By Cheryl Hatch
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.
I am the daughter of a soldier who grew up in the military.
I don’t have childhood friends. I don’t remember most of my teachers. I don’t even know where I was in third grade. My mom once created a timeline of our travels — we moved more than 20 times before I graduated high school.
When people ask where I’m from, I have no easy answer. Everywhere. And nowhere. My brother used to say he’s from planet Earth.
As a young man, my father worked in a nursery in his native Rhode Island. As a retired combat engineer, he now tends his lawn and garden in the withering Texas sun. Dad likes azaleas and dogwood trees. Neither is indigenous to Texas; neither is hardy enough for the climate.
I remember visiting one summer and my dad decided to move four azalea bushes from the front of the garden to the back near the brick wall. In the middle of the day. In the middle of the summer.
I remarked that it wasn’t a wise move. They’ll be fine, he said.
Two of the plants managed to take root and keep their green leaves; the leaves of the other two turned brown and withered. They weren’t fine.
I couldn’t help but think of the four Hatch children when I saw those four azalea bushes.
As a child, I didn’t understand what my father did for a living. He’d polish his boots and brass at the table while I ate my cereal. He was out the door before we left for school.
And a few times, he left for war.
I’d wait for a single letter or, better yet, a yellow box with a reel-to-reel tape that would carry his voice from Vietnam to our house. We’d jump on the bed and gather around my mom and listen to the tape.
Those tapes and letters are long gone. Dad travels light.
Once he dumped all his medals and commendations in the trash; Mom rescued them. Another time, he tossed paintings my mom had done — her renderings of one of Dad’s many tours — when she was home alone, waiting. She learned their fate too late to rescue them.
As an adult, I went to war as a photojournalist. My military upbringing and its many moves taught me plenty that was useful. Dodging military police at curfew as an adolescent proved useful training for crossing borders illegally as a reporter. I was resourceful. I had good instincts. I could read body language and I had an ear for foreign languages. And yet, I knew nothing of war.
For more than a decade, I documented those left in the wake of war, those uprooted by the brutality and depravity of their fellow human beings. And when I lost my bearings, I turned my back on war. I didn’t know it followed me.
A decade later, I was teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and our class started a documentary project, covering the soldiers and their families at Fort Wainwright as they prepared for an impending deployment to Afghanistan.
“I have a love-hate relationship with the military,” I told the public affairs officer.
“That’s OK,” he said. “I have a love-hate relationship with the media,.”
Breaking a promise I’d made to myself and against my better judgment, I returned to war, taking a student with me to follow the soldiers of the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team to the Horn of Panjawai’i in southern Kandahar Province in the winter of 2011-12.
Many soldiers don’t talk about their experiences — not to civilians. And certainly not to journalists. Soldiers don’t like journalists, as a general rule.
I quickly learned not to ask my father about Vietnam.
“What do you want to know, Cheryl?” he said. “I got up. I brushed my teeth. I flew in helicopters.”
I had plenty of experience with reticence and hostility in response to my questions when I embedded with the 1st Battalion Fifth Infantry Regiment.
In Afghanistan, I walked behind one Charlie Company soldier day after day on patrol. Sgt. Robert Taylor. I followed in his footsteps in a way I couldn’t follow my father.
An infantryman, Taylor would toss bawdy jokes over his shoulder as we walked or took a knee and killed time while others cleared the path ahead.
“Trust and loyalty. Whether you’re in war or in life, you need someone who’s gonna do more than his job,” Taylor said one night when we were talking about the glue that bonds soldiers on a battlefield. “You need someone who’s gonna hold you; someone who’s gonna pick you up. Most people have that with your family.”
Taylor’s right bicep is inked with the word “Pops” and a 1977 Chevy El Camino, a tribute to his father, who was diagnosed with cancer in February 2002 and died Oct. 12, 2002. Taylor was then a student at Allegheny College and played on the football team.
“And my dad wouldn’t let me come home,” Taylor said. “He grew up poor and he wanted me and my son to go to college. That was his dream.”
When Taylor returned from Afghanistan in the spring of 2012, he married his sweetheart, Liza Jane, and they welcomed their son, Robert Taylor IV, the following March. He was wearing an Allegheny football T-shirt when he held his son for the first time.
I sent the newest Taylor a onesie, bib and hat with Allegheny Gators logos. I told Taylor I’d already shared the good news with his former coach, Mark Matlak, who had held him up when Taylor’s father died.
“I am happy you shared with coach already. Thank you,” Taylor wrote me. “As for the T-shirt, there was nothing else I wanted to wear to meet him in. I chose it specific for his entrance. The doctor who did the C-section was actually from Pittsburgh and she was very familiar with AC. It’s a small world filled with amazement.”
As I considered writing this column, I remembered the men in our family who have served in combat. My late Uncle Bill served on a ship in the Pacific in World War II. My dad and his brother each did two tours in Vietnam. And there was my grandma’s brother, Charlie.
I called dad for more information on the uncle I would never meet. My dad talks more now.
“He went ashore near Anzio,” Dad said.
Killed in action. Buried near Florence, Italy. He never made it home.
On Veterans Day, I remember those who made it home and those who didn’t.
And those who are still searching for home.
Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.