In the Box: UAF Students Embed with 1-25th Stryker Brigade, Part 1

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University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism students JR Ancheta, from left, Jeric Quiliza and Matt Anderson pose for a photo at Fort Irwin, Calif. before they leave for their embed with the 1-25th Stryker Brigade in the Mojave Desert on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2011. The students spent four nights and three days embedded during "full spectrum" training exercises in the Mojave Desert. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

An access pass hangs on the rear view mirror of the public affairs vehicle that carries the UAF students to the National Training Center in a restricted area in the Mojave Desert. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

Note: This is the first of a series of posts about a trip by University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism students and Snedden Chair Cheryl Hatch, who participated in an embed with soldiers from the 1-25th Stryker Brigade, based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. The soldiers spent a month in training exercises in the Mojave Desert, designed to prepare them for their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. The UAF College of Liberal Arts and the Snedden Endowment provided the funds to cover the travel expenses (flights, rental car, gas) for the trip from Fairbanks to Fort Irwin, Calif.

Bright and early Friday morning, our first day “in the box,” we met with Col. Todd Wood, commander of the 1-25th Stryker Brigade, in the Tactical Operating Center, a series of connected tents, in Forward Operating Base Denver in the Mojave Desert. He welcomed us, answered questions and assured us we would have unfettered access to the soldiers and their training.

The students walked out of the tent and into the sunshine. Inspired by their access to the colonel, they were excited to get to work. The colonel rolled away in a Stryker convoy for a meeting with provincial Afghan leaders.

And we spent the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon waiting for our rides, waiting to embed.  Over the next few hours, we had several test runs at embedding. We’d run and gather our gear for an imminent departure, only to learn plans had changed. We rearranged our two-person reporting teams several times. At one point, we had Options A, B, C and D.

UAF journalism students (from left) JR Ancheta, Matt Anderson and Jeric Quilza pose for a photo with Col. Todd Wood, commander of the 1-25th Stryker Brigade, after an interview in the Tactical Operating Center at Forward Operating Base Denver on Friday, Feb. 18, 2011. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

By early afternoon, Matt Anderson, a reporter, and Jeric Quiliza, who’d be shooting video, embedded with the 3-21 Infantry Battalion, “The Gimlets.” They piled into a Stryker, the ramp closed and the convoy headed southeast toward the scenario’s Pakistani border.

Photojournalist JR Ancheta and I eventually embedded with the 1-5 Infantry Battalion,  “The Bobcats.” We met Lt. Col.. Brian Payne, the commander, late Friday afternoon when he and his soldiers returned from a successful mission after recovering a missing United States State Department official. A mission we’d missed because we were sitting in an office, waiting.

We were upset we’d missed the story. He was upset, too. We learned that Payne had sent a convoy through a “kill zone” earlier in the day to pick us up, only to be told we had left with another unit. We assured him we’d been waiting for them and had been told they’d left without us. Due to a series of miscommunications, he’d unintentionally put his soldiers at risk and stranded a reporting team.

A lesson learned, Payne said.

Learning from mistakes is an essential part of training, for the soldiers at the National Training Center and the students embedded with them.

The military has its own culture:  its language, its customs and its terrain are just as foreign to the student journalists as Afghanistan’s culture is to the soldiers.

Over the four nights and three days of the embed experience, the students and soldiers learned they share common ground. As the soldiers seek to conduct an effective counterinsurgency campaign, they learn they need to establish rapport with local Afghans. They learn to establish trust and build relationships. All the while, they maintain situational awareness and adapt to any changes.

The students had to do the exact same things—build rapport, created relationships and adapt to changing circumstances—to work within the military culture and constraints to bring home stories for their readers.

UAF photojournalism student JR Ancheta, from left, photographs the silhouettes of Spc. Mike Blalock, UAF reporter Matt Anderson, Snedden Chair Cheryl Hatch and UAF videographer Jeric Quiliza on a tent at Forward Operating Base Denver in the National Training Center, "the box," on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

 

 

 

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Bound for LA and Beyond

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UAF Journalism students JR Ancheta, from left, Jeric Quiliza and Matt Anderson phone home from the beach north of Santa Moncia, California. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

At 23:30 (we slip into military time for this trip) on Wednesday, Jan. 16, our adventure begins.

I pick up JR Ancheta, a still photographer and photojournalism major, at his dorm, and Jeric Quiliza, a videographer and broadcast journalism major, at his home off-campus. The third student, Matt Anderson, has his own ride to the airport. I’ve told him if he doesn’t meet us at check-in, I can’t cover the cost of his checked bag. He’s on his own.

With the help of Maj. Dave Mattox at the Public Affairs Office at Fort Wainwright, I had arranged an “embed” experience for three University of Alaska Fairbanks Journalism students to cover the 1-25th Stryker Brigade during their training at the National Training Center in the Mojave Desert near Fort Irwin, California. The department has a history of covering events connected to the soldiers. This trip allowed us to expand upon the collaboration of students and soldiers training side by side. The students learn how to work on an assignment in challenging situations with real deadlines and the soldiers learn how to work and interact with members of the media. We have separate yet equal missions. There are places where we can work together and places where our objectives may be at odds.

The Department of Journalism and the College of Liberal Arts covered the costs of the students’ airfare. I’m the Snedden Chair, therefore the Snedden endowment covered my travel expenses, including the rental car for our trip from Los Angeles to the Mojave Desert. We would get a lot of bang for our buck.

Prior to leaving Fairbanks, I created a mentor system for the students. UAF photojournalism professor Charles Mason would be JR’s mentor. Documentary filmmaker Rob Prince would be Jeric’s mentor. And veteran reporter and chair of the department Brian O’Donoghue would be Matt’s mentor.

We held a meeting to discuss our upcoming trip and walk through any potential problems we might encounter and any concerns the students had. We were presenting the students with a rare and incredible opportunity. With advance planning and discussion, I hoped we could help them prepare to make the best of our assignment. They’d return home with stories to tell–and to publish in local and, ideally, national media.

Brian warned the students that they might need to be assertive and persistent about getting access. Rob suggested Jeric keep the camera rolling if he were denied access to an event. I had them create a list of story ideas. They had a complete packing list. Check. Check. Check. Ready to roll.

JR had checked and rechecked–and checked a final time–his packing list and his gear. JR was ready to go. Jeric said he packed about an hour before departure. Matt called me at 22:00 and asked what kind of bag to pack. He played a game of broomball with his intramural squad at 22:30 then showered and made it to the airport as we began clearing security. He paid for his own baggage fee.

I’d gone to the airport at 06:00 that morning to secure window seats for our trip. Matt went online and changed his seat. OK.

We leave at 01:30 Thursday, landing at LAX at 09:30. I leave to get the rental car, pick up the students and their baggage and head for a rendez-vous with a friend from my days in Cairo, Michael Nelson, now based in LA as a staff photographer with the European Press Agency.

Michael Nelson, from left, LA-based staff photographer with the European Press Association, poses for a photo with UAF Jouranalism students JR Ancheta, Jeric Quiliza and Matt Anderson before the students depart an "embed" assignement with the 1-25th Stryker Brigade. The Fort Wainwright soldiers were training at the U.S. Army National Training Center in the Mojave Desert. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

Michael Nelson, from left, LA-based staff photographer with the European Press Association, poses for a photo with UAF Jouranalism students JR Ancheta, Jeric Quiliza and Matt Anderson before the students depart an "embed" assignement with the 1-25th Stryker Brigade. The Fort Wainwright soldiers were training at the U.S. Army National Training Center in the Mojave Desert. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch

I’ve learned from my years of travel and work overseas, it’s important to take advantage of the time on the front end of a journey to get a good meal and rest a bit before plunging into an assignment. I figured it would be a great chance for the students to network and get last-minute tips/advice with a professional photojournalist.

We had an early lunch at Back on the Beach Cafe north of Santa Monica with the sun shining on our faces and the surf of the Pacific Ocean a short walk from our table. After dipping our toes in the water, we said good-bye.

I had to get out of Los Angeles, heading east on the I-10 and reach Fort Irwin before 15:30. JR would be my navigator.

Jeric and Matt promptly fell asleep in the back seat. And so began our journey to “the box.”

Matt Anderson sleeps during the three-hour journey east on the I-10 from Los Angeles toward Fort Irwin, California. Copyright 2011 Cheyrl Hatch

Jeric Quiliza sleeps during the three-hour journey east on the I-10 from Los Angeles toward Fort Irwin, California. Copyright 2011 Cheryl Hatch