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Searching for Sharon Herbaugh

Sharon Kay Herbaugh (1954-1993)

Sharon Kay Herbaugh (’77), Bureau Chief of the Associated Press in Islamabad, Pakistan, died in an Afghan army helicopter crash in the wild mountains outside Kabul on April 16, 1993. There were no known witnesses, and the crash was later attributed to an engine malfunction.

 

Sixteen people died that day with Sharon, including two other journalists. There were no survivors. Following Wilson Fielder Jr., who died in the early days of the Korean War, she became the second Baylor journalism graduate to die as a war correspondent.

 

***

 

In fellow AP reporter Ahmed Rashid’s tribute, published just days after the tragic accident, he called her “the bravest of the brave” and told how she repeatedly returned to the bloody chaos in Afghanistan following the rout of Soviet forces from that ancient land. This time, she was following up on horrifying reports of hundreds of children dying from the thousands of hidden Russian landmines:

 

… despite admonitions from fellow journalists that Kabul was too dangerous, that the world was no longer interested in the story, that there was not even running water to wash her hair, Herbaugh insisted that she had to cover the story herself.

 

Word of her death spread quickly among her classmates and colleagues from high school, the Baylor journalism department, the Chi’s service organization, the Associated Press, and the hundreds of friends and connections she had made in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan. News of her passing was met with shock and sadness, then by a shared dawning realization that none of us really knew her. Not really.

 

In this photograph, probably taken to accompany a press release, Sharon Herbaugh, then the Associated Press Bureau Chief in Islamabad, signs a contract with the Associated Press of Pakistan in 1992.

 

When American forces finally left Afghanistan after a 20-year war in August 2021, another flood of memories battered those of us she had touched in her short 39 years. For me, Sharon had been my Assistant Editor when I was Editor of the Baylor Round-Up in 1976. We had worked shoulder to shoulder for more than a year. And I now had to admit to myself that she was a truly mysterious figure, someone who had somehow transformed herself from preternaturally quiet, hard-working college student into a much-admired, larger-than-life action figure, as much at home with astronauts and presidents as she was squatting with warlords in wind-swept tents in the Hindu Kush.

 

Worse, I had to confess that it was possible that that part of Sharon Kay Herbaugh had really been there all along and that I completely missed it.

 

We all had.

 

***

 

After her passing, reporter David Vickers for Pueblo Chieftain tracked down family, friends, and fellow graduates from Lamar High School in Lamar, Colorado. They all called her “shy” and “pensive” and someone “who avoided the spotlight.” Her mother, Dorothy Herbaugh, said that Sharon never talked about herself or what she was doing. Dorothy was stunned whenever she saw photographs of her daughter interviewing warlords, guerrilla commanders, and soldiers.

 

“It still amazes me what she did,” Dorothy said, “because in high school and college she was almost scared of her own shadow.”

But her high school English teacher, Dixie Munro, said she may have had a glimpse beneath the placid exterior, noting that while she never spoke in class, Sharon’s essays revealed something more.

 

News of her passing was met with shock and sadness, then by a shared dawning realization that none of us really knew her. Not really.

 

“It surprises me that we didn’t know her better than we did,” Munro told Vickers, “but it doesn’t surprise me there were hidden depths in Sharon Herbaugh.”

 

Even her best friend, Debbie Rife Mathis, said she was “amazed” how Sharon overcame her shyness, even as her fast-tracked career blossomed.

 

After a year at McPherson College in McPherson, Kanas, Sharon transferred to Baylor, where she majored in journalism and political science. She joined Chi’s, the women’s service organization, and the friends and classmates I interviewed remembered a lovely person who spoke very little – and never about herself.

 

Sharon simply did not like calling attention to herself. In this page from the 1977 Round Up, the Senior Editor is just another staff member. Likewise, though she was well-loved and respected by her fellow Chi’s, Sharon once again chose to remain virtually anonymous in the group photograph.

 

The recollections of Patty Jo Murphy, who was assigned as her “Big Sister,” mirror what nearly every Chi told me.

 

“My overwhelming memory of Sharon is how quiet she was,” she said. “In retrospect, that makes sense when you look at her career – she was always a good listener.”

 

Suzanne Sample Graham knew Sharon from both Chi’s and the Baylor Round Up staff, which enabled the two to spend more time together. Suzanne called her a “dear friend” and that the two kept in touch after graduation.

 

“She made me think!” Suzanne recalled. “On the job and in personal relationships, she was always asking ‘Why?’”

 

My sister Danni, now Danni Mayfield, another Chi who also worked on the Round Up when Sharon was editor, remembered Sharon primarily as an “observer” during the service organization’s weekly meetings:

 

She would listen intently to who was talking and also be looking around the room occasionally with that pretty smile of hers, just soaking it all in. When she did speak, it was usually to answer a question – which was most often a request for her to offer up her opinion. I do remember thinking, ‘Wow!’ and that I wanted to be able to speak that well in front of a big group of people and say such intelligent and insightful things someday.  

 

Danni became President of Chi’s her senior year.

 

“Looking back at it now,” she said, “I guess she was my influence towards that goal of mine.”

 

Sharon split her time between Chi’s and the Castellaw Communications Building, where she worked first on The Lariat, then The Round-Up. Karen Benson Crisp was a staff reporter for The Lariat but at night her work-study job was to set type for the next morning’s newspaper – a position that often kept her working late into the night. It was there that she most often encountered Sharon. Karen, like everyone else, remembered her as being an uncommonly quiet and private person who led by example and was dedicated to her job:

                 

I don’t remember her giving a lot of direction or instruction – you had your job, you knew what to do, and she expected you to do it. She was not dictatorial. She was more of a calm, give quiet direction sort of person.

 

Yale Youngblood also worked with Sharon on both the newspaper and the yearbook:

 

Almost from the moment I met her during the fall of my sophomore year, I recognized she had a quiet strength and a genuine kindness about her. I never heard her utter a discouraging word, even when she must have been shaking her inner head over something ridiculous I had submitted as passable copy. She wasn’t just my boss – twice – she was the rare kind of boss who cared equally for the product and the people who produced it.

After graduating, Sharon went to work for the Associated Press in Dallas. She was transferred shortly thereafter to Houston, where she remained until 1986, when she was assigned to AP’s international desk in New York, an uncommonly rapid ascent for someone so young in that venerable organization. She once told a friend that one of her goals was to cover a tornado, a hurricane, and a war. She got the tornado in Dallas and the hurricane in Houston. The war would come.

 

…a much-admired, larger-than-life action figure, as much at home with astronauts and presidents as she was squatting with warlords in wind-swept tents in the Hindu Kush.

Sharon had a knack for finding danger and making friends. Here, as Chief of the AP Bureau in Islamabad, she sits with Afghan rebels in Pul-e-charkhi, Afghanistan, in August 1992, less than year before her death in that country.

 

 

***

 

While in Houston, Sharon was assigned to cover and participate in astronaut training for the Challenger mission and, of course, write about the experience. Dorothy and Howard Herbaugh shared photos of Sharon in an astronaut space suit sitting at the Challenger’s control board, making a meal, and even sampling one of the space-ready dishes. In the process, she doubtlessly befriended astronauts Christa McAuliffe and Judith Resnick. And while I have not found her written account of that tragic day, Dorothy Herbaugh said Sharon watched in horror with the rest of the world as The Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986. It was Sharon’s 32nd birthday.

 

This is where Sharon story progresses at a dizzying clip. After a stint on the World Services desk in New York, she was assigned in 1988 to become the news editor for AP in New Delhi, India, where, among other dramatic stories, she covered the Sri Lankan civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil.

 

An article from April 25, 1989, filed from Kabul, recounts a battle where Soviet soldiers claimed to have killed 58 guerrillas based in Pakistan outside besieged Jalalabad. The story quotes both Soviet ambassador Yuli M. Voronstova and the Russian-backed Afghan president, Muhammad Najibullah Ahmadzai.

 

In December of that year, Sharon was back in New Delhi, this time interviewing Vishwanath Pratap Singh, the incoming prime minister of India and following him through rural backroads where thousands cheer “Rajah Sahib!” or “King, sir!”

 

In January 1990, she was named AP bureau chief in Islamabad. She was just 35 and already the first woman to become an Associated Press foreign bureau chief. Despite the numerous desk duties that come with being such a position, any time there was news breaking in that corner of the world, I’d see Sharon’s byline.

 

One example: A story filed from Peshawar, Pakistan, in May 1992, featured her interview with an exhausted 20-year-old Egyptian mercenary, Mohammed Akbar Ali, who had fought in the jihad against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan.

 

“Those were good days,” she quotes him as saying while he cleaned his Soviet-made Kalashnikov rifle. “But now there are worse people doing worse things to Islam than the communists ever did. We must get rid of them.”

 

During Sharon’s years in New Delhi and Islamabad, she became friends with a host of correspondents, men and women who shared a unique bond forged by a life of danger and intrigue that is all but inconceivable to outsiders, AP reporters who would also become known and admired by journalists everywhere – Ahmed Rashid, Kathy Gannon, Thom Kent, and others.

 

And then on April 16, 1993, she was gone.

 

Her body was retrieved by members of the British aid agency, the Halo Trust, in the rugged Kayan Valley, about 90 miles from the border with Tajikistan. A United Nations-chartered plane flew her body to the United States.

 

The last known photograph of Sharon was taken on March 10, 1993. She was talking to the embattled Afghan Defense Minister Ahmad Shah Masood on a crater-pocked street in Kabul.

 

Sharon’s final dispatch, published three days after her death, was posted from Kabul, and it begins this way:

 

Life in the war-scarred streets of the capital seems surreal, as children fly their kites in the weed-infested parks, their laughter drowned by the bursts of nearby machine-gun fire.

Noisy taxis, buses and bikes weave through the vendors lining the dusty, rutty streets, seemingly oblivious to the boom of artillery streaking across the sky.

 

Sharon encountered an old man pushing a small wooden cart. Seeing her, he smiled a toothless grin.

 

Salaam alaikom,” he said, repeating the ancient Muslim greeting, “Peace be with you.”

 

“But,” she adds, “peace is nowhere to be found in Kabul.”

 

She once told a friend that one of her goals was to cover a tornado, a hurricane, and a war. She got the tornado in Dallas and the hurricane in Houston. The war would come.

 

***

 

Ahmed Rashid, now the author of five books on Afghanistan and Central Asia, praised Sharon as a “workaholic, a risk-taker, like any good journalist, and meticulous about her work to the point of obsession.” He called her “quiet, unassuming” and “a great friend, a generous host, and warrior.” When I tracked him down in December 2021, Rashid was still reporting from the field:

 

At a time when most journalists avoided Afghanistan for fear of being trapped in the crossfire between Soviet troops and the Afghan Mujahideen, Sharon was fearless, courageous, brave and a risk taker with the determination to be the first one there. She was also beautiful, charming, thoughtful, and hospitable but rarely spoke of her personal life and problems of being a female correspondent in a male society.

 

Thom Kent, now a consultant on Journalism, Ethics, Disinformation, and Russian Affairs in New York, said Shanon was “very quiet” but also “extremely competent and tenacious,” remembering her as one of several female correspondents who excelled in reporting from one of the most dangerous and complex parts of the world:

 

Sharon became a real expert on Afghanistan. One story told about Sharon was that once, when she was in the mountains of Afghanistan, she ran into an armed band that wanted to seize her satellite telex – a suitcase-sized forerunner of modern-day satellite phones. From what we were told, she handled the situation by sitting on the suitcase – knowing that this particular Islamic band would never physically touch a woman, even if they really wanted what she was sitting on. The telex was saved and Sharon and her colleagues were allowed to depart the situation safely.

 

Kent cited this story to me as an example of the kind of extreme danger even smart reporters must sometimes face – and that Sharon’s death in the Russian-made helicopter was proof that no one can ever truly protect themselves from the “inherent hazards” and dangers that international correspondents all too often face.

 

Kathy Gannon, now the Special Regional Correspondent in Afghanistan for the Associated Press, was one of Sharon’s closest friends. Gannon arrived in Afghanistan in 1986 and spent 18 often harrowing years with the AP chronicling the bloody end to the Soviet Union’s brutal occupation, the years of chaotic tribalism, the emergence of the Taliban, and the deadly rise of al Qaeda. Like Sharon, Kathy cultivated friendships throughout the war-torn country before becoming AP’s Iran bureau chief. The Associated Press suffered from numerous attacks by various groups related to warlords and al Qaeda before Gannon herself was ambushed in July 2013. Though badly injured, she survived and was forced to eventually retire from AP. She, too, has written about the region and is the author of the best-selling book, I is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror, 18 Years Inside Afghanistan.

 

Kathy said that talking about Sharon even now, 28 years later, is an emotional experience:

 

Sharon was devoted to getting the story and relentless in following the story to its end. When Sharon became a journalist, the industry was still male-dominated and the road to success for women was seen by most women as difficult and meant a choice between home and career. It was a time when difficult choices were made. Sharon never shied away from difficult choices, and she never burdened anyone with the troubles she endured. It was a different time, even though in truth today still looks a lot like yesterday in many ways. But then Sharon, like so many women in the business, powered through, said little and competed at a level that often far outweighed their male counterparts.

 

Gannon alluded specifically to perhaps the most difficult choice in Sharon’s life.

 

Sharon had a daughter, Tracee, who she eventually was forced to give to her parents to raise. Tracee’s story is equally compelling and after years of anger at her mother for that decision, she has become a successful writer herself. Tracee’s essays on how she eventually came to forgive Sharon after she had children of her own are the basis of an award-winning series of stories in The Washington Post and elsewhere.

 

It was Gannon who spoke with Tracee nightly for weeks following the accident.

 

Sharon experienced much of the same training and wrote a series of articles for the Associated Press throughout 1985 following the Challenger mission’s two female astronauts.

 

“Tracee was voracious for information about her mother,” Gannon recalled. “Sharon’s greatest sacrifices were the personal sacrifices she made. I don’t think Sharon at the time knew or believed it was possible to have both a personal and a professional life.”

 

Together, the two tried to make sense of it all, to understand Sharon’s life and motivations.

 

In retrospect, Gannon said she thinks she has a handle on at least part of what drove her friend.

 

“I think she worried always about doing a good enough job, managing her position, worried always that it might not be seen as good enough or strong enough,” Gannon said. “These insecurities were also her strength. She was second to none in the work she did and in her devotion to her craft.”

 

Many of her friends in the AP and elsewhere flew to Lamar to be present for her funeral. Byron Yake, then AP’s director of human resources, was there at the Lamar Baptist Church when the choir sang “What a Day” and “How Great Thou Art.” Yake wanted the congregation that day to know that Sharon was special.

 

“She was a courageous reporter working in a difficult country, covering a difficult war and she did it with passion and excellence,” he said.

 

In the obituary for The Lamar Daily News, another unnamed friend of Sharon’s from Islamabad took her parents aside to tell them that their daughter was “very passionate about Afghanistan. It wasn’t the story but the people. Sharon wanted the world to know the suffering they endured, the courage they had. Courage was something Sharon had a mountain of.”

 

***

 

Visitors entering the newsroom of the global headquarters of the Associated Press in New York pass the AP’s Wall of Honor, which honors the 37 AP journalists who have died on assignment since its founding in 1846. Sharon’s picture and story are there. She is recognized as the first woman correspondent to be killed in action.

 

A quote from the AP’s CEO Louis Boccardi reads, in part, “One of Sharon’s editors once said, ‘She’s always looking for the next hurricane.’ That search ended in a field in Afghanistan but Sharon leaves a legacy of brave, insightful work that helped us all understand a distant, bitter conflict.”

 

And she leaves behind another legacy, a legacy of friends who wished they had known her better, who had listened a little better, and who have belatedly realized at last the truth of the old, old adage – still water runs incredibly, unfathomably deep.

 

– Courage was something Sharon had a mountain of. –

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