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Meeting Ashton—a symphony worth sharing

  • Published
  • By Laura McGowan
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Last week the Air Force Institute of Technology hosted author and professor, Melissa Pritchard, as part of their Commandant Speaker's Series. The AFIT Commandant, Major General Walter Givhan, invited her to share her experiences as an embedded reporter with the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan, interviewing female military members. It was there where she met Senior Airman Ashton Goodman, a young 21-year old member of the team from Indiana. Goodman, along with her commander, Lt. Col. Mark E. Stratton II, was killed in action when their vehicle set off a roadside improvised explosive device on May 26, 2009.

Ms. Pritchard is a professor of English and Women's Studies at Arizona State University, an author of several novels and short stories, a recipient of numerous literary awards and fellowships, a humanitarian and the founder of The Ashton Goodman Grant, working with the Afghan Women's Writing Project to provide funding for the education and literacy of Afghan women and girls. During his introduction, Maj Gen Givhan said he met Ms. Pritchard for the first time when she was a judge for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2006, and the second time was in January 2009 when she followed what she described as her "restless heart" to Afghanistan.

It was there that Pritchard met Senior Airman Ashton Goodman who she described as, the warrior, who once dreamed of being an Air Force pilot, but she didn't meet the height requirements; the driver/protector who skillfully and selflessly protected Ms. Pritchard from roadside bombs while traveling to different sites, highlighting the PRT's humanitarian efforts and interviewing the women on the team. She was the singer who loudly sang her anthem, Bon Jovi's "Never Say Die." It was that song Goodman said "pretty much defined [her] life; never quit, death is just a part of life." She was a daughter and girlie girl who admitted her struggle between her tough military persona and her "dorky, girlie side." During the time she and Ashton shared in Afghanistan and later through e-mails, Pritchard eventually met the writer within Ashton...the big sister...the girlfriend...the humanitarian.

I expected the presentation to be nice and informative, and I began taping, so I wouldn't miss anything. The auditorium filled up to capacity of more than 750 faculty, staff, students, and spouses. I didn't, however, expect to be held spellbound, scribbling notes, while seeing and hearing the audience's reactions as Ms. Pritchard deftly directed the symphony of Ashton's life as masterfully as a professional maestro who demands the crescendos and decrescendos be perfect and succinct. I didn't expect it to "meet" Senior Airman Ashton Goodman, which is exactly what happened. I didn't expect to cry along with everyone else who "met" her during that hour, but I did.

The mosaic tribute was very moving. Not just to me, but to the entire audience. I was able to hear the quiet sniffles from audience members, including Ashton's dad, Mark Goodman and her stepmother, Chasity Goodman. It was difficult to embrace my own emotions about Airman Goodman's 3-D, high-def life. She is a force who managed to live on past the dash between her birth and death. It was soon very apparent to me that Ashton became "the thousand winds that blow and the softly falling snow; she's a [hummingbird] circling in flight; she is the starshine of the night." (1)

After the presentation, I and a co-worker, writing for the base paper, were honored to meet and interview Ms. Pritchard, Mr. and Mrs.Goodman. I understood exactly what Melissa said that it was "a challenge to distill a person's essence into an article." Now I find myself asking the questions and taking on that very same, daunting yet privileged challenge.

Pritchard's initial response to Ashton's bravado was terror, but the more time they spent together riding, talking, looking at photos, she said, "She's cool. I like her."

I mentioned Ernest Hemingway wrote a six-word story, and military personnel were encouraged to send in their six-word stories. I asked Mr. Goodman if he could describe his daughter, Ashton, in six words. After a bit, he responded, "Precious, honest, stubborn, selfless, inspiring, loved." I asked if the stubborn part was inherited, he smiled, and her stepmom nodded her head yes emphatically. Her dad talked about how she had a huge heart for children and animals. He said she used to work at a pet store and eventually got a bird named, Jacon Bacon, an African Green parrot who now lives with Ashton's mother.

Mark didn't know that she wanted to visit Africa, but her stepmom, Chasity, said she knew. But neither knew she volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan. "I am proud and honored that my daughter was able to grow up to be a responsible, inspiring young woman," Mr. Goodman said. "It's been amazing that she was able to touch people like she did."

Since that day I met her, Dec. 9, 2010, I have been compelled to "introduce" Senior Airman Ashton Goodman to others. I was watching a rerun of "Bones" when a character from the show quoted T. S. Eliot, saying, "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." (2) He said, "We don't actually fear death. We fear that no one will notice our absence, and we will disappear without a trace." (3)

Ashton didn't seem to fear death; she didn't look for it. She made her peace with it. In fact she had a tattoo on her arm that read in Latin, "Studium Nunquam Intereo, which means "Spirit never dies." And in her honor, July 24, 2010, the 455th Expeditionary Wing's Logistics Readiness Squadron dedicated its new Vehicle Operations Control Center at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan to her memory. On the base of the memorial are inscribed those three Latin words.

Besides sharing her amazing story with others and inspiring them to "outlive their lives," she would be proud if folks would dust off their air guitars, strike a position and let the Rock in them begin. Go ahead and blast out Bon Jovi's "Never Say Die," and shred those strings like no one is watching--no one except Ashton.

(1) Do not stand at my grave and weep, Mary Elizabeth Frye
(2) Wasteland, T.S. Eliot
(3) Bones, Season 6, Episode 9