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Michelle Lang of the Calgary Herald.
Michelle Lang of the Calgary Herald.

An award-winning journalist, Michelle Lang loved the work and knew the risks Add to ...

When she first strode into the Canadian media tent at Kandahar Air Field earlier this month, Michelle Lang had a warning for the small group of reporters inside.

"I've never been here before and I'm going to ask you a lot of dumb questions," she said. "I apologize in advance."

Far from reckless, the award-winning Calgary Herald reporter asked dozens of questions about safety, recalls Globe and Mail reporter Patrick White, whose reporting stint in Afghanistan overlapped with hers.

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But Ms. Lang wasn't content to stay "inside the wire" - behind the blast-walls of Kandahar Air Field, the surest way to guarantee her safety as a reporter on the front lines of combat in a volatile province racked by insurgency.

"She was way too good a reporter for that," Mr. White wrote Wednesday.

"I'm not here to rewrite what the public affairs people tell me," she said.

And within hours of her arrival on the base, she was making requests to embed with front-line troops. "Her journalistic instincts wouldn't have it any other way. Mr. White wrote.

Ms. Lang knew all too well the risks of the region she was working in. Last week, writing about the death of Lieutenant Andrew Nuttall just before Christmas Eve, she e-mailed friends about how challenging it was to cover such tragedies. Leading up to the ramp ceremony that weekend, she said, she was terrified she would break down and cry.

"She said it was so hard personally because it was so sad," said CBC reporter Mike O'Brien, who has known Ms. Lang since both worked at the Regina Leader-Post.

"She understood that when somebody dies, it leaves an enormous hole."

Ms. Lang's family, fiancé and tight-knit circle of colleagues were in shock as the news of her death - the first Canadian journalist killed in Afghanistan - reverberated Wednesday.

Her death came at the end of an incredible year for the 34-year-old journalist.

Her dogged work covering health care in Alberta won her a National Newspaper Award in the spring; she got engaged and was eagerly planning her wedding for next July; after the date was pushed back several times, she began her stint reporting with Canadian troops in Afghanistan in mid-December.

"She had such a great year," Mr. O'Brien said. "And I know that … it's probably absurd to talk about what seems fair what seems unfair. But what happened to her, in this year, is so unfair."

Tough as nails with obfuscating bureaucrats, Ms. Lang was also someone with a ready laugh, who loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer and was an avid ultimate Frisbee player, skier and hiker. She was so close with a group of female reporters at the Calgary Herald that Mr. O'Brien called them "the Sex and the City Girls."

Mr. O'Brien, who met Ms. Lang when both were working at the Regina Leader-Post in the mid-1990s, saw her grow up as a reporter when she moved to the Calgary Herald in 2002.

"She just seemed to hit a stride right at the right time and became a much fiercer reporter. And I mean that in a good way: She became tenacious and worked the phones and didn't take any guff from all the people that tried to give her guff."

Her health-care coverage - which included a trip to Africa last year to document the recruitment of foreign doctors for Alberta's personnel-hungry health-care system - earned her the newsroom nickname "Dr. Lang" and won accolades even among the people with whom she was toughest. Alberta Health Minister Ron Liepert issued a statement Wednesday evening with his condolences:

"Michelle covered health issues with professionalism, accuracy and thoroughness. She was tenacious in her quest to inform Albertans, and for her diligence she was very well respected."

When fellow Herald reporter Gwendolyn Richards moved to Calgary from Vancouver, it was Ms. Lang who gave the fellow West-Coast transplant a couch to sleep on.

"There were a couple nights when I had no place to stay, and she just offered up her couch to a complete stranger," Ms. Richards said. "That's how she was with all of her friends - just very giving and very supportive."

Ms. Lang and her fiancée Michael Louie were sitting in Chris Bolin's house just a week before she left for Afghanistan. They were excitedly discussing wedding plans, which the Calgary freelance photographer had agreed to shoot. Ever the pragmatists, they had booked a venue before Mr. Louie proposed, Mr. Bolin said: They knew how difficult it would be to secure a space during Calgary's Stampede season.

"Then they talked about venue and family … arranging who would come for what and the numbers and stuff ," he said. "It was pretty early on. I don't think she'd gone dress-shopping yet."

Mindful of the dangers of what she was doing and the challenges of her reporting, Ms. Lang was also captivated by Afghanistan's beauty.

In a Dec. 22 blog post following a tour in Kandahar's Panjwai district, she posted a photo she had taken of the dusky purple mountains.

"I was struck by the beauty of the area," she wrote.

Ms. Lang wasn't a fan of the food at the army bases where she was staying - Ms. Richards promised to make her cinnamon buns, her favourite, when she returned in late January.

But despite the risks and inconveniences, Ms. Lang was happy to be reporting where she was. When her armoured vehicle was hit she had been tagging along with a provincial reconstruction team - there to help with governance in the restive region.

"She was starting to find the stories she wanted to be telling," Ms. Richards said.

"She always wanted to look beyond the obvious story and find something a little more compelling, a little more interesting."

"The arrival of a new reporter is always greeted with some trepidation," Mr. White wrote Wednesday.

"While stationed at the base, they spend 24 hours a day in one another's company. They sleep side by side, eat at the same dreary cafeteria and breathe the same mildew-tinged air inside the work tent.

"The close quarters inside forge both deep friendships and bitter feuds. A jerk or a braggart can easily spoil life for everyone, but Ms. Lang's humble entrance put everyone at ease."

Canada lost a "strong, strong" journalist Wednesday, Mr. O'Brien said.

"Whenever any reporter goes overseas, if people don't think that they are taking a great risk to bring Canadians a story, then Michelle's death should make them realize that, in fact, they are."

MORE COVERAGE

Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang was killed in a blast Wednesday that also claimed the lives of four soldiers. Lang, who was on her first assignment as a war correspondent for the paper, became the first Canadian journalist to die while on the job in Afghanistan

The Globe's Patrick White crossed paths with Michelle Lang in Afghanistan recently. She took all the precautions, but wanted to go where the 'real stories' are told, out in the field, he remembers

The Globe's Graeme Smith reflects on the risks of reporting from a war zone

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