Anne's adventures in compassion

A friend of the young JHU graduate killed in Afghanistan recalls her warmth, strength and dedication to serving others

April 09, 2013|By Raffi Joe Wartanian

YEREVAN, Armenia — —A lazy Sunday morning. Arising later than usual. A long week of work in the books, a promising week ahead. Now living in Armenia, I correspond regularly with colleagues, friends and family back home in the States. Birds chirp as I check some emails and enter the social media labyrinth.

And there I found them: farewell messages written to my friend, Anne Smedinghoff, 25, praising her brilliance, grace and kindness.

She was delivering a truck full of books to schoolchildren when it happened. A truck full of books. She was the first American diplomat killed overseas since a devastating assault on a compound in Benghazi, Libya, took the life of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other service members.

How? Why? The story unfolded as the day progressed. The significance of her murder was both obvious and befuddling. I took solace to know that the world shared in the grief of those of us lucky enough to know Anne personally.

I met Anne at our alma mater, the Johns Hopkins University, in early 2009 during a team meeting to prepare for a summer bicycle trek from Baltimore, where she was finishing a degree in international studies, to San Francisco. Our mission was to raise funds, spread awareness and foster hope in the fight against cancer, and Anne took on the duty of managing our communications. That was no small feat in the dawn of the social media era. Tweets, Facebook posts, blogging, press releases, and beyond — Anne ensured our stories reached family and friends back home, and supporters we met along the way, raising the profile of our organization's commitment to serve the cause of cancer awareness and prevention.

That tenacity emerged again when we hit the road. I was embarking on this trek for a second time, and I had seen fear and intimidation paralyze countless first-time riders at the beginning of their journey. The first few days of cycling snake through the Appalachians: Dizzying ascents, sweltering humidity and aggressive drivers are but a few of the obstacles that cause most to question their ability to make it all the way to California.

Not Anne. Not the quiet, fearless girl from just outside Chicago. She was tenacious. She reveled in the challenges. "When's the next water break?" "It's too hot!" "Another mountain?" Not once would Anne speak these oft-heard complaints. Instead, she admired the struggle. She savored the journey. She soaked in the scenery around us — the Nebraskan plains, the towering Rockies, the sparkling Pacific — and the people we met in communities across the country. The cancer survivors. The caretakers. The patients. She grasped the essence of an individual and focused on what made them special and how that could fuel us through the next challenging stretch of riding. Pummeled by heat, lightning, hail or downpours, Anne pedaled with determination, with a resilience to honor those we met along the way and for the memory of her grandfather, for whom she dedicated her ride. It was obvious we were in the presence of someone extraordinary.

At day's end, as others nursed sore calves and strained backs, Anne devoured memoirs scribed by retired Foreign Service officers. She soon took on the moniker "Officer Smedinghoff" for her disciplined demeanor and forthcoming adventures in the Foreign Service. Our Anne, the soon-to-be diplomat.

After the trek was over, she strengthened our team's bond through a mutual love for adventure, with a stream of chats, emails and social media as we lived vicariously through her global expeditions. Posted in Caracas, Venezuela, Anne took every opportunity possible to explore the city she was told was too dangerous — much like Baltimore's inner city, where she served cancer patients at the American Cancer Society's Baltimore Hope Lodge as part of our 4K for Cancer team — and take advantage of the glorious coasts, countries and continents within her reach.

Her adventures tickled our imagination and wanderlust, doubling down on the cyclist's spirit with a trek of her own through western Australia. She even took time back in May 2010 to support a new group of cross-country cyclists that I belonged to, driving a support van on the first day and setting up water stops for riders to reenergize and imbibe stories from the road as recounted by us grizzled veterans.

Anne expressed only excitement when time came to transition to her next post, Afghanistan. We learned of the unique culture American workers on the embassy compound adjust to, and how Anne seamlessly fit in. She worked actively to engage with her colleagues and locals in Afghanistan, avoiding the temptation to isolate herself from the challenges of development, diplomacy and stabilization in the "Graveyard of Empires." Photos illuminating Afghanistan through Anne's perspective showed shimmers of progress and hope in empowering women, the media, and cooperation among the many factions vying to secure a notoriously hostile land.

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