Wheels up, David

6 Comments

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

My mother is strong, fierce—and fragile

2 Comments

Outside the Box, a column by Cheryl Hatch/copyright 2016

I am not a mother.

I have not known the joy of bringing a life into this world or the pain of watching my child leave it.

As a photographer, I have witnessed a birth in a home on a farm in Ohio. I stood in that scared, translucent space where love and new life mingle, as a child slipped from his mother’s womb into his father’s waiting hands.

In a hospital in Somalia, I have been in that equally sacred space where life slips away on one last breath. In Iraq, I watched a Kurdish mother caress the dirt over her infant’s grave, running her fingers through the soil the way she might have one day run her fingers through her daughter’s curls.

My mother’s mother did not want her to marry my father. She feared she’d waste the college education purchased so dearly just a few decades after the Great Depression. My mother, usually the good girl, defied her mother and married my father. “I love him,” she said.

Dad graduated a year ahead of my mother with a commission in the U.S. Army. He flew back from overseas for their June wedding. There would be no honeymoon. Dad had to be at his station and the Army wouldn’t pay for Mom’s ticket. They saved their quarters, literally, so the bride could purchase a plane ticket and accompany her husband to their new home.

Mom got settled in a room above the barn in a German farmhouse and Dad promptly left for the field. At 21, my mother was alone; an ocean away from the small island where she’d lived her entire life. No friends. No family. And no German language skills.

Soon mom was pregnant with me.

There would be five children—one who did not survive. 26 moves. Twenty-six times my mother would pack and unpack an entire household, usually alone. Dad was either already at his next post, in the field or away at war.

When my father left for his second tour in Vietnam, my mother was still in her twenties, with four children, my youngest brother not yet 1 year old.

When I look back, I marvel at how my mother held it all together. I think sometimes she didn’t.

My mother did not have a home of her own again until she was nearly 50. But she made do and made a home each and every day for my often-absent soldier father and their four children.

Mom grew up at a time when women had two career choices: teacher or nurse. My mom wanted to be a physical education teacher. That course of studies would have cost more money, so my mother became an elementary school teacher.

My mom is athletic and as competitive as they come. She played basketball and volleyball in high school. She came of age before Title IX and the opportunities it offered girls and women, so she set sports aside in college.

She played tennis when she could, until her back had other plans. She took up golf at 50. She’s had a couple hole-in-ones. And even now, when she’s putting well, she can score in the mid-40s for nine holes.

She started piano lessons in her late 60s. She writes poems. She’ll wake up in the middle of the night and put pen to paper. Every once in a while, I’ll get an envelope in the mail with a poem my mom wrote for me.

My mother is smart and tough and gifted with languages. She’s athletic and adventurous. She has an artist’s soul. She’s thoughtful and kind—to a degree that can leave her wounded by the thoughtlessness of others.

I have discovered that I am my mother’s daughter.

I rowed crew at a Division I university and earned a Pac-10 championship. I am a writer and photographer. I have traveled the world.

It’s no accident that in my work I have quietly raged against the patriarchal systems that suppress, stifle and dismiss women. The military. Journalism. Now academia.

Early in my career, I focused my camera and energy on women and children who had been displaced, caught in the crossfire of the men who made war and made the decisions.

Like my mother, I have been too nice. Too polite. Unfailingly thoughtful and long-suffering. To the detriment of my spirit and health.

Like my mother, later in my life, I have found my voice. I have given myself permission to speak my mind and my truth. Now, as an educator, I encourage other women to find and use their voices and talents.

When someone asks me where I’m from, I’m always challenged to find an accurate answer. One of my brothers says planet earth.

I have no home in the traditional sense. There’s the place I was born. The place I live now. The place I’ve lived the longest.

There has been one constant in my peripatetic life, my mother. The one fixed point in my moving life. She has held it—and us—together these many years.

My mother is strong, fierce—and fragile. I suspect all mothers are.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

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

###

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had to be here, Coach

5 Comments

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.

###

My dad was there

Leave a comment

Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2015

When I was 16, I was driving home from work on a dark, unfamiliar country road. I hit a turn and couldn’t hold it. My folks got the late-night call that all parents dread.

My parents arrived and learned my friends were OK. I had some cuts and bruises. The car was totaled. On the long ride to the hospital, my dad uttered one terse sentence: you were driving too damn fast.

A few weeks later, I asked my dad if I could buy a car. I had saved my money and I agreed to pay for the vehicle, insurance, gas and maintenance. My father took me to a dealership to help me pick out my first car.

My father trusted that I had learned my lesson. I had been reckless and I could’ve killed my friends and myself.

Over the years, I’ve had a hard time picking out a Father’s Day card for my dad.

We didn’t live those moments so often pictured with the fancy script. We didn’t go fishing together. Or play catch. We didn’t go camping or take long walks with his arm draped over my shoulder. We didn’t have long talks.

My dad was short on words and long on discipline.

I have embarrassing moments of Dad’s reprimands seared in my memory. He marched my sister and me down the aisle and out of church one Sunday when we failed to stop talking and giggling during the sermon. He came to a pizza place where I was hanging with friends and removed me from their company because I wasn’t home on time.

My dad was tough.

I came home once and showed him a test with a ‘C’ marked on it. I told my father it was an “average” grade. He responded that it wasn’t average for me.

My dad was missing a lot. And he missed a lot.

He was a soldier and an officer: his job, his men and his country often took precedence over his family. On weekends when he was home, he played golf and poker. He missed birthday parties and ballet recitals. He missed more than one Christmas.

Last year, my father called to tell me that the doctor had found a shadow on his pancreas. Dad, I said, shadow and pancreas are two words I do not want to hear in the same sentence.

Tests, a second opinion and surgery followed. By the grace of God, my tough dad beat the odds. Next month he’ll celebrate his 80th birthday. When he looks back on his long life, my dad sees that he made mistakes and missed important milestones and moments.

When I look back, I see our tangled, tempestuous father-daughter journey. I also see all the times my father stood by me, when he had my back. When he flew halfway around the world to attend my high school graduation. When he and my mom flew across the country to attend the opening of my photo exhibit.

When I was a young girl, I decided I wanted to dive off the high diving board.

My father agreed, with a condition. If I went up the board, I had to dive. I could not back down. I could not retreat.

I stood in line with the big kids. As I approached the ladder, I started to get nervous. As I climbed the ladder, I started to shake. I clutched the handrails and walked one halting step at a time to the edge of the board. It dipped under my weight. I looked down and realized it was a long way down, much farther than I’d imagined.

My father was treading water, waiting for me.

My legs trembled as I walked back toward the ladder. I looked down. The line of kids had grown longer. My dad was still treading water.

I was afraid to dive and I was afraid to back down the ladder. I’d made a deal. I’d given my word.

I don’t know how long I stood on the edge of that high board and trembled. It was an eternity. Fifteen minutes. 20 maybe. My dad kept treading water.

I finally summoned the courage to place my head between my outstretched hands. I folded over and fell into my first high dive.

My dad was there.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/outside-the-box-i-ve-lived-a-tangled-father-daughter/article_4f333896-151c-11e5-8531-e394669639f9.html

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

###

The hardest part of leaving is letting go

Leave a comment

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

Long before 9/11 and the TSA, I would stand at the departure gate at the airport.

I’d watch my friend, family member or beloved, walk down the gangplank to the plane. I’d wave until he disappeared from sight. I’d shift to the giant windows and press my face against the glass, trying to find his face among the oval windows on the plane. I’d stand and wait until the plane backed out. I’d watch until it took off and disappeared from sight.

I didn’t want to leave.

As an Army BRAT, I moved with my family more than 20 times before I graduated from high school. It’s a pattern I continued as an adult in my work as a foreign correspondent. While I have a lot of experience with leaving, it’s never been easy for me.

In truth, we are all leaving from the moment we draw our first breath.

In The Campus newsroom a couple weeks ago, Amanda Spadaro said she had a moment. A graduating senior and co-editor-in-chief, she looked around the newsroom where she’d spent countless hours of her four years at Allegheny. She remembered the late nights, the laughter, the good times and the tough times. She looked at the students she’d shared so much with and those who would carry on in her absence next year. She realized she was leaving.

Spadaro left her hometown in Washington, Pennsylvania four years ago. On Saturday, she’ll graduate with a major in biology and a minor in English. She has no immediate plans after graduation, though she’s in the running for an internship at The Meadville Tribune.

Her career plans: “Pipe dream is to be the next Ida Tarbell, so. We’ll see how that goes. “

Elliott Bartels, The Campus Web manager, left his hometown in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, four years ago. Bartels will graduate with an ecology major and a graphic design minor. Immediately after graduation, Bartels will work in Charlotte, North Carolina for Wildlands Engineering, a bio/environmental engineering firm that specializes in water remediation and mitigation.

His career plans: “Working for a while as an environmental engineer/scientist to pay off loans and to afford a new project Jaguar, then maybe back to grad school to increase $$$ and get a degree in upper management/business.”

The Campus features editor Claire Teague left her hometown in Chatham, N.J. for Allegheny. Saturday she’ll graduate with an English major and economics minor. This summer she’ll be working for the Presbyterian Church of New Providence where she’ll be the assistant director to the youth program, working with hundreds of high school and middle school students.

Sam Stephenson, The Campus co-editor-in-chief, left his hometown in Portland, Oregon, four years ago. He’ll graduate with an English major with a focus in journalism and an economics minor. He’ll head home and teach summer tennis camps, work out and get ready for the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School.

His career plans: “Join the Marine Corps as an officer and stay in as long as my heart is content. Eventually though, I’d like to have a career in journalism or communications, but that might not start for a while!”

At Allegheny’s bicentennial commencement today, parents will watch their children cross the stage and collect a diploma. They’ll shout and wave and snap photos. They’ll also wonder where the time went. They can remember when their children left home for college. Now they’ll watch as they leave their college home for new adventures.

When my folks take me to the airport now, I linger by the curb. I hug my mom. I hug my dad. I don’t want to leave. My father insists on taking my luggage to the check-in counter. Usually, I’ll leave the cart and run back outside and stop my parents before they leave. One more hug. One more “I love you.”

The hardest thing about leaving is letting go.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/outside-the-box-the-hardest-thing-about-leaving-is-letting/article_86b87cd4-f511-11e4-adf0-270d6b767289.html

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

###

Happy to be embraced in return home from Ebola-stricken Liberia

1 Comment

Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

When we arrive at the entrance gate to Barclay Training Center, I reach out my hand to the soldier who greets us.

Oh no. Don’t give me no Ebola, he says.

I’m in Monrovia, Liberia, and touching of any kind is not allowed. The usual friendly gestures of hugs and handshakes are strictly forbidden in this West African nation that has been in the grip of an Ebola outbreak for months.

I chose to spend my winter break working rather than resting. I turned in grades then flew to Texas to break the news to my parents that I’d be leaving for Liberia on December 29.

I traveled with writer Brian Castner. We’d met at the Combat Paper: Words Made Flesh conference at Allegheny, where he’d spoken last September. I’d been raised in the Army and Brian had served in the Air Force as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer in Iraq. Brian proposed that we cover the actions of the 101st Airborne, whose soldiers had fought insurgents in Iraq. The president had now tasked them with fighting a virus.

The virus is transmitted between humans by direct contact, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “When an infection occurs in humans, the virus can be spread to others through direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes in, for example, the eyes, nose, or mouth) with blood or body fluids (including but not limited to urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, and semen) of a person who is sick with Ebola.”

The Army’s mission was to build Ebola Treatment Units and train healthcare workers. They would have no contact with Ebola patients. In Monrovia, they were confined to a walled compound where they would wander to one gate, called Redemption Gate, and look at the ocean. Redemption references the beach slightly north of the soldiers’ view. In 1980, Samuel Doe claimed power in a coup and had the previous government’s ministers executed on the beach.

As one soldier gazed west to the horizon and a faraway home, he called the ocean view a slice of heaven.

It was a look-but-don’t-touch lifestyle.

Earlier that day, Brian and I had gone to West Point, which Brian described as a shantytown. It sits on a .15-square-mile peninsula with 80,000 residents, the majority children. In August, when Ebola was rampant, the government placed West Point under quarantine and enforced it with police and barbed wire.

As we walked the beach, our host kept reminding us to watch our step. Feces. Feces.

The U.S. soldiers haven’t been to West Point.

As I photographed, children swarmed around me. They pressed in close for a view of me and pressed into my camera’s viewfinder.

I’ve been in such situations many times. In the past, I would have worried about theft or assault or an ambush. This time I worried about sweat: the children who grabbed my sweaty arms with their sweaty hands. I became acutely aware of unconscious habits, such as rubbing my eyes as I wiped sweat from my brow.

Brian noted that Ebola was a new type of threat for him, too. With a bomb, he’d know his fate instantly: the bomb blew or it didn’t. With Ebola, it can take up to 21 days to manifest symptoms of the disease after exposure to the virus. It’s a silent bomb.

I’d notified the Student Health Center of my travel plans before I left and again when I returned. A fellow photojournalist warned me to be prepared for a frosty reception. Even close friends steer clear when you return, he told me.

Upon arrival in the U.S., I began my 21-day self-monitoring protocol. The women at the Pennsylvania Department of Health are on the ball. Someone calls me each morning to get my twice-daily temperature readings. She inquires if I have any symptoms. No fever. No symptoms.

I had decided I would continue the precautions and practices Brian and I had exercised in Liberia. No contact. Smiles and waves only. Or tapping elbows instead of hugs and high-fives.

My friend, a fellow journalist, who’d lived and worked in West Africa, met me at the airport. He is tall with a deep voice made for radio. Welcome home, he said, and wrapped his arm around my shoulder, tucking me in close. I chafed, briefly. It was a shock to be embraced. It was also the best welcome home. I spent the weekend with my friends. We shared meals and they listened to my stories. I realized how blessed I am to have friends who will always embrace me.

When I returned to Allegheny, a student spotted me and came running across the Campus Center lobby. Professor Hatch. I didn’t have time to put up my arms. She ran right into me and wrapped me an exuberant hug.

When I heard you were in Africa, I was afraid you weren’t coming back. If you weren’t coming back, I wasn’t coming back.

She smiled and questions poured out of her. I smiled. Happy for the hug and the stream of questions.

She’s a journalist, all right.

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

###

Honor those in uniform and their families on Veterans Day

1 Comment

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.

###

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

Older Entries