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