Honor those in uniform and their families on Veterans Day

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Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

These past few years as Veterans Day approached, I’ve had a thought: Hey, I’m veteran.

Of course, I am not, by definition, a veteran. Here’s the definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

vet·er·an noun \ˈve-tə-rən, ˈve-trən\ someone who fought in a war as a soldier, sailor, etc.; someone who has a lot of experience in a particular activity, job, etc.

I never served in a uniform in combat. I did, however, grow up in the military and I feel I served.

On Veterans Day, I remember and honor those who served, including the families of those men and women who braved combat, who bled and who died on battlefields far from home. I remember those who came home, some wounded, some shattered. And those who did not come home.

I was a young girl the first time my father went to Vietnam and I don’t remember much. I was a few years older the second time he went to Vietnam. I remember well that long year he was gone. The Vietnam War marked my childhood.

I remember I wanted a puppy and I had saved my small allowance for weeks, probably months. I asked my mom if I could get a puppy at the animal shelter. She told me I’d have to get permission from my father.

My father was an ocean away on the other side of the world. I wrote a letter and I waited a child’s eternity for my dad’s response. I remember his answer to this day.

A puppy is a big responsibility, Cher. You must take care of it. You must feed it and walk it and clean up after it. Your mom will need your help while I’m away.

Yes, mom needed help.

We had been living at Fort Lewis, Washington. When the Army shipped my father to Vietnam, they booted his family off base.

In my father’s 30-year career, we moved at least 26 times. My mom made a list once, trying to recall our many residences.

While my dad was on his second tour in Vietnam, my mom was left alone to raise four young children; the youngest was 9 months old.

New town. No friends. No support. No family. Husband away at war.

I have been on both sides of the equation. As a child, I was the one left behind. As an adult, I was the one to leave others behind and travel into conflict zones. Liberia. Somalia. Iraq. Afghanistan.

I’m a journalist. I carried a camera not a rifle.

In my opinion, it’s much tougher to be the one who’s left behind.

I was doing my job, just as the soldiers who deploy. It was my choice.

In Somalia, there were days when a sniper’s bullet would hit our truck, missing us. Days when young men hopped up on khat screamed and shook their loaded rifles in my face.

There were also long stretches of boredom—waiting for a ride, waiting for a flight, waiting for something to happen. And there were plenty of times when I’d be on a rooftop drinking under a desert sky and watching red tracer fire stitch up the shiny stars.

Ninety percent of the time, I was fine. Ten percent of the time I was in danger. OK. Maybe 80/20.

For those left behind, the worry and fear are present 100 percent of the time. Sitting at home, loved ones follow the news and fear the worst.

As a child, I watched the black-and-white evening news, looking for my dad. There was one update each day. Now the news is a 24-hour infernal loop. Imagine the impact on the husband, wife and/or children when they hear about a car bomb or a helicopter crash near where someone they love is deployed.

When I finished this column, I headed to the opening of the Faculty and Alumni Exhibition at Doane Hall at Allegheny College. I am showing seven photographs from my time in Afghanistan when I embedded with the soldiers of the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1st Battalion 5th Regiment, based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. I focused on the women soldiers for part of my project.

There were young single women and single mothers. One woman left two young sons behind. In the transit tent in Kuwait, I met a mother and soldier from another unit who had served more than one tour. She left her three children with her mother.

How do you do it? I asked. How do you leave them behind?

She paused for a long time. Her voice caught as she started to speak. She turned her head to hide her tears.

It’s hard, she said. Her voice cracked. It’s hard. But I’m doing it for them. So that they can have a better life and better opportunities. I’m doing it for them.

I once asked my father, who doesn’t talk about the war, why he did it, why he went to Vietnam.

It was my duty, Cheryl. I gave my word.

On this Veterans Day, I remember, honor and thank my mother and my father. I remember those in uniform and their families.

For those who give their word and for those who are left behind, it’s hard.

I believe they all serve.

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

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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.

Khenjakak Resort

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Members of the Female Engagement Team attached to the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment pose for a photo with the sign outside the '"resort" the soldiers of Charger Company created for them. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

Members of the Female Engagement Team attached to the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment pose for a photo with the sign outside the '"resort" the soldiers of Charger Company created for them. Pictured from left: Mary, the FET language assistant, Spc. Malecia James and Pvt. Liliana Nunez. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

Khenjakak is a remote strong point in the Panjawa’i District of southern Afghanistan and home to  the approximately 140 male soldiers of Charger Co. 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment.

All men. Not a single female soldier.

So when the soldiers of the Female Engagement Team arrive for a mission, the men have to make accommodations–and they have to create accommodations for the women during their visits.

I’ve been to Khenjakak several times. The first time we arrived, we stayed in the game room and we slept on USO blue bean bag chairs and rattled in our sleeping bags because there was no heat.

The second time we had cots and the heat still didn’t work.

Third time’s a charm.

When we arrived a couple days ago, the soldiers had created “Khenjakak Resort.” They constructed a plywood wall divider in the game room to give the women a separate living space. They lined up cots with mattresses. Each mattress had a blanket and an assortment of hygiene items laid out it. Each USO table next to every cot had a book on it. There was even a table and chair to serve as a desk/workspace, which I especially appreciated.

The soldiers of Charger Co. left an assortment of hygiene products and goodies for the soldiers of the Female Engagement Team during their recent visit for a mission. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

Each bed in the Khenjakak Resort had USO table next to it with a book carefully placed on it. Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch

I asked around to learn who had envisioned and created the “resort.” I was told the resort was just “soldiers having fun.” Perhaps an infantry inside joke.

And yet, the soldiers took time and care to go to the effort to put that room together. And to put the extra touches of the shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant and foot powder. Right down to the USO shower slippers and the book on the cot-side table.

And the heat worked.

I’ll admit that the idea of a resort in Khenjakak is funny.

If the soldiers were having fun, they succeeded. I smiled.

And if they were secretly being thoughtful, they succeeded. I can’t stop smiling at the thought of the soldiers arranging that room for us…and their attention to detail.

Thank you, Charger Co.