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.

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“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?”

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