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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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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Journalists in war zones: shining a light

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/x360404418/Journalists-in-combat-zones-write-with-light-while-risking-their-lives

I first heard the news on National Public Radio on my car radio.

On April 4, the day before elections in Afghanistan, an Afghan military officer walked up to a car in a convoy and opened fire. Anja Niedringhaus, a staff photographer for the Associated Press, died instantly. She was 48. Her colleague, Kathy Gannon, sustained multiple injuries and lived.

That weekend, I was attending a journalism conference at Boston University. On Saturday morning, the conference opened with a remembrance and a moment of silence for the veteran photojournalist.

Anja was a colleague. We’d both been staff photographers for the Associated Press. We had both covered conflict. I knew her work; I didn’t know her.

In the days that followed, I felt a sense of sadness I couldn’t shake. I walked along the ocean shore, sat and stared at the small, breaking waves, hoping the salt air and the soothing sound of the surf would wash over me and through me.

The sadness is cumulative and elusive. It’s been with me for decades, long before I noticed it, probably since my first war. It goes into hibernation and awakens every few years, usually on the cusp of spring.

On April 20, 2011, I was in Fairbanks, Alaska, when I noticed the status updates on Facebook. Getty photographer Chris Hondros, a friend and colleague, had been mortally wounded in Misrata, Libya. He was 41. Chris had been covering the uprising in Egypt and opted for one more assignment before returning home to the States. In the New York cathedral where they had planned to wed in August, his fiancée gave his eulogy.

I was eating breakfast in Oregon one morning in March 1994, when I read a brief in the small section on world events in our local paper: an Italian journalist was killed in Mogadishu. I contacted a mutual friend, an Italian journalist I’d met in Somalia and worked with in Mozambique. He sent a fax and confirmed the worst.

Their Somali guards had abandoned Ilaria Alpi and her Slovenian cameraman Miran Hrovatin. They were stranded in their vehicle when gunmen ambushed them and opened fire.

“They killed her like a dog. She had just the time to raise her hands to her face.”

Ilaria, a television reporter for RAI-3, murdered. She was 32.

The last time I’d seen Ilaria, we’d sat on the roof of a dilapidated building that served as a hotel for journalists in Mogadishu. We’d talked and laughed, listening to the gunfire in the streets, watching the tracer fire in the night sky. We’d shared stories of being women journalists and agreed to meet in the summer and share a bottle of wine on the balcony of her Rome apartment.

Once, in Somalia, I was traveling in a car behind a truck loaded with grapefruit. A Somali woman wrapped in a flowing, rich yellow fabric walked past the truck. From the back seat of the car, I stuck my camera with a long lens out the window. I liked the repetition of the yellow, something light and bright in a dark place.

Brakes screeched. Three Somali gunmen bounded from the truck and began screaming and shoving their AK-47s through the windows at me.

I didn’t have the language to explain that I hadn’t seen them, that I was photographing the fruit.

“Maya, Maya,” I said in Somali as they gestured that they would shoot. “No, no.”

I smiled, put up my hands and kept talking in English.

They didn’t shoot. I was lucky.

There but for the grace of God.

The thought flickers across my mind when I read stories of journalists, friends and colleagues killed covering conflict.

Liberia. Iraq. Somalia. Eritrea. Afghanistan. I got out alive.

Yes, journalists assume risks when they work in conflict zones. Injury. Disease.

Now assassination is a risk. Shoot the messenger.

It’s uncertain and under investigation whether the April 4 shooting was a random act of violence or a targeted killing. Both women were well known in Afghanistan for their years of reporting in the region.

Nearly 20 years to the day of Ilaria’s death, the Italian government is considering declassifying secret files related to the journalists’ deaths. It’s been suspected that the journalists were killed to prevent them revealing a high-level conspiracy to divert Italian aid to an organization trafficking in weapons and toxic waste, according to reports in the Italian press last month.

The Committee to Protect Journalists posts a tally of the number of journalists killed each year. This year, 17 journalists have been killed as of April 14. In 2011, 47 journalists, including Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, were killed. In 1994, 66 journalists, including Ilaria and Mirvan, were killed.

In his remembrance of Anja, AP Director of Photography Santiago Lyon called her “a lighthouse guiding us to safety.”

I have always liked that photography comes from the Greek for “writing with light.” I think of all journalists—and particularly those who work in conflict zones—as writing with light. Bearing witness. Shining a light into dark places. Revealing the truth.

Last Saturday, I was driving back from a pie run to Westfield, N.Y. It was a sunny, warm day. I was thinking about this column. Remembering Anja, Chris and Ilaria.

The CD deck switched to a Mavis Staples’ CD, “We’ll Never Turn Back.”

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

I rolled down my window and turned up the sound. I sang along with the phrases that resonated. For my friends who’ve died. For the journalists who continue to shine their light.

The road is dark. The way was long….

Don’t give up. Don’t back down. Don’t let the liar turn you round.

All in the street, I’m gonna let it shine. On the battlefield, I’m going to let it shine.

When it shines, freedom shines.

When it shines, no more sorrow.

When it shines, no more pain.

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

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Phone Home

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It’s a call I didn’t want to make.  It’s a call I debated making. It’s a call I didn’t make until I was about to board my flight.

Dad answered the phone.  “Hey, it sounds really clear. What’s new?” I asked if Mom were home and he said yes. I asked him to put her on the line, too.

“I’m doing well. Tired.”

 I’d flown from Portland, Oregon to Amsterdam to Kuwait with six-hour layovers at each destination. They knew I’d traveled to Kuwait to visit a friend. They weren’t excited about it, though they accepted and supported my decision.

“I’m flying to Afghanistan tonight.”

“Oh Cher,” my mom said. Long silence from dad.

I explained my decision. I’d started this story, covering the soldiers and their families of the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, when I was teaching at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Last February, three students accompanied me on an embed to document the soldiers training at NTC in the Mojave Desert for their deployment. At that time, Brigade Commander Col. Wood and  1-5 Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Brian Payne invited us to visit them downrange. Many soldiers invited us to join them in Afghanistan. They’d planted a seed.

My former student, JR Ancheta, and I discussed the possibility over the summer. I began looking into the possibility in earnest in the fall. We took baby steps: an Afghan visa, embed credentials and authorizations. Next came the search for contacts and a flight from Ali Al Salem base in Kuwait. Once we secured the ITO (Invitational Travel Order) for Kuwait and press credentials, I scouted for tickets. $2,000 for RT airfare. $1,100 for “war zone” medical and accident, death and dismemberment insurance (more on that later.) We bought our tickets on Wednesday, Dec. 7. We bought the insurance on Dec. 12 and we flew out on Dec. 14.

I wasn’t going to tell my parents. I didn’t want to spoil their holidays. I didn’t want them to worry. As the time got closer to our potential flight departure, I decided I wanted to tell them. I know I’d cause them plenty of worry over the years…a Christmas years ago in Mogadishu comes to mind. Dad mentioned it in our conversation.

Mom and Dad said they were glad I’d told them. They’d keep me and JR in their prayers. They’re going to worry…and I’m going to worry a bit about them worrying. And then we’ll press on…all of us. It’s an Army tradition, a Hatch tradition.

Here’s the email I found waiting for me an hour after my call:

“We’re glad you told us but are concerned about your safety. However, we have confidence in your decisions and common sense. I am sure you will listen to those who have agreed to take care of you, particularly that Lt. Col and his Sgt Major. I’m very proud of your  commitment to visit with those in harm’s ways. Our prayers are with you. In my eyes  you have earned every bit of care and protection the good Lord provides to you. GOD BLESS Cher. Love, from a very proud dad.”