Joe Mille. (Photo via Facebook)

A pair of recent Sitka High graduates had an unexpected meeting last week – in a combat hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

J.R. Ancheta is studying photojournalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he’s been working on an extended project with the 125th Stryker Brigade.

Ancheta was invited to visit the brigade in Afghanistan last December to cover its activities – everything from an air assault, to the holidays overseas, to outreach with the civilian population. As part of his work, Ancheta also visited a combat hospital that has become famous for saving soldiers’ lives.

While Ancheta was braced for the possibility that he might see some of his new friends from the Brigade in that hospital, he never imagined finding a wounded classmate from Sitka: Joe Mille.

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Visit J.R. Ancheta’s blog to see his photos from Afghanistan.

Every one of us has “small world” moments, when we meet an acquaintance, or a friend of a friend, in a faraway place.

J.R. Ancheta graduated from Sitka High in 2006. If he had known it was Joe Mille, class of 2009, lying behind the curtain in the intensive-care area of the Role 3 International Medical Unit, he may have had second-thoughts about going in.

He was already having mixed feelings thinking that he might encounter friends he had made among the Stryker Brigade.

“Would it be somebody I know from the Brigade that we’d been following? If I do know these two people, how can I prepare myself to deal with that situation?”

His instructor at UAF – and colleague in this documentary project – Cheryl Hatch had already gone inside to get the soldiers’ permission to visit. There was nothing to stop Ancheta but his own fears.

“And so I took a deep breath, prayed, and decided to join Cheryl because I was kind of getting nervous, and the more time I waited the more uneasy I felt. So I set my cameras down, went inside, and introduced myself to PFC Rex Tharp, who was talking to Cheryl. I told him I was from Sitka, Alaska, and he said, My buddy next to me is from Alaska. And so I turned, I recognized Joe and he recognized me, and so I went and talked to him.”

Joe Mille and Tharpe are not in Ft. Wainwright’s Stryker Brigade. They are from Ft. Drum, New York. Although Mille was three years behind Ancheta, the pair knew each other from church in Sitka. Mille’s father was stationed in Sitka with the US Coast Guard at the time.

Both men had lost their right legs below the knee to Taliban bombs called IEDs, or Improvised Explosive Devices. Mille told Ancheta how it happened.

“The two soldiers were on a mission – on a patrol. PFC Tharpe was first injured in a blast in Kandahar. He first hit the IED. Specialist Joe Mille heard the blast and went running to aid him, which set off another IED – a command wire IED.”

A “command wire” IED in this case was a secondary weapon designed to inflict further damage in an attack, often on those there to render aid.

Along with traumatic head injuries, the loss of limbs has become a defining characteristic of wounds suffered in America’s wars in the Mideast.

Ancheta says his former classmate seemed undeterred.

“He was very concerned about his career in the military because of his leg. He was constantly asking the nurses, I don’t care if I push buttons, I want to stay in the Army.”

But Ancheta says that Mille was also thoughtful about his situation. He asked Ancheta to get in touch with his girlfriend, Hillary Martin, who still lives in Sitka. He also wanted those of us back here to know that the decision to serve should not be taken lightly.

“What Joe told me was, I am twenty years old, I could have gone to college, but I wanted to serve in the Army. And I’m not sure how explicit I can be, but when you go back home, tell people that this…stuff is real.”

Joe Mille and PFC Tharpe were expected to be transferred to a military hospital in Germany. J.R. Ancheta is returning to Alaska for the spring semester at UAF, where he’ll also serve an internship at the Fairbanks Daily News Miner.

His month-long study in Afghanistan may have delivered a bigger lesson than he bargained for: this “stuff” – and the people who serve – are very real.

“I think the most touching thing here that I’ve seen is the sacrifice that the soldiers’ give. I’ve met a lot of down-to-earth awesome young men, and the most amazing thing is just talking to them.”

Jeff Seifert contributed to this story.