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Columnist
Reporter survives war zones, gets hit by car back home
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist

Always able to take life one step at a time, reporter Kevin Dougherty took a break from his job covering war zones to continue his dream of walking across America.

 

Courtesy Trish Spengel

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Published: 5/12/2010 2:08 PM | Updated: 5/12/2010 8:34 PM

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Of all the stories war zone reporter Kevin Dougherty can tell about those times he could have gotten killed, the adventure where he miraculously cheated death back home might be his least interesting.

"This guy has been in war zones from Bosnia to Somalia to Kosovo and Iraq and Afghanistan, and then he gets hit by a car on a country highway," says Ron Jensen, 57, a former Stars and Stripes reporter who worked with Dougherty in some of those war zones. "It's just sort of hard to fathom."

A Prospect Heights native and former reporter for the Daily Herald, Dougherty moved out of the intensive care unit Wednesday and soon will begin his long rehabilitation, according to upbeat e-mails circulating among his many friends. Family members including his wife, daughter and siblings, have been keeping vigil at the hospital, but they politely noted that, while his condition has improved, they aren't quite ready to talk about the ordeal yet.

The 49-year-old reporter has undergone several surgeries to repair badly broken legs, a broken arm, a fractured skull and a host of internal injuries since he was hit by a car on April 28 while walking along a rural stretch of Route 64 west of Rockford.

Dougherty's walk was just the latest chapter in a life jammed with stories. As a boy, Dougherty hatched a plan with a buddy to walk across the United States, from Maine to California. In 1989, when Dougherty was 29 and a professional storyteller in his job as a reporter for the Daily Herald, he rekindled that idea when his lifelong pal Bob Reiland was dying of cancer.

"I told him I was thinking of doing it, just bouncing the idea off him, and he said that he would watch over me if I did," Dougherty told a newspaper reporter in Maine after he quit the Daily Herald and started his trek. He left May 9, 1990, from a lighthouse in Quoddy Head State Park at the easternmost tip of the United States.

In memory of his dead friend, Dougherty walked, talked, told stories and collected stories for the next six months and 1,628 miles back to Prospect Heights. A lanky guy with a 60-pound backpack, unruly hair, a boyish grin and an uncanny ability to land on his feet, Dougherty made friends with monks in Vermont, Amish families in Pennsylvania, farmers in Ohio and a host of strangers who let him pitch his tent, wet his whistle or bandage his feet as they exchanged stories.

When Dougherty finally arrived back home in Prospect Heights in time for Thanksgiving, he put the long, second leg of his journey on hold. He took a job as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes, the independent military newspaper, and shipped out to a base in Germany. He married Jan, the daughter of a legendary war reporter, and had a daughter, Kate, now 14. But to say he settled down would be misleading.

Dougherty carved out a life covering some of the most dangerous places on the planet. He's written about land mines in Bosnia, car bombs in Iraq, gunfights in Somalia and snipers in Afghanistan. Jensen met Dougherty in Munich, where Dan Quayle was attending a defense summit.

"Somehow Kevin wrangled a ride on Air Force 2 to interview the vice president," recalls an impressed Jensen, another newspaper reporter who went to work for Stars and Stripes. "Wow, that's cool, wrangling a seat with the vice president. This is a real reporter."

The pair of old-school reporters later teamed up when they drove a right-hand-drive SUV loaded with supplies from Split, Croatia, to a new Stars and Stripes bureau opening in Tuzla, Bosnia. The road was said to be lined with "machine guns, land mines and snipers," Jensen says. "It was a long, long, long day."

Whether it was the time he walked away unscathed after his helicopter fell 80 feet to the ground in Kosovo, negotiated with armed guards at a hostile checkpoint or shrugged off explosions and gunfire while writing a story, Dougherty is "always willing to go somewhere," Jensen says. "He was always looking for a different angle and a different way of doing things."

War zone reporters are used to jumping on helicopters and small planes, hitching rides with military convoys, and being in dangerous places.

"There's a lot of things that can happen besides getting shot," says Jensen, who now is senior writer/editor for National Guard Magazine, a publication of a nonprofit, Washington-based lobbying group. "We all sort of accepted the fact that there was reason to be scared. We'd look at each other at times and our eyes would get wide and we'd give each other the look of 'what the (blank) are we doing here?' Kevin, like all of us, learned what to do and what not to do."

Last month, Dougherty took a leave from his job and picked up the walk he abandoned 20 years ago. Now 49, he joked about how he wasn't the kid he once was. But he stepped off from Prospect Heights on April 14 and headed west, walking as far as 20 miles a day.

"Doing well. Body is starting to adjust, but it will take time," Dougherty wrote April 20 in his blog at thedoorwalker.com. "I have a great pair of boots_Danner out of Portland, Oregon. Had to make sure my boots were made in the Good Old U.S.A."

Dougherty was walking along the rural highway about 4:35 p.m. when he was hit by a car and airlifted to St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford with multiple fractures and injuries.

Dougherty wasn't conscious for the ride, but it might turn out to rank as the most significant helicopter ride of his story-filled life.