Recently in Sitka, residents were invited to visit the library and sign a card of support for Joe Mille, a 2009 graduate of Sitka High who lost his right leg in combat in Afghanistan, and who is now in a rehabilitation unit at Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland.
The individual organizing the effort, however, is not in Mille’s family, or a member of his church. He’s the photo-journalist who broke the story.
Listen to iFriendly audio. You might remember when J.R. Ancheta was last in the news: He’s the journalism major at the University of Alaska – now a junior – who embedded with the 125th Stryker Brigade in Afghanistan last year. But what began as an educational adventure turned personal when he visited a combat hospital in Kandahar and found Joe Mille, a classmate from Sitka High. Mille’s right leg had been blown off by a Taliban IED, or improvised explosive device.
“When I was in Afghanistan, I promised him that I would see him in the future. Maybe on the year anniversary when he was injured with his buddy Rex Tharp. And so I’ve kept in contact with him from time-to-time with phone calls, Facebook messages, texts. It’s something I want to do in the future: follow their story.”
Tharp also had lost his right leg in a blast a few moments earlier, on the same patrol.
A long-term project is not all that unusual for a journalist – even a college student. But having this kind of inspiration during winter break is:
“I was like, Oh! Why don’t I make this card and have the community sign it in support of Joe and what he’s up to?”
And so the card, which Ancheta is delivering in-person to Mille this week at Walter Reed Hospital.
Journalists usually remain detached from their stories. But Ancheta concedes that the parallel trajectories of two Sitka kids, and their chance encounter in a combat hospital, is its own story. And he’s part of it. Ancheta wants to see it through.
“After I got back from Afghanistan and was able to process the whole thing – it was so very surreal. Basically, I stopped looking at the pictures after the summertime, for a solid two months. I remember looking at them again for a project, and it was very hard. It brought me back to the moment. I think about both of them, and part of me wants to be part of that as a journalist. And the other part – I’m curious as a human being: What are they up to? How are they doing?”
Ancheta is looking forward to catching up with both Mille and Tharpe. He and his professor at UAF, Cheryl Hatch, are having the usual difficulties obtaining credentials and permission to work inside Walter Reed Hospital. He’s going to respect the system, though, because despite his devastating injuries, it’s clear that Mille still does.
“I think for Joe, especially, he still wants to remain with the military and serve our country. I don’t know the words for that… it’s just amazing.”
While he’s back east, Ancheta also has tickets to attend the inauguration, and send pictures back to Alaska.