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

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Outside the Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a few times, he left for war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I quickly learned not to ask my father about Vietnam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He went ashore near Anzio,” Dad said.

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

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

And those who are still searching for home.

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


In Praise of the “Window Lickers”


It started with the email below.

Cheryl and JR,

Hi, I’m the Route Clearance Platoon Leader who has talked to yall a couple times at Shoja. Back around 23DEC2011, we were walking back in the gate and JR snapped some shots of my Platoon.  I’d love to get some copies of those, as I (like a good concerned leader) don’t feel my guys get enough positive attention.  They do great things with a job that isn’t the sexiest out there (driving slow looking for
roadside bombs).

Thanks again if you can help me out.
David L. Brandl
1LT, EN, United States Army

I’ll admit I have a soft spot for combat engineers. My dad served as a combat engineer in Vietnam, so I understood the 1LT Brandl’s appeal to get some recognition for his men. JR immediately went digging through his photos to find the portrait, even though he didn’t specifically remember it. And I sent Brandl a message and told him to come by and visit with us and I’d write a blog post about his men. JR delivered the photo; now I’m honoring my part of the promise.

Some of the soldiers with the 2nd Platoon 73rd Engineer Company pose for a group portrait at Forward Operating Base Shoja on Dec. 23, 2011. The combat engineers conduct daily road clearance missions to keep the roads open for travel and free of explosives. Photo by JR Ancheta

“We do route clearance for the 1-5 Infantry Battalion,” said Brandl, 24, from Cary, N.C. “We drive specifically routes that are historically know for IEDs. We try to find them before they find you or they find someone else. We take a sense of responsibility. If we’ve driven it, we can guarantee it, to a certain degree.”

They can’t complete guarantee it because they know explosives have been planted after they clear a route.

“We’ve been here so long, they kind of know what we’re doing,” Brandl said. “There’s been times where they wait until we pass by and they put it in after us. It’s a game of cat and mouse.”

His men have learned to pay attention to detail.

“The first month, oh my goodness, (I thought) 90 percent of this is going to kill me,” Brandl said. “After a couple of months, you notice only the five percent that’s different that you really need to be careful around.

“Someone named us the ‘window lickers.’ We drive slow cuz we’re looking for the small things,” Brandl said. “It’s the five percent. The small things and that gut feeling. It’s uncanny that feeling you get: there’s something around here.”

Brandl had nothing but praise for the men with whom he serves.

“I don’t think my guys get enough attention. We go out a lot compared to other units,” Brandl said. “It’s not one of the sexy jobs. We’re not kicking down doors.

“We’re the guys who are going to go out first and test the roads. I guess it’s a badge of honor.”

And we learned JR and I owed 2nd Platoon a debt of gratitude: they cleared the roads before Charlie Company’s air assault mission.

It’s important to remember three members of the 73rd Engineers, the first soldiers of the 1/25th Strkyer Brigade Combat Team killed in action in May 2011Spc. Bradley Louis Melton, Pvt. Cheizray Pressley and Pvt. Lamarol Jerome Tucker were killed during an IED attack in Spin Ghbarga, Zabul Province, Afghanistan

I’m adding their other group photo. This one’s a bit more lively. As JR has noticed with most group shots of soldiers, they don’t stay serious too long.

Some of the soldiers of the 2nd Platoon 73rd Engineer Company strike a few poses during a group portait at FOB Shoja in Kandahar province. 1LT David Brandl (not pictured), 24, from Cary, N.C., leads the platoon and said he wanted his men to get some recognition for the tough road clearing work they do. Photo by JR Ancheta