Gracia Burnham reflects on 15 years after hostage crisis
When Mindy Hedval was 12, her grandma gave her a box of yellow ribbons to hand out at school.
Mindy’s mother and father, Martin and Gracia Burnham, had been taken hostage on a remote island in the Philippines. Once it was clear that her parents would not be released quickly, Mindy and her two brothers, Jeff and Zach, were sent from the Philippines to live with their grandparents in Rose Hill.
She started public school for the first time, excelled and made many friends. At night, she and her siblings watched the news to hear updates on their parents.
Martin and Gracia – who were kidnapped 15 years ago this month – were slowly wasting away in the jungle, often sick and without food, as their captors, Abu Sayyaf, traded gunfire with the Philippine military and pushed them up and down steep hills.
Mindy’s dad, who was often tied to a tree, would sing her mom to sleep on the floor of the jungle as bugs crawled over them and bit them.
The ribbons were a small token of support.
But Mindy was just 12. She was afraid of what people at school thought about her. She was the only one in sixth grade to get a special birthday party from her teachers that year. Her friends were careful about bringing up her parents in conversation, she said.
But she thrived off the love she felt from the whole community.
“People ask me a blanket statement: ‘How was that year for you guys?’ and I always just say, ‘It was a good year,’ ” Mindy says now.
Instead of giving out the yellow ribbons, she kept them in her locker.
It wasn’t until about the time she headed off for college that she finally looked at the ribbons, saw them as just another piece of useless clutter and threw them away.
Mindy attended a Bible college, and everyone there seemed to have read her mom’s book about captivity. She wanted to finally put all the pieces together, so she decided to read it herself.
Her college friends would come in and laugh because they thought it was funny to see her sitting on a love seat – with a small, travel version of her mom’s book – reading about what had happened in her own life.
But the story gave her clarity.
“I was able to understand their plight a little bit more,” Mindy said. “When you read a book from start to finish, you see character development and feel the weariness after a year of living that way.”
And for the first time, she felt really angry over how her parents were treated, not just by the terrorists but by the whole political imbroglio that stemmed from their capture.
And she realized that the premonition that she’d felt as a 12-year-old had been right. Her parents appeared on the news one night in a video, looking beaten down, begging for someone to pay a ransom for their release.
We have to do something, we have to pay something. That’s what (mom and dad) are asking. Why can’t anyone do anything like that?
Daughter Mindy Burnham Hedval
“And when that video went off, I remember looking at my grandparents and saying, ‘We have to do something, we have to pay something,’ ” Mindy said. “That’s what (mom and dad) are asking. Why can’t anyone do anything like that?”
It isn’t right to negotiate with terrorists, she was told at the time; her parents were being forced to say that.
But when she read the book, she realized she had been right: Her parents had wanted someone to pay their ransom.
“Of course that is what they were saying,” she said.
It wasn’t until she reached the end of the book that she started crying, she said.
“It’s a sad ending,” Mindy said, laughing, as if it were possible to speak of her own story with such detachment.
There are many paradoxes to the Burnham family’s story. It was the worst time of their lives, and yet even Gracia now thinks back to those times in the jungle without sadness, she said. The people the parents had spent their lives trying to bring joy to were the ones who had brought them such terror.
But perhaps the biggest paradox is that the one person who died, Martin, is the one whose spirit, they say, most obviously continues to live on.
Zach Burnham, 10 at the time his parents were kidnapped in 2001, didn’t know how to deal with what had happened.
“I shut off,” he said. “I didn’t want to deal with the fact that I might not see them again.”
His grandparents had told him how important it was to talk to the media, so the world would want to save his parents. But it felt like a chore, and he responded listlessly, barely looking up from a rocket ship drawing in one interview.
Mindy knew talking to reporters was about the only thing she could do to help her parents, she said, and yet she remembers refusing to cry for a Christmas news special and rolling her eyes during a photo shoot on a Friday when she wanted to be at a school dance.
When the kids finally heard from their mother after more than a year apart, Jeff, the oldest, bragged to his mother that he had called the police on a TV crew that had set up on the lawn of their house.
Jeff said he hated how some reporters would try to manipulate their emotions, and to this day, his siblings say, Jeff will not talk to the media.
Television reporters wanted to film Zach’s 11th birthday party.
“It was my birthday. I didn’t want to think about my parents’ hostage situation,” he said.
“That one, that was the worst for me. I was just bitter the whole day.”
It also meant that everyone at school knew of him before meeting him.
My life was an open book to everyone. If anyone wanted to know what was happening, they just had to watch TV.
Son Zach Burnham
“My life was an open book to everyone,” he said. “If anyone wanted to know what was happening, they just had to watch TV.”
Whenever Zach goes into a library or a bookstore now, if he has a free moment, he’ll try to find his mom’s book. He already knows the story, but he thinks it’s amazing to see how far her testimony has traveled.
Recently he opened the first chapter and realized there was much he didn’t know. But he still hasn’t yet gotten around to reading it.
He carries another version of his parents’ story inside him.
“Every facet of who I am has been affected,” said Zach. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it a little bit.”
He remembers that, when he had misbehaved as a child, his dad would sit on the bed and talk to him.
“There was never any anger, even though I was doing something that was definitely deserving of his anger,” Zach said.
His dad showed Zach the same kind of forgiveness that Zach would later come to study at Calvary Bible College in Kansas City, the same school where his parents met.
“Dad, my earthly dad, gave me a great example to look for of what God as my heavenly father can be or is,” Zach said.
Zach chose Calvary in part because, at his father’s funeral, an administrator said the children could attend for free.
The older two chose Bible colleges farther away. But Zach doesn’t have a family, so he said he feels a duty to stay close to home: If anything ever happened to his mom, he would be free to continue her traveling ministry and carry on his parents’ message.
He studies classical singing at Calvary but has recently decided that, though he still loves music, he wants to pursue a different path, because he doesn’t like teaching.
He wishes his dad were around to hear about it.
“I would love to hear his thoughts,” Zach said. “And maybe even some affirmation that I am doing the right thing.
The older you get … the more I realize how much I missed out in not having a father. Just there to teach me the usual things a father teaches you. ... I didn’t have that.
Son Zach Burnham
“The older you get … the more I realize how much I missed out in not having a father. Just there to teach me the usual things a father teaches you: working on a car, how to fix things around the house. I didn’t have that.”
What happened was not good, he said, but it was essential.
“I don’t feel like it’s this shadow now that’s overlooking my life and that I am constantly living under,” Zach said. “I feel like it is an experience that forced me to grow.”
The time he finds himself talking about it is when he meets new people who see only how extraordinary his story is, not how similar it is to their own.
“They’ll say, ‘I am so sorry to hear that happened to you,’ ” Zach said, “and I will say, ‘Yes, it happened, it was terrible, but life moves on.’
“For me, it’s ordinary, everyday life.”
God brought his mother back for a reason, Zach said. If his father had come back, everyone would have attributed it to Martin’s superior physical and emotional strength. But God often chooses the weakest, he said.
“It’s unfortunate that I had to grow up without a father,” Zach said. “I can’t say that it was a good event in any way, shape or form, but God has definitely brought his glory through the whole situation.”
Plus, he’s always been a mama’s boy, he said, and that only grew stronger during the three years when he and his mom lived together before he attended college.
“I just love spending time with her,” he said. “It probably has something to do with the hostage situation she was in.
“I value every second that I can spend with her even if it’s coming home on a weekend to help her move furniture; it’s a no-brainer for me. I want to spend time with my mom as much as I possibly can.”
Zach looks like Martin, Gracia said, and sometimes when Zach is in the basement, his laugh sounds like Martin’s laugh. A picture of her and Martin sits prominently on the mantle in her home.
In addition to family and missionaries from around the country, thousands of community members lined the road when Gracia first returned to Rose Hill and showed up for Martin’s funeral.
But eventually most people left. Jeff, 15 at the time, drove the family to Sonic that day because Gracia was still in a wheelchair after being shot in the leg. It was their first time being alone together since Gracia had returned, she said.
“You guys, we used to be a family of five and God really used us. We are a family of four now, can God still use our family?” Gracia said she asked. “And one after another, the kids said, ‘You know what, Mom, God can use our family.’
“It’s like we each said it and that was it, we just said, ‘God can use our family,’ and I thought, ‘OK, here we go.’ ”
A few weeks ago, Gracia moved back into the house that the town of Rose Hill built for them. Jeff had been living there with his wife and three kids after a stint as a missionary pilot in Botswana, the same job Martin had held in the Philippines.
Gracia still travels about 100 days a year, telling the story of her captivity, especially during the spring and fall.
“Spring is all the ladies’ teas,” she said.
The story hasn’t changed much, she said. She’ll practice it in her hotel room beforehand and get out the emotions.
I try not to cry in front of people, because it’s weird and embarrassing.
Gracia Burnham, who was kidnapped
“I try not to cry in front of people, because it’s weird and embarrassing,” she said.
She doesn’t relive her trauma over again as she tells it. She doesn’t think it would be healthy.
But still, on occasions like this week, when she was speaking to a group of young college students about to go out on missions, the audience teared up all the same.
Recently, she tried to think of a new part of her captivity that she could tell the audience, so she wasn’t repeating herself so much. But when she tried to remember the name of a boy who had been hit by shrapnel, she realized she couldn’t.
“The memories are really fading,” she said.
The FBI still calls on occasion, to tell her a member of the Abu Sayyef has died. Reporters will call to talk about terrorism. Sometimes people who have followed her story will post news on her Facebook page, such as the recent news that a Canadian citizen had been killed by the same group that had held her captive.
In many ways, she has become just like any grandmother whose daughter and husband live next door. Mindy’s family moved in soon after Gracia’s parents moved into a nursing home.
“It’s pretty fun being neighbors with Mom,” Mindy said Tuesday, holding her youngest child.
“I’m shocked to see you say that to a stranger,” Gracia said. “I always feel that I am in the way.”
Gracia recently cooked pork adobo for dinner, a dish from the Philippines, for Mindy’s family.
Mindy and her husband went to the same Bible college and married early, like her parents, in part because, she said, she knows their time could be cut short. They spent eight months as missionaries in Bolivia recently.
They don’t talk about what happened back then much, but on occasion, a new detail surfaces. Gracia brought out the photo album of Martin’s funeral this week and showed Mindy that her husband, Andy Hedval, had been at her father’s funeral.
Mindy thought she had met her husband, a child of missionaries himself, the following summer.
“We sang, ‘Greatest Thy Faithfulness,’ ” Gracia said. “Do you remember that?”
“I don’t remember that. Certain things I remember, but certain things,” Mindy said, joking now, “like when I met my husband, I don’t remember.”
Some day, Gracia said, she will probably tell her five grandkids the story of their Lolo – the Filipino word for grandfather. Recently, Felix, 4, Mindy’s oldest, saw his picture.
“That is your Lolo,” Gracia told him. “He died.”
“Oh,” Felix said. “Did he get hit by a truck?”
“No, he got shot,” Gracia said she told him. “He obviously didn’t comprehend it. But he knows that he had a Lolo that was alive and now isn’t. Someday I don’t know if that’s going to matter to him or not.”
MORE FROM THE ARCHIVES
MARTIN BURNHAM KILLED; WIFE GRACIA RESCUED (From June 2002)
ZAMBOANGA, Philippines - Rose Hill hostage Martin Burnham was killed today and his wife, Gracia, was shot in the leg but rescued when Philippine troops launched a strike on their Muslim extremist kidnappers.
Filipino nurse Deborah Yap, who was held hostage with the missionary couple, was shot in the rescue operation and died of her wounds shortly afterward, Philippine Gen. Narciso Abaya said.
Martin Burnham, 42, kidnapped more than a year ago along with his wife by the Abu Sayyaf extremist group, was killed by a gunshot during the raid near the town of Siraway, said Abaya, the Philippine deputy military chief of staff.
Burnham's wife, 43, underwent surgery in the southern city of Zamboanga, said Maj. Gen. Ernesto Carolina, commander of Philippine forces in the south. Doctors said a bullet passed through her leg.
Gracia Burnham was later flown from Zamboanga to Manila, where the U.S. Embassy will take over arrangements to fly her to the United States, said Maj. Richard Sater, a spokesman for the U.S. forces in Zamboanga.
Abaya said four of the kidnappers were killed and several soldiers wounded in the operation. Philippine officers said U.S. helicopters, part of a 1,000-strong contingent of U.S. troops advising Filipinos fighting the Abu Sayyaf, were retrieving more wounded from the scene. No U.S. troops were involved in the rescue attempt, officials said.
Speaking to reporters at Rose Hill Bible Church this morning, Martin Burnham's younger brother, Doug, said: "It hasn't turned out the way we were expecting it to, but we're grateful Gracia is alive."
White House officials called the Burnham family this morning. President Bush later told reporters that he had talked to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
"She assured me that the Philippine government would hold the terrorist group accountable for how they treated these Americans - that justice would be done, " Bush said.
The Burnham family had previously said it preferred that the couple be freed through peaceful negotiation rather than a violent rescue attempt. But Doug Burnham said: "We're grateful for everyone that's tried to make an effort to rescue them. We're sure every effort was made to rescue them successfully.
"It's shocking news. It's difficult. It's kind of numbing right now, " he said in an even voice. "The full impact will hit us later on."
He said the family did not know of the rescue attempt in advance and learned of it early this morning.
Then he bowed his head and prayed with several others gathered at the church, where relatives and friends have held daily morning prayers for the couple since rebels abducted them.
Martin Burnham's mother sent a message to Gracia Burnham through Philippine television network GMA this morning, according to the Philippine Star. "Gracia, we talked to your mom and we really remember you and are praying for you. We love you very much, " Oreta Burnham said.
A statement on the Web site of the New Tribes Mission, the Burnhams' mission, today reads: "Our hearts are heavy over the loss of Martin and Deborah. We are grateful for Gracia's survival and we ache for her, their children and the rest of the families."
Doug Burnham said the couple's three children have been visiting their maternal grandparents, who live in Arkansas, and had already been scheduled to return to Rose Hill today. Those grandparents informed the children of their father's death and their mother's rescue, he said. "I can't say how they're doing."
In the Philippines, Gracia Burnham was conscious and talking to U.S. military doctors at the Philippine Southern Command Hospital with an intraven ous drip attached to her arm.
Seven wounded Filipino soldiers lay near her. She looked flushed and weak. Doctors said a bullet passed cleanly through her right thigh.
"The terrorists will not be allowed to get away with this, " said Philippine President Arroyo, who also called the Burnham family in Rose Hill. "I commiser ate with the Burnham and Yap families. This has been a long and painful trial for them, for our government, for our country.
"Our soldiers tried their best to hold their fire for safety, " Arroyo said. "We shall not stop until the Abu Sayyaf is finished."
Philippine officers said hundreds of elite troops equipped with night vision goggles - and backed by U.S. surveillance technology - launched the attack to free the hostages as part of an extended rescue operation that has been going on for almost two weeks.
The Philippine military said intelligence showed that members of the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim rebel group infamous for beheading hostages, were holed up with at least one of the Burnhams near the village in the southern province of Zamboanga del Norte.
The Light Reaction Company, a stealthy U.S.-trained unit equipped with silencers, night vision equipment and high-tech headsets, fanned out secretly throughout the area of coconut groves and farms in recent days after solid indications that at least one of the Burnhams was held near there.
Philippine officers said the guerrillas evaded the troops for days but were slowed down by heavy rains, allowing the soldiers to catch them.
The Burnhams were kidnapped May 27, 2001. Yap was kidnapped days later when the Abu Sayyaf, with the Burnhams in tow, raided a hospital in the southern town of Lamitan to seize hospital staff and medicine to treat their wounded.
The guerrillas kidnapped 18 other people along with the Burnhams, including 17 Filipinos and Corona, Calif., resident Guillermo Sobero.
Sobero was beheaded by the guerrillas in June 2001, according to U.S. and Filipino officials.
The Abu Sayyaf fighters are thought to number only 60 or so from an original force of 1,000 after a year of army offensives. The group says it is fighting to carve a Muslim state out of the southern Philippines, and it is believed to have links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorism network.
U.S. Green Berets, pilots, military engineers and support staff are in the southern Philippines, training local forces to better fight the Abu Sayyaf.