Offered by Rob Burgess, Treasurer of the EPF NEC and Navy Veteran
As a young man growing up in the 1960s at a time of the Vietnam War, admittedly I was frightened by the prospect of being drafted once I turned 18 and sent off to Vietnam. Like Muhammad Ali who famously said: “I got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” I didn’t either. Partially as a result, as a teenager I had convinced myself that I would claim conscientious objector status if the military draft caught up with me.
But the draft had diminished by the year I turned 18 and far fewer draft lottery numbers were called to active duty. My draft number was in the 280s. I breathed a sigh of relief and never had to formally declare conscientious objector status. My wife, who is a couple years older and attended Kent State, tells the story that there were two kinds of young men on her campus after draft lottery day a few years earlier. Both were drunk. Some with a low draft number drank because they would be drafted, others with a higher number because they would not.
Some years later, a friend of mine thought I was crazy and naive when I told him I had enlisted. I had had to drop out of college because my church janitor father did not have the money to keep me in college and I did not have the grants to allow me to finish my degree in college. I was naïve. But by 1974, no other young men were being sent to Vietnam. I enlisted in 1974 to become a Navy Journalist and to obtain the G.I. Bill so that someday I would be able to go back to college. I ain’t no war hero. I never carried a loaded gun once in my four years of active duty.
In the spring of 1975, I did witness thousands of Vietnamese refugees in an enormous tent city on Guam shortly after the fall of Saigon in April that year. I have never forgotten the young Viet woman who held up a picture to some of us from my ship driving through the refugee camp. She asked us if we knew the service man in the picture. I presume he had been her significant other in Saigon.
Perhaps, partially as a result of my experiences as a young man, I have mixed feelings about remembrances of September 11, 2001. There are other reasons I will attempt to explain.
Earlier this summer, my family travelled to New Jersey to visit relatives. Our first full day there, we took the subway into New York to the World Trade Center. I must admit to being very emotional as I first walked into that massive building realizing that I was on the ground where so many innocents had lost their lives on September 11 twenty years prior. Stopping at the Memorial Pool at that site was perhaps even more emotional as I closed my eyes to meditate and pray.
Thousands of innocent lives lost in a few brief moments of terror on 9/11. For those of us who watched on television that day, it was sorrowful and horrible. It is beyond my imagination to think what New Yorkers who were there must have felt. Surely, the innocent lives lost that day deserve our prayers. Let eternal light shine upon them. Also, the firemen and women and other first responders are also deserving of our prayers and continued support for what they experienced.
On September 11, 2001, my first-born child turned 15. For those of you who are parents, I am certain you remember how precious it was to hold your new born for the very first time. For me, it was certainly a powerful moment especially after my wife had had a long and difficult delivery climaxed with an emergency C-section to save the baby. So, September 11 was to me always a blessed day. My daughter died ten years ago a week shy of her 25th birthday from an opiate overdose. The horror of 2001 is now even more cemented to the blessing of the birth of my daughter. I miss her. I am sure loved ones of those who died in 2001 also miss their beloved ones as well.
I like to tell my friends that I kid my wife that if she held on a few hours longer our daughter would have shared a birthday with me.
On September 11, 2001, the United States was in the thoughts and prayers of millions around the world. But I think we have to also remember September 12. We changed. Our grief as a nation turned to anger and a quest for revenge. It must have been something like Americans felt on December 8, 1941 the day after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. America went to war after September 11, 2001 just as it had after December 7, 1941. We know how the latter war ended in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We now know how the war in Afghanistan has ended with tens of thousands of Afghan refugees and a war-torn country. The TV images of Afghan women and children are for me vivid reminders of the Viet refugees on Guam decades ago.
Twenty years later, I wonder if there is anything more as a veteran I could have done to prevent our twenty-year war in Afghanistan. Yes, we killed Osama Bin Laden. Tens of thousands of innocent Afghan lives were lost in the process. Aren’t those lives valuable too? Shouldn’t we pray for those lives also?
In the spring of 2003, we also attacked Iraq. Now, I for one certainly believe that the regime of Saddam Hussein was a despicable one. But I don’t think he had anything to do with September 11 or Bin Laden. Tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis lost their lives as well. Again, aren’t those lives valuable also? Aren’t they too children of the same God?
Let us pray for those innocents who lost their lives on September 11, 2001. Let us also pray for those innocents who in the two decades since lost their lives also. Let us pray for all their loved ones who miss and mourn their loss to this very day.
Let us also pray for America. We need hope that we have learned a lesson. I will offer a prayer of optimism in the form of lyrics from an Islamic artist. Perhaps, it is my longing to be naïve again:
“Cause out on the edge of darkness
There ride the Peace Train
Oh, Peace Train take this country
Come take (us) home again.
Oh, I've been smiling lately
Thinking about the world as one
And I believe it could be
Someday it's going to come”
Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens
Someday, Lord. Someday.