Skin In The Game

The Twin Towers descended to earth in a cascade of dust, metal and mangled bodies hours before I knew we had been attacked. I was a junior in high school on September 11, and on that morning I played hooky and slept well into the morning. When I came to and booted up the computer, I saw a flood of posts that clogged a message board I frequented, detailing the attacks in hurried detail. The towers crumbled, the Pentagon fumed like a cracked furnace. A plane smashed into a Pennsylvania field like a winged meteor. I had decided to join the Army sometime in my early childhood; the attacks simply steeled my resolve further. My fantasies of choking the life from Osama bin Laden spilled over into Algebra class the next day. At sixteen, I had my first hunger pangs for bloodthirsty revenge. I would’ve happily traded the prom for the Hindu Kush. It was clear that my future was pointed toward combat far more than a maddening existence in the Dallas suburbs anyway.

My future had a different plan than I had envisioned. Instead of the mountains of Afghanistan, my war story unfolded in Iraq. By the time I was ready to deploy in the summer of 2006, Afghanistan wasn’t even below-the-fold. It was a thread of a story half-remembered that continued for a tiny subset of the population and buried in the back of the newspaper. The only indication of a sustained fight was the Defense Department notifications page, a gruesome machine that spit out names of the dead, their hometown and a hazy description of a likely violent death. In preparation for Iraq, I joined my civilian countrymen in a collective amnesia about Afghanistan, or why we were there in the first place. September 11 began as an attack on our country, and in essence, our way of life. But for an all-volunteer war machine thirsty for recruits in a two front war, the burden of the fight rested on the shoulders of the few. The wars would flicker as backdrops in Hollywood films, or as flyovers at the Super Bowl. Flags would wave and people would cheer as caskets unloaded like clockwork at Dover Air Force Base.

So when news of bin Laden’s death rocketed across Twitter and Facebook last week, my first reaction was elation. How could it not be? He had become a villain, a symbol of unholy war against the West. He was a Hitler for the information age. His sudden death at the hands of Navy SEALs in Pakistan, for a brief moment, reminded the country about our military’s exhaustive mission to destroy al-Qaeda. When I heard reports of a gathering at the White House, I made sure Kate and Josh were there. I wanted to celebrate the historic catharsis with fellow war Veterans. It was our moment.

For once I did not hide my deployment history from strangers. I told the cab driver to gun it to Pennsylvania Avenue, my excitement magnified by the President’s live speech on the radio. “I joined the Army to help get that bastard. This is a great day,” I said over the first reports of the raid. I fidgeted in the seat and watched my Twitter feed explode over the news.

The crowd outside the White House was big, loud and growing. Chants of “USA!” broke out, and an off-key serenade of The Star Spangled Banner washed over the cheery mob. Kate soon arrived with another Vet and we watched and laughed as people climbed light posts and trees as the rooftop snipers held their positions. The few kept watch over the oblivious many.

At some point, the crowd gave way to feral roars that splintered the euphoric mood. A group of Georgetown students chanted their trademark “Sax-a Hoy-as!” as if they were in the stands of a basketball game. Banners from George Washington University waved next to the Stars & Stripes. The night was a triumph in a pair of wars defined by a glaring lack of victories, but it was overtaken by a sense of entitlement to wars waged by their neighbors and high school classmates. Wars fought obliquely with other people’s sons and daughters were suddenly part of a national conscious again.

It was nearly dawn when I stumbled back home. The paper delivery folks were out to bring tightly wrapped secret the early sleepers didn’t know yet: We got him. I kept thinking about the crowd and the reason they celebrated. Optimism sometimes creeps in and makes me think this is not just a watershed moment in history, but the point where the country realizes we have been at constant war for nearly a decade. Where “we” doesn’t mean simply “them” until a victory comes along, but part of a collective effort to share in the good and the bad, shoulder to shoulder in closed ranks. But then I think, these are the same students I will see when I go back to school this fall. They will be my classmates, but not exactly my peers. Will they ask if I ever killed anyone, or watched a buddy die, or if I struggle with post-traumatic stress? Will ‘we’ still mean what it did last week?

Chris Gordon/Flickr

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks

14 Comments to “Skin In The Game”

  1. Alex Ashlock says:

    Hi Alex. I am a producer for the Here and Now show at WBUR in Boston. I’d like to arrange an interview with you for our show. Thanks.

  2. Annie says:

    Close my eyes, and the words coming from your blog are nearly identical to those from my fiance’s mouth. He is a former Marine whose experiences are so similar to yours, it’s shocking, though I know it shouldn’t be. Thank you for being the voice of many. We need you to guide us–to help us shake, shock, and move this country into caring for our veterans. If not today, then when?

  3. Tami Watson says:

    God Bless you and thank you for your service. There are many out there that do know day by day that we are still fighting two wars and your deployment history is something that you should wear with pride.

    Again, Thank you for your service.

    Tami
    aka Cav Mom

  4. rebecca hopkins says:

    Alex,
    Thank you so much for your service and sacrifice for our country.
    I agree with the above post from Tami, wear your history with pride!!!
    I am a veteran of the first Gulf War 1991, My son just returned home from 6 years in the Air Force, 1 year in Iraq, and 1 in Afghanistan. I am lucky to have him home.
    thank you again Alex,
    Becky

  5. Carla Felsted says:

    A great piece that captures the emotion of the moment when crowds spontaneously gathered on 5/1/11, goes back to a day none of us will ever forget, and offers retrospective reflection. Well done!

  6. Hooter says:

    US and European papers have reported self-deprecation expressed by “some” of our allies and fellow Americans as to this mission. Literally “pining away” over OBL loss that he deserved a trial or tribunal similar to Nuremberg, attempting to invoke history for their misguided argument. However tribunals had only been conducted after the defeat of the enemy.

    President Obama conducted himself in the same manner as President Roosevelt….

    Osama Bin Laden and 911 are in keeping with Naval Marshall General Isoroku Yamamoto and Pearl Harbor in scale and loss of life. Earlier events also with the Navy prior to these later larger attacks parallels somewhat with USS Panay and USS Cole.

    Isoroku Yamamoto, was the Commander in Chief of the combined fleet which lead the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines. We had been halfway into World War II, when our intelligence intercepted, decoded and gathered critical information to the movements of Yamamoto. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to “GET YAMAMOTO” “Operation Vengeance” US Army P-38 fighters intercepting to shot down Yamamoto’s transport aircraft on 18 April 1943.

    Like Roosevelt, Obama recognized that the enemies top leadership is a “valid” military target in war. Again, President Obama conducted himself in the same manner as President Roosevelt….

  7. Stan Lukas says:

    …another great post, Alex. The mindless comments and questions from classmates are like “déjà vu all over again” for me. When I was interviewing for entry level law enforcement positions in the early to mid 1970s, I was asked if I had ever fragged anybody in Vietnam, or if I had ever witnessed a fragging (murder of a superior). The answer to both questions was “No,” but you can’t prove a negative, so the a**holes who posed the questions continued to believe what they already had firm convictions about. There were also repetitive questions about the use of illegal drugs, and candid answers were often met with skepticism. Some of the stereotypes in the U.S. held about Vietnam veterans, and particularly Marines, were views so absurd that you’d swear that they originated with North Vietnamese or Viet Cong propagandists. Our Vietnamese brethren often described us in kinder words than did many Americans.

  8. Terese Martindell says:

    Very well done. You are doing a great service with your blog; to those of us who are civilans, and want to/need to know the most helpful ways of relating to IAVets. WE really do care, and want all your buddies home soon!

  9. Brian says:

    I spent the aftermath of the news in quite a fitting way. I was just starting to fall asleep when a friend texted me to turn on the news. I was in the bunk room at the volunteer fire department that I spend some time at, so I had to leave the room to reply to my friend that it was late and it better be important. He merely replied “We killed UBL”.

    I took a deep breath and turned on the news to make sure it was true. There it was staring at me from the TV in the day room “Reports:Osama Bin Laden dead”

    I did the only thing I could do, I went around and woke up the other Veterans that I serve with at the Firehouse and we sat around the TV in muted anticipation of the Presidential Press Conference. When the President announced the news we just looked at each other and nodded. It was done. No cheering or loud celebratory high fives were needed.

    I saw the news footage of people around the nation celebrating on the streets and at the White House and I wouldn’t have traded places with anyone I saw out waving flags or cheering.

    I was surrounded by Firemen and Soldiers, two cohorts that were affected by the attacks of 9/11 and are still being affected by the attacks. We understood. The death of Osama Bin Laden won’t bring our lost brothers back, but it does give us a little bit of closure.

    Firefighters will continue to run into burning buildings to save people, and soldiers will continue to deploy to fight the enemies of our nation. I was proud to be part of the brotherhood of arms and continue to be proud to be part of the brotherhood of the fire service.

    The death of Osama Bin Laden meant a lot of things to me, but mostly it serves as a reminder of how proud I am to call these men and women my comrades. Every day, I am still proud of anyone that puts on the uniform of the military or bunker gear and puts their life on the line without a second thought.

  10. Leslie says:

    Wonderful post, well stated. As a former state trooper, who was working for a federal police agency in DC on 9/11 and saw the Pentagon burning, and waited to hear on our officers who entered the Twin Towers to help save people, and who NOW works for the Marine Corps–I just want say, remember the cops who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you too.

    • MrBruce says:

      Remember the Cops? Huh? Oh, you mean cops like the Pima County SWAT team who murdered former Marine Jose Guerena, You and your Cop buddies act like entitled spoiled brats and regularly murder Veterans; if not you target us. Sorry, but my local Sheriff deliberately targets any military stickered vehicles because according to him “Military and Veterans pay their fines and are unlikely to deliver problems that don’t provide income for the county; such as drug and drunk driving arrests”. Poor Jose had 71 shots fired in his family home by these supposed “professionals”; in a residential home, known to contain children! How many rounds did Jose fire in self-defense? None, not a one. Now the Pima sheriff is trying to state a possible Negligent Discharge started it all. Who was the ND, a SWAT member, of course! Sorry to vent on you, but for far too long I have seen the increased militarization of our Police forces. That sets a disturbing precedent that police are warriors. Warriors they are not. But I see far too many cowards wearing camo who want the glory of a battlefield warrior without enduring the sacrifice of a dusty Afghan battlefield and the death that awaits real warriors there. I will close by saying I love law enforcement officers and the vast majority are good people, and I appreciate all they do. Unfortunately I hear far too many complain about all the benefits and attention the military gets; when they have no idea of the sacrifices required to access those coveted benefits and accolades. In closing, if a cop wants to align him/herself with Warriors, then he/she should volunteer and become one! Talk is cheap and so are surplus uniforms!

  11. flynnbw says:

    I was there that night too. Despite the annoying “bros” from nearby colleges, I was there with my own brothers … some of the guys I went to the Coast Guard Academy with, who like me joined up less than a year after 9/11. We came in from VA because we wanted — we needed — to be a part of it.

    I saw a few short haircuts, high-and-tights, among the frayed visors and frat ballcaps in the crowd. I went over to a Marine in BDUs and gave him a quick “Semper Fi” and a handshake. It was an interesting night, to say the least.

    It was as close to VJ Day as our generation is ever going to get. (I know, not very close at all, but I’ll take it).

  12. When I heard reports of a gathering at the White House, I made sure Kate and Josh were there. I wanted to celebrate the historic catharsis with fellow war Veterans. It was our moment.
    ————————————————————
    —————————————————

    Best Regards;
    SMEBS B2B Directory india;Aloe vera fruit extract

  13. God Bless you and thank you for your service!!!