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They Had a Commitment to Yemen, Despite Danger

Times Staff Writer

As the Southern Baptist hospital in the remote Yemeni town of Jibla entered its final shaky week of existence, three of its American stalwarts talked openly about coming home.

Still enamored of Yemen after 24 years of living there, Dr. Martha Myers dropped hints that she wanted to return stateside to visit her ailing mother. Administrator William Koehn planned an October retirement. And Kathleen Gariety expected she would not last long in her purchasing agent’s job once the hospital’s Baptist officials turned over its administration to a Yemeni charity.

The transition was less than two days off when the trio sat down Monday in a conference room on the edge of the hospital’s fraying quarters. Within minutes, they were gunned down at close range by a suspected Islamic extremist -- a searing act of violence that traumatized Baptist missionary officials and relatives of the victims thousands of miles away in the U.S. It also left the hospital’s future in further doubt.

“These were wonderful people who realized they were in a dangerous place,” said John Wikman, a retired missionary doctor who worked in the Jibla hospital and recently tried to find another American charity to run the facility there. “They were willing to put their lives on the line because they loved the people they helped.”

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Myers, 57, was known for driving alone for miles into Yemen’s dangerous hill country, setting up impromptu clinics for women and children desperate for immunizations and checkups. Koehn, 60, was a steady financial hand who delighted Yemeni families with gifts from his wood-carving shop. Gariety, 53, had urged friends at home to find a way to keep her hospital intact as a Baptist institution.

The missionary hospital in the distant mountainous central region of Yemen had survived nearly 40 years of shaky funding, rising Islamic fundamentalism and growing international tension only to succumb in recent months to an internal decision by Southern Baptist officials to pull the plug.

On Jan. 1, Wikman said, the hospital was scheduled to be taken over by a local Muslim charity. Missionary physicians would be allowed to continue in their posts, but most of the administrative tasks were to be assumed by Yemeni officials.

The “unrealistic costs of owning a hospital like this” forced the move, said Rick Evans, pastor of Dalraida Baptist Church, Myers’ home base in Montgomery, Ala. Southern Baptist Missionary officials “felt we could better invest the money in other work and turn the hospital administration over to the Yemeni people.”

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Many of the hospital’s missionary staff wanted to stay on in Jibla, Wikman said, despite repeated alerts from U.S. Embassy officials in recent months and mounting security concerns about terrorism that forced hospital staffers to protect themselves with teenage security guards armed with assault rifles.

Myers had survived a kidnapping attempt by Yemeni bandits four years ago but happily returned after a year of counseling in the U.S., Evans said. Like many among the 40 American and international missionaries working for the hospital, Myers was willing to stay on after Jan. 1 and work for Yemeni administrators -- an indication, Wikman said, of “their commitment to Yemen.”

But the Americans preferred to continue as a Southern Baptist facility, disheartened as the end of the year’s uncertainty neared. “They were bouncing up and down hoping they could keep things the way they were,” Wikman said.

Privately aching for a last-minute reprieve, Gariety’s final e-mails to Wikman grew pensive last week as it became obvious that there were no financial angels willing to step in and retain the facility’s Southern Baptist affiliation.

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“She was kind of down, but she was still hoping,” Wikman said.

As the slain missionaries’ fates became known Monday, friends and relatives remembered them for their loyalty to the country and to their patients. “This was an attack by some outside individual,” said Randal Pearce, who is married to Koehn’s daughter, Janelda, “but it wasn’t the Yemeni people.”

Koehn and his wife, Marty, had lived in Yemen since 1975, a decade after the hospital opened in Jibla. Pearce, who lives in Arlington, Texas, said the Koehns’ other daughter, Samantha, also lives in the U.S.

The Koehns stayed on in Jibla “through all the good times and tough times,” Pearce said, because “he loved the people there, he loved the work he did.”

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Once known as a surgical center and inpatient facility that served Yemen’s entire central region, the Jibla facility began scaling back its operations three years ago after the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board in Richmond, Va., closed its medical beds and shut down its obstetrics ward, Wikman said.

Aware that the hospital soon would come under Yemeni control, Gariety’s family had urged her to come home after six years at Jibla.

When she returned for several weeks last summer to pack medical supplies collected in Milwaukee and bound for the Jibla hospital, “we tried hard to get her to stay home,” said her brother Jerome J. Gariety Jr. “She wouldn’t hear of that.”

Kathleen Gariety told Wikman that she probably would be sent home once her job was taken over by a Yemeni. But she wanted to stay, hoping as late as last weekend that Wikman might find another American or international missionary agency willing to take on the hospital’s administration.

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Despite the downsizing, Myers kept up her perilous drives through the mountains around Jibla, befriending scores of Yemeni families. Myers, fluent in Yemen’s language and culture, “not only was able to say the words, she was able to get her heart across,” Evans said.

Myers’ death stunned parishioners in Montgomery. “They’re heartsick,” Evans said.

So were Myers’ anguished parents. Her father, Ira Myers, retired director of the Alabama Department of Public Health, stood, chin trembling, inside Evans’ church as he told reporters that his daughter had come to feel that Yemen was her home.

“She had the opportunity to talk to the native women. That would not have been possible for a male doctor in that culture,” Ira Myers said.

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Martha Myers had hinted by e-mail that she was planning to come home in January to visit her mother, Dorothy, who had battled pancreatic cancer for the last year. Instead, the parents learned at 1:45 a.m. from Southern Baptist officials that she had been shot to death.

When Evans came to their house in Montgomery on Monday, the saddened mother was the first to speak. “Martha beat me home,” she said.

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Times researcher Lianne Hart contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Victim profiles

Three American missionaries were killed and another seriously wounded in Jibla, Yemen. They are:

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KILLED

William Koehn, 60

Hometown: Arlington, Texas

Occupation: Hospital director

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Dr. Martha Myers, 57

Hometown: Montgomery, Ala.

Occupation: Physician

Kathleen Gariety, 53

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Hometown: Wauwatosa, Wis.

Occupation: Purchasing agent

INJURED

Donald Caswell, 49

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Hometown: Levelland, Texas

Occupation: Pharmacist


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