After Fifteen Years

When I was young, I would listen to older people recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot. I remember thinking, “That was so long ago!”– though I was two years old when it happened.

Today’s freshmen and military recruits were three years old on 9-11. The majority of their classmates and fellow service members were also children then, with little or no personal memory of the towers falling. Those towers are to them but pictures on a screen.

We seem to have a generation-defining calamity every twenty years or so. Pearl Harbor. The Kennedy Assassination. The Challenger Disaster. And September 11, 2001. Each of these events was seared into the memories of those whose lives were shaken, whose world was changed … but time flows onward, and each defining moment slowly slips into the past, joining other historical facts in books to be studied by later generations.

But we who lived through them remember well. And as we tell our stories, suppressed emotions return with the freshness of yesterday.

In 2001, I supervised several Houston area campus ministries. That day I was heading to my monthly staff meeting, and I stopped to get donuts. I heard the report of a plane hitting a skyscraper, and I remembered the time a B-25 crashed into the Empire State Building. “What’s the big deal?” I thought.

When I got to my office, the second plane hit. And then the towers crumbled.

And the world stopped. The world changed.

The following weekend, I was with students and campus ministers for a retreat we’d been planning for weeks. We embraced, we cried, and we prayed. We laughed, too. The bonds of family and friends gave comfort and strength.

There were other emotions in the air in those dark days. Anger. Fear. Hate. Directed by some toward Arabs, even to students on this campus–and to those with the same olive skin. But throughout Houston we came together in wider circles, people of faith and good will of all backgrounds, to stand firm. To say we will not let hate, or anger, or fear divide us. 

Some of us decided we needed to do more–to be like the first responders of New York and run to the chaos.

I was discharged from the Army Reserve in 1997 after ten years of service. I determined on 9-11 that I would get back in, if and when I could. It took a while, longer than I thought, but in September 2009 I took the oath of office a second time, to serve as a chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard.

By then our nation was no longer in shock. We had moved on. Life continued. But so did the war.

In the years after 9-11 wave after wave of young Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, Marines, and Coasties deployed as part of what we came to call the Global War on Terror. And one flag-draped casket after another, and another, and another, came home. And many came home with injuries we couldn’t see.

I deployed in 2013 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, as chaplain for a Combat Aviation Brigade. Our mission was to run Army aviation operations thoughout the Persian Gulf Region.

We did not fire on an enemy that year. We were not fired upon. Instead, we built partnerships with allied nations in the area—all of which were Muslim.

My team of chaplains did partnership missions with Islamic Affairs Officers of the Kuwait Ministry of Defense. We got to know one another. We shared meals together. I had them talk to my Soldiers and chaplains about the meaning of Ramadan, about what American Soldiers in the Middle East should know about Islam. And I took Soldiers on visits to mosques, museums, and markets in Kuwait and Qatar. And we got a perspective on the world that you cannot obtain from either FOX or CNN.

Those deployment experiences reminded me of the lessons we learned in the days immediately after 9-11. The way through darkness is through friendship, not through fear. It is through dialogue and openness, not through barricades, physical or mental. It is through affirming our common humanity, and appreciating other cultures, while still loving and honoring our home.

We go forward by remembering the sacrifices. Nearly three thousand deaths on 9-11. Almost seven thousand US casualties so far in the Global War on Terror. And 55,000 others who have received the Purple Heart for injuries. Sixteen hundred limbs have been amputated. Over 750,000 service members have suffered traumatic brain injury, Post Traumatic Stress, depression, or a combination of the above….. And let us not forget the estimated 210,000 Iraqi, Afghan and other innocent civilians who have died from violent deaths, not including those who died from hunger, malnutrition, or disease.

We go forward by honoring those who have served. Two and a half million have deployed, and they come home not only with injuries, but with blessings: with a wider view of the world, with experiences in leadership, with gifts that enrich our community, with stories we need to hear.

We go forward by keeping our promises to them. Promises of health care. Promises of education–preserving as sacred the commitments made to us and to our children.

We go forward by keeping our hearts focused on what made America great, and what makes America great: The values proposed in a Declaration which affirmed that we are endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: rights preserved and protected by the Constitution, rights which we dare not relinquish for even a moment in the face of passing fears. 

We go forward by keeping our commitment to being a nation that leaves a light on in New York Harbor, and which says to the victims of war and oppression, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

We go forward, and we show America’s greatness, when we live out this generous spirit–as we did on September 11, 2001.