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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Like riding a bike

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A couple weekends ago, I decided to go for bike ride. A number of people had recommended the nearby Ernst Trail. It was a warm, crisp late summer afternoon, so I pulled my cherished Peugeot out of the garage.

I realized it had been years since I’d ridden my bike (time away in Alaska and Afghanistan.) I bought the Peugeot when I was a student in Poitiers, France—when the exchange rate was 10 francs to the dollar (long before the euro). I rode the bike up the steep hills to the university from my tiny flat in centre ville.

That bike is older than most of the soldiers I walked with on patrol in Afghanistan; older than my niece and nephew; older than my current students, and my former students, for that matter. As I threw my leg over the saddle and began to pedal, I couldn’t help remembering the young, fit woman I’d once been.

When I was a student at Oregon State University, I would walk out my front door on the weekends and go for a 12-mile run without a moment’s pause or warm-up. I rode my bike everywhere, including along the long stretch of Highway 99 between Corvallis and Eugene and among the hills that hug Corvallis.

I rowed on the crew team and won a Pac-10 Championship in the Women’s Lightweight-8. We happily took the shirts from the Stanford women’s backs.

I swam two hours every night in the wake of a guy with the most beautiful, strongest stroke I’d ever seen. My sole objective was to get him to notice me. It took two years though he did eventually notice my stroke—and me.

In the caliper tests for body fat, the trainers couldn’t pinch any fat on my biceps, legs or stomach. I tested at nine percent. When I’d see pudgy women shuffling along in sweatpants I’d wonder how they let themselves get that way.

Now I’m one of those pudgy women.

I know how I got this way. I pursued photojournalism with the same passion, quiet persistence and competitiveness with which I pursued that Pac-10 gold and that hot swimmer in whose wake I swam. Years of stress and sleep deprivation, extended periods of insufficient food and wicked vicious diseases put me out of balance.

Most recently, the disease that hijacked me in Afghanistan gave me a fever that scorched me. The disease compromised my lungs and left me weak. The medications the doctors used to combat it—and save my life—took a toll on my body.

Two things I know: (1) I’m 30 percent heavier than I was when I rode my bike in college; and, (2) I’m still an athlete, even if she’s buried under more than nine percent body fat now.

As I’ve learned many times in my life—in work, in relationships, in health—the only way back is through. I got back on my bike and started riding.