Friday, September 12, 2008

Where were you when terror struck?

While the world went about their daily routines, Muslim extremists were planning how and when to deliver their next blow to the United States. On September 11, 2001 they succeeded in delivering what they hoped would be a crushing blow. Instead, they delivered a blow that sparked dedication, patriotism, and regard for our fellow man. Instead of crushing our resistance, they bolstered our resolve. Instead of killing our patriotism, they encouraged us to fly our flags in the face of adversity.

In the days leading up to September 11, 2001 I was enjoying a leisurely cruise aboard the USS Boxer as a Tiger Cruise participant. Amy was stationed aboard the Boxer and had been on a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf. As part of the coming home proceedings, the detachment of ships, which included the Boxer, participated in hosting Tiger Cruise guests. Amy’s ship was the largest in the battle group and there were approximately 400 guests scattered across the ships that made up her battle group. As a participant, I flew to Los Angeles on September 2 and then on to Hawaii on September 3. I’d never been to Hawaii so I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the sites that we were able to squeeze in before we had to report to the Boxer. We boarded her ship on the evening of September 5. The battle group pulled out of Pearl Harbor bright and early on September 6 for its eight-day trip back to San Diego.

The first few days of the voyage were filled with fun events meant to show non-military personnel what life aboard a naval ship entailed. We slept in the berthing units, stood in lines for chow, participated in various role-playing games, and showed up for “man overboard” exercises. We learned some details about the ship, we learned some new things about the Navy, we received awards for passing our sea-readiness tests, and we developed a deeper admiration for the men and women, our sons and our daughters, who comprised the crews of these massive ships.

What a lot of people don’t realize, me included, is that life aboard a Navy ship is not about a 9-5 work day. It’s about a 12-hour work day (on a good day), standing duty (6 hours on, 6 hours off), no days off, and no sleeping in. It’s loud and sometimes sleep is hard to come by (try sleeping in a noisy factory), especially for those who work the night shift. The food is only seasoned with the most basic of seasonings - salt and pepper. The chow lines are long and can wind down the galley way, up and down stairwells, and finally end. You can stand in the chow line for 30-40 minutes. Try doing that three times a day, day in and day out. I got a break though because Amy was part of the Flying Squad, a special group formed to be the first responders to casualties at sea, and she had front of the line privileges. If she wasn’t eating, I couldn’t stand in that line without her, but she could stand there long enough for me to go through the chow line. Sometimes just for the fun of it, I stood in the regular line so I could visit with others.

The morning of September 11 dawned crisp and clear; we were three days out of San Diego and had enjoyed a very uneventful trip. The weather had been good and we’d not traveled through any storms along the way. Since I was a “guest” I got to sleep in a bit later than Amy.

Having the privacy that a dark curtain provides, and the noise that the compartment fan created, it made sleeping a bit later easier. I awoke to hear the announcement over the loudspeaker that the World Trade Center had been attacked and news was sketchy. I hurriedly went through my morning routine and raced up to Amy’s office, where everyone was staring, transfixed at the computer monitors on the shared workstations. I was no exception. I stood behind Amy completely absorbed with what we were seeing on the screen. The enormity of the actions taken by a cowardly few was nearly beyond comprehension.

As the news filtered to and throughout the ship, it became obvious that the bandwidth being requested was far exceeding the ship’s capabilities, and they still had a job to do and a mission to perform. The access to the Internet was disabled except for business necessity. Amy’s chief allowed me to use the ship-to-shore phone to call Ron and let him know that I was OK. The joyous atmosphere that had been in the air was quickly replaced by one of grim acceptance and resolution to go back out for another deployment if it was deemed necessary.

The festivities were quickly curtailed and although the crew tried to keep the mood up, it was a somber ship that headed into port. When a battle group returns home from a six-month deployment, there are a lot of activities planned for when the ships pull into port. Not this time.

Because of the severity of the attack, everyone coming to the pier to welcome the ships home had to pass through stringent security measures. No backpacks, no diaper bags, no large purses, or anything that could be used to cause others bodily harm was to be allowed on the base. Parents of small children were even discouraged from bringing strollers on the base. No media, no fanfare, and no big welcome home party for this battle group.

Instead, we were given an armed escort, as heavily manned boats skittered about the water, protecting the crew and the ships of the battle group. We had sharpshooters and anti-aircraft marksmen on the deck, flown out to the ship the night before, vigilantly watching to make sure nothing happened to jeopardize the safety of us all. The Coronado Bay Bridge was shut down to further protect the battle group from any harm that may have been attempted from motorists on the bridge.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the scene along the ocean banks as the ship pulled into the harbor. People were lined up and down the banks waving American flags as our sailors “manned the rails” and the voice of Lee Greenwood rang out, singing “...I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me. And I’ll gladly stand up, next to you and defend her still today. ‘Cause there ain’t no doubt, I love this land, God bless the USA...” I was never as proud of our American military personnel as I was right then.

I don’t think there was a dry eye among the spectators on the deck. I know mine weren’t...

Does this make me hate all Muslims? No, it does not. Does it make me blame all Muslims for the terror and savagery of that day? Again, no it does not. History is full of religious tyrants and extremists who believed that their way was the only way, and if you did not conform you died. Because it was so, and is so, doesn’t make it right. The Christian Crusades were no more “right” than the Islamic bombings and atrocities directed at those of other faiths, or even at sects within their own religion.

Do I believe they worship a different God than the God of my beliefs? No, but I do believe they see Him in a different light and have beliefs that I don’t agree with. It’s OK to not believe the same as everyone else. There are many religions that do not share the same belief system that I have, and that’s OK. It’s a freedom that God gave to us all - the right to decide for ourselves what we believe. God could have created us all to be of one mind and one belief, but He did not. I am sure that He sometimes wonders just what He was thinking when He gave us free will, but until He decides He’s had enough we will continue down the paths that we’ve created for ourselves.