26 October 2009

A Reflection on War

On September 11, 2001, I evacuated Boston in what could arguably be called the most civil, flowing crush of rush hour traffic ever. Never before had I gotten home so quickly in such a body of vehicles. Everyone, including myself, seemed inclined to drive like a normal human being and yield to others. To this day, I think that's because everyone, including myself, was completely shell shocked that they were actually evacuating a city because of the devastating attacks on NYC and the Pentagon.

When I got home to Medford, a 5 mile drive that used to take in order of 1.5 - 2 hours to make each day, I started packing my military bags and gear. Throughout the day, during intermittent periods of telephonic stability, my unit had been calling me at work to tell me to be ready to move to NYC for search and rescue efforts.

As an Emergency Manager for the Air Force and then, for the Air Force Reserves, that is one of the many, many "hats" we are trained to wear. Search and rescue. Oversight and getting our hands dirty.

While I packed and watched the images of people leaping to their deaths from the Twin Towers, I wondered how a beautiful, early autumn day had gone so horribly wrong. I tossed my bag in my car and retired to my back porch with a coffee, a pack of cigarettes and my phone. Waiting.

And then, inexplicably, I broke down and sobbed. I couldn't do it. I could not go to that site and start digging out scores of dead civilians. Dead military? Painful but do-able. There's a certain understanding (for most) that when one signs the proverbial dotted line, one is signing up for some inherent risk. But those civilians had done what I did that morning - kissed loved ones good-bye (or worse, rushed out thinking that it would just be another day), sat outside and enjoyed a coffee before heading in, checked e-mail, chatted and caught up with office gossip...all of those things that come with being an office worker, a civilian, a person who does not normally think of their cube farm as being a potential high threat area.

And now they were dead. They died a horrible death, many of them choosing to jump to their deaths rather than face the flames.

I just. Couldn't. Do it.

I didn't have to. I was in the first wave to head overseas and to this day, I'm grateful to have faced war than to have faced so much carnage in one place. Yes, there are those who will argue against it and feel free to rant and rave, but...I know of which I speak and thus far, little has been said or done to change that.

Flash forward to now and a night not too long ago...I was cleaning around the house and for some reason, I thought of that night, of crying on that porch, alone and hearing the eerie silence punctuated only by the occasional scream of an F-16 patrolling the skies. I was 26. Engaged, no children desired.

I am now 34. Divorced, re-married and with one child. I was thinking of a pending possible deployment late this fall or early next year, of my daughter and my husband and how much life had changed so unexpectedly.

What gave me real pause though was this: My 10-year old pen pal when I was deployed the first time, a student from somewhere in Texas who reached out with a care package and a "Dear Soldier, thank you.." letter is now old enough to be one of my subordinates. I wondered if he was going through basic training now (he really, really wanted to be a soldier back then) or had graduated from it and was heading to his first unit...or if he changed his mind somewhere along the way.

Of that entire 4th grade class, how many of them will I encounter in future deployments? "You wrote to me when you were a child, and now you serve under me." If that isn't enough to make one feel old...and war weary...

So I took it a step further and pictured my sweet smelling, silly little girl enlisting to carry on a tradition of fighting that started with her father in Gulf 1, is carried on by her mother in Gulf 2 and wondered, perversely, if she'd like Iran. Then realized that she, too, has every likelihood of serving alongside me should she choose that route. After all, by the time she's 18, I'll still be almost 10 years away from high-year tenure in the service and, barring any unforseen events (like an IED), I'll probably still be in uniform.

And we'll still be in the same war. Only, the way things are going, bigger. And I'll probably be on a first-name basis with Afghani farmers at that point. "Oh! Sergeant! So good to see you here again!" "Good to see you too, Mr. Al Khali. How's the wife? The kids? Seen any Taliban lately?" < / cynicsm>

And THAT thought made me sit down and put my head in my hands for a while. A long while.


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