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.
looking at the names carved
into the memorial,
unbeknownst to me
the military and civilian lives
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?”
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.