has to do it'
A behind-the-scenes look at reporting the death of an
By Kathy Helms-Hughes
When my daughter, Rebekah, sucked in her last breath
at the age of 19 days, I mourned for the child I would never know.
Sitting there in the hospital room holding this lifeless infant, I
tried to think of ways to keep from going insane. I approached the
circumstances from a scientific perspective:
"So ... this is death," I thought. Quiet, peaceful, eyes
staring into the beyond. Still, it did not ease my mind as thoughts
of toe tags, autopsies and embalming stole their way into my brain.
When I arrived home, an empty bassinet stared me in the face. A gown
of white eyelet lace was to be Rebekah's "coming home from the hospital"
dress. Instead, she was buried in it.
Death is the dead horse in the middle of the dining room
table that nobody likes to talk about, a grief counselor once told
me. Everyone knows it's there, but they avert their eyes, thinking
it will go away.
The news of Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald Davis's death
spread through this community like wildfire on Dec. 5. News media
from across the nation struggled to come up with stories about the
Linda Davis, Donnie's mother, had a premonition that
morning that something was wrong -- God's way of preparing her for
the inevitable. She hung on every word that came across the television,
her uneasiness growing. She busied herself with yard work and prayed.
Barely four hours later, the media began calling the
home of Lon and Linda Davis looking for insight into a story with
national implications. Television satellite trucks rolled into Watauga.
It was a warm, sunny afternoon and I selfishly wanted
to take the day off, but there I was, driving around Watauga, running
down leads on a fatal plane crash that happened the day before. I
returned to the office to read an e-mail that one of the American
soldiers killed in Afghanistan might have been from Watauga and that
his parents possibly owned The Barn Shoppe near Turkeytown Mall. Would
I check it out?
This is the kind of story I try to avoid. I have never
been good at funerals.
Patsy Johnson, the smiling face visitors to the Star
usually see when they enter the building, knew the Davis family. I
asked my boss, Guy Austin, whether she could go along. I didn't want
to go by myself. After all, what do you say? "I heard you lost your
son today, is that true? How did you hear about it? What are your
thoughts? What was Donnie like?" Instead of chomping at the bit like
a hungry reporter should, I retreated. I didn't want to do this. If
it hadn't been for Patsy, I would never have gotten the story.
As we walked up the driveway, I noticed Linda's whimsical
flower garden and "Chipmunk Trail" marker. I liked her immediately.
Donnie's sister, Debbie, stepped in to be the strength
for the family -- Donnie's job when he was alive -- dealing with the
incessant ringing of the phone and visitors at the door. Mammaw Curd
was there, leaning on her walker, an occasional tear trickling down
her face. Donnie was "my little boy," she said.
Meeting the Davis family is like greeting someone you've
known all your life. You get the feeling they haven't met many strangers.
Through tears, they told me their story. I cried along with them.
On our way back to the truck Patsy pulled out her cigarettes
and I borrowed a light for my cigar. We inhaled deeply, soothing our
nerves, and talked about circumstances surrounding the deaths of our
own children. We knew we couldn't share in the Davises' grief or carry
any of that burden for them. It was a road they would have to travel
alone. I wondered if that was what was meant by "the valley of the
shadow of death."
From the moment I hit the office door at dusk, it was
chaos. There was a note on my desk to call Duncan Mansfield at AP.
I was in awe. When it comes to covering Oak Ridge and Tennessee Valley
Authority, he's my idol.
My boss recognized the importance of the story and interrupted
the publisher's night out with his family to lobby for an early deadline.
Rather than going home, seeing what was in the 'fridge and putting
my child to bed so that I could have some quiet, let the story flow
and then e-mail it in, I tensed for the long night ahead.
My daughter's, Lyra, returned from church and took up
residence at Donna's desk in classified where an assortment of colorful
markers, scissors, and tape never fail to get her attention. She played
Star Photographer Rick Harris, like the rest of us, had
been going for a couple of days on very little sleep. He had that
irritable attitude people get when they're running on empty. Feeling
like paparazzi, we drove to Watauga at breakneck speed to photograph
the door of The Barn Shoppe where a wreath with red, white and blue
ribbon now hung on the door. Rick clicked off pictures in the dark.
Guy took sympathy on us and made a Pal's run for the newsroom, paying
for dinner out of his own pocket.
News travels fast, they say. You wouldn't believe how
fast ... A radio reporter called from Nashville. Associated Press.
A CBS morning show. It appeared that we had been the only ones to
speak with immediate family members of the soldiers killed. News agencies
wanted to pick up quotes from a story I hadn't even begun to write.
AP pulled out the rulebook and quoted from the "team player" regulations.
They had a deadline to meet and newspapers across the nation were
awaiting a story which they wanted to punch up with our quotes. Suddenly,
this little podunk paper in this little podunk town that tends to
be slighted until someone needs a favor, was the focus of a lot of
attention. A TV show wanted to buy excerpts from my tape to play on
their morning show.
I could just see it: The Davis family waking up in Clarksville
after their trip from Watauga, turning on the television and hearing
audio of their conversation with me. I would have ripped the tape
apart first. Fortunately, I didn't have to. My boss is ex-military
and, once you get beyond the "boss-employee" thing, a down-to-earth,
genuine person with feelings. He's also ethical -- a rare breed in
today's news world.
Guy had seen military deaths before. He knew what the
family could expect in the weeks ahead and felt badly for them. He
also understood my reluctance to do the story, but, as he had said
earlier in the day, "Somebody's got to do it."
I crammed "frenchie fries" into my mouth without thinking
or tasting because I hadn't eaten that day, and began to play back
the tape. Guy's military side took over. He began delegating duties,
rescheduling press runs, calling in carriers and mail room personnel,
pulling Tracie away from studying for finals to design pages while
he figured out how to play the story and squeeze everything in. Religion
Editor Gregg Miller was drafted to proof copy and write obituaries.
The sports department fielded calls from sneaky reporters trying to
pry information. After the first half-dozen or so calls, Guy took
the hot seat, negotiating with cranky media types from larger organizations
who got a little less friendly with each passing hour. We got a taste
of what it was like to be a morning paper.
Lyra, who is 9, kept asking when we were leaving. It
was 10 o'clock and past her bedtime.
"In a few minutes. Just as soon as mommy gets this written,"
I kept telling her.
"You said that two hours ago," she complained.
At 2 a.m., she was still curled up in Donna's chair,
asleep with her coat pulled over her head to block the light. My child
wanted to go home. Donnie Davis was never coming home again, at least,
Over the next few days I had to follow-up the Davis story,
pestering a family which had not had time to grieve. I was beginning
to hate being a reporter. By the time the weekend rolled around and
my husband got back into town, I was not in good humor. All he had
to do was complain once about how I was always working and not spending
time with my family. I shoved a couple of newspapers under his nose
and told him to count his blessings. The floodgates opened and the
tears flowed as he apologized.
I thought of Mi Kyong, who would never feel her husband's
arms around her again. Donnie would no longer feel the rush of the
wind as he rode his Harley. I nursed a Zima and smoked another cigar,
searching for a rational thought. The family haunted me despite the
fact that reporters are not supposed to get emotionally involved.
Many times I recited the journalist's mantra: Just write the story.
Get the facts, get in, and get out.
On the day the Davis family returned from Clarksville,
I was getting a lazy start on the day. The Davises were going to issue
a statement to the media at noon. Get over there and take a photographer.
The roller coaster ride started again.
At the press conference, Carter County Sheriff's Department
Deputy Brad Johnson, a close friend of the Davis family, told me about
substitute teaching a history class at a local high school. The students
had no idea what was going on around them, he said. Many of them had
not heard the Donnie Davis story, nor did they care.
I wondered what kind of a people we had become that we
could not stop from our busy schedules and self-importance long enough
to consider the life and death of this Green Beret. Did he know the
end was near, and if he did, what was he thinking? He could have been
down in West Tennessee shopping for Christmas presents for his family
like everybody else. Instead, he was fighting to avenge the Sept.
11 deaths and injuries of thousands of Americans, to protect his country
from the actions of madmen, and to make Afghanistan a country where
children have a chance to be children rather than refugees caught
in a political struggle under the guise of religion. He felt it was
When I talked with my sister, Deanna, as I was preparing
to write about the funeral, she expressed her sympathy for the family.
At the same time, she said, "Not to take away from him (meaning Donnie),
but what about all of the other soldiers from here who lost their
lives in other wars?" Do people remember their sacrifice?
As I neared Elizabethton High School the day the Davis
family received friends, I took note of the lowered flags and signs
along the way: Pray for the Davis Family; Donnie Davis, American Hero;
God Bless America.
Ironically, on the radio John Cougar Mellencamp was singing:
"I was born in a small town, And I can breathe in a small town; Gonna
die in this small town, And that's prob'ly where they'll bury me ..."
I fought back tears and changed the station.
I do not envy the Davis family in the days and months
ahead as they realize the empty space at the dining table, sort through
Donnie's belongings to see which members of the family might most
cherish his treasures, or perhaps wake Christmas morning and think
of something to tell him before remembering he's no longer there.
I didn't know Donnie, personally, but having met his
family and hearing their stories, I will always remember him as the
little boy who shoved cooked spaghetti noodles up the nose of his
sister, Debbie, while she lay asleep on the couch. That was the prank
of a child -- a child someone else died for so that he might lay down
his life for his country.
This Christmas, as we open presents, perhaps we should
take time to thank the Donnie Davises everywhere who gave their lives
that we might enjoy the moment.