When it comes to U.S. war veterans, ‘nobody outranks anybody in death’

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Writer’s note: I am a journalist in academia, a woman who has traveled among many cultures. I live outside the box and I like it — and I want to share my perspective with you every Thursday.

When I was in graduate school in Ohio, I was working on a documentary project on military families and I decided to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day.

As the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, I had visited the wall a few times since its inauguration in 1982. I loved that Maya Lin, who designed the memorial, envisioned the black granite structure as a wound in the earth.

On this visit, I carried a family photo, a classic square Kodak print with the pastel colors and white border. Sitting with our backs straight (shoulders back, my dad would say), four Hatch siblings flashed our shiny grin-grimace smiles for the camera for a photo destined for a Christmas card that would find our father in Vietnam.

As I approached the back of the wall, I broke into deep sobs. Ambushed. I dropped to my knees.

An Army officer’s kid, I was raised to shake off slights, scrapes and wounds. I didn’t shed tears. I looked at the photo, then at the wall, then at all the people making the pilgrimage to the black granite memorial etched with the names of the more than 58,000 who had served and died in the Vietnam War. I sat on the grass and sobbed.

My father came home, twice. So many men and women didn’t.

While I was a Snedden Chair at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the photojournalism students and I had embarked on a project documenting the lives of the Fort Wainwright soldiers as they trained and their families as they prepared for an upcoming deployment. Lt. Col. Brian Payne invited a student photojournalist and me to join the soldiers of the First Battalion Fifth Infantry Regiment downrange.

For Christmas 2011, JR Ancheta and I were embedded with the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team “Arctic Wolves” in southern Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

Days after Christmas, we joined Charlie Company on an air assault mission. It was their first since their previous air assault when Pfc. Brett C. Wood, 19, was killed walking on patrol when he hit an improvised explosive device. Every soldier in third platoon wore a black metal K.I.A. bracelet in honor and memory of Wood.

Allegheny College 2005 graduate Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor was on patrol with Wood that day.

“No chance,” Taylor said. “He died instantly.

“I was the first one there. I’m not glad it was me but I’m glad it wasn’t anyone else. I take comfort maybe even. Sgt. O’Neal and I were the only ones to bear the burden.”

The soldiers followed protocol, swinging a hand-held metal detector, a Vallon, to sweep for and clear the area of other possible explosive devices.

“Sgt. O’Neal made the decision,” Taylor said, recalling his leader’s words that day. “’Taylor, you’re holding your s— together. I need you right now.’”

The two men then gathered the remains of their fallen fellow soldier.

“The memories aren’t something I enjoy, but I wouldn’t have wanted it to be anyone else,” Taylor said. “I’m happy I was able to protect those guys from that.”

On Memorial Day 2012, “Arctic Wolves” soldiers, family members, JR and I attended the service for the 21 soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

The dead: Spc. Bradley L. Melton; Pfc. Cheizray Pressley; Pfc. Lamarol J. Tucker; Sgt. Jeffrey C. S. Sherer; PV2 Ryan J. Larson; First Sgt. Kenneth B. Elwell; Pfc. Tyler M. Springmann; Pfc. Douglas L. Cordo; Pfc. Brandon S. Mullins; Spc. Douglas J. Green; Spc. Christopher J. Marquis; Pfc. Brett E. Wood; Sgt. Rodolfo Rodrigues Jr.; Sgt. Timothy D. Sayne; Spc. Ryan J. Cook; PV2 Danny Chen; Spc. Calvin M. Pereda; Spc. Johnathan “Bryant” McCain; Spc. James R. Burnett Jr.; Pfc. Matthew C. Collin; Pfc. Dustin P. Napier.

My friend and fellow journalist Larry James is a veteran journalist and a veteran. We met in Cairo, covered conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. We once crossed paths in the middle of Liberia: I was on my way out; Larry was on his way in to cover the civil war.

James was a 22-year-old first lieutenant when he arrived in Vietnam. As an infantry platoon leader, he joined the men of Charlie Company, Fourth Battalion, Ninth Infantry Regiment (Manchu) in May 1968. The unit had suffered grievous losses in the previous five months, including an ambush on March 2, 1968, in which 49 soldiers were killed.

Decades later, James wrote a book about the soldiers, the ambush and the events surrounding it. He opens “Unfortunate Sons: A True Story of Young Men and War” with a quote by Desiderius Erasmus, a 15th century Dutch humanist: “War is delightful to those who have no experience of it.”

James wrote the book to remember the young men and to record their history and service since the story remained unknown outside of the small group of Manchu. In the acknowledgements, James wrote he intended the book as “an overdue tribute to a group of young Americans who did what was asked of them and paid with their lives.”

The dead: Jose Luis Alvarez-Tapia; Gerald Lawrence Avery; Charles Edward Bonds; Harlan Ray Brandts; Jerry Walker Byers; William Brace Cawley Jr.; Gary Virgil Frazier; Michael Dennis Frost; Raymond Leroy Gallagher; Cal Duain Johnson; Lawrence Johnson; Jack Joseph Jordan Jr.; Lee Roy Lanier; Charlie Frank Lee; James Rufus Mathis; Robert Junior McGee; Charles Edward Melott; Leonard David Moore; Thomas Lee Mork; Barry Lee Moyer; James Francis O’Laughlin; Kenneth Lindle Oldham; William Rassano; Jose Angel Reyes; Roy Donald Page; Ronald Landon Salvani; Willard Skaggs Jr.; Michael Ross Rivers; Aristides Sosa; Clifford Geoffrey Stockton; Ronald Allen Slane; Warren Lee Tall; John Michael Thompson; Danny George Swazick; Walker C. Velvet Jr.; Larry Huston Walden; Carrel Jean Titsworth; Paul Edward West; Darrell Eugene Wheeler; Gary Winston Watkins; Joseph Jerome Williams; Virgil Lawrence Williams; Larry Allen Widener; Danny Stephen Young; Willard Frank Young; Kenneth Wayne Winget.

I asked James if he intentionally listed the soldiers’ names without their ranks.

“Yes, I did,” James said. “Nobody outranks anybody in death.”


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

Journalists in war zones: shining a light

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014


I first heard the news on National Public Radio on my car radio.

On April 4, the day before elections in Afghanistan, an Afghan military officer walked up to a car in a convoy and opened fire. Anja Niedringhaus, a staff photographer for the Associated Press, died instantly. She was 48. Her colleague, Kathy Gannon, sustained multiple injuries and lived.

That weekend, I was attending a journalism conference at Boston University. On Saturday morning, the conference opened with a remembrance and a moment of silence for the veteran photojournalist.

Anja was a colleague. We’d both been staff photographers for the Associated Press. We had both covered conflict. I knew her work; I didn’t know her.

In the days that followed, I felt a sense of sadness I couldn’t shake. I walked along the ocean shore, sat and stared at the small, breaking waves, hoping the salt air and the soothing sound of the surf would wash over me and through me.

The sadness is cumulative and elusive. It’s been with me for decades, long before I noticed it, probably since my first war. It goes into hibernation and awakens every few years, usually on the cusp of spring.

On April 20, 2011, I was in Fairbanks, Alaska, when I noticed the status updates on Facebook. Getty photographer Chris Hondros, a friend and colleague, had been mortally wounded in Misrata, Libya. He was 41. Chris had been covering the uprising in Egypt and opted for one more assignment before returning home to the States. In the New York cathedral where they had planned to wed in August, his fiancée gave his eulogy.

I was eating breakfast in Oregon one morning in March 1994, when I read a brief in the small section on world events in our local paper: an Italian journalist was killed in Mogadishu. I contacted a mutual friend, an Italian journalist I’d met in Somalia and worked with in Mozambique. He sent a fax and confirmed the worst.

Their Somali guards had abandoned Ilaria Alpi and her Slovenian cameraman Miran Hrovatin. They were stranded in their vehicle when gunmen ambushed them and opened fire.

“They killed her like a dog. She had just the time to raise her hands to her face.”

Ilaria, a television reporter for RAI-3, murdered. She was 32.

The last time I’d seen Ilaria, we’d sat on the roof of a dilapidated building that served as a hotel for journalists in Mogadishu. We’d talked and laughed, listening to the gunfire in the streets, watching the tracer fire in the night sky. We’d shared stories of being women journalists and agreed to meet in the summer and share a bottle of wine on the balcony of her Rome apartment.

Once, in Somalia, I was traveling in a car behind a truck loaded with grapefruit. A Somali woman wrapped in a flowing, rich yellow fabric walked past the truck. From the back seat of the car, I stuck my camera with a long lens out the window. I liked the repetition of the yellow, something light and bright in a dark place.

Brakes screeched. Three Somali gunmen bounded from the truck and began screaming and shoving their AK-47s through the windows at me.

I didn’t have the language to explain that I hadn’t seen them, that I was photographing the fruit.

“Maya, Maya,” I said in Somali as they gestured that they would shoot. “No, no.”

I smiled, put up my hands and kept talking in English.

They didn’t shoot. I was lucky.

There but for the grace of God.

The thought flickers across my mind when I read stories of journalists, friends and colleagues killed covering conflict.

Liberia. Iraq. Somalia. Eritrea. Afghanistan. I got out alive.

Yes, journalists assume risks when they work in conflict zones. Injury. Disease.

Now assassination is a risk. Shoot the messenger.

It’s uncertain and under investigation whether the April 4 shooting was a random act of violence or a targeted killing. Both women were well known in Afghanistan for their years of reporting in the region.

Nearly 20 years to the day of Ilaria’s death, the Italian government is considering declassifying secret files related to the journalists’ deaths. It’s been suspected that the journalists were killed to prevent them revealing a high-level conspiracy to divert Italian aid to an organization trafficking in weapons and toxic waste, according to reports in the Italian press last month.

The Committee to Protect Journalists posts a tally of the number of journalists killed each year. This year, 17 journalists have been killed as of April 14. In 2011, 47 journalists, including Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, were killed. In 1994, 66 journalists, including Ilaria and Mirvan, were killed.

In his remembrance of Anja, AP Director of Photography Santiago Lyon called her “a lighthouse guiding us to safety.”

I have always liked that photography comes from the Greek for “writing with light.” I think of all journalists—and particularly those who work in conflict zones—as writing with light. Bearing witness. Shining a light into dark places. Revealing the truth.

Last Saturday, I was driving back from a pie run to Westfield, N.Y. It was a sunny, warm day. I was thinking about this column. Remembering Anja, Chris and Ilaria.

The CD deck switched to a Mavis Staples’ CD, “We’ll Never Turn Back.”

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

I rolled down my window and turned up the sound. I sang along with the phrases that resonated. For my friends who’ve died. For the journalists who continue to shine their light.

The road is dark. The way was long….

Don’t give up. Don’t back down. Don’t let the liar turn you round.

All in the street, I’m gonna let it shine. On the battlefield, I’m going to let it shine.

When it shines, freedom shines.

When it shines, no more sorrow.

When it shines, no more pain.

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




I believe the most precious gifts cannot be bought


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.


Remembering Anthony



Sunday, Oct. 28, I learned that my friend, Anthony Natividad, had died on Maui.

It took me a while to even hear the news. I thought: there must be some mistake. Not Anthony. So young. Such a beautiful man and bright spirit. A gifted healer. A musician. A man who signed all his messages “blessings.”

It’s taken me even longer to remember him in writing.  I am a private person, though I have shared many personal experiences on this blog. I needed time and space–private and profound–to carry Anthony in my heart for a while. As a mutual friend said of his death: It’s a loss for the planet.

Anthony Natividad blowing nose rings underwater in the ocean off his beloved Maui.

Anthony Natividad blowing nose rings underwater in the ocean off his beloved Maui.

When I was in Afghanistan, embedded with the 1-5 Infantry Battalion 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Anthony would send me messages from Maui. He’d send me photos of the ocean, of dolphins, of him blowing nose rings under water in a deep, vast blue. He’d send pictures of rainbows over the green hills. And he always sent blessings.

On my second embed, when I returned to Afghanistan without my colleague and friend, JR Ancheta, I felt awfully alone. Some of my reporting was well received and appreciated. Some of the soldiers were never going to accept me. It was tough and lonely. Anthony’s bright light and love found me in the dark places. I always felt loved and happy when I’d receive a message from Anthony.

When he learned that I’d returned to Afghanistan to do a special in-depth assignment on the women soldiers of the Female Engagement Team for “The Christian Science Monitor,” Anthony sent me a message: “We must honor our women warriors.” And he asked me to share with them a photo of a rainbow that he was sending me. It took us hours to get the image to reach me in the MWR at Bravo Company in Sperwan Ghar.

Anthony later wrote: Did the women warriors like the photo I sent? Yes, they did.

After that second embed, when I was hospitalized in Kuwait, where I battled for my breath and life, Anthony texted me and sent me messages. I had a view of the ocean from my hospital window. That made Anthony happy when I told him. He sent me a photograph of humpback whales.

A photo of humpback whales that Anthony Natividad sent me, sharing his encounter with the mother and baby in the waters off Maui.

A photo of humpback whales that Anthony Natividad sent me, sharing his encounter with the mother and baby in the waters off Maui.

Once again, Anthony’s light and love had found me in a dark place and uplifted me. He joined all the angels and prayers that helped me heal.

I first met Anthony several years ago through a mutual friend. I was visiting friends on Maui and I called him. He invited me to see, Ulalena, a show in which he’d performed for years. He said he’d have a seat reserved for me. I loved the show so much, I went and saw the next performance. After the performance, Anthony introduced me to his wife, Jamie, and members of the cast. I watched as he played a double noseflute blessing for visitors.

And then he played one for me.

When my brother and his family visited Maui for Christmas one year, I insisted they see the show, and once again, Anthony reserved seats for us. My nephew was learning the flute. After the performance, Anthony played the blessing for my nephew then he let him hold one of the flutes and explained the power of the sacred breath. And my nephew played Anthony’s flute as we all watched. It’s a memory I’ll cherish.

The last time I saw Anthony was the day I was catching a flight to leave Maui. I called him in the morning and asked to meet before I left. He drove down from Lahaina and we went into the ocean we both love. He was teaching me to surf with a paddle board.

Neither one of us wore a watch. And we kept staying a bit longer. A bit longer. We didn’t want to leave the water. Heck, I didn’t want to leave the island.

When we got the boards to his car, I looked at the time on my phone. I barely had time to make my flight. We laughed and hugged then I jumped in my rental car and went straight to the airport, with wet hair and salt-crusted skin. And I couldn’t have been happier.


The photo above is not mine; however, it’s exactly how I remember Anthony the last time I saw him.

When I learned that he’d died, I immediately went back through my emails to find a message from Anthony. None. I checked my Facebook messages. None. I checked my phone. None, though I still saw his name.

I had erased all our communications. Nothing left, I thought.

Then I thought, no. That’s exactly perfect. It is the shining example of Anthony’s life: there is nothing to hold on to. This planet with her deep waters and the life and energy that link us…they are gifts, fleeting and precious…to be valued and appreciated in the moment.

There is but the sacred breath we all share. We live, one breath at a time.

Blessings, Anthony.

The great thank off

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Today my friend and talented writer Kimber Williams posted a nice idea on Facebook.

“Today is Day One of The Great Thank Off.

The challenge: To post something for which you are grateful for 30 days prior to Thanksgiving. (Invite your friends to participate.)

I’m thankful to live in a country where I have the freedom to VOTE — which I intend to do tomorrow…”

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t excelled at the 31 posts in October that I declared I’d make this month. I haven’t given up hope yet. There’s still time to honor that commitment. (It’ll be a big help when I get an Internet connection at my home on Friday.)

I do like the idea of posting 30 days of thankfulness leading up to Thanksgiving. So here’s the first one.

On Facebook, I posted that I was thankful for my friend of many years, Kimber Williams. Kimber is a gifted reporter and writer. She now writes for publications at Emory University in Atlanta. We first met when she was a features writer at The Register Guard in Eugene, Oregon. (The website does not do justice to the fine paper with a long-standing history of remarkable photojournalism and writing.)

Kimber interviewed me for a story about my work covering conflict in the Middle East and Africa. Although I’m a journalist, I was deeply uncomfortable being on the other side of an interview. Kimber spent four hours speaking with me.The story became the front of the features section under the title “The Cost of Conflict.” It featured my photographs from Liberia, Somalia and Mozambique. And it helped educate the community about wars and their aftermath that on briefly made the news in the U.S., let alone Oregon.

That was years ago…before newspapers posted online. Before Kimber became a mother. Before I stepped away from covering war for 10 years. And before I stepped back into it this past year in Afghanistan.

Through the years, we’ve remained friends. I had hoped to visit her and her family when I drove across country this summer. I missed the opportunity though we had a long conversation to bring us up to date.

Here’s to you Kimber. Thank you for the idea of The Great Thank Off (definitely could use a better title).

And thank you for the years of beautiful writing …and your friendship.

Remembering Memorial Day: A conversation

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My friend Jeanene asked me to speak on her radio program that she intended to be a conversation about Memorial Day in advance of this weekend’s day of remembrance.

After two months in Afghanistan, three weeks in a Kuwaiti hospital and traveling halfway around the globe, I exhaust easily. And I’ve noticed my emotions are raw. I was concerned I wouldn’t make it through the conversation. I was afraid I wouldn’t be articulate. I was afraid I’d cry. Frankly, at first, I didn’t want to do it…and I didn’t want to disappoint my friend.

It was another opportunity to share stories of the soldiers of the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, particularly the soldiers of the 1-5. So I accepted.

It was a thoughtful and emotional conversation not a political one. At the start of the program, Jeanene said: “I think it’s really important to distinguish the concept of war from our recognition of the warrior. Because while it’s meaningful to debate the virtues or lack of virtues for any given war, it’s not OK with me to debate the virtue of the those killed in action….I don’t ever confuse a political action, which is declaring war, with that very scared action of giving up one’s life.”

At :36.40 until :38.58 in the one-hour program, I read the 21 names of the soldiers from the 1/25th who did not return from Afghanistan.

I invite you to listen to the conversation and start conversations with your friends and families about the meaning of Memorial Day.

Below, I’ve included a link and Jeanene’s description of the intention of the program. Thank you for listening. Thank you for remembering.


This week is a special Memorial Day conversation with journalist Cheryl Hatch, just back after an embed with an Army battalion in Afghanistan where she documented the lives of soldiers before, during, and after deployment. Her years of being in and out of war zones, plus a childhood of waiting for her father to come home from two tours in Vietnam, have brought forth a body of work called THE COST OF CONFLICT. This insightful collection of images capturing what war leaves behind, combined with her reverence and respect for military personnel and their families, should help set the tone for a thoughtful and meaningful Memorial Day Holiday.

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.



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.

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