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.

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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.

Endings

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The lead of a story is crucial. It’s the opening words, the first paragraph that must rouse a reader’s curiosity, take her hand, tug and say “come with me.”

Once I have my lead, I’m off. The story can flow from it. The words from one paragraph pour into the next and carry the reader along.

To me, the ending is just as important. I like an ending that brings a story full circle, wraps the narrative up in a bow and offers it to the reader as a gift to unwrap. I often have an ending in mind when I start though I’m always ready to go where the story leads. Endings change as the story writes itself.

I started the story of the soldiers of the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team and their families in the fall of 2010. In Oct. 2010, I watched the soldiers train in mock Afghan villages in Alaska. In February 2011, I took three UAF students to the Mojave Desert and we witnessed “the scenario,” where the soldiers ran a seven-day training exercise at the National Training Center as their final preparation before deployment to Afghanistan in April last year.

I went to farewell events: a potlatch where Alaska Native elders blessed the troops, a private gathering for BBQ and fish fry with a soldier’s family and friends, a church service where soldiers renewed their wedding vows. JR Ancheta and I did portrait sessions for some soldiers and their loved ones. I attended the official deployment ceremony with the casing of the colors.

And then I went again and again to the base where the soldiers said farewell to their families. Lots of hugs, tears and photos. The soldiers would file toward buses. Sometimes family members followed, stood below the windows and waved. A father reached his hands out the window and his wife passed their infant son to him and he kissed him and held him one last time.

I went to Afghanistan in December with JR at the invitation of 1-5 Battalion Commander LTC Brian Payne to spend the holidays with the troops and send their stories home. I returned alone this February and spent another month.

I knew the ending for this story: the homecoming. Military band, kids with “welcome home” signs, flags waving, hugs, tears, kisses, chaos of joy. I knew where the story was going.

Then it took a turn I never saw coming.

I was supposed to in the United States in late March.  I wasn’t.

I didn’t see Dylan meet Ashley in person for the first time.  I didn’t see the FET soldiers return. I doubt I’ll see any of the “welcome home” ceremonies. The whole brigade will probably be home before I am.

I’m in a hospital in Kuwait. I ran a high fever for two weeks. The doctors ran all kinds of tests and asked questions. Where did you sleep in Afghanistan? What did you eat? What local foods did you eat? Were you around any sick people? Were you exposed to any chemicals on the military base? Were you bitten by any bugs? The tests yielded no answers, only created more questions. I refused to go to the hospital.

It’s called a Fever of Unknown Origin, an FUO. I laughed. It reminded me of the R.O.U.S in “The Princess Bride.” And I thought, isn’t it perfect? Even the disease I picked up on my embed has an acronym.

Last Thursday, after I’d endured two weeks of unrelenting fever, Ali, my friend, came home. “Cheryl, look. I would take this decision for my wife, for my sister, for my daughters. You’re going to the hospital.”

I let go. I decided to drift.

My favorite kind of dive is a drift dive. The best drift dives are in strong current along a steep wall of a reef or atoll. I love drifts because the fish love current: big schools of fish and sharks. A diver must be able to maintain buoyancy and monitor her depth. It’s too easy to go too deep with nothing but big blue below you.

So now I’m drifting. I let the doctors run their tests while my body and her fever warriors fight some unidentified and mighty sneaky, fierce invader.

And while they work, I’m writing a different ending for the story.

I’ll leave the hospital fever-free. I’ll restore my health and rebuild my strength. I’ll make it to the 1-5 Military Ball and I’ll watch my students graduate at UAF. The 10-miler, though, is probably a no-go.

After Alaska, there will be time with friends and family. There will be lots of dancing and real drift diving. Time in the ocean, in the surf, with the fish.

That’ll be my homecoming.

V is for Vallon…and valiant

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The one image from my two embeds that I can’t get out of my head is the soldier taking point with a Vallon.

The first guy who steps off the ramp–of a Stryker or a helicopter. The guy in front when a patrol leaves base and heads outside the wire.

The soldier steps out and unfolds this collapsable metal detector, not much longer than a lacrosse stick, and sweeps the ground for possible IEDS. The soldiers on patrol will fall in behind him.

As 3rd Platoon, Charger Co. soldiers dismount, Spc. Mazzole Singeo, 1st squad, left, starts sweeping the area with a Vallon. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

At first, I didn’t know what happened with the Vallon. I was usually in the middle of the column or the back. A hit would reach me as “stop” or “hold” and we’d take a knee and wait. Then we’d eventually hear “moving” and we’d carry on.

“When I get a hit on the Vallon, I brush the dirt away to expose whatever we hit–sometimes it’s an IED, battery, metal or a piece of a tractor,” said Sgt. Rob Taylor, with 2nd squad, 3rd Platoon. “But you never know. It’s definitely the least enjoyable part of the job.”

Every soldier I spoke with who carries the Vallon said he does it so that another soldier won’t have to. That part sticks with me, too.

“Everytime we go out on patrol, I always take point,” Taylor said. “I take total control for my squad. Everyone in this platoon has done 300 to 350 patrols. In the beginning, at Maktab, it was a hostile area and we did two to five patrols a day for four months.”

Spc. Mazzole Singeo is a team leader for 1st squad, 3rd platoon, Charger Co., and carries a Vallon.

“If a beep goes higher than a seven, I got to interrogate what’s in the dirt,” Singeo said. “Most of the time I pick up batteries. I need to investigate to make sure it’s safe for the guys to come through.

“I just hope for the best,” Singeo said. “I tell myself I’ll come back. So far it’s been working.

“Being a team leader, I have to bring everybody back, my guys back to their families. It gets tough sometimes.”

Spc. Mazzole Singeo clears a path while other Charger Co. soldiers post security. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

On my second embed, I watched as Charger Co. soldiers walked an IED lane. They sweep through the area to test their Vallons before each patrol. I wrote about it in an earlier post,  “Drill, Baby, Drill.”

After his Vallon detects metal, Sgt. Jeremy Gray, 26, from Anchorage, Ak., "interrogates" the ground around the area to probe for a possible IED. Another Charlie Co. soldier posts security. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

After his Vallon detects metal during a drill, Sgt. Jeremy Gray, 26, from Anchorage, Ak., "interrogates" the ground around the area to probe for a possible IED. Another Charlie Co. soldier posts security. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

In the drill and on patrol, if a soldier hits metal and suspects and IED, he goes prone.

“I don’t mean to be rude. To put it blunt, ma’am, it will make your butt hole pucker,” said Sgt. Brody Staman, of the feeling he experiences in the field as he clears the earth around an IED.

“Somebody’s got to do it. And I don’t want my guys to do it,” Staman said. “So as a leader, that’s a responsibility we take.”

Sgt. Brody Staman, 24, from Scotts Bluff, Neb., finishes clearing the dirt around a pressure-plate IED during a drill on Feb. 11, 2012. The Vallon metal detector he uses to search for IEDs is behind him. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

At Sperwan Ghar, 1st Sgt. Westley Bockert created squad competitions to keep training from becoming stale. He created one for the IED training lane.

The U.S. Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal airmen planted seven IEDs in the varied terrain of the 100-yard lane. Stf. Sgt. Daniel Willens, 25, from Sacramento, Cali., Tech. Sgt. Mario Kovach, 33, from Pottstown, Penn., and Sr. Airman Corban Stewart, 21, from Millington, Mich., took genuine pleasure in disguising the locations of the IEDS.

The soldiers got 10 poker chips and when the guy with the Vallon or another soldier saw signs of a possible IED, he was supposed to drop the chip.

“If you start throwing down those chips in the beginning, you won’t have any left in the end,” Bockert said.

“If somebody gets hit, you have to casualty evac them,” Bockert said. “Regular patrol. Put the chip down and call the 10-line up.”

The soldiers would have 15 minutes to clear the course and they’d lose a point for every minute they ran over that time.

“No pressure. No pressure, ma’am,” said Pfc. Nicholas Richardson, 20, from Chicago, Il., who’d take point with the Vallon. “It’s what I do for a living.”

Pfc. Nicholas Richardson, 20, from Chicago, Ill., sweeps an IED training lane during a squad competition for Bravo. Co. soldiers at Sperwan Ghar. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

“There’s dislocation in the dust,” Richardson said. “There’s a high metallic signature here. It’s going into the double range.”

Pfc. Nicholas Richardson, 20, takes point sweeping an IED training lane. Pfc. Joseph Rexroat, 20, and Sgt. John Leland, 37, follow his lead. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

“Right now we’re going into a choke point. A metallic hit. Looks like the ground’s been dug up,” said squad leader Sgt. James Morrison, 26, from Alpena, Mich., Morrison was fourth in the line of eight soldiers.

Richardson and most of the soldiers made it through the lane. The last man in the column, Pfc. Rodion Straub, 21, from Sylvania, Oh., stepped on a mock IED.

Bravo Co. soldiers tend to Pfc. Rodion Straub, who triggered a mock IED during a training competition. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

“Get out of here. You’re a memory,” Bockert said to Straub.

After the training run, the EOD airmen and Bockert discuss the soldiers’ mistakes.

“The guys in the back were finding IEDs,” Bockert said. “If you’re in the back and you see this shit, fuckin call it up. ”

1st Sgt. Westley Bockert talks with Pfc. Nicholas Richardson about his performance during an IED training drill. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

As I write this blog, soldiers from the Arctic Wolves have begun returning home. Photos on the brigade Facebook page depict the latest homecoming reunions. Other soldiers are in transit. They’ve left their base and they’re biding their time at Kandahar Airfield before they catch a flight home.

And, there are still soldiers who are going out on patrol. I sent a message to Taylor yesterday as I was writing this blog. I asked him if any of the C Co. soldiers were still going out on patrol.

Sgt. Rob Taylor, from Tampa, Fl., 2nd Squad, 3rd Platoon, C. Co., waits for Afghan National Army soldiers to join the patrol outside Khenjakak. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

“yes. my squad has gone out everyday since you left,” he wrote. “we are going out today again.”

I asked him to message me when they made it back.

“I am back. I look forward to reading the blog,” he wrote later in the day.

It’s got to be tough to be so close to going home and to get up everyday and pick up that Vallon and walk outside the wire. And to walk behind that solider with the Vallon.
The soldiers would tell me it’s their job. Nothing to do but do it. The soldiers will no doubt squirm at my choice of the word “valiant” to describe them.
I don’t choose–or use–my words lightly. I looked up “valiant” before I decided on it.
Val•iant, adjective
1. boldly courageous; brave; stout-hearted: a valiant soldier
2. marked by or showing bravery or valor; heroic
3. worthy; excellent
Origin: 1275-1325 Middle English valia; Anglo French; MiddleFrench vaillant, present participle of valoir: to be of worth.
Both the modern and the original meaning fit.
It fits, guys.

Message in a mud hut

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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.

Crushed.

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.

A rainy day at the races

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This is the door to one of the Bravo Co. soldiers' sleeping quarters at Sperwan Ghar. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

Grey skies, Air Red and rain are welcome at Sperwan Ghar. For the soldiers, inclement weather means no missions…a chance to sleep, perchance to dream…or play Call of Duty…or hide in a bunk and watch a movie.

For First Sergeant Wesley Bockert, 36, from Toledo, Ohio, a rainy day is is the perfect day for a race. For competition. For team building. And maybe a bit of debauchery.

“I wanted a different mindset to training out here,” Bockert said. “The problem with combat is you’re always in combat. When you mention training in combat, it feels like a task.”

He had created a set of competitions each week and each platoon had to give a squad to the competition. There was an IED lane, a Med lane, a mortar challenge.

With rain relentlessly tat-tat-tatting on the tin roofs at Sperwan Ghar, Bockert devised the Why the Hell Not? Games, a set of four competitions pitting the soldiers of the four platoons of Bravo Company against one another. There wouldn’t be any gold medals or prizes….only pride and bragging rights.

Lt. Miles Dunning, 23, of Hickory, N.C., served as the master of ceremonies.

The first competition, the pie-eating contest, became a corn-dog eating contest, when they discovered there were no pies available.

“We all know the best foods are shaped like penises,” Dunning said, joking about the last-minute switch to corn dogs.

In the first competition, a soldier from each of the four platoons would eat the corn dogs but another soldier would have to be his hands and feed them to him. 20 corn dogs. Spc. Jose Castaneda, eating the corn dogs, and Spc. Keith Petty, feeding Castaneda, won the competition. (I think. Correct me if I’m wrong. There was a dispute over the winner, as I recall.)

Soldiers compete in a corn dog eating competition, the first of four games in a series at Bravo Co. on Feb. 16, 2012. Each contestant must eat 20 corn dogs. The first to finish without throwing up wins. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

The second competition was called “Jack in the Box.” One soldier from each platoon would drink eight boxes of chocolate milk then he’d climb inside a container and four of his fellow soldiers would carry him once around the landing zone. Fourth platoon soldiers won the competition.

A Bravo Co. soldier downs a carton of chocolate milk, one of eight he'll need to drink, before squeezing into a box for a trip around the landing zone at Sperwan Ghar. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

As his fellow soldiers watch, Spc. Lindsey drains a box of chocolate milk in the "Jack-in-the-Box" competition, the second of four games in the "Why the Hell Not?" Games at Sperwan Ghar on Feb. 16, 2012. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

B. Co. soldiers carry a soldier in a box toward the finish line after a lap around the landing zone at Sperwan Ghar on Feb. 16, 2012. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

Soldiers near the finish line carrying a fellow B. Co. soldier in a box after a lap around the landing zone at Sperwan Ghar on Feb. 16, 2012. They were competing in the "Jack-in-the-Box" game. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

Bravo Co. soldiers race for the finish line in the "Jack-in-the-Box" competition. They're carrying a fellow soldier in the box. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

In the third competition, soldiers were required to eat the entire contents of a Meals Ready to Eat…right down to the powered apple cider mix and the tabasco sauce.

First Sergeant Wesley Bockert, center, watches the MRE eating competition on Feb. 16, 2012. Bockert created four competitions of the "Why the Hell Not?" Games. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

The first B. Co. soldier to eat everything in the Cheese Tortellini Meal Ready to Eat won the MRE eating contest on Feb. 16 2012. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

Pfc. Robert Christopher, right, 21, from Lafayette, La., uses his hands to eat the cheese tortellini in his MRE while Pfc. Trevor Blevins opts for a spoon. Blevins, from 2nd platoon, won the competition. Christopher took third place. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

Spc. Tyler Gilmour pauses during the MRE eating contest at Sperwan Ghar on Feb. 16, 2012. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

“It was horrible,” said Pfc.Robert Christopher, 21, from Layfayette, La. “I had acid reflux till midnight. I definitely don’t plan on eating any cheese tortellini anytime soon.”

The final contest required one soldier from each platoon to drink a total of 12 protein shakes and summit and descend the famous hill the Russians built at Sperwan Ghar three times.

I’ll spare you the photos of the puddles of pink puke along the hill trail as soldiers lost some of the protein shakes they ingested along the way. I’ll simply show you a photo of the eventual winner, Spc. Joshua Knight, of 3rd Platoon.

Spc. Joshua Knight, of 3rd platoon, makes his third and final ascent of the hill at Sperwan Ghar to win the fourth competition in the "Why the Hell Not?" games on Feb. 16, 2012. Knight left puddles of pink vomit along the trail as he regurgitated a fair amount of the 12 protein shakes he ingested during the competition. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

At the top of the hill after his second ascent, Knight spewed pink puke all over my shoes and trousers. That got a few laughs. Hazards of the job.

I saw him later outside his room and he said he’d been worrying about throwing up on me.

I told him that I was a college athlete and a Pac-10 Champion rower. I assured him that I knew something about puking after a grueling training or competition. No harm. No foul.

After the race, Knight had said the key to his win was conditioning, working out.

“You get used to it. It’s ain’t nothing,” he said. “Drive on.

“I’m gonna go wash up.”

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