I remember the feelings more than the actual moment — confusion, helplessness, grief. I was a student at the US Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College on 11 September 2001, and as a student I was the very definition of “non-essential personnel.”
As one accustomed to going to work when things go bad, “running to the sound of the guns” in military parlance, it was a bitter pill to have to remain at home and watch helplessly while New York, Washington, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania burned.
It was our “longest day.”
My classes didn't start until the afternoon that day, and the other officers in my seminar group had decided to practice our softball game. I ordinarily would have turned on the television to a cable news show, but not that morning I was enjoying the quiet for a change. I didn't learn that we were under attack until I turned the key to the ignition in my truck to go to work.
Since I hadn't heard the news that morning, I tuned into NPR to get some idea about what was going on in the world during my 20-minute drive out to the base. What I got instead of news was confused announcers talking about the Pentagon on fire. The first words I heard were those of a distraught announcer saying, “They've hit the Pentagon?”
I ran back into the house and turned on the television and there it was: the battles of New York, Washington, and Flight 93 were already in their aftermath. The war to preserve Western civilization had just begun.
One by one my seminar mates checked in with each other, “Are you OK?” We worried about our friends overseas and in the Pentagon. I called my friend who flew for American Airlines to be sure he was OK. He was at home. It was days before I got the emails, one by one, from my friends who worked in the Pentagon, notifying me that they were safe. My cousin was working in a New York hospital that day and ended up waiting for the casualties that never came. The rescue operation had become a recovery operation.
When my wife came home from school with the children, we gave each other a concerned look. She was worried, but was determined not to let the children see. I was glued to the TV for the rest of the day, changing channels from one news station to the next. Trying to make sense of it, I guess, or perhaps see something in MSNBC's video that wasn't on FoxNews or CNN. At 11PM, my wife finally persuaded me to turn the television off. Reluctantly, I did so.
In the days that followed, my colleagues and I asked ourselves a lot of questions. As warriors, we knew that this new war would be ours to fight, and this fight would be the fight of our lives. Some of my classmates immediately requested to be returned to their units, but the commandant wisely restrained them, saying, “Your job is to finish this course; don't worry, there'll be plenty of war to go around.”
I have found warriors to be a religious bunch, and many of us turned to our faith in looking for a handhold on this new reality. It was the formation I received as a young elementary school student that provided that handhold. We knew what was now required of us: put simply, we must do our duty. The Catechism describes the warrior's vocation aptly:
Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense. Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace. (#2310)
The war that came to America's shores in 2001 has since visited others: Madrid and London are now in the somber roll call of recent attacks by jihadis on the West. It would be easy to fall into either extreme hatred or extreme sorrow, but neither of these accomplishes God's purpose. For most of us, simply doing our duty to God and country is enough.
At the end of that long day five years ago, we found ourselves at the real equivalent of the Black Gates described in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The fictitious battle at the Black Gates of Mordor provides a fitting metaphor for that awful day in September 2001. Aragorn's speech before the Gates was meant for another battle, but fits aptly here, for while victory is not yet within our grasp on the battlefield, it is the courage in men's souls that matters. And it is the courageous souls that will bring us peace through final victory over the enemy.
“I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down, but it is not this day. This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!”
Mickey Addison is a career military officer, and has been a catechist at the parish level since 2000. He and his wife have been married for 19 years and they have two children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was previously published on the Rosary Army’s website and is used by permission.