Monday, September 11, 2017

9/11---Time Plus Distance

The following is an article I wrote for 9/11 in a law enforcement gazette. It is six years old, and I offer it as it was printed then. The feelings and emotions never diminish. What was true then is true still. God help us.
~ James

This post colors outside the lines for which this site was created. It is neither poetry nor prose. It is an artcle I was asked to write by Dr. Olivia Johnson, editor of a law enforcement journal, based near St. Louis. As a 20 year veteran of law enforcement I have often been tapped to provide either commentary or personal presentation on topics near and dear to the hearts of officers and citizens. What follows is the content of my submission to the journal. The format prohibits proper indentation, and that's frustrating. I hope you'll overlook that. Its focus is the 10th anniversary of the attacks on our country on September 11, 2001. I pray our country be granted victory over the evils of terrorism. I pray we be consoled in our national grief. I further pray we return to that image of a nation long-ago cast for us by our founding fathers. My article speaks for itself, and beside it I firmly stand.
~ James Woods

Nine Eleven
Time Plus Distance

A melon sun rises beyond the apron at Dover Air Force Base. A hushed detail somberly lifts a flag draped casket from a C-17 Globemaster. Silent salutes honor the slain warrior. The body is on its stateside journey to a devastated family. The detail does an about face and returns into the cavern of the C-17 for another casket. And another. And another.
America slogs through its longest war. It’s so long, fifth grade students don’t remember a time we were not at war. Nearly 4,500 Americans have died as a result of our action in the Middle East. The ally who has suffered the second most battle deaths is the UK, who’ve lost under 200. Each loss has a common genesis.
September 11, 2001 is engraved on the American soul. We all remember where we were when the jets struck the Towers. We viewed endless replays of our buildings collapsing in smoke and dust. We’ve seen that slash in the Pennsylvania soil, caused by the heroic tumble of United Flight 93. Our Pentagon was in flames, our people dead. We knew, instantly, we were at war. Nobody had to tell us. There was no “day that will live in infamy” speech. Our families huddled and wept. We joined in religious services and prayed. We fixed flags to our cars. We sang “God Bless America,” a bit more loudly than before. We sent our sons and daughters to places so strange our American tongues had difficulty pronouncing the names. We smiled at “Shock and Awe,” and distantly felt the thunder of our bombs and rockets lighting the skies over Baghdad. We cheered when an American soldier hung our flag from the stony statue of Saddam Hussein. There was no pretending. This was payback. Revenge. And it felt sweet. It was sweet…until that C-17 landed with a box for you. Then it was bitter and terrible. But we still believe.
When the sun set on September 11, I was in uniform, standing before hundreds of citizens from my city. The mayor asked me to pray and say some encouraging words. It’s been ten years. I don’t remember what I said. When I finished, a sea of small candles winked to life, in the hands of those standing along both banks of the DuPage River. Somebody started to sing “God Bless America.” The tune was joined by a swell of many voices. When the song ended, there came a hush. A holy hush.
A little boy walked up to me. Tugging my pant leg, his little face looked into mine. I bowed to hear him. He said, “Thank you for protecting us.” I had nothing to say. I am paid to say things, but there was nothing to say. Eventually I choked out, “You’re welcome.” He smiled, and trotted back to his mom.
I drove home in silence that night. I kept hearing the little boy. “Thank you for protecting us.” And I understood what I still understand. There is little I can do to protect anyone. Not because I’m a chaplain, and don’t wear a weapon. But because there is always evil out there, determined to destroy what is good and pure. We can fight. We send our most precious to stand in the breech, to protect us. And they do. But the fingers of evil are rough and strong. Insistent. We may protect our way of life, but always at an enormous cost.
I fear for my country. Not because of what the enemy may do, but because of what we are doing to ourselves. When I look out my window, I no longer see a country at war. I see a country at ease. Cars no longer fly flags on the antennae. Nobody cheers our colors. At parades, when the honor guard passes, and our flag flutters in the breeze, crowds remain seated on the curb. Hands no longer move to cover hearts. A few old men stand to salute, and I firmly believe every one of them are vets, who’ve been to war. They know the price demanded to give those seated on their collective butts the freedom to do so.
Nine Eleven. Those words changed us forever. It’s outrageous what four syllables are capable of doing. I have been at nine memorial services, and soon it will be ten. We are accustomed to think in blocks of ten. The tenth, for whatever reason, seems to carry more weight than the ninth, or any previous number. There will be more dignitaries this year wanting podium time to make their remarks. More banners than last year. More flags. But less emotion. The further from a tragedy the less we feel the pain. The old saying is that “Time plus distance equals comedy.” We now make jokes like, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” Time plus distance. Someday, in the far future, a late night host will take a crack at 9/11. We won’t be around to hear it, but it’ll happen. I remember a song from my early years that whined, “Please Mr. Custer, I don’t wanna go!” followed by the thwack of an arrow. Time plus distance.
Last week I attended a funeral. Among the mourners was a young soldier awaiting his second deployment. He looked sharp in his army blues. Later, he sat across from me at dinner. A few old Vietnam vets were in the restaurant, at a table behind ours. Before they left each of them approached the young soldier, saying “Good luck son, and thank you for your service.” I noticed that no one other than those vets did the same. But I’m not surprised. They were the few who understood we are still at war. For the rest, time is becoming distance. What will it be like at nine eleven’s twentieth anniversary? By the thirtieth or fortieth there will be few to no memorial services. A news commentator will note the date’s passing in his newscast. And for many, that ambivalence is already here.
But the C-17’s are still coming. And for as long as they come, and maybe longer, America is at war. I despise that footage showing bright yellow and orange flame blossoming from the top of the World Trade Center. It grieves me and aggravates some deep place in my soul. It angers me. I am a chaplain. I’m supposed to be a man of God, but that footage makes me want to grab a weapon and take my place at the wall. Of course, there is no real wall at which I may take my place. And there’s no gun big enough to rewind time and make it all go away. What’s left me is to do the best I can for my fellow citizens, and my country, every day. It’s the small steps that make the journey. It’s the single brick that makes the wall. It’s vigilance and determination that wins the war.
On September 11 I will put on my uniform and join my city as we commemorate the anniversary of the attacks. We will bow our heads and pray. We will sing patriotic songs, and salute the flag. In our city lives the family of a naval officer who lost his life in the Pentagon. They will be there to honor their husband, father and son. While there, I will scan the crowd for the young boy that thanked me for keeping him safe. But I won’t find him. He’s ten years older now. He may be in uniform protecting me. I just hope to God he isn’t on a C-17.

* Two days following the writing of this article a Chinook helicopter, with its crew, and servicemen including a compliment of Navy SEALS was shot down by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, as they came to the assistance of Army Rangers, who were taking fire. It is to their memory, and faithful service this article is dedicated. May God comfort their families, and their memory ever live among us in honored glory.