR. I’ve got your back.”

“And I’ve got yours.”

OK, let’s do this.

Next: Part 3 in the series. The working title is “Where the F— is he?”