It has been nearly eleven years since that fateful Tuesday when the world changed.
I can still remember it like it was yesterday despite the intervening years.
I was in my office at Camp LeJeune where I was serving as Chaplain for Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had just finished an early morning counseling case and had delayed my early morning PT in order to handle the case and after I checked e-mail I was about to close my internet browser when I saw a small headline on the Yahoo News headline section.
The headline simply read “Plane crashes into World Trade Center Building.” My immediate thought was “some dumb ass flew his Cessna into the building.” I simply thought that some inexperienced pilot had gotten lost and crashed his plane into a tower. Thinking nothing more I closed out the page and left the office. It was 0900.
I got in my car and the radio was tuned in to a local right-wing talk radio station, yes I used to listen to it all the time. The talk show host was former Congressman Bob Dornan. He was talking with someone about what kind of aircraft had struck the building when he shouted “oh my God another plane has crashed into the other tower!”
I was stunned. I knew that it had to be terrorism. I drove to the gym since they had multiple televisions and I figured that I could find out more there. I walked in and saw Marines, Sailors and civilians gathered around the sets. Every TV was tuned in to different news programs, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC as well as shows such as the Today Show and Good Morning America. Some whispered to each other but the silence of most was deafening. I remained a few minutes, transfixed by the images on the set. I then left the gym, got in my car and went back to the office where I showered, got into uniform, made a check of the news which was now reporting a strike on the Pentagon and the collapse of the South Tower of the WTC.
I drove to our battalion command post where I met with our Commanding Officer, Colonel Lake and Executive Officer Major Foster. We all knew that this was the beginning of a war and all of us had been through countless instances where we had been notified to get ready to deploy, most recently during the Kosovo action where Marines were to take a lead roll had the Serbians not backed down. While we talked the North Tower of the WTC collapsed. The emotions on everyone’s face showed, it was hard to believe that so much had happened and the great towers were smoldering heaps of rubble with possibly tens of thousands of victims crushed or incinerated in the ruins. I was instructed to get my gear and be back for a staff meeting as Colonel Lake was heading to division to meet with the Staff of 2nd Marine Division.
I made a quick run to my town home, hugged the dogs since Judy was out and grabbed my gear and some extra uniforms and underwear and headed back into the base through the back gate. I deposited my gear in my office and went around the building so see our Marines and Sailors assigned to our Truck Company, MP Company, Medical Company and Headquarters Company and all were waiting for more word, most gathered around televisions and watching breaking news. Some came to me and asked what it meant and expressed concern for families and friends in the affected locations. Then I went back to our headquarters where we heard from Colonel Lake what was known and what our actions would be. We were placed on high alert, patrols by full combat ready Marines were to patrol vulnerable areas of the base while roadblocks and checkpoints were established near every major headquarters aboard the base. The base was also locked down and only Marines, Sailors or Civilian workers returning to work were allowed aboard.
Later in the day I met with the chaplains who served our independent battalions, 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Recon Battalion and 2nd Tank Battalion. I explained what I knew from my meetings with the Division Chaplain and Battalion Commander. We concluded our meeting with prayer for the victims of the attacks, the responders and for our Marines and Sailors.
It was both grim and surreal as the day passed and night fell. We remained in that condition four days. Meals were served at the Chow Hall, MRE’s issued and we went everywhere in full combat gear. I visited Marines at their guard posts during the night and worked counseling those who were concerned about family members or friends. They did so for good reason as nearly 3000 people were killed in the WTC, Pentagon and aboard the four hijacked aircraft.
Within a month U.S. Forces were engaged in combat in Afghanistan, driving the Taliban from power and sending Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda into hiding. Various units of the division were deployed to Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa over the coming weeks and months and even as we did so rumors circulated about Iraq.
I knew that the war would not be the short war that everyone hoped for and within 6 months I would be deployed with the USS Hue City and the USS John F Kennedy Carrier Strike Group to the Arabian Gulf, Horn of Africa and Gulf of Oman. We would take part in maritime interception operations off the Horn of Africa and in the Arabian Gulf where we took part in the UN Oil Embargo on Iraqi smugglers.
I would travel to the Middle East frequently over the coming years supporting Marines from the Marine Security Force Battalion and later deploy to Iraq from EOD Group Two. I have lost friends and see the effects of the war every day at Camp LeJeune.
Osama Bin Laden is now dead, and it has been 11 long years of war. However it has been a war that for the most part has not been a national effort. After 9-11 the nation was not called to sacrifice, it was told by political leaders to “go shopping.” The brave men and women of our military and their families have made incredible sacrifices over the past 11 years. 2024 have died in Afghanistan while 4486 died in Iraq before the withdraw of US forces in December 2011. Another 32,223 were wounded in Iraq while 15,332 have been wounded in Afghanistan. These numbers do not count American contractors, State Department, CIA, FBI or other law enforcement agencies.
They also do not count the thousands afflicted by PTSD or other illnesses contracted in the combat zone, nor does it count the large number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have taken their lives on active duty or following their discharge or retirement. Then there are the lives of over 1500 coalition soldiers, mostly British, Canadians and Australians who have given their lives in these wars. Finally there are the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghan civilians who have died or suffered injury or have been dislocated or exiled as a result of the wars.
Then there is the economic cost which amounts to trillions of dollars for both wars which have been funded by borrowing against our economic future.
Despite this for most Americans the war in Afghanistan is unpopular, little understood and distant, far from daily life. This is backed by polling data and by words of some politicians of both major political parties, in every major poll over 60% of Americans say that the war in Afghanistan is not worth the cost and needs to end.
One of the most glaring examples of how political leaders think about Afghanistan, but certainly not the only one is Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Romney did not mention either Iraq or Afghanistan in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, although he did mention “strengthening the military.” He explained it later in an interview by saying to Fox News anchor Brett Baier “When you give a speech you don’t go through a laundry list, you talk about the things that you think are important….”
The sad fact is that no matter why Romney left out any mention of an ongoing war out of his speech that his words “you talk about the things that you think are important” are indicative not only of him but the majority of Americans. The reality is that Romney and most Americans have no personal connection with the war or the military. The war has been fought by a relatively small professional military that represents less than one percent of the population. Marine Lieutenant General John Kelly who lost his son, a Marine Lieutenant in Afghanistan noted at the 2012 American Legion national convention:
“America as a whole today is certainly not at war, not as a country, not as a people… Only a tiny fraction of American families fear all day and every day a knock at the door that will shatter their lives….”
This Tuesday we will reflect on something called Patriot’s Day and pause to remember the events of that bloody Tuesday of September 11th 2001. I hope, probably in vain that the American people and their leaders will do more than mouth a few words, talk about how terrible the day was and go back to business as usual. I hope, probably again in vain that Americans will wake up to the fact that tens of thousands of Americans are in harm’s way and that even more and probably more terrible wars loom just over the horizon.
I have no idea what it will take to actually engage the vast bulk of the American population that what happens in Afghanistan is still important. Nor do I think that most people have any idea that a war with Iran could be disastrous for US and coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan.
It is odd to think that we can think about 9-11 and then ignore the subsequent wars the way that we have done. I really don’t.