At Forward Operating Base Shoja, soldiers huddle against the cold as they use a phone or computer to contact their loved ones on Dec. 21, 2011. The base is under construction so the MWR is housed in a mud hut with little light and no heat. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

My favorite place at Forward Operating Base Shoja no longer exists.

A mud hut…imagine an igloo made with mud bricks–and every bit as cold as an icehouse. It was the most tender place, pulsing with palpable, raw emotions.

Anger. Longing. Love. Frustration. Impatience. Aching.

The mud hut was the original Morale Welfare Recreation center. It had a low arched ceiling sheltering nine computers on tables with long, low benches that rocked the whole row of soldiers whenever anyone sat down and got up to leave. There were four telephones on another wooden table, pushed up against the brick wall. (The mud hut was razed to the ground in early 2012 and replaced with a fancy tent with double the phones and computers.)

Books and boxes were piled helter-skelter near the entrance. There was one wobbly chair a soldier could sit in to wait for a phone or computer. Usually they just huddled near the entrance, hunched against the cold, resigned to the possible 30-minute wait.

JR and I needed to file our photos and stories and the MWR was our improvised media center. We didn’t want to take time from the soldiers if we could help it, so we would usually work when soldiers were sleeping and the mud hut was nearly empty.

I didn’t sleep much so I was often in the MWR in the middle of the night. The cold would crawl out of the dirt floor and into my legs. It seeped out of the bench and into my spine. My fingernails turned blue as I typed my blog posts and stories for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

No matter what time I was there, I could hear and feel the conversations around me–whether I wanted to or not. It was very public space for holding the most intimate conversations.

Soldiers would get up in the dark before their shifts started and huddle over a computer or a phone to connect with loved ones. They could see their breath as they spoke.

Sometimes the conversations were sweet. A father would kiss his children good night. A husband would tell his wife “I like your hair, baby. It looks nice.” There were  “I love yous” and “I miss yous.”

Many times, though, there was anger. A soldier spoke to an (ex) wife about custody of his children. He started with a calm voice and ended the conversation screaming and swearing. I heard relationships crumble. I often saw soldiers hunched over, phone pressed to their ears, covering their eyes, head hanging down. Silence. Listening and listening and listening. And he wasn’t hearing “I love you, baby.”

They listened to complaints about car repairs, questions and judgments about infidelity…all manner of problems harmless and heart-breaking.

And it broke my heart.

A call from a combat zone is an S.O.S. (hence the title referencing The Police song “Message in a Bottle.” Here are the lyrics and here’s a video.) It is, for me, the modern equivalent of a message in a bottle, tossed into cyberspace with the same longing, hope and faith that mariners once cast their messages into the sea.

A call from a combat zone is a longing, a desire, a need, an ache…for connection and grounding.

It’s as fragile as a freshly-spun spider web.

On a good day, communication can be as refreshing and fun as walking barefoot on a beach holding hands with your beloved. When it travels to or from a combat zone, communication can go astray, horribly miss the mark. It can wound instead of warm the heart.

I’m a journalist…a communicator by design and desire. I have quite a bit of experience in separation and walking through the madness of war. And I have deep, time-tested, heart-broken-and-healed relationships…people who’ve been there for me when I’ve been far away.

And still I crumbled in Afghanistan…I got an “A” in communication breakdown.

Reporter Cheryl Hatch phones her family from the Morale Welfare Recreation center at Forward Operating Base Shoja in southern Afghanistan on Dec. 26, 2011. The base is under construction so the MWR is housed in a mud hut with little light and no heat. Soldiers use four phones and nine computers to stay in touch with loved ones. Copyright 2011 JR Ancheta

On my second embed with the 1-5, I had been sick for a week, running a fever, unable to keep food in my body. And I was lonely…an outsider in a tribe of soldiers. Like a burn needs ointment, I wanted to feel the cooling salve of the words and voice of someone who loved me.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, I called my brother. We’re close. He’s funny. I wanted him to a make me laugh.

We talked briefly. Then he had to go. The eggs are getting cold, he said. I felt a stab to my heart. I said nothing.

Cheryl, my wife made breakfast and I gotta go.


OK. That’s nice. A late Sunday brunch. Take care. I love you, I said.

He hung up.

I squeezed the phone in my hand and held it at arm’s length (I was alone in the phone room, mercifully.)

I wanted to scream, scream, SCREAM.

I’m your sister. I’m in Afghanistan. Forget about the eggs. Talk to me.

I didn’t howl, though the rage was real. I took a deep breath and hung up the phone.

My brother made the right choice, I told myself. His wife comes first. Their life together comes first. Their reality is so far removed from what I’m living in Afghanistan. They cannot imagine my surroundings, my loneliness, my ebbing energy and my flagging will.

I took another deep breath and let it go. Nothing to do but go through it. Let the fever–and my anger–burn itself out. Let the loneliness wash over me and through me. Accept it. And go back to work.

I spent only two months in Afghanistan and I was ready to scream when a call to my brother didn’t go according to my plan. I thought of the soldiers and all their phone calls home–after six, seven, nine months away from their loved ones.

I can’t tell you what the soldiers want to hear when they phone home.

I can tell you what I want to hear, what would soothe my heart.

Ten words.

I am here.

I am with you.

I love you.