It is hard to believe that five years have passed since the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the aborted attack on the Capitol. Like most of you I remember exactly the moment I learned of the attacks. I was still living in town for school with our youngest son Sam. Steve on his way home to the ranch called and told me to turn on the TV. Seconds after I did the first tower collapsed. I remember it being hard to take in what was happening it seemed so unbelievable. I remember saying to Steve as we listened together over the phone that, “the world would never be the same after today, that it was the kind of event that shifted world power like the sinking of the Spanish Armada.
We watched what is the best of America and humanity that day. For me those lost on 9/11 were the first casualties of the resulting wars. Little did I know that morning just how personally those attacks on the East Coast thousands of miles away would affect us here just south of Contact, Nevada. For within weeks our son Nathan joined the Army. Not only Nathan, but our soon to become nephew-in-law that had worked at the ranch over the previous three years joined the Marines.
The weeks unfolded and I remember the mixed feelings of fear, dread, and pride that Nate was following his convictions. I didn’t say much to him about the army, and at the time assumed he would end up in Afghanistan. During the months after 9/11, it was hard to get the horrific images out of my mind. It felt like that cloud of ash from NYC had blown into my very bones and would not dissipate. I totally immersed myself into the politics of the upcoming war. I watched in amazement the night vision scenes in Afghanistan and cheered the deaths of the men who killed women in the soccer stadiums of Afghanistan. I remember telling Nathan that if he had to fight to fight for those innocent women on the Taliban soccer field.
The day came for Nathan to depart for basic training. We took him to the Elko Airport and waited for his departure to Boise to be sworn into the Army. People we knew came off the plane from Reno just as Nate was in line going through security, interrupting our farewells. I did not cry, as I am now, typing this. I remember Nate looking back at us after he was past security past our reach.
As the politics of the Iraq war unfolded, I watched the Defense Department arrogantly disregard the wisdom and experience of individuals like General Eric Shinseki, an American hero and patriot, Vietnam veteran and casualty who after losing his leg, faught back refusing to leave the Army. Not only did the DOD ignore General Shinseki’s recommendations, they eventually forced his early retirement because he would not back down from his high troop level recommendations for an invasion of Iraq.
I railed at the American politicians and people who could see an “eye for an eye” as the only option we had. It became more and more apparent that it was easier for the American people to support a war when they had an all volunteer military; when their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers did not face possible death or dismemberment.
I mourned the lost opportunity to unite the American people into a common purpose, perhaps realigning some cultural values that have gone astray in our obsession as consumers of resources and goods. I mourned the squandering of our moral authority in the world as we alienated our allies. I felt anger and anguish as France and Germany played their own game at the U.N. fueled by resentment toward America. Finally making their own grandstanding power play on the U.N. chessboard, guaranteeing the Bush Administration’s agenda to fight Iraq would be fulfilled. As events unfolded it became murkily clear that many were collaborators, conspirators and profiteers in the ongoing Middle East drama.
I don’t know if the first goodbye at the Elko Airport was any harder than when they sent Nathan home at Christmas from boot camp, or when we left him in January 2003 after he had been assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, northwest of Nashville. By then we knew he was headed for Iraq within weeks and we would not see him again until his return.
By February we were receiving letters in envelopes made out of lined school paper sealed in duct tape, and infrequent satellite phone calls from Kuwait and then the interior of Iraq. In the beginning of a war as a mother, I contemplated the worst. I had to. The fear of death for a child is not as great as the fear of capture, torture, and mutilation. I used to say a prayer throughout the day, "Lord guide him protect him and open his heart to prayer." I knew that was all I had in my power to do to get him home safely. I realized when the Army sent Nate to sniper school against his wishes that I didn’t have a clue what would keep him alive. It just might be sniper school. I learned to give it up and say, ”God’s will be done.”
The first dreaded incident we had to deal with was the 101st soldier that attacked his own unit just after the Division got settled in Kuwait. Nate was attached to the Headquarters Unit and was just two tents down from the assault where one of the fatalities was an officer from Boise, Idaho.
The 101st was one of the last Divisions to enter Iraq, taking a flanking route up the west side of the country. As best I could, I logged their journey in my National Geographic Atlas and kept a daily journal of the war. I devoured the television news the first three months until I finally turned off the TV, allowing myself one to two hours of news per day. I sought out other family members with military ties to visit with. I struggled with separating my son’s job and decision with my growing disdain for the political leaders who were not sending their daughters and sons to Iraq, and the majority of American’s who were detached from the sacrifices the all-voluntary military of this country endures.
I remember a friend who exuberantly exclaimed to me how I must be so relieved that the fighting was over, after the initial invasion was completed. I remember looking at her incredulously and asking her what she meant. Then promptly informed her that we hadn’t seen anything yet, that didn’t she realize that the hard fighting and real danger was yet to come, was up ahead. She didn’t even grasp what I was talking about sad to say.
There were many days and weeks we had no idea where or how he was doing. The longest we went without hearing from him was about six weeks. Not far into the war the government cut off the satellite phones they were too expensive. Later when the 101st was permanently deployed to Mosul Nathan paid an Iraqi in an Internet café to use his cell phone.
As the years unfold we may hear more of his experiences and we may not. A few of the missions he was sent on were heartless and stupid, treating the soldiers like they were throw away’s, providing no exit strategy. I guess during all this, I found some kind of deep faith that life turns out the way it is supposed to and that it takes what it takes for things to turn out like they turn out. I think soldiers may come to the same belief.
One weekend we had just talked to Nate and he told us not to expect any calls for a while, as they would be out. His unit was made up oftwenty guys, one had just been sent back to the States. That Friday night on the news there was a report of a chopper that went down in Mosul with nineteen soldiers aboard. All weekend I called Fort Campbell to get information with no answer at the other end, very unusual and alarming. Monday morning we finally got a call that it wasn’t our guys. Thankful news for us, but it didn’t take long for the shine to wear off as we immediately knew some other family was getting the bad news.
Nate spent 322 days counting travel time in Iraq, he came home mid-February 2004. It was a moving site, seeing that big airbus finally approach the runway at Fort Campbell, a memory that brings tears to my eyes. Despite everything, these young men had done something courageous with their lives; in their hearts they went to make someone else’s life better. Nate left a boy and come back a man.
We surprised Nate on the tarmac as he filed off the plane. There we stood among all the other families with our miniature flags waiting. I couldn’t bear the thought of him getting off that plane and not being there to welcome him and his buddies home.
After the troops filed off the plane with their rifles slung over their desert camo shoulders, they finally formed up in the hanger. The families were anxious to get out of the bleachers and out on the floor with their soldiers. But we had to wait for the customary talking of the medal chests on the podium. As we sat there, I noticed how all the soldiers had the same look to their complexions. Looking around, some of their desert camo boots had soles worn so thin it was a good thing they were home. Others looked like they had just received a new pair. Some were straining to find people who didn’t show for the homecoming. It was confusing, I thought they would be all smiles, jovial, and exuberantly happy, but there were few smiles. Nate was the only one talking and joking as they filed off the plane earlier.
When the troops were finally released, and we found Nathan in the crowd, he was surrounded by his old comrades who had rotated back months earlier. Nathan was one of three out of his platoon that stayed the full deployment with no rotation home. One in the group had been a partner, officially a spotter for Nate, and had been badly damaged. Mistakenly jumping out of a helicopter and falling 40 feet to the ground, Nate was right behind him the next one to go when it happened. It was one of their first night missions with inexperienced pilots in a desert environment and they thought they were on the ground. It was one of the many incidents Nathan chose not to worry us.
It was apparent that it was a hard transition back to civilian life after that many days in the desert. It took all the time we had for Nate to relax a little and not feel that simple things we took for granted were extravagant. The leave taking was a relief for all of us this time. Nate needed to get back to his military life and decompress and for us we knew he was officially a short-timer now, with discharge the coming fall.
I have felt a real hesitation talking about my feelings concerning the war among friends and the community. It didn’t take much to be branded unpatriotic three or four years ago. Today dissent seems to be more palatable as belatedly the public stomach is getting queasy over the war. I don’t claim to have any answers but I agree with words of Gandhi’s, something like, ” the trouble with an eye for an eye is eventually the whole world goes blind.”
So today and the next and the next I will grieve for those families of 9/11’s fallen, and all those who have fallen since, I will grieve for the thousands who will not come out of our wars whole in body or spirit. I will grieve for the Iraqi’s whose loss is great. Most of all I will grieve for all those who hate.