'Somebody has to do it' A behind-the-scenes look at reporting the death of an American hero
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 fallen soldier.
   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, 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 for hours.
   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, not alive.
   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 his duty.
   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.