Recently, Congress honored the very brave Congressional staffer Gabriel Zimmerman who lost his life in January when he was killed by crazed gunman Jared Lee Loughman in the act of protecting his boss, Rep. Gabbrielle Giffords (R-AZ).
In a unanimous vote, Members renamed a room HVC- 215 or the Capitol Center as the Gabriel Zimmerman Meeting Room. During floor speech, co-sponsor Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said something rather simple, but peculiar:
Gabe Zimmerman was the first congressional staffer in history to lose his life in the line of duty. In the 222 year history of the House of Representatives, he lost his life protecting, promoting and defending democracy. He was not the object of attack but a victim, along with six others, of a domestic terrorist intent on assassinating Congresswoman Giffords and randomly killing people participating in one of democracy’s most basic activities – the discussion between constituents and their Representative.
The statements have been reiterated in the media since the successful vote. The problem, however, is that it isn’t accurate.
In 1989, Texas Congressman Mickey Leland, a Congressional Black Caucus Member and Democrat, and 15 others died in a plane crash in Ethiopia during a humanitarian mission to visit a refugee camp there. Aboard the plane were Leland’s three Congressional staffers who also died in the line of duty.
Which means – in actuality – they were the first Congressional staffers to die in the line of duty.
It’s not to take away from Zimmerman’s ultimate sacrifice. But, it is important to consider the memory of those staffers who also died while serving their country in an official capacity. Thus, the record should reflect the facts. Hugh Anderson Johnson Jr. and Patrice Yvonne Johnson (unrelated) were both Congressional aides to Leland. Joyce Francine Williams, an aide to retired Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-CA), also died on the plane.
After the crash, there was talk that the plane may have been shot down by rebel soldiers – though that account has never been substantiated. The 44-year-old Leland, a Democrat, was making his sixth tour of refugee camps along the Ethiopia-Sudan border as chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger, a panel he had helped to establish five years before.
Others were among the dead, including: New York businessman and Leland friend Ivan Tillen; Robert Woods, political and economic officer at the American Embassy in Addis Ababa; special projects officer for the mission from U.S. Agency for International Development Gladys Gilbert; and acting USAID representative in Ethiopia Thomas Worrick along with his wife, Roberta; Debebe Agonofer, an Ethiopian agricultural economist with the USAID mission; and six other Ethiopians, including the plane’s crew of three.
“Mickey Leland and the other members of his traveling party, both Americans and Ethiopians, were engaged in a noble cause–trying to feed the hungry,” then President George. H.W. Bush said in a statement.
Since the crash, a Department of Energy scholarship, a center and a federal building have been named in Leland’s memory. But, his aides have not received any official recognition for losing their life in the line of duty.