SITKA — Sitka High graduate J.R. Ancheta, a student in the journalism program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was in the final days of a month-long embed with American soldiers in Afghanistan earlier this month when he and colleague Cheryl Hatch decided to visit an Army hospital at an airfield in Kandahar.
Hatch, a professional journalist who met Ancheta during a one-year teaching stint at UAF, had heard about the hospital’s reputation for saving the lives of soldiers and civilians injured in one of Afghanistan’s most restive provinces. She was insistent on visiting the medical facility Jan. 11, but Ancheta was hesitant.
He’d gotten to know soldiers from an infantry brigade stationed at Fort Wainwright fairly well, covering them over the course of several months including three weeks on the ground in Afghanistan, and was worried about his reaction to seeing one of the soldiers lying there injured.
As it turns out, the war hit much closer to home.
Ancheta entered an area of a large room at the hospital that was cordoned off by a curtain to find two soldiers who had been injured the day before by improvised explosive devices while on a foot patrol. One was a fellow graduate of Sitka High.
Ancheta, who graduated high school in 2006, first started talking to Pfc. Rex Tharp, a 20-year-old from Indiana, and told the soldier he was from Alaska.
The soldier in the next bed, still medicated after losing the lower part of his right leg and having shrapnel removed from his back, turned his head. It was Spc. Joe Mille, a 2009 Sitka High School graduate and former classmate of Ancheta’s.
Ancheta said Mille slowly pronounced his name and used a colorful phrase to express his surprise at seeing a Sitka High classmate at a hospital in Afghanistan.
To those who knew him in Sitka, it was classic Mille: badly injured, the former Sitka High football player and wrestler still managed to find humor in the grave situation.
Ancheta and Mille spent most of the afternoon talking, with Mille drifting in and out of sleep. Both had attended St. Gregory’s Catholic Church, and Ancheta gave Mille a rosary from a chapel he had visited earlier in the day. Mille told Ancheta that he felt as though he had awakened from a dream, only to learn it was not a dream.
“It was really hard to hear that,” Ancheta said Thursday in a phone interview from Kandahar, where he was waiting to board a military flight to Kuwait before heading back to Fairbanks for the second semester of his sophomore year.
Ancheta said Mille had two main concerns: he was worried about his girlfriend back in Sitka, Hillary Martin, and concerned that his military career might be over. He told Ancheta to call Martin and asked him to share the photos he had taken and tell his story.
Mille, the son of a Coast Guard officer, knew at an early age that he wanted to join the army and enlisted shortly after graduating from Sitka High in 2009.
“He always wanted to be in the army, ever since he was a kid,” Martin said.
Mille went to boot camp in Georgia and eventually was stationed at Fort Drum with the 10th Mountain Division.
He was about 11 months into a year-long deployment to Afghanistan, his first overseas, when he was wounded Jan. 10.
Mille was the team leader in charge of the foot patrol. After an IED went off, wounding Tharp, Mille ran to his aid and was hit by a second explosion. Both soldiers suffered similar injuries, each losing the lower half of his right leg, below the knee.
Martin told the Sentinel that Mille is in Germany recuperating. He has some blood clots in his lungs, which could delay his return to the United States.
Mille’s family lives in New Jersey, and his father Mike, who was a rescue swimmer in Sitka, remains in the Coast Guard.
Martin said Mille was in good spirits, and she plans to visit him once he arrives back in the United States.
Martin, who also graduated from SHS in 2009 in a senior class that included Ancheta’s sister, first heard about Mille’s injury Jan. 10, then got a call from Ancheta the next day. She broke into tears when Ancheta started speaking because she was happy that Mille had been comforted by a familiar face.
Ancheta said it was a “gift” to be able to spend a few hours with his former classmate. He had spent the better part of a month photographing the war in Afghanistan with a Stryker brigade, and had mostly avoided dangerous situations during his tour. The units he was traveling with did not come under attack, even during a raid on a village where they had expected to receive enemy fire.
But Ancheta got a poignant reminder about the war that week. He woke up to news that another solider from the Fort Wainwright brigade he’d been following had been killed and that two more were injured.
Then he saw Mille, who was insistent that Ancheta “tell his story.”
“At the end of the day, they’re just doing their jobs,” Ancheta said. “It’s a privilege to get to know them and tell their stories.”