Unanswered questions

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DavidOntheWall_Chipsm

National Public Radio photojournalist David Gilkey’s name those of other journalists killed in 2016 on the Journalists Memorial at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The memorial was rededicated on Monday, June 5, 2017. Gilkey and his translator Zabihullah Tamanna were killed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on June 5, 2016. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Copyright 2017

The first text came at 9:01 a.m. Friday, June 9, 2017.

“Just a word of warning–tough story on NPR today about Gilkey.”

I hadn’t heard it yet.

David Gilkey and I had been friends since our college days at Oregon State. We both became photojournalists who covered conflict. On June 5, 2016, David and his Afghan translator, Zabihullah Tamanna, were killed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

“David and Zabihullah were on assignment for the network traveling with an Afghan army unit. They were in an armored Humvee driven by a soldier of the Afghan National Army. All three were killed after the Humvee was hit by rocket propelled grenades in an apparent ambush.”

That’s the initial report by NPR’s Eyder Peralta on June 5, 2016. It continues.

“NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and producer Monika Evstatieva were also in the convoy, traveling in a separate vehicle. They were not injured.”

After the initial story last year, I called my friend, the same friend who texted me about the recent story. He’s served in combat. I had one question.

I want the answer and I don’t want the answer, I said. He understood the question I hadn’t asked. It’s impossible to know, Cheryl. If it’s an RPG, the concussion of the explosion likely knocked him unconscious. He likely died quickly.

The texts continued throughout the morning.

“Did you read/listen to the story posted today?”

“From NPR News: Sorry to share this. Wondered if you read it.”

Not A Random Attack: New Details Emerge from the Investigation of Slain NPR Journalists

I hadn’t read it. In the afternoon, the story aired during “All Things Considered.” I sat tucked in a chair in my friends’ D.C. living room, crouched next to the radio, listening.

I had traveled to D.C. days earlier to attend a ceremony at the Newseum, a rededication of the Journalists Memorial.

“Journalists last year faced unprecedented dangers as they strove to report the news, often in countries where press freedom is imperiled or nonexistent,” said Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute. “The journalists recognized on this memorial laid down their lives in their effort to serve the public, many of them continuing to work after being attacked or facing death threats.”

The latest NPR story revealed new details. And raised more questions.

“Tamanna did not die from a rocket-propelled-grenade attack, as originally reported. He was shot. This fact was suspected by other NPR journalists who saw his body shortly after the attack and is now confirmed by the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

And unlike Gilkey, Tamanna did not suffer any burns, a fact that further casts doubt on the original story of a sudden, random attack by hand-launched explosives.

New reporting confirmed by Afghan officials indicates that Gilkey died inside the vehicle, and Tamanna died outside.

Gilkey died of severe burns to his upper body. It is unclear whether his vehicle was struck by an RPG. Aside from the burns, he did not have any injuries that would indicate close proximity to a blast.”

The story had audio clips of both David and Zabi’s voices woven into the reporting by Tom Bowman and Monica Evstatieva. Neither has since returned to Afghanistan.

After the story ended, I went downstairs. A while later, my friend came down. She peeked her head in the door. I wanted to see if you’re all right, she said.

My friends are both retired radio reporters. She’d listened with me in the living room. Her husband had arrived home while the story was being broadcast and stayed in the car to listen to it. Between all of our years of reporting, we’d covered stories that mirrored the stories David had covered in Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia, Bosnia, South Africa. Famine. War. Natural disasters. Elections.

In the year since David’s death, I had the comfort of knowing he had lived a life he loved. He loved his work and he’d made a powerful contribution to our world. I also took comfort in the thought that he had died doing what he loved. And that he hadn’t suffered.

The radio report yesterday seemed to reveal otherwise.

The messages on Facebook and the texts continued to arrive. When I woke the following morning, I found more messages.

“How are you…NPR is covering David’s death again…I’m sobbing,” my friend wrote across many time zones. “I only listen to NPR when I drive, so I’m parked.”

I exchanged messages with another friend.

“Yes, that is very hard/unsettling to hear,” she wrote. “I sort of hope that his parents don’t hear it. Too many open-ended questions, the sense of betrayal, and the condition in which David’s body was found are all very upsetting.”

Betrayed. Burned to death.

David and I covered many of the same stories and countries, never at the same time. We came and went from each other’s lives over the years, though not with the regularity of the Perseids meteor shower that lights up the summer sky in our beloved Oregon each year. Years and miles flowed between us and our encounters. Yet we remained always in each other’s lives, even when we didn’t have eyes on.

As a correspondent, I know how to seek cover. As a civilian, I know how to seek shelter.

In the days and year since David’s death, I have found shelter among my tribe of journalists, specifically international journalists. More specifically, those who have covered conflict, risked their lives and mental health to shine a light in the darkness.

Before the Newseum memorial, a group of David and Zabi’s friends and colleagues gathered on a Sunday afternoon across miles and cultures to eat, drink and share stories.

The day after the memorial, I went for a 13-mile walk, with trees, a river and birdsong for company.

Late in the afternoon, I returned to my friends’ home. After sharing a meal of good food prepared with love, we lingered on the porch long after the light left the sky.

To be an international correspondent. To cover conflict. To witness and document both the brutality and beauty of our world. That’s the choice both David and I made, as have other journalists. Journalists whose names are on the memorial at the Newseum. Journalists who continue to take the risks to report in our neighborhoods and around the globe. Journalists who live to tell the stories.

The choice is not a reckless one. It’s an eyes-and-heart-wide-open choice.

It’s not a death wish. It’s a life wish. A life of purpose. A life of service. A life freely chosen.

And in David’s case, a life taken.

 

 

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Wheels up, David

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NPR photojournalist David Gilkey

NPR photojournalist David Gilkey sticks out his tongue and strikes a pose as he prepares to leave from Pittsburgh International Airport at 5:48 a.m. on Sunday, March 6, 2016. Gilkey was the opening night speaker at the Welcome a Stranger Journalism Conference and Multimedia Workshop at Allegheny College March 3-4 2016. Gilkey died on assignment in Helmand Province, Afghanistan on June 5, 2016. Photo by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2016, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch. Copyright 2016

Wheels up.

My friend David Gilkey sent me a text as he left Washington, D.C. last March. He’d already posted a photo of sunrise from his plane window as he sat at the gate waiting to taxi to takeoff.

David spoke and wrote in short, efficient phrases. Understood. Roger that. He’d covered the military for years and the precision and cadence stuck.

When I’d written him months earlier to invite him to speak at Allegheny College, he responded, “I’m in.”

David did not give many public lectures. He came because I asked him. He came because he’s my friend. He came because he said he would, despite the fact that he’d only just returned from three weeks on assignment for National Public Radio in scorched, ravaged South Sudan.

David was the keynote speaker on March 4, 2016, at our “Welcome the Stranger” journalism conference and multimedia workshop.

Three months later, on June 5, 2016, the Taliban killed David and his Afghan translator and friend, Zabihullah Tamanna, near Marjah in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

David and I had known each other since college. We both worked on our student daily newspaper. We both wanted to be photojournalists.

After college, I went overseas first. I went into conflict first—the civil war in Liberia. David followed and then, over the years, surpassed me. We worked in some of the same places—Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan. But we were never in the same place at the same time.

And when I eventually opted out of covering conflict, David hit his stride. In his youth, his anger, in part, drove him. As he matured, it was his indignation and resolve to witness; and, through his photographs, show the world the entire spectrum of what he’d witnessed. Depravity. Death. Joy. Resilience. Love.

David first visited Allegheny College via Skype. He was the subject of the news writing students’ interview for their final exam in December 2014. While he was talking with the students, he asked for a moment to take a call. He returned and finished the interview. He remained available for the students’ questions throughout the three-hour exam.

I had a question. Gilkey, what was the call? It was a notification: our friend and fellow photojournalist, Michel duCille, had died of a heart attack on assignment covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

David was the first person I called when I started planning my trip to Liberia, scheduled for later that December. He’d already been one of the first journalists on the ground in Liberia and he’d traveled to Sierra Leone and Guinea to cover the epidemic. I asked for his advice.

Rubber boots, David said. Take rubber boots. And don’t get close, Cheryl. It can kill you.

David knew the risks of his work. He accepted them and mitigated them to the best of his ability. He wasn’t reckless by nature though he did love a good shot of adrenaline: downhill skiing, scuba diving. And covering conflict and natural disasters.

In March, we had four hours before we’d return to the airport to collect Carrie Kahn, another speaker and NPR correspondent in Mexico City. We headed to Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. David’s idea. He knew more about the city than I did and I’d be in Pennsylvania nearly four years. We ate the classic sandwich with fries wedged between the slices of bread. At David’s memorial service in July in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, his friends told stories of his love of food, from “street meat” to fine dining in pricey, celebrated restaurants.

That was David. He enjoyed the fine things in life: a pair of hand-stitched leather boots and first-class travel. And he could live in the most grim and challenging conditions. He could sleep in the dirt and cold and go for weeks without a shower.

When David and I met, we wouldn’t share war stories. On our last visit, we talked about our aging parents and our concern and love for them. We talked about our Humpty-Dumpty hearts, each shattered by a beloved. A sanctuary and sacred trust violated. For both of us, the betrayal marked a profound wounding and trauma that pierced us to our core and persisted.

David spoke about his work and legacy. He had a keen desire to see the bulk and span of his work in Afghanistan edited, collected, shared and preserved. David had traveled to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. He humped through the country with Marines and soldiers at least once a year, often more, throughout the entire 14-year war, the longest in American history. He was committed to the story. And he died covering it, long after the gaze of the public and media had turned away.

He showed me photographs on his phone of his new home in D.C. It was a beautiful space, a photographer’s home, full of windows and light. My house is your house, Cheryl. You’re welcome any time, even if I’m not there. I told him I’d come see him as soon as he got back.

I was home sick and wide-awake the night of June 3, 2016. It would have been June 4 already in Afghanistan. On an impulse, I sent David a text, must have been the fever. I had no idea if it’d reach him. He responded immediately.

I was still in bed the next day when Carrie Kahn called me, sobbing. David’s dead.

Later, I checked my phone to see if I’d written “I love you” in that last text. I hadn’t.

I know I said it at the airport three months earlier. Since David’s death, I make a point to say I love you to friends and family, when I finish a phone call or part company. Some were uncomfortable with it at first. “It’s my tribute to David,” I would offer and they would understand.

Last March, we needed to leave Meadville at 3:30 a.m. for his 7 a.m. flight. You don’t need to take me, Cheryl. Get some hung-over student to drive me there. No way. I insisted.

We arrived bleary-eyed and laughing at 5:45 a.m. It wasn’t a long good-bye. David grabbed his bags. I grabbed a selfie. We hugged. I told him I’d see him in D.C.

With my phone, I snapped a couple frames of David in the dim light in front of the departure terminal. He kicked up his leg, stuck out his tongue. And left.

Wheels up, David.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/outside-the-box-i-love-you-tribute-to-friend-killed/article_7d68b5c8-c179-11e6-b064-ab17766afd1e.html

I had to be here, Coach

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor learned the news on Facebook on Tuesday, Oct. 27. His former teammate, Brian O’Malley, posted a link to the story of the sudden impending retirement after 14 years at Allegheny College of Head Football Coach Mark Matlak.

A 2005 graduate in economics, Rob had played football for Coach Matlak for three years, including on the 2003 championship team. The soldier, veteran, husband and father of two made up his mind. He wanted to make it to coach’s last home game on Saturday, Oct. 31.

When Rob was a sophomore, his father and mother flew up to see his first two home games in September 2002. It was Coach Matlak’s first season at Allegheny. Rob knew his father was ill. His dad was waiting outside the locker room to see him after the game. Rob turned back before his father saw him, walked into the locker room and broke into tears. Coach was there.

Rob’s father died in Florida a month later on Oct. 12, 2002. Coach was there again to comfort Rob in his deep grief and in the days and years that followed. He filled a void, Rob said.

I met then Sgt. Robert Taylor in Afghanistan in December 2011, when he served with the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment, stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. On patrol, Rob was the infantryman at the front with a Vallon, a hand-held metal detector used to sweep for mines and improvised explosive devices. It was his job to clear the path, his responsibility to bring the men and women in his unit back safely. When he wasn’t out front with the Vallon, he was often the soldier assigned to walk in front of me, the journalist joining the patrol, in my two months in Afghanistan.

On Halloween morning, Rob left Fort Carson, Colorado, before dawn at 4:30 a.m. At noon my time, I received a text. My connection in Houston was canceled. My new flight has me landing at kickoff. I should make it by the third quarter at best.

I immediately got on the phone with a Holly, an agent in Nashville, with United Premier Service—a perk of frequent flying. I asked about the flights from Houston, which had been delayed by big storms. What about Cleveland? She asked for Rob’s confirmation number. I didn’t have it. There was a flight 6066 to Cleveland, but it was delayed, too.

Rob texted again. The Pittsburgh flight had been delayed once more. He’d be lucky to make it before the end of the game. I called Rob, explained the possibility of the Cleveland flight, which might arrive at 6 p.m.

Watching the game would be nice, but as long as I can be there to shake his hand on the field, all will be worth it, Rob texted.

Later he sent another message. The Pittsburgh flight was delayed until 3 p.m.

It’s all falling apart, he wrote. The customer service line for United is 100 people deep. There is no way I could change to Cleveland now.

I got his confirmation number and dialed Premier Service again. Kelly in Detroit answered. I explained the situation. Active military. Veteran. Trying to make it to his beloved college coach’s last home game. She said she had room on the flight, leaving at 2 p.m. The agents might have closed the doors. I borrowed my roommate’s cell phone and dialed Rob.

Where are you? What terminal? Bravo, he responded. I had Kelly at United on my left ear and Rob on my right. Get to B20, Bravo20 now. Go. Run. You’re on the flight.

Kelly put me on hold and tried to call ahead to make sure the agents hadn’t closed the doors. Several tense minutes followed. Rob said he had a boarding pass. Kelly confirmed he’d made the flight. I was standing in my kitchen, hands in the air, smiling, surprised by the tears wetting my face.

Kickoff at 5 p.m. I monitored my phone as I watched the game from the sidelines. Rob landed at 5:33 p.m. and we began our play-by-play message exchange.

End of first quarter. Later Rob wrote: On 90.

I replied: Where on 90? We’re 10 minutes into the third quarter.

Rob: I’m trying. I might make the end.

Me: There’s a timeout for an injury. Bought some time.

Then: Start of the fourth quarter. Later: 10 minutes on the clock.

30 miles. Maybe I can catch him in the locker room.

Bypass downtown. It’s blocked for the Halloween parade.

8 miles.

Game over. He’s doing interviews.

Coach is in the room by the concession stand now.

I saw Rob’s face appear in the window. He opened the door and coach turned. As Rob would later remark, he could tell by Coach’s face that it took a minute for it to register.

Robbie T., Coach said. He clutched him in tight hug.

I had to be here, Coach.

Coach pulled away, held Rob at arm’s length, looked at his tear-stained face and then hugged him again in a long, long embrace. When they let go, both men wiped away tears.

Allegheny alumnus Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor hugs head football coach Mark Matlak after Matlak's last home game of his 14-year career at Allegheny College on Saturday night, Oct. 31, 2015. Taylor played three years for Matlak, including on the 2003 championship team. A veteran and active military, Taylor traveled from Fort Carson, Colorado to surprise his beloved coach. Copyright 2015 Cheryl Hatch ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Allegheny College alumnus Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor hugs head football coach Mark Matlak after Matlak’s last home game of his 14-year career at Allegheny on Saturday night, Oct. 31, 2015. Taylor played three years for Matlak, including on the 2003 championship team. A veteran and soldier, Taylor traveled from Fort Carson, Colorado to surprise his beloved coach. He wears a Killed in Action bracelet on his wrist for his buddy who died in Afghanistan and his 2003 championship ring on his finger.Copyright 2015 Cheryl Hatch ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

They went to the locker room and talked.

“This is the last place my dad was alive,” Rob said. “The same area. The same place.”

Rob found his name in his locker and took a few photos. They spent barely an hour together before Rob got in his rental car and drove to Pittsburgh. The next day he flew back to Colorado.

Rob said the last three seasons don’t reflect the kind of coach Matlak is.

“The last three seasons have been horrible for Allegheny,” Rob said. “I didn’t want him going out feeling negative. I wanted him to know he had an impact.”

He spent 15 hours traveling to reach the game. Nearly 11 more hours to get home. Twenty-six hours of travel for one hour with his college coach.

So he could shake Coach Matlak’s hand after his last home game.

“It was absolutely worth it,” Rob said. “He gave a lot to me and it felt good to go back and give back.”

Matlak remembered his 36 seasons as a football coach, including the last 14 with Allegheny.

“It was absolutely worth it,” he said to Rob. “You coming here, it reminds me of just how worth it it was.”

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Honor those in uniform and their families on Veterans Day

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Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

These past few years as Veterans Day approached, I’ve had a thought: Hey, I’m veteran.

Of course, I am not, by definition, a veteran. Here’s the definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

vet·er·an noun \ˈve-tə-rən, ˈve-trən\ someone who fought in a war as a soldier, sailor, etc.; someone who has a lot of experience in a particular activity, job, etc.

I never served in a uniform in combat. I did, however, grow up in the military and I feel I served.

On Veterans Day, I remember and honor those who served, including the families of those men and women who braved combat, who bled and who died on battlefields far from home. I remember those who came home, some wounded, some shattered. And those who did not come home.

I was a young girl the first time my father went to Vietnam and I don’t remember much. I was a few years older the second time he went to Vietnam. I remember well that long year he was gone. The Vietnam War marked my childhood.

I remember I wanted a puppy and I had saved my small allowance for weeks, probably months. I asked my mom if I could get a puppy at the animal shelter. She told me I’d have to get permission from my father.

My father was an ocean away on the other side of the world. I wrote a letter and I waited a child’s eternity for my dad’s response. I remember his answer to this day.

A puppy is a big responsibility, Cher. You must take care of it. You must feed it and walk it and clean up after it. Your mom will need your help while I’m away.

Yes, mom needed help.

We had been living at Fort Lewis, Washington. When the Army shipped my father to Vietnam, they booted his family off base.

In my father’s 30-year career, we moved at least 26 times. My mom made a list once, trying to recall our many residences.

While my dad was on his second tour in Vietnam, my mom was left alone to raise four young children; the youngest was 9 months old.

New town. No friends. No support. No family. Husband away at war.

I have been on both sides of the equation. As a child, I was the one left behind. As an adult, I was the one to leave others behind and travel into conflict zones. Liberia. Somalia. Iraq. Afghanistan.

I’m a journalist. I carried a camera not a rifle.

In my opinion, it’s much tougher to be the one who’s left behind.

I was doing my job, just as the soldiers who deploy. It was my choice.

In Somalia, there were days when a sniper’s bullet would hit our truck, missing us. Days when young men hopped up on khat screamed and shook their loaded rifles in my face.

There were also long stretches of boredom—waiting for a ride, waiting for a flight, waiting for something to happen. And there were plenty of times when I’d be on a rooftop drinking under a desert sky and watching red tracer fire stitch up the shiny stars.

Ninety percent of the time, I was fine. Ten percent of the time I was in danger. OK. Maybe 80/20.

For those left behind, the worry and fear are present 100 percent of the time. Sitting at home, loved ones follow the news and fear the worst.

As a child, I watched the black-and-white evening news, looking for my dad. There was one update each day. Now the news is a 24-hour infernal loop. Imagine the impact on the husband, wife and/or children when they hear about a car bomb or a helicopter crash near where someone they love is deployed.

When I finished this column, I headed to the opening of the Faculty and Alumni Exhibition at Doane Hall at Allegheny College. I am showing seven photographs from my time in Afghanistan when I embedded with the soldiers of the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1st Battalion 5th Regiment, based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. I focused on the women soldiers for part of my project.

There were young single women and single mothers. One woman left two young sons behind. In the transit tent in Kuwait, I met a mother and soldier from another unit who had served more than one tour. She left her three children with her mother.

How do you do it? I asked. How do you leave them behind?

She paused for a long time. Her voice caught as she started to speak. She turned her head to hide her tears.

It’s hard, she said. Her voice cracked. It’s hard. But I’m doing it for them. So that they can have a better life and better opportunities. I’m doing it for them.

I once asked my father, who doesn’t talk about the war, why he did it, why he went to Vietnam.

It was my duty, Cheryl. I gave my word.

On this Veterans Day, I remember, honor and thank my mother and my father. I remember those in uniform and their families.

For those who give their word and for those who are left behind, it’s hard.

I believe they all serve.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/outside-the-box-honor-those-in-uniform-and-their-families/article_783f94b0-653a-11e4-b189-f3aca0be1e87.html

Breathe well, as we have just this one life

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Outside the Box by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

 

Breathe well.

Our yoga teacher repeats this often during our practice.

I came to Allegheny after working in Afghanistan by way of a hospital bed in Kuwait.

For my first year on campus, I was under doctor’s orders to rest. No running. No swimming. No yoga. Only walking. My body and lungs needed time to rest, repair, restore.

Breathe well.

A respiratory illness tried to take my breath. Now I breathe beauty. Sunshine. Rain. Wind. Tears. Ocean. Light. Laughter.

When I left Afghanistan, I left the world of breaking news. For two decades, I’d been in crisis mode. Wildfires. Plane crashes. Murders. Executions: at a federal penitentiary, in urban neighborhoods, on dirt roads in Africa. Earthquake. Floods. Famine. Civil war. Political campaigns. Sports playoffs. Serial killers.

I had more stretches of 90-hour weeks than I want to admit. Yes, the news never sleeps; and, too often, neither did I. It was a fun and frenetic career—and it took its toll.

When I came to this small liberal arts college in this small town, I envisioned a slower pace of life. I would write letters. I’d read books. And I’d write a book, a memoir, the book people had been asking about for more than a decade.

To my horror and surprise, I discovered it’s possible to live at a crisis-mode pace without a breaking-news job.

I noticed a disturbing, familiar pattern.

How are you? I’d ask. Busy.

How about a walk? I’m busy.

Dinner? Busy. So busy. Too busy.

In Arabic class, the students already know the word for tired. When the professor asks how they are, one by one, they often respond taa’baan. Tired. I’ve heard the word “exhausted” escape from my lips too often

Breathe well.

I remember my childhood and the lives of my parents and grandparents. We gathered around a table for meals every evening. On weekends, we played, visited friends. On Sundays, we went to church and relaxed. Our “free” time was just that: ours. There was time for family, friends, community and service. The professional and the personal lived in separate places.

On Sunday, I drew two columns on a yellow legal pad. One column I labeled “for me;” the other I labeled “for others.” For me, I listed Arabic homework, cleaning, doing an annual report for my nonprofit and writing this column. I also wanted to do some things for my well-being: swim, read, walk.

In years past, I did a great job of crossing things off my list for others and sometimes I’d work on evenings and the weekends to get that work done. It’s not a tradition I want to continue.

Some Sundays, I go to church. This past Sunday, I went for a long walk. I consider both forms of worship and meditation.

As I walk, I listen to the wind, the rustle and rattle of leaves and unseen animals that scatter and plop as I pass. I hear the tickle of the creek as water slips over rocks.

I notice a brown snake, slender as a pencil, stretched across the path, sunning. I walk gently by it, careful to leave it undisturbed.

Wait. Go back, Cheryl. What’s your hurry?

I turn and return to the snake. I get down on my knees and lean on my elbows, chin in my hands. I study the snake, sun on my face, sun on its scales.

I watch it breathe. Sides puff out slightly. Sides collapse. I am alone on the trail for long moments with the snake, its breathing, the sun and the wind.

Slowly it moves, tasting the air with its flicking tongue, finding its way through curled, fallen leaves. It slithers into the grass and vanishes from my sight.

Breathe well.

Our yoga teacher reminds us to expand our breath, expand into our bellies.

When I’m afraid or fatigued, my breath grows shallow, sprints ahead, dares my heart to join it. When I’m stressed, straining, struggling, I hold my breath.

When we hold our breath, we tighten. Constrict.

As our yoga teacher reminds us, when we breathe well, our breath opens our chests. It exposes our hearts. Leaves us vulnerable. Nourished. Alive.

We have this one life.

One sacred life. One sacred moment. One sacred breath.

Breathe well.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/breathe-well-as-we-have-just-this-one-life/article_dfa18a00-5fcc-11e4-84cd-8f6dbec5499b.html

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Two men answer: ‘What does a person do when you come back from war?’

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Outside the Box/a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch Copyright 2014

Nathan Lewis grew up in the village of Barker, New York, about three hours from Meadville. He joined the U.S. Army straight out of high school. He was 19.

Roman Baca was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and grew up in Spanaway, Washington, just south of Tacoma. After high school, he studied classical ballet at a conservatory in Connecticut. At 24, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

Both men served in Iraq. Lewis deployed with an artillery unit in 2003. Baca deployed to Fallujah in 2005.

They came home changed by their experiences. They came home with questions.

Lewis and Baca are part of Combat Paper: Word Made Flesh, a week of events addressing issues of trauma, grief and loss through the arts and artistic expression.

The conference and art exhibit represent the collaboration between two new faculty members, who found a common interest and purpose. Alexis Hart is a Navy veteran and professor of English and director of the Writing. Steve Prince is a printmaker, sculptor and professor of art. Together they created a program that crosses disciplines and seeks to bridge the military/civilian divide by creating art and conversations around the artistic experience.

“What does a person do when you come back from war?” That was Baca’s question.

His sole role model was his grandfather. Baca tried to follow his grandfather’s example. Get a good job, a desk job. Buy a house. Settle down. For his first six months, he thought he was transitioning back well.

His wife told him wasn’t. He was angry, anxious, depressed.

She asked him a question: if you could do anything in the world, what would you do?

“Start a dance company,” Baca said. His wife is a ballerina. Let’s do it.

Together they built Exit 12 Dance Company.

His early efforts missed the mark. He got feedback.

“This is crap.” “You have to find your voice. You have to find what’s aching to come out.”

Exit 12 Dance Company performed on the opening night of the conference. On Tuesday, they lead a dance workshop with Allegheny students.

With the dances, Baca said he wants to bring the military experience to the people back home. He wants them to feel the fear, anxiety, longing that is so prevalent in day-to-day life in war.

Lewis came home and wrote in journals. He was having trouble reconciling the values he was raised with and what he did in Iraq. Lewis said his trauma was not from what he saw, not from what was done to him. His trauma was from what he did.

In 2007, he started working with The Combat Paper Project. In 2009, he published his first book, I Hacky Sacked in Iraq, which has a sewn binding and covers of handmade combat paper.

Paper-making is an ancient art and process, originating in China. Paper was made from rags, Lewis said. In The Combat Paper Project, people can bring any natural fiber cloth that has sentimental value. Veterans donate uniforms.

On Tuesday, journalism students cut up uniforms that had been donated by active-duty members of the military at Walter Reed Military Medical Center. The pieces were turned to pulp in a big tumbler/blender called a hollander beater. The students dipped a framed screen into the water and pulp mixture and “pulled” the paper onto the screen. After draining the excess water, they turned the screen over and gently lifted it to reveal a sheet of handmade combat paper.

Prince believes the paper-making process is a metaphor for transformation, creation and healing.

“The deconstruction is not destroying. Those are two different words,” Prince said.

Through the creative process of breaking down and rebuilding, people can find empathy for another human being, regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, he said.

“That’s the power of this project. It calls you to use your heart,” Prince said.

Lewis has a tattoo of a paper clip on the outside of his right arm, near his elbow. His paperclip is embedded in each piece of combat paper he creates. It’s his watermark.

It’s also a historic anti-war symbol.

“I identify strongly with being an anti-war vet, which doesn’t mean I’m against the troops,” Lewis said. “My morals were off in Iraq.

“What I did, what we did collectively, is terrible,” Lewis said. “I’m not mad that I went to war. I’m mad that it’s still going on. You want closure with the conflict. World War II ended. Vietnam ended. When is this going to end?”

Baca and Lewis have broken down their war experiences and turned them into dance, poetry and paper.

“It boils down to purpose and the future,” Baca said.

He wants to expose the nation to the experiences of people living in war zones.

“Transform these horrible experiences into a glimmer of hope,” Baca said. “It’s that possibility that excites me as an artist.”

Lewis noted that in Vietnam, the people have turned old weapons into agricultural equipment, musical instruments, rolling pins. People who’ve seen a lot of war have found ways to transform weapons.

“You’re a weapon in the military,” Lewis said. He is not religious though he fond of one verse, Isaiah 2:4.

“They shall beat their swords to plowshares,” Lewis said. “I just love that idea.”

To learn more about The Combat Paper Project: http://www.combatpaper.org

To learn more about Exit 12 Dance Company: http://www.exit12danceco.com

 http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/article_f4286752-498b-11e4-8690-9f3d33d41312.html

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

 

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When it comes to U.S. war veterans, ‘nobody outranks anybody in death’

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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.

When I was in graduate school in Ohio, I was working on a documentary project on military families and I decided to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day.

As the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, I had visited the wall a few times since its inauguration in 1982. I loved that Maya Lin, who designed the memorial, envisioned the black granite structure as a wound in the earth.

On this visit, I carried a family photo, a classic square Kodak print with the pastel colors and white border. Sitting with our backs straight (shoulders back, my dad would say), four Hatch siblings flashed our shiny grin-grimace smiles for the camera for a photo destined for a Christmas card that would find our father in Vietnam.

As I approached the back of the wall, I broke into deep sobs. Ambushed. I dropped to my knees.

An Army officer’s kid, I was raised to shake off slights, scrapes and wounds. I didn’t shed tears. I looked at the photo, then at the wall, then at all the people making the pilgrimage to the black granite memorial etched with the names of the more than 58,000 who had served and died in the Vietnam War. I sat on the grass and sobbed.

My father came home, twice. So many men and women didn’t.

While I was a Snedden Chair at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the photojournalism students and I had embarked on a project documenting the lives of the Fort Wainwright soldiers as they trained and their families as they prepared for an upcoming deployment. Lt. Col. Brian Payne invited a student photojournalist and me to join the soldiers of the First Battalion Fifth Infantry Regiment downrange.

For Christmas 2011, JR Ancheta and I were embedded with the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team “Arctic Wolves” in southern Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

Days after Christmas, we joined Charlie Company on an air assault mission. It was their first since their previous air assault when Pfc. Brett C. Wood, 19, was killed walking on patrol when he hit an improvised explosive device. Every soldier in third platoon wore a black metal K.I.A. bracelet in honor and memory of Wood.

Allegheny College 2005 graduate Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor was on patrol with Wood that day.

“No chance,” Taylor said. “He died instantly.

“I was the first one there. I’m not glad it was me but I’m glad it wasn’t anyone else. I take comfort maybe even. Sgt. O’Neal and I were the only ones to bear the burden.”

The soldiers followed protocol, swinging a hand-held metal detector, a Vallon, to sweep for and clear the area of other possible explosive devices.

“Sgt. O’Neal made the decision,” Taylor said, recalling his leader’s words that day. “’Taylor, you’re holding your s— together. I need you right now.’”

The two men then gathered the remains of their fallen fellow soldier.

“The memories aren’t something I enjoy, but I wouldn’t have wanted it to be anyone else,” Taylor said. “I’m happy I was able to protect those guys from that.”

On Memorial Day 2012, “Arctic Wolves” soldiers, family members, JR and I attended the service for the 21 soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

The dead: Spc. Bradley L. Melton; Pfc. Cheizray Pressley; Pfc. Lamarol J. Tucker; Sgt. Jeffrey C. S. Sherer; PV2 Ryan J. Larson; First Sgt. Kenneth B. Elwell; Pfc. Tyler M. Springmann; Pfc. Douglas L. Cordo; Pfc. Brandon S. Mullins; Spc. Douglas J. Green; Spc. Christopher J. Marquis; Pfc. Brett E. Wood; Sgt. Rodolfo Rodrigues Jr.; Sgt. Timothy D. Sayne; Spc. Ryan J. Cook; PV2 Danny Chen; Spc. Calvin M. Pereda; Spc. Johnathan “Bryant” McCain; Spc. James R. Burnett Jr.; Pfc. Matthew C. Collin; Pfc. Dustin P. Napier.

My friend and fellow journalist Larry James is a veteran journalist and a veteran. We met in Cairo, covered conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. We once crossed paths in the middle of Liberia: I was on my way out; Larry was on his way in to cover the civil war.

James was a 22-year-old first lieutenant when he arrived in Vietnam. As an infantry platoon leader, he joined the men of Charlie Company, Fourth Battalion, Ninth Infantry Regiment (Manchu) in May 1968. The unit had suffered grievous losses in the previous five months, including an ambush on March 2, 1968, in which 49 soldiers were killed.

Decades later, James wrote a book about the soldiers, the ambush and the events surrounding it. He opens “Unfortunate Sons: A True Story of Young Men and War” with a quote by Desiderius Erasmus, a 15th century Dutch humanist: “War is delightful to those who have no experience of it.”

James wrote the book to remember the young men and to record their history and service since the story remained unknown outside of the small group of Manchu. In the acknowledgements, James wrote he intended the book as “an overdue tribute to a group of young Americans who did what was asked of them and paid with their lives.”

The dead: Jose Luis Alvarez-Tapia; Gerald Lawrence Avery; Charles Edward Bonds; Harlan Ray Brandts; Jerry Walker Byers; William Brace Cawley Jr.; Gary Virgil Frazier; Michael Dennis Frost; Raymond Leroy Gallagher; Cal Duain Johnson; Lawrence Johnson; Jack Joseph Jordan Jr.; Lee Roy Lanier; Charlie Frank Lee; James Rufus Mathis; Robert Junior McGee; Charles Edward Melott; Leonard David Moore; Thomas Lee Mork; Barry Lee Moyer; James Francis O’Laughlin; Kenneth Lindle Oldham; William Rassano; Jose Angel Reyes; Roy Donald Page; Ronald Landon Salvani; Willard Skaggs Jr.; Michael Ross Rivers; Aristides Sosa; Clifford Geoffrey Stockton; Ronald Allen Slane; Warren Lee Tall; John Michael Thompson; Danny George Swazick; Walker C. Velvet Jr.; Larry Huston Walden; Carrel Jean Titsworth; Paul Edward West; Darrell Eugene Wheeler; Gary Winston Watkins; Joseph Jerome Williams; Virgil Lawrence Williams; Larry Allen Widener; Danny Stephen Young; Willard Frank Young; Kenneth Wayne Winget.

I asked James if he intentionally listed the soldiers’ names without their ranks.

“Yes, I did,” James said. “Nobody outranks anybody in death.”

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/x1667062542/When-it-comes-to-U-S-war-veterans-nobody-outranks-anybody-in-death

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

I believe the most precious gifts cannot be bought

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2013

In our journalism classes, I encourage students to write thank-you notes. I tell them that it’s an invitation not an obligation; and, I offer incentive points to the students who thank others who have given generously of their time and expertise. Each semester, 10 to 20 percent of the students make the time and take the initiative to write personal thank-you notes.

My mom taught me to write thank-you notes as a child. She always made sure that we kept the tags from our Christmas and birthday presents so we could keep track of the people we would write. As a kid, I would sometimes grumble at the task. As an adult, I realize that it takes time to choose the stationery or card. It takes time to write a thoughtful, sincere note. It’s the time as much as the thought that counts.

‘Tis the season.

On TV. On the radio. On websites and highway billboards. In newspapers. Everywhere I look, advertisements are pushing, prodding and cajoling me to shop. Buy. Buy. Buy.

I believe the most precious gifts cannot be bought. The most valuable gift we can offer others—and ourselves—is time.

We tend to live as though life and the future are guaranteed. I’ll do it later. I’ll call her tomorrow. I’ll go home for Christmas next year. I’ll make that trip when I’ve lost more weight. Or saved more money.

Spending time as a journalist in conflict zones taught me to value life, even as I repeatedly risked my own. In Somalia, a sniper’s bullet missed me and ricocheted out of the bed of the truck transporting me. In Liberia and Somalia, child soldiers pointed guns at me more times than I can count; each time they chose not to pull the trigger. In Mozambique, our jeep hit an antipersonnel mine; it damaged the vehicle while we escaped unscathed.

And this time two years ago, I walked on daily patrols in southern Kandahar province in Afghanistan with soldiers in the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team. I came home. Not all the soldiers did.

All the loss and near misses clarified for me what I would miss. The weddings. The graduations. The great loves. The heartbreaks. The road trips. The bumpy detours. I understand in my bones, to the core of my being, that my time on this Earth is a gift.

This season of giving, I encourage you to consider that the simple things are indeed priceless. Take your time and be present. Make time for your life and the people and beauty that share it with you.

Listen when someone talks to you. Not the kind of listening when you’re not truly paying attention, when you’ve already moved on to the next thing on your list of things to do. Or worse, you’re texting or typing while your friend or loved one shares a story, woe or concern with you. Listen with your ears, heart and spirit. Stop whatever else you’re doing and listen.

Offer to run an errand for a friend. Drive someone to the airport. Shovel the snow from your neighbor’s sidewalk. Read a book to a stranger in a hospital or assisted living facility. Babysit for friends who love their children and would also love some time alone with each other. Write a thank-you note to someone for an act of kindness or a gesture that altered the course of your life. Write a thank-you note to someone who has loved you, to anyone who has made a difference in your life.

For years as a journalist, I gave everything to my job. I worked 60, 70 hours a week. Ninety-hour weeks were not unheard of. I sacrificed my well being in service of a never-ending news cycle and a profession I adored and in which I excelled.

It took me years to learn to make time for myself. And I learned that lesson the hard way. It’s not selfish. It’s self-aware. It’s self-care.

You cannot give to others if you are depleted. You will have nothing to give.

Rest. Relax. Make time for prayer. Meditation. Coffee. Conversation. Make time to enjoy the beauty around you. Watch your breath in the cold night air under a twinkling-star sky. Make snow angels. Make a fire and watch the flames.

Have fun this holiday season—and every season. Your mind, body, spirit, your breath and your life are sacred.

Each moment is an invitation.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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On Veterans Day, remember those who did and didn’t make it home

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch (click here for the online version)

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. I have a love-hate relationship with the media,” he said.

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 2011-2012.

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? 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,” said Taylor 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 gator 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.

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Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming

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This time last year I was preparing for my second embed with the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team in southern Kandahar Province. I’d spent a month embedded in December 2011-January 2012 and I’d returned to do a story on the women soldiers of the Female Engagement Team for The Christian Science Monitor.

By late March last year, I was in a hospital bed in Kuwait, struck by some “fever of unknown origin” and a wicked infection that set up camp in my lungs so fast it was like a flood of refugees fleeing a war zone.

I am grateful beyond words that the illness didn’t take me. It gave me new-found respect for the importance and beauty of my lungs and the power of my body to heal herself.

The docs cautioned me to take it easy. I didn’t honestly. Job interviews. A move cross-country. A new teaching job in the fall, teaching two new classes. I asked if I could do yoga, run, swim. My doctor looked at me: swimming? No! Walking.

With the illness, the steroids that probably saved my life and the inactivity that followed, the pounds on my body went up and my confidence went down.

I banned my family from taking photos of me and I asked friends not to post images of me on Facebook. It was too painful. I did not recognize myself.

A student first semester asked if I were pregnant. It was a great teaching moment in my journalism class; however, it was heartbreaking for me, doubly cruel in its implications. And I thought I looked great that day.

I followed the doc’s orders. I did my best to rest and take care of myself. I didn’t want to relapse.

Over the break, the doctor gave me a green light to swim. My lungs were clear, my heart strong.

I decided I’d join the Master Swimmers group at Allegheny College. The pool is walking distance from my home.

People often tell me I’m brave. They might mention my considerable public speaking. Or my years spent in combat zones, most recently walking on patrol with an infantry platoon in the Horn of Panjawai’i.

True, I do take risks. I do things that scare other people…and scare me sometimes.

I’ll tell you though, it took real courage last Sunday to put on my Speedo swimsuit–too many pounds overweight than I’d care to mention–and walk onto the pool deck.

Kirk, the coach, is a young, kind man. I told him I’d swim in the outside lane–the slow lane. I had no idea what I’d be able to do.

300-yard warmup. No problem.

As I swam, I realized I hadn’t swum since I left my beloved swimming group at Oregon State in 2010. I spent a winter in Alaska and another winter in Afghanistan. Three years.

The workout continued. I kept swimming. The woman sharing the lane with me said: “You’re a strong mama.” I smiled.

My body is a miracle and she continually surprises me.

At the end of the workout, the coach said I’d swum 2,600 yards. That’s probably enough for your first time back in the water, he said.

2,600 yards!

Sure, I didn’t have the core or the arm strength for more than 15 yards of butterfly at a stretch. And I didn’t do many flip turns because I didn’t know if I’d have the stamina.

I didn’t get winded. I did feel strong. I called my friend in Rhode Island and she said: “Two hundred more yards and you could do the Save the Bay Swim. Now there’s a goal. July 2013.

I went back this week and I swam 3,000 yards.

It’s a start.

This year I made a commitment to myself. To regain my health and strength. To uncover/liberate the athlete who was once a Pac-10 rowing champion, who ran marathons.

Mostly, I have to admit, I’m happy to be here. I’m happy my lungs are healthy.

And I think Dorie the blue tang in “Finding Nemo” has it right.

Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.

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