I believe the most precious gifts cannot be bought

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2013

In our journalism classes, I encourage students to write thank-you notes. I tell them that it’s an invitation not an obligation; and, I offer incentive points to the students who thank others who have given generously of their time and expertise. Each semester, 10 to 20 percent of the students make the time and take the initiative to write personal thank-you notes.

My mom taught me to write thank-you notes as a child. She always made sure that we kept the tags from our Christmas and birthday presents so we could keep track of the people we would write. As a kid, I would sometimes grumble at the task. As an adult, I realize that it takes time to choose the stationery or card. It takes time to write a thoughtful, sincere note. It’s the time as much as the thought that counts.

‘Tis the season.

On TV. On the radio. On websites and highway billboards. In newspapers. Everywhere I look, advertisements are pushing, prodding and cajoling me to shop. Buy. Buy. Buy.

I believe the most precious gifts cannot be bought. The most valuable gift we can offer others—and ourselves—is time.

We tend to live as though life and the future are guaranteed. I’ll do it later. I’ll call her tomorrow. I’ll go home for Christmas next year. I’ll make that trip when I’ve lost more weight. Or saved more money.

Spending time as a journalist in conflict zones taught me to value life, even as I repeatedly risked my own. In Somalia, a sniper’s bullet missed me and ricocheted out of the bed of the truck transporting me. In Liberia and Somalia, child soldiers pointed guns at me more times than I can count; each time they chose not to pull the trigger. In Mozambique, our jeep hit an antipersonnel mine; it damaged the vehicle while we escaped unscathed.

And this time two years ago, I walked on daily patrols in southern Kandahar province in Afghanistan with soldiers in the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team. I came home. Not all the soldiers did.

All the loss and near misses clarified for me what I would miss. The weddings. The graduations. The great loves. The heartbreaks. The road trips. The bumpy detours. I understand in my bones, to the core of my being, that my time on this Earth is a gift.

This season of giving, I encourage you to consider that the simple things are indeed priceless. Take your time and be present. Make time for your life and the people and beauty that share it with you.

Listen when someone talks to you. Not the kind of listening when you’re not truly paying attention, when you’ve already moved on to the next thing on your list of things to do. Or worse, you’re texting or typing while your friend or loved one shares a story, woe or concern with you. Listen with your ears, heart and spirit. Stop whatever else you’re doing and listen.

Offer to run an errand for a friend. Drive someone to the airport. Shovel the snow from your neighbor’s sidewalk. Read a book to a stranger in a hospital or assisted living facility. Babysit for friends who love their children and would also love some time alone with each other. Write a thank-you note to someone for an act of kindness or a gesture that altered the course of your life. Write a thank-you note to someone who has loved you, to anyone who has made a difference in your life.

For years as a journalist, I gave everything to my job. I worked 60, 70 hours a week. Ninety-hour weeks were not unheard of. I sacrificed my well being in service of a never-ending news cycle and a profession I adored and in which I excelled.

It took me years to learn to make time for myself. And I learned that lesson the hard way. It’s not selfish. It’s self-aware. It’s self-care.

You cannot give to others if you are depleted. You will have nothing to give.

Rest. Relax. Make time for prayer. Meditation. Coffee. Conversation. Make time to enjoy the beauty around you. Watch your breath in the cold night air under a twinkling-star sky. Make snow angels. Make a fire and watch the flames.

Have fun this holiday season—and every season. Your mind, body, spirit, your breath and your life are sacred.

Each moment is an invitation.

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

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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.

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Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming

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This time last year I was preparing for my second embed with the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team in southern Kandahar Province. I’d spent a month embedded in December 2011-January 2012 and I’d returned to do a story on the women soldiers of the Female Engagement Team for The Christian Science Monitor.

By late March last year, I was in a hospital bed in Kuwait, struck by some “fever of unknown origin” and a wicked infection that set up camp in my lungs so fast it was like a flood of refugees fleeing a war zone.

I am grateful beyond words that the illness didn’t take me. It gave me new-found respect for the importance and beauty of my lungs and the power of my body to heal herself.

The docs cautioned me to take it easy. I didn’t honestly. Job interviews. A move cross-country. A new teaching job in the fall, teaching two new classes. I asked if I could do yoga, run, swim. My doctor looked at me: swimming? No! Walking.

With the illness, the steroids that probably saved my life and the inactivity that followed, the pounds on my body went up and my confidence went down.

I banned my family from taking photos of me and I asked friends not to post images of me on Facebook. It was too painful. I did not recognize myself.

A student first semester asked if I were pregnant. It was a great teaching moment in my journalism class; however, it was heartbreaking for me, doubly cruel in its implications. And I thought I looked great that day.

I followed the doc’s orders. I did my best to rest and take care of myself. I didn’t want to relapse.

Over the break, the doctor gave me a green light to swim. My lungs were clear, my heart strong.

I decided I’d join the Master Swimmers group at Allegheny College. The pool is walking distance from my home.

People often tell me I’m brave. They might mention my considerable public speaking. Or my years spent in combat zones, most recently walking on patrol with an infantry platoon in the Horn of Panjawai’i.

True, I do take risks. I do things that scare other people…and scare me sometimes.

I’ll tell you though, it took real courage last Sunday to put on my Speedo swimsuit–too many pounds overweight than I’d care to mention–and walk onto the pool deck.

Kirk, the coach, is a young, kind man. I told him I’d swim in the outside lane–the slow lane. I had no idea what I’d be able to do.

300-yard warmup. No problem.

As I swam, I realized I hadn’t swum since I left my beloved swimming group at Oregon State in 2010. I spent a winter in Alaska and another winter in Afghanistan. Three years.

The workout continued. I kept swimming. The woman sharing the lane with me said: “You’re a strong mama.” I smiled.

My body is a miracle and she continually surprises me.

At the end of the workout, the coach said I’d swum 2,600 yards. That’s probably enough for your first time back in the water, he said.

2,600 yards!

Sure, I didn’t have the core or the arm strength for more than 15 yards of butterfly at a stretch. And I didn’t do many flip turns because I didn’t know if I’d have the stamina.

I didn’t get winded. I did feel strong. I called my friend in Rhode Island and she said: “Two hundred more yards and you could do the Save the Bay Swim. Now there’s a goal. July 2013.

I went back this week and I swam 3,000 yards.

It’s a start.

This year I made a commitment to myself. To regain my health and strength. To uncover/liberate the athlete who was once a Pac-10 rowing champion, who ran marathons.

Mostly, I have to admit, I’m happy to be here. I’m happy my lungs are healthy.

And I think Dorie the blue tang in “Finding Nemo” has it right.

Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.

One Year Later

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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:

http://newsminer.com/view/full_story/16916329/article-The-dog-of-war–Sgt–1st-Class-Zeke-helps-Fairbanks-based-soldiers-deal-with-stress?

http://newsminer.com/view/full_story/16906376/article-Fairbanks-based-Strykers-celebrate-Christmas-while-coping-with-war-in-Afghanistan?

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

http://newsminer.com/view/full_story/17030099/article-Fairbanks-Strykers-dealing-with-air–ground-assaults–insurgents–locals-in-Afghanistan?

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

http://newsminer.com/view/full_story/17257258/article-Female-Stryker-team-making-advances-in-dealing-with-Afghan-women–children?

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.

Christian Science Monitor publishes photos of the 1-5 Female Engagement Team

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The Christian Science Monitor published 19 of my photos of soldiers of the Female Engagement Team attached to the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment in an online gallery. Check out the images and the amazing work these women do at this link: http://www.csmonitor.com/Photo-Galleries/In-Pictures/Soft-power-soldiers-women-troops-in-Afghanistan. A two-page photo essay will run in the May 7 edition of the international newspaper.

For you camera buffs and photo fans, you might like to know I made all these images with a Canon Elph point-and-shoot camera.

I couldn’t have accomplished this project without a lot of support from a lot of people. First, the women attached to the 1-5 FET team: Spc. Valerie Cronkhite, Spc. Malecia James, Pfc. Jamie Sterna, Pvt. Liliana Nunez, language assistant Mary and Sgt. 1st Class Miriam Lopez. They let me follow them on patrol, during PT and in their tents and during their downtime. LTC Brian Payne, battalion commander, brigade PAO Maj. David Mattox, battalion PAO Anthony Formica helped me get the access I needed to do the project. The soldiers of Bravo and Charlie Companies had my back on patrol.

When I was critically ill and hospitalized in Kuwait, CSM Director of Photography Alfredo Sosa extended my deadline and wished me a speedy recovery.

I completed the project from my hospital bed.  I couldn’t have done it with the assistance of Ali and Sarah. Ali got me a laptop and wi-fi so I could work in the hospital. Sarah sent the original email to Alfredo informing him of my situation; I was too out of it to do it. She came to visit me every one of my 19 days in the hospital and encouraged me to finish the project. Leah and Selma offered hugs and praise.

My parents checked on me every day. And so many people offered love and prayers. I truly could not have completed this project without all the love and support of so many.

I marvel at these young women who walk with the infantrymen and committed their time in the Army to making a difference and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible for women in the military.

It was an honor to walk in their footsteps.

I see angels

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In my deep fever, I was able to leave my body and fly. I did. It was a fever float. I distinctly remember flying over Kuwait, over the water, banking my arms, swooping. I flew to the jungle. I dived over the ocean.

In my fever, I was stripped raw, open. I felt my very being exposed, my emotions, my energy, my senses. And I could see and feel the light of people around me.

I’ve been in the hospital two weeks now. It’s only the last two or three days that I actually have a “clear” head. I’ve come out of the fever float. And I remember moments of incredible beauty and grace.

In the early days, I was subjected to multiple tests every day….x-rays, CAT scans, ultra sounds, echocardio.I was poked, prodded and injected. I was wheeled around on trolleys with an oxygen tank attached, clinging and clanging as we went. I’d stare at the ceiling and float.

One morning, I was lying on the trolley staring at the ceiling, waiting for my ultrasound. A tall woman in a black veil followed a trolley out of the room. She was accompanying her elderly mother who just had an ultrasound. She paused as she passed me and put her hand on my chest, lingering just a moment and saying something in Arabic. Then she lifted her hand and returned to her mother, moving quickly down the hallway out of my range of vision.

What did she say, I asked?

She asked for blessings on your health.

Imagine. Caring for her own sick mother, she took a moment to bless a stranger.

On another day, a dark day, I was again in the hallway, facing the ceiling, waiting for a test. During this test, the doctor would take a needle, push it between my ribs and drain fluid from outside my lung. I was too out of it to know I was scared. I was just waiting for another test.

A cleaning woman came to the side of my trolley. She had a beautiful, round dark face. She grabbed the railing of my trolley and smiled at me. She beamed at me with her eyes and smile and held my gaze with hers for long minutes. I felt her pouring her light into me. I saw her pouring her light into me. The words “you are an angel” went through my mind in that moment. I cannot tell you how blessed I felt. She had given me love and strength. She floated up to me then floated away…and I will remember her smile and all that light always.

On one dark day, a doctor from the ICU came to see me. My friend Sarah was visiting me. He said that my team of doctors was worried about my deteriorating health and they might need to take me to ICU. He spoke with a calm, professional tone. He was tall, broad in the shoulders, curly salt-and-pepper air. Handsome. He stood confident though gentle. He explained my condition and what might happen. Then he asked about me. About my work in Afghanistan. He said he’d be interested to see my photographs and stories, to see what I’ve done.

The whole time he was talking he was radiating light. He glowed. He was beaming light at me. I could see and feel it.

After he left, I said to Sarah: He was radiant. He was a radiant being. Did you see it? Did you feel it?

Sarah agreed. Yes, very strong, beautiful energy. Beaming.

Out of the fever fog, it seems strange to read the words…that I could see and feel people’s energy, that I knew people were pouring love and light on me.

Again and again and again, I was the recipient of acts of kindness and caring. The woman who brings my tea each day places her hand over her heart and blesses my health. The cleaning women who sweep and mop the floor around my bed always stop and raise their hands to the sky and offer a prayer for me.

Late one night, I was coughing so hard I started to vomit. A veiled woman sitting vigil at the bed across from me called a nurse to bring me a bowl…such a beautiful gesture in the middle of a lonely night of fever. She stops to see me every day now and asks about my health and blesses me.

These are just a few examples of the many gestures of kindness I have received from total strangers. And then there are friends and family who have burned candles in Oregon, Paris, California and Alaska for me. My family and friends have lifted me up with their unwavering love and care.

In my fever I lived what I’ve always known: we are always surrounded by love and light, always held in it, blessed by it.

And angels are everywhere.

Decompression

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Note: I had a number of thoughtful conversations with a soldier from our first encounter at NTC to the two embeds I did in Afghanistan. On my second embed, he had returned from R&R and we were talking about the difficulty transitioning from the “civilized” world to a combat zone and vice versa. I shared my own experiences and he shared his impressions. He said: Cheryl, you have to write about it. People don’t understand. You have to write about it.” I wrote this blog about a month ago. I’ve hesistated to post it because it’s so deeply personal…and yet, I made a promise to a soldier and I’m going to keep it.

I’m sitting by the pool at Sarah’s home. The water feels too cold yet for a swim so I’m soaking up the sun.

I’ve been out of Afghanistan a week and today is the first day I feel remotely rested. It’s the first day I’ve left the house.

I’ve seen the photos of the first soldiers returning home–and I’ve been thinking of my own transitions from war zones to home.

I’m a PADI scuba instructor. I’ve been diving since I was a teenager and there is nowhere I am happier than under the water swimming with fish, sharks and whales, hovering over coral bending in current or just floating and watching the light filter and sparkle in the deep blue.

There are people who think my choice of recreation and profession are reckless. And I’ll admit, I do push the envelope a bit. However, in diving, I always take a safety stop.

When you dive, the gasses builds up in your system, pushed in under the weight of the atmospheres of pressure above you. You ascend slowly and then take a safety stop to out gas, release what was built up, safely. If you don’t…if you ascend too quickly or ignore your dive plan, you can get “the bends” or “bent”….you can get extremely ill or die.

Long ago, probably after my first trip to Liberia, I learned I need a safety stop when I leave a war zone. Too much builds up…the horror, the suffering, the fear….it’s sneaky and it builds up like the gas in a scuba diver.

In Somalia, for example, I would arrive in Nairobi and check into the $10/night room over the brothel in a neighborhood where it wasn’t safe to cross the street in daylight. I’d make friends with the desk clerk so I know I would not be robbed or visited in the middle of the night. This was my way of transitioning. I’d cross from the luxury and ease of my civilized life into the mayhem and madness of civil war.

When I’d return from weeks in Somalia, I would pull out my American Express card and check into the five-star Mt. Kenya Safari Club. I’d lock the door, soak in a tub, order room service for two days and eat pineapple and coconut on clean white sheets. I wanted the pleasure and the luxury to cross back over….to leave the anarchy and bloodshed.

I know the signs of the tough transition: fragile, exhausted, bone and soul weary.

I ache with emotion–it feels like my heart is exposed. I’m not wearing it on my sleeve. I’ve ripped it out of its sacred sanctuary and offered to the bright, searing light of the desert–skewered it on a rib. I don’t want to socialize. I am achingly lonely and I want to be alone.

I have learned the hard way that a safety stop–a decompression stop–is mandatory in leaving war for home.

When my youngest brother married, I caught a plane from Mogadishu and landed in Houston–with no decompression time.

I’d been at a wedding in Mogadishu where the mother of the bride had posted armed guards around the compound to secure my safety so I could join the celebration. While gunfire erupted outside, we painted our hands with henna and giggled.

I stood a day and a half later and a world away at a posh restaurant in Houston to give a toast at my brother’s rehearsal dinner. I was moved by the love in the room–the shining light of love on my brother and his bride-to-be’s faces.

When I opened my mouth to speak, tears spilled from my eyes. I stopped talking and tried to compose myself.

Each time I tried to speak, tears poured down my face. My brother squeezed my right hand, grounding me, tethering me, holdling me in place as I struggled to hold it together.

I coulnd’t. I was bent.

The laughing. Joy. Love. The long table full of beautiful foods. Too jarring a contrast to the bleakness of famine and starvation I’d just left. Dying children and blood spilling from bodies like red latex paint.

Later, my brother would come to my room and sit on the bed where I wasn’t sleeping.

He put his hand on my leg.

“Cheryl, are you OK?”

I will remember the moment until the day I die. I wanted to say “no.” I wanted to say that something is terribly wrong. I’m blank and empty and drowning inside.

I lay there in the dark. I felt the tears knock, knock, knock…and I squeezed them back.

I knew if I spoke, my voice would betray my sorrow. I could not speak the ugliness I carried–not to my brother–not on the cusp of his bright new blessed married life.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m fine.”

I knew I wasn’t fine. I felt that all I’d witnessed, what I’d seen and done, what I hadn’t done….I carried it like radioactive waste, like poison inside me. If I spoke of it, if I shared it, I would poison those I love.

I made a choice. It stays with me. Locked in me. I carry it.

Now I know better. And even with all my experience and awareness, I can still come undone leaving a war zone and going home.

I appreciate it when my friends respect my silence, when they notice I don’t want to talk or socialize. I appreciate it when they let me turn my head or flee the room when unexpected tears start to sting my eyes. I am happy for the nourishing food, hot water, hugs and laughter that are offered with abundance.

I don’t know what it will be like for the soldiers. I do know they don’t get a safety stop.

When I think of all those homecoming moments, all that love and ache and longing crashing into the arms of their loved ones who have been strung out with relentless worry for their beloveds over 12 long months.

Yes. The joy. The relief. The release.

And yet, the soldiers will be only days from their last patrol, from the adrenaline of all they’ve lived and accomplished…and what they’ve suffered and lost. Just days from the fear and longing they’ve lived with for 12 long months, too.

They’re coming up from a great depth under extreme pressure.

They’ll need a safety stop.

June

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Y ears ago, I was sitting at Sachuest Beach, watching the late afternoon surf roll in. I’d spent all day body surfing. The waves had been glassy and glorious, fun to ride, plenty of power.

I noticed a tall woman with wind-blown white hair, probably in her 70s, tuck a boogey board under her arm and head into the surf. I watched as she caught wave after wave. The wave would drive her onto the beach. She’d pop up and run back into the surf. I recognized that joy; I recognized a kindred spirit.

I rushed over. Wow, you’re getting some great rides. Yes, it’s beautiful today, she said.

I’m Cheryl Hatch. I’m June Gibbs. Are you related to Helen and John Hatch? Yes, they were my grandparents. I’m John Hatch’s oldest daughter. June knew my grandparents and my parents. And she knew my mom’s parents, too. My grandfather, William Shepley, served in the RI House of Representatives years before June served as a RI State Senator.

We talked for a bit then parted ways.

We’d see each other on the beach most days. I would spend my entire day every day at Second Beach. June would come and catch waves in the late afternoon. One day she invited me to lunch.

I always accepted June’s invitations, especially the last-minute ones. It’s a beautiful morning, want to walk on the beach? Yes! Want to get a pizza at Gold’s? Yes! Want to grab dinner at KJs? Yes! Want to see a play at Trinity Theater in Providence? Yes! Want to go to the Cape for the weekend? Yes!

June was spontaneous and sparkling. One October we made an impromptu trip to the Cape. It was sunset. June suggested one last dip of the season. We knew the water would be chilly. We put on our suits and jumped into the water. We jumped right back out. It was crazy cold. And we have that great memory of gasping for glee and taking the plunge.

June always took the plunge. As a politician, as a friend, as a member of her church, June always dived in with gusto. She was a force of nature….a kind, wild force of nature. And I loved her.

She followed my adventures. She was particularly interested in my students, my year teaching in Alaska and my project on the soldiers of 1/25th Styrker Brigade Combat Team and their families. I sent her postcards from Afghansitan and I called a few times. He son-in-law, Eliot, would pull up Google Earth and they’d tried to locate Sperwan Ghar on the map and track my travels. Early in her career, June served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and helped cracked German submarine codes during World War II.

On one of my calls, her daughter, Elizabeth, told me June had been diagnosed with cancer. It was aggressive.

Recently, I told June I was planning to stop in RI and see her on my way home from Afghanistan and Kuwait.

Come sooner, Cheryl, she said.

I didn’t make it.

June died at 3 a.m. on Easter day.

Elizabeth said she and Eliot walked along June’s beloved Sachuest Beach and through the Wildlife Refuge June helped create. At Easter sunrise, two great blue herons lifted off and flew past them. Elizabeth figures it was her mom and dad checking in on them.

Eliot said: I think she’s heading straight for Kuwait to throw her weight around and get to the bottom of things.

I like that idea. With June on the job, whatever’s got a hold on me doesn’t stand a chance now.

Surf’s up, June. I love you.

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