Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Thunder, Fire, and Smoke

Six years ago today, I was getting ready for my job at a wireless call center. I was the sole remainder of a small third-tier group with direct oversight over about forty-five reps, so I could basically choose my own hours. My friend Howard called and told me an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. He was unclear, and thought it might have been a small plane.

I worked in a large call center with about six hundred others, and there were monitors around the center that usually displayed news. I know I must have arrived around the time United Airlines Flight 175 crashed, though I cannot now remember if I made it in time to see it happen in real time. I think I did.

I do remember the frantic tracking of remaining flights. I remember the attack on the Pentagon. I remember the finding of the smoking ruin of Flight 93 (I suspected for quite some time that it had actually been shot down by interceptors). I remember explaining to customers on "escalated calls" for the next couple of days that my employer's system was not working for them because we had lost an antenna on the WTC, we had thousands of units in the area seeing heavy use by emergency services, and millions of people were overloading the New York phone system as they frantically tried to contact family and friends. Even more than those things, I remember the aching in my chest and the tears running down my face as I saw the video of thousands of innocent civilians dying as the monitors overhead showed those big commercial jets slamming into the Towers over and over and over again.

Perhaps every day changes our life, but that day led to very obvious changes in mine. I was not married, had no children, and wasn't in a serious relationship. I believed there were three potential responses to the aggression against my country. First, we could do nothing, which I believed would lead to more attacks. Second, I believed we could respond with Clintonesque air strikes (pointless) or a nuclear response which would alienate most of the world. The third option was to put boots on the ground, and this seemed to be the only realistic option. It seemed hypocritical for me to support sending others to fight, and some to die, if I was not at least willing to go, since I did not have the responsibilities of many others my age.

I definitely have paid some costs for my service. One of the saddest was the irreplaceable loss of hundreds of pictures and about five hundred letters that I had stored at a friend's. I know things about pain and fatigue that I had never known before, and I learned that when you're stretched too thin, you have nothing to give to anyone else, and eventually, even to yourself. Some of these costs I am not happy to have paid, but I've had some compensations, too. I've known the joy of brotherhood, the instant response to a threat against the group, and I've known the awful joy of facing your worst fears and continuing. I've seen friends and family gather to support me, and I've even seen total strangers show me love just because of what I symbolized.

When I entered service, I was assigned to an infantry unit in Washington State. After two years there, I left active duty, secure in my knowledge that I was not a hypocrite, and resolved to get on with my life, starting with finishing my BA. Most of you know I was reactivated later, fought successfully (and sometimes deviously) to stay in school long enough to graduate, and did a combat tour in Afghanistan, where I tried to do my job, keep my head down, and have as boring a stay as possible. I am troubled about many aspects of this so-called War on Terror, just as many aspects of the War on Drugs trouble me. Both "wars" continue to usurp freedoms, some of them freedoms that directly stem from rights acknowledged in the Constitution. I further doubt US presence can do much good in Iraq, and doubt the United States will have the commitment to stay for the very long time any satisfactory outcome in Afghanistan will require.

I am certain of this: our conflict in Afghanistan was begun righteously, after attack on civilians in my country. I am also certain that I'm not a god-damned hypocrite. I'm not too sure of anything else, but hug your husbands and wives, boy or girlfriends, and children tonight for all the US service members who can't, and count your blessings.


HollyB said...

Excellent post, John. Thank you, again, for your service.
My niece graduates Friday from Marine Boot camp. She still wants to go Artillery, so after her leave she'll go to AIT, then on to the BIG guns. A Strawberry Blond Jarhead. If, and that's a big IF, America keeps its promise to Afghanistan and Iraq then I imagine she will wind up in one of those places. I hope that she serves the Marines as well as you served the Army. Please keep her in your thoughts.

phlegmfatale said...

Thank you so much for your service to our country. I'm proud of you and of all who responded so bravely to this profound crisis in our nation's history.

Ambulance Driver said...

I'll echo everyone else here, John, and just say thank you.

The phrase gets thrown around a lot, as an expected part of polite conversation. It's just good manners.

But I mean this as more than good manners. Seriously, thank you.

Thanks for having the courage of your convictions, and thank you for honorably serving our country.

charlotte g said...

Thank you for your heart, your courage, your patriotism. Which continues...AD said it best, perhaps. Really. Just... wholeheartedly, thank you. For the actions, and the thoughts, and the life you continue to lead.

Don M said...

First, thank you for your service. Mine was an uneventful 4 years that covered the Carter Administration, and a few months both sides. It made me the man I am today.

Second, I hope that the US stays long enough in Afghanistan and Iraq to put those countries on a solid path to self government. They will still have more corruption than Long Island, but the will have made the transition from charnel house to creaky third world country. Iraq, because of its oil and water resources, will be able to make faster progress, if the government there can keep t he corruption under even moderate control. Afghanistan would make better progress if the US allocated a portion of its legal opium purchases to our Afghan ally.

Don said...

Yeah, you're still my hero.

NotClauswitz said...

I was too old already, thanks for going.

Zoe Brain said...

From an Ally - Thanks

We're all in this together.