The toughest writing assignment

By Karen Davis Barr

Five-and-a-half years ago, we invited a dozen prominent Valley dads to share their thoughts about the challenges and joys of raising children.

I asked journalist Paul Giblin, then working for the East Valley Tribune, to participate. Responding to a question about the activities he enjoys, he wrote, “There’s nothing better than traveling or going on adventures with my sons.”

Little did he know just where those interests would lead.

In 2008, Giblin and reporter Ryan Gabrielson broke a series of stories examining the hidden costs of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office’s illegal-immigration enforcement efforts. It wasn’t until after Paul was laid off by the financially troubled newspaper that he learned the multimedia series, “Reasonable Doubt,” had won journalism’s most prestigious award, the Pulitzer Prize.

He had already moved on, helping to launch The Arizona Guardian, a website that covers state politics and government. Not long after that, we learned he’d taken a job as a civilian employee with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.

I remember when I heard the news, realizing what a momentous step this was for his family. Paul and his wife Sandra, an architect, have two sons. I wondered how they would manage the long separations.

This year, it finally dawned on me to ask.

My husband, who has been friends with Paul for nearly 20 years, gave me Paul’s email address. Somewhat hesitatingly—knowing I was asking him to share a deeply personal experience—I sent off my request. I asked Paul to write about why he took the job, the hardest part about being away, the unexpected benefits and how his family stays connected despite distance and long separations.

Paul asked for some time to think about it. He talked to his family and to some of the servicemen stationed at the Qalaa House compound where he is based. A few weeks later, he agreed to write the story.

For four months, we shot emails across time zones. His popped into my in-box as I got up each morning. Mine arrived about the time he was headed to sleep at night. Sometimes our correspondence gave me a glimpse into his daily life and routine—like the time he sent me a photo of Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Chad Brandau of Tucson during a helicopter transport.

“It’s a miracle that he and I were both awake at the same time,” Paul wrote. “Everyone sleeps on helicopters because sleep is a rare commodity and talking is impossible…they’re so noisy everyone wears earplugs.”

When he sent his completed manuscript, he included a personal note: “[This] exercise has led to several deep conversations with my wife, my sons, Brandau and other parents I work with,” he wrote. “Seriously Karen, you’ve given me two of the toughest assignments of my career. It’s a whole lot easier to bust the chops of law-breaking politicians or cops.”

I read his story several times before writing back to thank him for “exactly what I was hoping to get” when I suggested he tackle this topic.

“Glad you liked it,” he responded. “However, the best passage in the article wasn’t mine; it was Brandau’s quote about the Tooth Fairy. Toward the end, when he said, “Do you know what I mean?” I was thinking, “Yeah man, I know exactly what you mean.”

With gratitude and warm wishes, we dedicate our December issue to all the U.S. military and civilian personnel who will not be home for the holidays this year.

Read Paul’s story.

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One response to “The toughest writing assignment

  1. Pingback: No deadline on thank you | Behind the 'Zine

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