From snow to sand, UAF students embed in Stryker training in Mojave Desert

Special to the Sun Star
March 1, 2011

On Feb. 17, Cheryl Hatch, this year’s journalism department Snedden chair, took three students, JR Ancheta, Matt Anderson and Jeric Quiliza, on an embed exercise with the 1-25 Stryker Brigade in Fort Irwin, Calif.

JR Ancheta / Sun Star Reporter

Before leaving I wanted to know how photographers create intimate photographs. I was curious on how to establish rapport with people in a small amount of time. In most situations, I am always reserved when I am uncomfortable. The beginning of the trip was no different. In our first night, it didn’t help that a sergeant confronted me while trying to build rapport with a private at the dinner table.

Sam Harshbarger (left) and Donavin Smith (right) enter a Stryker at a Combat Operating Base in Fort Irwin. JR Ancheta/Sun Star

“No. You need to ask permission first before photographing a soldier’s personal equipment,” he said while I was shooting at the table. He sounded irritated and his demeanor was very intimidating. My professor attempted to resolve the situation by explaining the total access we were given, but the sergeant wasn’t convinced. I apologized to the private for putting him in that situation. I was photographing his hat.

The following days were easier after being assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, Bobcats with Bravo Company. I first met privates Josh Knight and Edward Crocker on a guard post and started talking. It was a start to building that relationship and trust while helping me confident of my objective. Establishing rapport wasn’t that difficult; they were the same age as my eighteen-year-old brother and I could relate to them easily. I learned their names and I remembered them. Identifying them with or without their uniforms was challenging, but it was manageable. They shared their stories and I will share my photographs in return. This exchange between photographer and subject is essential in making these intimate photographs.

Cheryl Hatch / Snedden Chair

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.

By early afternoon, Matt Anderson and Jeric Quiliza 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.

During full operating exercises, Pvt. Edward Crocker (left) and Pvt. Josh Knight (right) keep watch at a guard post overlooking a mock Afghani Village located inside the National Training Center in the Mojave Desert. JR Ancheta/Sun Star

JR and I eventually embedded with the 1-5 Infantry Battalion,  “The Bobcats.” We met LTC. 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 LTC. 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, LTC. 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 on the “embed,” the students and soldiers learned they share common ground. As the soldiers seek to conduct an effective counterinsurgency campaign, they need to establish rapport with local Afghanis. 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 bring home stories for their readers.

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