UAF student follows soldiers' stories to Afghanistan

JR Ancheta/Special to The Sun Star
Jan. 31, 2011

An Afghan man walks beside soldiers from Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment during an air assault in partnership with the Afghan National Army on Dec. 29, 2011, in Molla Dust, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. The ANA forces lead the search and clearing for caches of explosive materials and IED parts. Photo by JR Ancheta

I was in Afghanistan for my winter vacation. I experienced a small glimpse of a combat zone when I was embedded with the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division of Fort Wainwright, Alaska. With two heavy, green Army duffel bags stuffed with a minimum set of clothing, a sleeping bag, toiletries, two sets of body armor, Kevlar helmets and a bag packed with two camera bodies, an external hard drive and a laptop, I left Fairbanks on the morning of Dec. 13, 2011. All my preparations happened a week before finals.

I was following the story of the brigade’s yearlong deployment. The story began in February 2011 when they were training at the National Training Center (NTC) in the Mojave Dessert near Fort Irwin, Calif. I was embedded with the brigade with two other University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism students and Cheryl Hatch, a former Snedden Chair of the Department of Journalism. Cheryl and I followed the soldiers after the training until they left for Afghanistan. We were invited by soldiers at various events to visit them “down-range.”

I realized the outstanding opportunity for me as an emerging photojournalist and I decided to go. My parents, of course, were concerned of me and for my safety, but they were supportive. The embed put a tremendous strain on my finances and I, too, was concerned about the unknown, but early on I realized the significance of this opportunity.

When I arrived at brigade headquarters in Massum Ghar, the first thing I noticed was the soldiers’ faces. I spotted a squad through my long lens and recognized a few soldiers. The strains, stresses and challenges of combat on these particular soldiers are seen by their faces and altered eyes. They appeared aged, older and different. They were the same soldiers I knew, but they had been changed and molded by their experiences in Afghanistan. Looking at the photographs I made at NTC a couple of months before deployment confirmed my impression. Walking behind the footsteps of the soldiers during several patrols and an air assault gave me a glimpse of their lifestyle, the high and low points of being at war.

I was spared from seeing the atrocities of war because we did not receive any contact from enemy forces or get injured outside the wire. It became all too real when I met Cpl. Joe Mille, 20, and Pfc. Rex Tharpe, 20, of the 10th Mountain Division of Fort Drum, N.Y. at the medical facility, Role-3, in Kandhar Airfield.

Mille, of Galloway, N.J. and Tharp of North Manchester, Ind., were injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) while on patrol with their platoon Tuesday, Jan. 10, in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Tharp hit the first IED and Mille, his team leader, was running to his aid when Mille hit a second IED. Both soldiers suffered below-the-knee amputations on their right legs.

Mille was from my hometown of Sitka, Alaska, and we went to the same high school when I was a senior and he a freshman. We had one class together.

“JR Ancheta. What the f— are you doing here in Afghanistan?” Mille said as we recognized each other at the intensive care unit.

I went over and stood next to his bedside, held his hand and we talked.

“This s— is real.” Mille said.

Seeing both soldiers in the situation was very challenging, and I realized one of the best parts of being a journalist: I hear people’s stories and I can share them with others.

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