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?

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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.

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.

My son was born in an Army hospital and died in one

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JR and I are in Kandahar now. In physical distance, we’re not that far from the soldiers we spent the last three weeks with in Shoja, Khenjakak, Sperwan Ghar and Masum Ghar. And yet it feels light years away…in a Twilight Zone, time-warp way.

We can walk the boardwalk and see TGI Fridays, Nathan’s Hot Dogs, KFC and Kabob Pizza. We can eat our meals in a DFAC three maybe four times the size of the simple chow halls we frequented at outlying combat posts. Soldiers play football or soccer on an astro turf field in the center of the boardwalk and there are TV screens everywhere broadcasting soccer matches and U.S. football playoff games.

And then I wake this morning to the news that another Stryker soldier has been killed.

“A soldier based at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks was killed last weekend in a surprise attack inside a U.S. base in Afghanistan by a man dressed in an Afghan soldier’s uniform.

Click to enlarge
“Private 1st Class Dustin Paul Napier, 20, from London, Ky., was killed in the city of Qalat in Afghanistan’s Zabul Province Jan. 8, 2012.
The U.S. Army in Alaska on Tuesday identified the American soldier, a member of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, as Pfc. Dustin Paul Napier, 20, from London, Ky. He was shot Sunday afternoon in Qalat in Afghanistan’s Zabul Province.”
At the bottom of the story, it’s the words from his father that hurt my heart:

“Napier’s father was also soldier and served for five years. He told the Herald-Leader that his son was born in an Army hospital and died in one.”

Born in an Army hospital and died in one…20 years old. Married in October 2011, he was just beginning a new life with his wife.

I’ve read news reports recently that state that the insurgent activity has lessened…that it’s winter and fighting had died down. Though I’m remembering an interview I had with Brigade Commander Col. Todd Wood on Monday, Jan. 9, 2011.

I was talking to him about the women of the Female Engagement Team and the fact that they walk the same line behind the same mine sweeper as the guys in the infantry units to which they’re attached. In my opinion, these women soldiers are most definitely in combat.

He said: “In this environment, everybody is in a combat environment. We could get hit by a 107 rocket right now.”

Or, as it seems in the case of Private 1st Class Dustin Paul Napier, 20, from London, Ky, you could be playing volleyball with your buddies on a Sunday afternoon and get shot by a guy you think is your Afghan counterpart.

It may be winter. There may be fewer “events,” as the Army calls them. And yet, for a young soldier, the son of a soldier, none of that mattered. A bullet found him and took his life.

It was hard news for JR and me to take this morning. A sobering reminder of what Spec. Valerie Cronkhite, a medic attached to the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry regiment told us before we left Shoja. She’s seen her share of mass casualties and death on this deployment.

She said we were lucky that we’d gotten to see as much as we’d seen, that we’d gonec out on patrols and an air assault and no one was hurt. She’s right..and we know it.

JR and I hugged. JR has gone to sit in the chapel for a while and I’m sitting here writing this blog.

Catching Up

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JR Ancheta and I have just returned from three days with Bravo Company. We’ve been out on patrol. All the soldiers returned safely and JR and I were grateful for the time we got to spend with them.

I have a story to finish for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner today, our third in a series of four we’ve promised from the field. And I have interviews with Command Sgt. Major Bowen and some of the women soldiers with the Female Engagement Team to conduct today for my fourth story.

Bear with me, I have more photos and blog posts I want to share. Writing for this blog comes after reporting and doing my stories for publication.

Thanks for your patronage…and your patience.

Top Ten Things I’ll Remember about Fairbanks

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I wrote this entry on May 29, as I was preparing to leave Fairbanks after my year as the Snedden Chair, teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It was a glorious year of discovery. I’ve listed my favorite, most memorable things about my time in the Interior.

1. The Museum Of the North

2. The soldiers of the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team and their families stationed at Fort Wainwright.

3. My sublime cabin encircled by birch trees, where moose and a red fox came often to visit

4. The aurora borealis that danced outside my bedroom window

5. Theresa Bakker’s Radio Production Class

6. UAF Yoga Club and Infinite Yoga

7. The journalism students who taught me and trusted me with teaching them

8. Outdoor Adventures: hiking at Angel Rocks and canoeing on the Chena River with Okkar and Qian

9. Gifted Alaska writers Sherry Simpson (“The Accidental Explorer: Wayfinding in Alaska” and “The Way Winter Comes: Alaska Stories” and Peggy Shumaker (“Just Breathe Normally”)

1o. Thai food at Simply Thai and Lemongrass

Hearts for Haiti

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The Hearts for Haiti fund-raiser featured eight UAF Yoga Club instructors who volunteered their time for the three-hour event. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

It had been more than a year since the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010. It was off the media radar, except for the expected it’s-been-a-year-since-the-quake-and-people-are-still-suffering stories. Nancy Tarnai, public information officer, University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, wanted to do something to make a difference.

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, Nancy, a member of the UAF Yoga Club, created “Hearts for Haiti,” a three-hour yogathon at the UPark Gym to raise funds for AMURT HAITI, a non-profit organization that has worked in Haiti since 1988. AMURT HAITI strives to help Haitians help themselves, offering programs for women and children, including one that teaches yoga to young children.

Nancy Tarnai and her son, Alex, collect $30 individual donations from participants before the yogathon. The club raised $1200. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

UAF Yoga Club instructors pose for a fun group portrait before the start of the three-hour yogathon and fund-raiser, Hearts for Haiti. The instructors volunteered their time. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

Donna opened the session with 20 minutes of centering and warm-up. Tracy did a 20-minute session on flow/salutations and reminded everyone to send love and light to people in Haiti. Lisa offered 20 minutes of standing poses. Shanti lead back-to-back 20-minutes sessions. The first focused on standing balance poses followed by a demanding core side arm balance series.

UAF Yoga Club instructors Lisa, from left, and Kara and participants do a tree pose. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

Maya led the group through a series of forward bends and back bends. Morgan gave a session on twists. Kara introduced partner poses, featuring ways to use the weight and support of a partner to deepen stretches and open tight spots. Jody finished the yogathon with savasana/meditation/chanting.

Kara and Jody demonstrate a partner pose, the sun (Kara)/moon pose, near the end of the three-hour yogathon fund-raiser. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

The event was a joy and a success. We spent an afternoon opening our hearts, minds and bodies, in fitness, fellowship and connection to our global community. And we raised $1200 for AMURT HAITI (100 percent of the funds were donated.)

Congratulations and thank you to all the people who volunteered their time and energy.

Namaste.

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