Reflections on Osama bin Laden from the Spouse of a Deployed Naval Officer

I traveled to Washington DC this weekend to attend a military blogging conference. As I toured the Pentagon and met with military officials, I had no idea our Armed Forces were mounting one of the most historic missions in world history. My husband is a Naval Officer deployed to a joint forces group that participates in the operation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (aka “drones”) in the Middle East. When I heard the news that Osama bin Laden was dead, it felt a little like being alone on Christmas morning.

Friday afternoon was spent with a small group at the Pentagon. After already pulling two all-nighters, I was officially running on adrenaline. But as I complained about lack of sleep, operators half way around the world were preparing for the longest night of their lives. As I hobbled through the airport complaining about pinchy shoes, President Obama and his cabinet were huddled around a table in the Situation Room, readying to implement an assault in Abbottabad that would create world history and bookend an era.

Outside the Pentagon I struck up a conversation, and before the man left I knew all about his son’s Marine promotion, his service in the Navy, and his father’s service in the Army. The straightness of his back and the swell of his chest told me in no uncertain terms just how proud he was of his military heritage. I was amongst strangers who didn’t seem strange at all. And while I was comforted by the familiarity of military life, the executive order was going out to implement the mission to arrest – and possibly kill – an enemy of the United States of America. While I sat in the shadow of the Pentagon, my husband was undoubtedly enjoying the last bit of sleep he would get for the next several days.

I spent the afternoon of the 29th at the Pentagon. I shuffled reverently through the corridors as we walked through the hallway of the Joint Chiefs, past the soon-to-be-innundated press room, and into the Pentagon’s “Heroes” Memorial. I looked out silently across the lawn through green-tinted windows, where a hijacked airplane had bounced into the lawn and crashed into the E Ring on September 11, 2001. It was a quiet, eerie place.

pentagon memorialAnd as I stood

looking at the names carved

into the memorial,

unbeknownst to me

the military and civilian lives

taken there

were about to be avenged.

The morning of April 30th, I heard Secretary Rumsfeld speak at the conference. There were both supporters and detractors, but there was a moment where opinions merged. Secretary Rumsfeld discussed a request he received to write a message for the mother of a slain soldier on the inside cover of his new book, “Known and Unknown.” It was very quiet as he explained that it sat on his diningroom table for a week before he even approached the task. He swallowed hard before adding, “Because, really. What do you write to someone like that?”

military blog conference

And in our silent reverence, little did we know that right about then Seal Team 6 was preparing to board choppers and put their own safety aside to drop into a hostile building in search of the man they had been hunting for the duration of their careers.

Around noon I had a chance to listen to a panel of military representatives concerning the importance of social media. As we discussed the role social media plays in military news reporting, a Tweeter was unwittingly relaying the assault in Abbottabad. And the President and his team listened in on the assault in real-time from Situation Room.

On the last evening I was invited to tag along with some reuniting officers who had spent time together in the Middle East.  I’ve watched my own husband with shipmates after a tour at sea, I’ve watched a squadron respond after losing a fellow aviator in a crash, and I’ve known all along that there was a camaraderie there I would never truly understand. So it was a privilege to be invited to participate in their proprietary brand of friendship, and to share a moment with those who clearly understood the meaning of writing a blank check in the name of freedom. As I watched them laugh I thought about my husband, and his work with men and women just like these. I imagined the invaluable relationships that he was forming half way around the world. And I was jealous.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the Indian Ocean, someone on the USS Carl Vinson was preparing the body of Osama bin Laden for a burial at sea.

On May 1, 2011 I was on my way home. By mid-morning I sat at JFK airport waiting for the boarding call. I was thinking about the St. Patrick’s Day I spent there in 2002 shortly after the attacks on the Twin Towers. I remembered the bars that were filled with blue Port Authority uniforms, the freely flowing drinks for firefighters and police officers, and an unhinged version patriotism and unification.

As I reminisced about the national pride I experienced during that trip to New York, the DNA confirmation the White House had been waiting for had already arrived on the desk of our President, and speechwriters were frantically preparing an announcement.

On the final leg home I was squished between an older Japanese man who knew very little English and a bearded fisherman. I checked my emails one last time before turning off my phone. I was surprised to find an email from my husband:

“Hi Honey, hope your travels home went well. Sorry no Skype…been a bit busy. I better get back to work. I Love You, Me.”

I smiled, and I turned off my phone as we prepared for takeoff. I fell asleep with the CNN feed playing in my headphones. But back in Washington DC someone was turning on the lights in the darkened news room preparing to respond to an important announcement from the President. A very important announcement.

I was awakened by the captain’s loud and pressured announcement from the cockpit: “We have just heard the news. It is confirmed. Osama bin Laden is dead.” I jerked up in my seat, tried to focus on the seat in front of me, and stared at the screen in disbelief. I thought about the irony of being on an airplane at that moment. My heart rate soared and I actually held the book I was reading up to my chest. My face flushed as the entire plane erupted into applause.

The men to my left and right turned toward me, and I could feel them staring. I kept my eyes straight ahead trying not to cry, and focused on the news. They looked at the book I was clutching to my chest – about welcoming your servicemember home – and in my peripheral vision I saw the fisherman quickly wipe  a tear. A surge of adrenaline reached my brain. I instantly felt like shouting, and I longed to see the eruption occurring half way around the world as my husband celebrated with men and women amongst whom he did not have to be cautious or shy. But I couldn’t. I remained paralyzed, gripping the book with sweaty palms, heart swelling and thumping, listening to every word Wolf Blitzer spoke as if history was unfolding before my eyes.

And it was.

When we finally touched down in Portland there were texts and status updates and tweets and voicemails. Anyone who knew where my husband was deployed, and many who didn’t, were sending me updates and questions and cheers. My favorite was from one of the officers I had met that last night at the conference: “If you need to chat I’m around … I bet bin Laden regrets that new iPhone tracking device … Now, send your husband home!”

And as I read that text, college students were gathering to sing the National Anthem just outside the White House gates.

I knew the offer was real if I needed it. It was brotherhood by association. It was taking care of a family member. I teared up thinking about the support that exists amongst those who understand. And I knew that he wished he was over there, watching it all unfold, even more so than I did.

The whole turn of events leaves me with a swill of emotion that I have yet to fully process: the guilt associated with being happy about the death of another human being, the satisfaction of an act of justice that does not offer true closure, and the end of a mission that has been a military focus for so long that it leaves many wondering where to find the next enemy. But as I work through all of these issues, I am left with one abundantly clear impression:

This war will no longer be compared to Vietnam. It will no longer be characterized as a failed mission without a clear directive. Because of this single event, historians will remember this day as the fulfillment of a promise, the persistence of a nation, and proof of the indolent intention of the United States’ military machine.

It is astounding to think of the wake of American death and pain left behind by a single man. There are the lost members United States Armed Forces, the passengers of the flights downed on 9/11, the military and civilian casualties at the Pentagon, the fated citizens in and around the Twin Towers, and all of the the friends and families forever scarred by their loss.

Therefore, out of respect for those who have lost their lives, let this be a time of celebration – not for the taking of one man’s life, but for the lives that will now be saved as a result of the success of a military mission ten years in the making. It is not the end of Al Qaeda, by any means. In fact, it gives them reason to hate us more than ever. But their symbolic leader is dead, and I’m guessing it will make any newcomers think twice, or maybe even ten times, before taking on that vacated role.

25 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Beth
    Mar 24, 2012 @ 16:03:33

    Dear Lori,
    I stumbled into your post last night after catching a glimpse on the NBC nightly news. I’ve spent my entire rainy-day Saturday here alternately laughing and crying my way through your posts. This one made me sob uncontrollably. (Not your fault).

    My husband is a military reservist, who joined after we were married, after 9/11. I had my reservations, but it’s what he wanted to do. My baby brother is also an enlisted officer. Both have served many, many deployments, long and short, far and near.

    There is little support for a reservist’s spouse living in a non-military community, which only makes it harder – even though as much is asked of reservists these days as is asked of active-duty soldiers. We have had our fair share of problems. Re-integration is always the hardest part. I have seen my husband come home a completely different man. I have withstood alcohol abuse and mental health problems. I have watched my house go up in flames. I have laid awake night after night after night.

    You write about emotions I barely recognized were there. I was feeling utterly at the end of my little rope lately. I’m not a writer or very good with words – but your putting words to it all has helped in ways I can’t express. ‘Help’ is a four-letter word in military circles. Thank you from the very bottom of my heart for being brave and honest enough to throw it all out there.

    many thanks,
    Beth

    Reply

    • Lori Volkman @ Witty Little Secret
      Mar 24, 2012 @ 16:10:08

      I’m so glad, Beth. I laughed and cried writing many of them. It means so much to a writer when a reader says these things. I’m writing now about transition and reintegration – not easy topics – but I hope I can both bring realism and lighten hearts along the way.

      Reply

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  3. Sherri Cervantes
    May 14, 2011 @ 06:10:58

    I stumbled upon your post while I was searching for Bible verses for daughters in the military. I am so glad I did! This is an awesone post and brought tears to my eyes. My daughter is in the Army (yet to be deployed) stationed in Hawaii, and her husband is currently in Iraq (third tour). May God bless each and every soldier in all branches of the US Military and THANK YOU ALL for your service!
    John 15:13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. <<< My personal favorite for our Soldiers!

    Reply

  4. Maria (Personalized Sketches)
    May 11, 2011 @ 07:56:39

    What an amazing post. You truly have a gift and talent…it was as if I felt all the emotions through the words you wrote. God bless our military, their familes, and all those that sacrificed their lives on 9/11 and since.

    Blessings & Aloha!

    Reply

  5. Sallie
    May 08, 2011 @ 06:50:09

    Lori- I know the loneliness of raising children solo; keep up the good work. Your sweet mother-in-law forwards some of your blogs to me. They are a blessing, entertaining to me. Keep the faith. Sallie

    Reply

  6. snapdragon
    May 07, 2011 @ 21:54:35

    I just found your blog from an article in the Columbian.
    I really appreciate what you had to say about bin Laden- when I heard the news last Sunday, I was glad- not glad that he was finally rotting in hell, but glad that our troops had the tenacity, technology, and training to find him and end his personal reign of terror.
    (I sort of feel like I have been grieving since 9/11. With bin Laden dead, I now have permission to take off the black mourning clothes.)
    I want to thank you and your husband for your sacrifice and service to our country.

    Reply

    • wittylittlesecret
      May 08, 2011 @ 01:28:28

      Thanks – it was a great article and Erin Middlewood did a great job. It’s hard to know how I will feel at the end of all this bin Laden bit. I haven’t fully processed all of the emotions just yet. But I agree; I’m glad that he is something we don’t have to deal with any longer.

      Reply

  7. Norm
    May 06, 2011 @ 16:35:22

    I did not realize what your family is doing.
    Please tell Randy we are thankful for his service and are thinking of him. Let me know if we can do anything for you
    Norm Harker

    Reply

  8. Roller Coaster
    May 06, 2011 @ 13:04:42

    Wow, this is an amazing post! And one of the best written about bin Laden.

    BTW, I was at the conference….how did I not meet you?! From the angle of your picture, I can guess where you were sitting, and I think I was in the section to the immediate right of you. And at the Navy Memorial, I was in the front row when they announced the winners (sorry you didn’t win…next year right?!).

    Anyway, besides wanting to tell you how awesome this post is, I wanted to tell you how sorry I am that we didn’t meet. Next time!

    Reply

    • wittylittlesecret
      May 06, 2011 @ 13:30:05

      I think I was completely overwhelmed with everything going on and you’re right, it’s crazy that we didn’t meet. Thanks for the props … we will share a drink next year!

      Reply

  9. ret sfc.
    May 06, 2011 @ 10:38:22

    just two small words”thank you”

    Reply

  10. sharprightturn
    May 06, 2011 @ 07:37:22

    Wow. My husband just sent me the link to your blog this morning. Apparently, my husband worked with your husband in VS-29…several years before I even knew my husband.

    I have to say your post here is one of the best pieces I have read on the issue of Osama bin Laden’s death. Thanks so much for writing it.

    Thanks to your husband for his service and thanks to you for your steadfast support of all he is doing.

    Best wishes and I will keep reading.

    Reply

    • wittylittlesecret
      May 06, 2011 @ 13:34:30

      Wow, that’s so myserious … I wonder who he is. I have pictures from our wedding of all the guys that came from VS-29, so maybe I have an old picture of your hubby that would crack you up. Drop me an email! Thanks for the support – I’m glad you appreciated the article. I think many military spouses are concerned about reprisal from their communities, but if they hear what we really have to say I think they will agree that the perspective changes (in any situation) whenever you are personally impacted.

      Reply

  11. berettaluvz26
    May 05, 2011 @ 01:53:48

    Please tell your husband thank you for me. It’s all the service members who have made this happen, and I’m glad they’ve made this mission a success.

    Reply

  12. DogBoy
    May 04, 2011 @ 14:35:54

    Hans is lucky to have you, your words and your gifts. As Sarah said you make it real and personal.

    Reply

  13. Sharon McCameron Whyte, MFA
    May 04, 2011 @ 10:04:53

    Well said, sweetie. Love you. Mom

    Reply

  14. sarah roberts
    May 03, 2011 @ 10:41:13

    LV, I’ve been watching the story unfold on the news over the last few days…and I have to say I hadn’t felt much until reading this…somehow I was in shock, then pure anger when I heard he used his wife as a shield, then general disgust at where they found him…but not until reading this did I cry…for all those who’ve lost or sacrificed their lives, or their love ones. Your writing always makes it personal. Thank you for sharing and reminding me just how huge this really is.

    Reply

  15. Athena
    May 03, 2011 @ 10:32:48

    Well said. And I am thankful for your Sailor and all of our men & women in uniform.

    @NHGirl: I am not a liberal and I posted the MLK quote. I don’t believe we should celebrate the death of any man. I think we should celebrate the troops who have worked so hard on a mission that has lasted too long. We should celebrate the lives of those who have given their all and the families that made that ultimate sacrifice.

    Am I glad he is dead? Yes. Do I believe that Obama is going to send my husband home now? I am not that naive.

    Reply

  16. NHGirl
    May 03, 2011 @ 08:25:57

    I have many liberal friends who are posting on facebook MLKJr quotes about how hate just produces more hate and how we should overcome hate with love… They need to read this. They really don’t understand. This is an unbelievably amazing post, thank you! I’m so glad your hubby was able to get in touch with you! 🙂

    Reply

    • wittylittlesecret
      May 03, 2011 @ 09:12:36

      Well by all means, post it to Facebook. It’s hard to understand how I really feel just yet, but I don’t appreciate those who are comparing it to murder. This was an act of self-defense.

      Reply

  17. Amy
    May 03, 2011 @ 07:21:04

    I LOVE this: Therefore, out of respect for those who have lost their lives, let this be a time of celebration – not for the taking of one man’s life, but for the lives that will now be saved as a result of the success of a military mission ten years in the making.

    Reply

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