Unanswered questions

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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.

















Y ears ago, I was sitting at Sachuest Beach, watching the late afternoon surf roll in. I’d spent all day body surfing. The waves had been glassy and glorious, fun to ride, plenty of power.

I noticed a tall woman with wind-blown white hair, probably in her 70s, tuck a boogey board under her arm and head into the surf. I watched as she caught wave after wave. The wave would drive her onto the beach. She’d pop up and run back into the surf. I recognized that joy; I recognized a kindred spirit.

I rushed over. Wow, you’re getting some great rides. Yes, it’s beautiful today, she said.

I’m Cheryl Hatch. I’m June Gibbs. Are you related to Helen and John Hatch? Yes, they were my grandparents. I’m John Hatch’s oldest daughter. June knew my grandparents and my parents. And she knew my mom’s parents, too. My grandfather, William Shepley, served in the RI House of Representatives years before June served as a RI State Senator.

We talked for a bit then parted ways.

We’d see each other on the beach most days. I would spend my entire day every day at Second Beach. June would come and catch waves in the late afternoon. One day she invited me to lunch.

I always accepted June’s invitations, especially the last-minute ones. It’s a beautiful morning, want to walk on the beach? Yes! Want to get a pizza at Gold’s? Yes! Want to grab dinner at KJs? Yes! Want to see a play at Trinity Theater in Providence? Yes! Want to go to the Cape for the weekend? Yes!

June was spontaneous and sparkling. One October we made an impromptu trip to the Cape. It was sunset. June suggested one last dip of the season. We knew the water would be chilly. We put on our suits and jumped into the water. We jumped right back out. It was crazy cold. And we have that great memory of gasping for glee and taking the plunge.

June always took the plunge. As a politician, as a friend, as a member of her church, June always dived in with gusto. She was a force of nature….a kind, wild force of nature. And I loved her.

She followed my adventures. She was particularly interested in my students, my year teaching in Alaska and my project on the soldiers of 1/25th Styrker Brigade Combat Team and their families. I sent her postcards from Afghansitan and I called a few times. He son-in-law, Eliot, would pull up Google Earth and they’d tried to locate Sperwan Ghar on the map and track my travels. Early in her career, June served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and helped cracked German submarine codes during World War II.

On one of my calls, her daughter, Elizabeth, told me June had been diagnosed with cancer. It was aggressive.

Recently, I told June I was planning to stop in RI and see her on my way home from Afghanistan and Kuwait.

Come sooner, Cheryl, she said.

I didn’t make it.

June died at 3 a.m. on Easter day.

Elizabeth said she and Eliot walked along June’s beloved Sachuest Beach and through the Wildlife Refuge June helped create. At Easter sunrise, two great blue herons lifted off and flew past them. Elizabeth figures it was her mom and dad checking in on them.

Eliot said: I think she’s heading straight for Kuwait to throw her weight around and get to the bottom of things.

I like that idea. With June on the job, whatever’s got a hold on me doesn’t stand a chance now.

Surf’s up, June. I love you.