Tag Archives: 9/11

A thank you to military brats, and a diatribe for arrogant athletes …

For fifteen years I taught military brats on overseas installations for the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). It was the greatest honor of my life to teach the sons and daughters of the courageous men and women who make up the United States Armed Forces.

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My duty station on Nine-Eleven was in South Korea.

The first wave of heroes in the aftermath of Nine-Eleven was brave men and women in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. Office workers who refused to leave colleagues behind as they evacuated the burning towers. Police officers and firemen who must have known that rushing into those buildings and climbing those stairs meant a certain death – and they never hesitated.

The people on the streets of Lower Manhattan, in the debris, rendering aid to strangers – this after having seen two planes crash, and not knowing if other planes were on the way. A mayor who went to Ground Zero with a bullhorn, in harm’s way but leading in a crisis. The news personnel that documented the tragedy but did so with humanity.

The first wave continued – flight attendants and passengers who fought back, and soldiers and civilians who never hesitated to enter the burning wreckage of the Pentagon to reach the injured and dying.

The first wave was the men and women who went to Wall Street to reopen the Stock Exchange. It was the teachers who welcomed students back to school when smoke from Ground Zero could still be seen from classroom windows. It was the people who stood in line to give blood. It was the medical personnel – doctors, nurses, paramedics, mental health professionals – who were the first responders on that Tuesday in September, and it was the ones who in the days that followed worked tirelessly around the clock in hospitals, parking lots, on the streets.

It was the single mom store clerk in Times Square who might have been afraid but she went back to work anyway. The transit workers who got a city moving again. The rescue and construction crews that breathed contaminated air and would forever suffer physically and emotionally from digging through the wreckage, looking for survivors, recovering remains of the people we lost, cleaning up the debris, and rebuilding.

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It was the airline industry and its employees that held their own grievous loss in check so that they might fly again – not just for commerce and free markets, but so a way of life could get back on its feet and give the finger to a group of radical terrorists.

It was the guardsmen and women called to duty from states all across our great country – the weekend warriors had a mission unprecedented in our nation’s history, and they committed to doing their part, and doing it well.

It was normal, everyday Americans, from all walks of life, doing what they could, where they were, no matter how big or small.

It was our military. Courageous men and women who would fight and die for an idea – that life, liberty and the ability to passionately chase our dreams still matter.

They were the first wave of heroes.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a national tragedy for America, but for the men, women and children who lost family and friends on that day it was incredibly personal. We really had no choice, though. We had to stand back up. We would grieve, but we’d do so on our feet and moving forward.

In Korea, our soldiers began deploying. People think first about Afghanistan and Iraq – but in reality the first battles in the war against radical Islam were fought with training exercises in the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and countless other places across South and East Asia, Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The result?

Only a few days after Nine-Eleven and already our military exchanges and commissaries were virtual ghost towns – as for the military spouses who’d brought their families to serve in a foreign country for a two or three year deployment, well, suddenly they were single parents.

It’s hard enough to do a tour in Korea away from all your family and friends – but can you imagine a twenty-something spouse overseas for the first time and with a kid in kindergarten and suddenly her husband is gone for who knows how long?

Alone at night I imagine most of those kids and newly single parents were afraid. It wasn’t just being stranded alone in a foreign country – it was not knowing if mom or dad would make it back from their deployments.

But the military spouses stayed in Korea with their military brat kids even as their dads and moms left for war zones in the most hellish places on earth. They didn’t run to the airport and fly back to the states. And here’s why: they understood every decision they made would have real and far-reaching consequences.

They stayed.

They came to school with brave faces – spouses and kids – and they were resilient in the midst of a crisis unlike any our country had faced since Pearl Harbor.

I had a student, Sami, who shouted with pure joy when she broke her arm in a car accident.

The reason?

“They’re sending my daddy home!” she cried.

She was eleven years old at the time. That’s what Nine-Eleven did to our military brats.

For a long time Sami and I lost track of one another. But recently we’ve reconnected. Now she’s in her twenties and we talk a lot by email. She told me about the first time her dad went to Afghanistan, and the first time he went to Iraq, and about the time he began hanging pictures of soldiers on the wall in his study back in Florida. They were men and women, black and white and Asian and Hispanic – but Sami’s father didn’t see race or gender. They were soldiers, all dead, all heroes, and all personally known to Sami’s father.

Sami told me about the fifth and ninth and eleventh times her dad went to Afghanistan. Not full deployments – he was a leader, who frequently had to go to hellish places – but bad enough. And she told me how after his eleventh trip to Afghanistan he had come home and hung another picture on the wall.

The seventeenth.

It was too much for Sami’s mom, because she knew the seventeenth wouldn’t be the last. When Sami’s dad came home from Afghanistan for the twelfth time, the only things left in his house were the pictures on the wall.

Sami and her mom had left.

That’s what Nine-Eleven did to our military families.

But it’s not where this story ends.

There is a second wave of heroes.

They came much later – but they’re the ones I want to tell you about today, fifteen years after that Tuesday in September.

I had a student whose father died in Afghanistan. Today she is a soldier.

I was athletic director at a DOD school in Korea. No fewer than seven of my student-athletes would later serve in Afghanistan.

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Laura Bush visited our installation to speak to the troops in Germany … and one of the men that made up her protection detail was my former student from a DOD school.

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Two of the most outstanding nurses who serve at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany – the place that saves the lives of countless wounded warriors – once sat in my eighth grade history classroom.

I am named for my uncle who died heroically in Vietnam. One day I got an email from a former student at my DOD school in Germany. She was in Washington D.C. and had made a paper engraving of my uncle’s name on the Vietnam Memorial. She sent me the picture by email with a simple message: “I wanted to honor your family and your name.”

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Her own father had flown countless missions in support of Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Her own family had been uprooted countless times. You would need a map of the world and a carton of pushpins to track the places she’d gone to school as she, her mom, brother and sister served alongside her military dad.

It goes on and on. I could cite another fifty examples.

I don’t need to. Here’s the point: the military brats that came of age in the aftermath of Nine-Eleven have become our best, brightest, and bravest.

They are the second wave of heroes.

For the brats who know me, that once sat in my classroom – I feel so privileged and blessed to know you. Thank you for your perseverance, resilience, and service. I follow you guys online and see what you’re doing in life, and I am overwhelmed with pride.

I have one last message on this day for remembrance.

Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities, because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

I’d like to add a corollary: “Arrogance as a human quality doesn’t make you right, it only reveals you for the ass you really are.”

I think arrogant people are the worst.

It’s strong to use the word hate, but I won’t shy away from it today: I hate arrogance in all its forms, and I have no use for and refuse to associate with people whose character is arrogant.

I used to be close to someone who has an arrogance problem. I honestly believe his goal in life is to be a narcissist. The only problem is he lacks the mental acumen to achieve such a lofty goal. That doesn’t stop him from trying though. No matter the conversation he has an opinion that will differ from everyone else’s – and even on the rare occasions when you can irrefutably prove that he’s wrong or has made a mistake, his lack of any meaningful character traits compels him to rationalize the situation.

Not too long ago he accused me of not sharing anything important with him in years.

My god, but he’s slow. It’s been longer than that. And why would I share anything important with someone who values nothing aside from his own inflated sense of importance?

Arrogant people are the worst.

And now we see it with our National Anthem.

Here’s what I know: I am not in the United States as I write this. I’m in a Third World hellhole where eighty percent of school-aged kids have no opportunities to attend school. If you are gay, you will likely be arrested. If you are female, your career opportunities are to strip, hook, give massages, or some combination of those three – unless of course you win the lottery, which would be to marry a seventy-year-old divorced westerner with money so you can get the hell out of your own country as fast as you can.

I found out from someone I met on my travels recently that at least one Central Asian country instructs its doctors to implant women with devices to prevent pregnancy against their wishes and often even without their knowledge.

I recently visited a school where all the students had textbooks written in Russian. The school was in Vietnam – and no, none of the staff or students could read or write or understand anything from the books. But it’s all they had, so they showed up anyway and studied the pictures.

In Laos the men all want to be police officers so they can get a gun and legally steal from their peasant neighbors. In Laos the women all want to be flight attendants so they can get the hell out of Laos.

In Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia the public school teachers tell parents “give me money if you want me to teach your kid” and that’s the best opportunity that the small minority of students who get to go to school will ever get.

I delivered school supplies with an NGO to an orphanage in Indonesia. An orphan girl sat alone, off to the side. I walked to her and asked, “What’s your name?”

“AIDS,” she replied.

“What do you mean?”

“I have to tell everyone that visits. I sit alone because I have AIDS.”

I shrugged. “I’ll sit with you.”

The girl gave me a timid smile, and said, “No one will hold my hand or hug me. No one will kiss me or give me candy.”

All around us the NGO workers were freely giving hugs and kisses and candy to the other orphans. But this girl wasn’t the fault of the NGO workers – they were merely following the instructions from the people who ran the orphanage.

I held out my hand. “Let’s take a walk.”

“Really?”

I nodded. For a few minutes we walked hand-in-hand. And when it was time to go, I gave her a hug and kissed her forehead.

“No one has ever kissed me before,” she cried.

I thought, I know, and I’m sorry.

The girl was eight years old.

I didn’t say anything else. I just left.

And you know what? All those countries have national anthems, too. The governments are rife with corruption, the people live in extreme poverty, and the ability to improve your life is nearly non-existent.

But in America, we have second-rate, second-string, soon-to-be has been never-to-be-heard-from-again football players who think it’s okay to not stand for our National Anthem.

Such arrogance.

Do you really believe our National Anthem has no more value than the hellholes that still exist on this earth?

A last story:

I had a parent conference with a military family in Germany. The kid was black, and had been abandoned by his biological father at an early age. Now his single mom was serving her country on a military installation for three years in Germany.

The teenage boy rarely did his work. He made excuses every day. He was a behavior problem.

And then on conference day the single mom showed up with a woman at her side that I’d never seen before – and in the category of “didn’t see this coming” she introduced this woman as her life partner.

You know what happened?

This black, female, gay sergeant in the United States Air Force told me: “My son likes to blame his father. He likes to blame my gayness. He likes to blame white people. He likes to blame the military for forcing me to live my life in secret. My son is wrong. He is an irresponsible teenager who has treated you poorly and I apologize for his actions. I have raised him better than this, and with your support I will work even harder to see that he matures into a God-fearing man with strong moral convictions.”

Here’s a truth people need to understand: for all the problems that do in fact exist in America, we are the one freaking place on earth where that sergeant and her son have the God-given opportunities to dream and work hard and live free and achieve greatness.

The orphan with AIDS?

I felt good about myself when I visited her. But her life, in all its shortness, is still hopeless. If only she’d been born in America. You see that, right?

What do these arrogant athletes think they are doing?

Go ahead and give a million dollars to a few charities.

Then go online and Google “Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston enter the Palestine debate.” In 2004 they were going to achieve peace in the Middle East because “we’re celebrities and damn it we’re important” – but yeah, that worked out real well.

So take a knee during the National Anthem before a football game.

If you are arrogant enough to believe that is what’s needed to “start a conversation” or “bring real change” then you and the arrogant wanna-be-narcissist I used to be close with can start your own club for people who are never going to be relevant.

If you want to help fix the problems we have in America, then be courageous in a meaningful way – go into our schools and implore our impressionable kids to be men and women of character and morals. Lead them by example. Respect the people who made your life possible. Respect the flag. Respect the anthem my uncle died for, my father fought for, and my students like Sami suffered for.

Your arrogance does not make you courageous, relevant or right. It only reveals you as an ass.

But for the military brats who became the second post-Nine Eleven wave of heroes … you are real, and courageous, and everything that is right and honorable about our country. As we commemorate Nine-Eleven fifteen years later, thank you to all the military brats who served our country alongside your military parents.

 

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The Rainy Season: “give me money and I will teach your student”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

Ask Uncle Google for “Korean Peninsula at night” and you get eerie satellite images that show South Korea all lit up while North Korea sits in the dark, literally. Jakarta has that same feel. Central Jakarta is lit up and vibrant, but the third ring is dark and even the air feels thick, heavy and desperate.

Indira warned, “This place is not safe.”

I thought, in general or only—

“For everyone. Muslims also,” she said, apparently reading my mind.

“Any radicalized madrasahs?”

“A few.”

“Wallach’s driver should be picking him up right now. It’s not too late. Make a phone call. Get him dropped off.”

“Oh come on Mr. Strange, how do you know I am not doing that to you?”

I glimpsed the Monas in the distance. It was built to memorialize a hard-fought war for independence, but here on a decaying street littered with rubbish it seemed impossibly far away. On this street the people were still at war.

The motorbike hit a pothole and we nearly found out who was right. God or Allah.

“Sorry,” Indira said. “Up ahead. You see green wall?”

“Yes.”

“We stop here.”

It was a T-intersection. Turn right, left, or crash into a green cinder block wall that was maybe ten meters across and two meters high. A roll of razor wire was strung along the top. Alleys ran at obtuse angles from either side of the wall. Indira jumped the curb and drove into the alley on our right. The wall continued on our left, running deeper. On the right side of the alley was a decrepit graffiti-rich building. Up ahead a steel barricade on wheels was ensconced into the wall. A gate, I guess. Indira killed the engine and called out in Bahasa. I heard movement on the other side of the wall, and then someone wrestled free a chain and very quickly the gate rolled open.

“Hurry,” Indira said. “Go inside.”

A young girl had opened the gate. I climbed off the motorbike and brushed past her. Indira pushed the motorbike inside and then the girl rolled the gate shut just as quickly as she had opened it.

It took a moment to process everything.

In truth, I hadn’t expected much … but some sort of building, surely. Instead I found something akin to a campsite. Or flea market stalls. In the center of the compound was a rectangular pavilion-type structure. It had a few columns made from cinder blocks. The four corners were supported with wooden posts. The roof was aluminum. It was built low and flat. The pavilion was partitioned horizontally and vertically with plastic sheeting to create stalls that might have been four meters deep and five meters across. Inside the stalls were people.

Families.

They used car batteries for electricity and fire pits for cooking. They sat on benches made from cinder blocks and two-by-fours. Clothes were strung on lines. Trash was strewn about. No sign of plumbing.

The young girl stared at me.

I thought she might be eleven or twelve years old. She wore shorts, tee shirt and sandals. Her hair was long and simple. I gave half-a-smile and said, “Hello.”

The girl took a step back. Afraid, I thought.

Indira said, “Her name is Rose. She never see foreigner before.”

This time I smiled with effort. “Hello, Rose.”

Rose bowed slightly and then ran off.

Indira said, “Follow her.”

The pavilion ran north to south and was partitioned lengthwise straight down the middle, with four stalls facing outward to the east, butted against four stalls facing outward to the west. A well-worn path made an oval track around the whole structure.

Rose went right, and we followed.

At the top of the oval a mother was outside bathing with her kids. They used ladles and urns and were unashamed to be naked. But I felt ashamed. On the west side of the pavilion was a small courtyard area. Maybe courtyard is the wrong word though. A fire burned in a steel drum. A few men sat around it, smoking cigarettes. A few tarps were secured to wooden posts and people slept beneath them. A step down from the stalls, as if such a thing was even possible. In the same area a handful of kids chased after a soccer ball. They saw me and were startled. Maybe they’d never seen a foreigner either.

Rose darted into one of the stalls.

It had a tarp draped from the roof for privacy. I could hear excited voices, but all I could see were furtive shadows against the tarp. A small group of men and children gathered around us. The men were just curious, I hoped.

“Is there a plan?” I asked, because I had no clue what was going on.

“We already talk plan. I give you to radicals,” Indira said, straight-faced. Then she smiled and added, “Trust me. You will see the plan. Okay?”

The tarp opened like a tent and a woman emerged from the stall. Unlike the men that had gathered around us, this woman had put considerable effort into her appearance. As if she’d been expecting company. She wore a modest dress and a hijab. Petite, attractive, maybe early forties. She smiled demurely and it felt familiar somehow. She folded her hands together and bowed, and then she embraced Indira. But Indira was much, much taller, and the woman had to stand on her toes.

Suddenly, everything clicked.

“Indira?”

Indira turned to me with a grim smile.

“Maya’s sister is named Rose.”

Indira nodded. “We go inside now.”

I used the word stall, but in fact this was Maya’s home. Maybe two hundred square feet, with a tin roof overhead and a tattered rug to cover the dirt floor below. “Is Maya here?” I asked.

Indira shook her head. “She stay my home.”

Tian and Faye were Maya’s parents. I shook hands with Tian. He was wiry, with coarse hands and dark skin from long days laboring outside. Rose was Maya’s only sibling. A family friend was here as well. Her name was Istira. Fortyish, I thought. Modestly dressed with a white hijab … but she was also pensive, and stressed. The adults sat on the rug and Rose served us tea.

“Terima kasih,” I said, to a chorus of oohs and aahs, as if an American learning exactly one expression of gratitude in a foreign culture was an impressive feat. Rose didn’t offer to serve any food. I was grateful for that as well. I didn’t want to take from people who had so little.

A radio blared from an adjacent stall. K-Pop. Weird, that I could understand the chorus. Kajima, kajima. Don’t go, don’t go. Weirder, that it was playing on a radio station in Jakarta. A lifetime ago I’d gone to see a Korean pop concert. I hadn’t understood a thing, and not just lyric-wise. The gyrating, rave-ish nature of it all had been lost to me. But now I longed to be in that time and place again, when the rapidly growing fascination with upbeat nonsensical millennials had been the greatest threat to American culture.

On the floor, I sat facing in, not out—and I felt anxious, exposed. A thin tarp was all that separated me from the curious onlookers who still hovered three steps away, but there was nothing I could do about it.

We sipped tea and made light conversation with Indira translating. It was interrupted when someone in the stall opposite Maya’s took a hellacious piss. He made tall arcs that hissed back and forth, beating hot contrails into the plastic that split the pavilion lengthwise. It left a pool of urine that seeped into Maya’s home.

Nothing I could do about that, either.

Istira held out a framed picture.

Indira said, “She would like you to look. Then she will tell you a story. I will translate for you after she finish.”

I nodded at Istira. “Sure.” I took the photo and listened as Istira told her story in Bahasa. I’d seen a thousand same-but-different photos. You have too. Your own, or your kids. Probably both. I found Maya pretty quick. That shy smile hadn’t changed. She was in the front row, because the back row is always for the tall kids. The photo was dated September 2003. Maya would have been thirteen back then. The teacher had been a very young woman. Mid-twenties, I thought. Like Chyka. I counted forty-three students, and I knew one of them had belonged to Istira. Some things are easily understood no matter the language.

Grief, for example.

Istira trembled as she spoke. I listened carefully. The words were lost to me, but I understood the pain. Istira took the frame again, and then showed me her daughter. Second row, third from the left. A tiny smirk, a bit confident, like she knew something no one else did. A beautiful girl, really. Istira finally grew quiet, and then Indira began to translate.

Istira’s daughter was Danisa and she had been missing since November 2003. But the story of how she went missing begins in 1997, with the crippling financial crisis that hit Asia—the same crisis that had led U.S. based flag carriers to discontinue flights to Seoul and made my first overseas assignment a no-joke GSL. Indonesia, Korea and Thailand had been the hardest hit countries. The Indonesian currency was in free fall as world markets dumped rupiah for U.S. dollars.

Until the crisis, one dollar bought 2,600 rupiah. In only a few weeks that same dollar bought 14,000 rupiah. Or said differently, 2,600 rupiah had been the equivalent of one American dollar—but now it was worth nineteen cents.

In real terms, everyone in Indonesia was getting poorer. And the crisis was exacerbated by the fact Indonesian companies with foreign debt had to repay loans using American dollars. Imagine if all your debt increased five-fold overnight. Essentially that’s what happened to Indonesian companies, but it was the people already living in poverty that suffered the most. In an effort to stabilize the rupiah, won and baht, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued $35 billion in “financial support … for adjustment and reform programs in Indonesia, Korea, and Thailand.” Another $85 billion was pledged from “multilateral and bilateral sources.” All total, nearly $40 billion went to Indonesia—but in less than a year the rupiah lost sixty-five percent of its value.

The Indonesian Bank governor lost his job, and President Suharto was forced from office. Suharto’s home had been one of the first stops on tonight’s itinerary. Apparently it hadn’t been random.

Emergency stores of food—including rice—were delivered to Jakarta and distributed throughout the country. But with IMF and foreign aid came mandated reforms and oversight administered by western officials from predominately “Christian” nations. For a Muslim populace already in political and societal upheaval, to label such oversight as “unpopular” is a vast understatement. A multitude of crises—inflation, failing banks, food shortages, catastrophic unemployment—made Jakarta a breeding ground for extremism and ripe for recruiting young jihadists.

Terrorist bombs hit Central Jakarta three times in 1998 and early 1999. A shopping center and the Istiqlal Mosque were among the targets. Then in August 2000, a terrorist bomb killed two people outside the official residence of the Philippines ambassador. Only six weeks later, fifteen people were killed when the Jakarta Stock Exchange was hit by a car bomb. Most of the dead were Indonesian chauffeurs waiting to drive their bosses home for the night.

Then came al-Qaeda.

That same year a coordinated attack against churches in Jakarta, Bandung and other cities left eighteen people dead on Christmas Eve.

In October 2002, Jemaah Islamiyah—a radical group affiliated with al-Qaeda—killed more than two hundred tourists in Bali, including seven Americans.

The JW Marriott was hit for the first time in 2003.

The list goes on and on. Self-detonating radicals. Car bombs. IEDs. Bombs at concerts, hotels, nightclubs, markets, shopping centers.

“The big one was of course your country,” Indira said. “I will not lie to you. I told you a man come to the mosque to celebrate what happen. It is true, my father ran him away. My father forbid the man to return. But it is also true the man was not alone. I am very sorry to say it, but I will not lie. Many people were happy to see your country suffer. I tell you what I think. I am strong Muslim. But the men who do this Nine-Eleven are in hell. They will never see paradise. And the men who take our innocent children in the name of jihad? There is a special hell just for them. I hope they will burn in it forever.”

“Is that what happened to Danisa?”

Indira nodded angrily. “Yes. She was taken. Danisa was Maya’s best friend since early years in private school. It was not the best school, but it also was not the worst. Then the money crisis and IMF make everything change and people could no longer afford private schools. Danisa and Maya had to go to public school. It had only one teacher for every seventy students. Can you believe it? Sadly it is true. How will they teach? How will the student learn? You know what the teacher tell the parents? ‘I cannot teach everyone. Would you like your student to learn something? Then give me money and I will teach your student.’ She do this because the teacher salary is nothing. The teacher is also poor. But the parents cannot pay. If the parents had money they would not send student to this school in first place. Many students just quit school because there is no reason to go. But Danisa and Maya go school every day.”

“Until they were thirteen.”

Indira nodded. “Then the imam come.”

“Imam? From where?”

“Hell,” Indira hissed.

The Memory of Hope: “the first wave of heroes”

An excerpt from The Memory of Hope, by Tucker Elliot.

The first wave was brave men and women in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. Office workers who refused to leave colleagues behind as they evacuated the burning towers. Police officers and firemen who must have known that rushing into those buildings and climbing those stairs meant a certain death—and yet they never hesitated. The people on the streets of Lower Manhattan, in the debris, rendering aid to strangers—this after having seen two planes crash, and not knowing if other planes were on the way. A mayor who went to ground zero with a bullhorn, in harm’s way but leading in a crisis. The news personnel that documented the tragedy but did so with humanity.

The first wave continued—flight attendants and passengers who fought back, and soldiers and civilians who braved the burning wreckage of the Pentagon to reach the injured and dying.

The first wave was the men and women who went to Wall Street to reopen the Stock Exchange. It was the teachers who welcomed students back to school when smoke from Ground Zero could still be seen from classroom windows. It was the people who stood in line to give blood. It was the medical personnel—doctors, nurses, paramedics, mental health professionals—who were the first responders on that Tuesday in September, and it was the ones who in the days that followed worked tirelessly around the clock in hospitals, parking lots, on the streets.

It was the single mom store clerk in Times Square who might have been afraid but she went back to work anyway. The transit workers who got a city moving again. The rescue and construction crews that breathed contaminated air and would forever suffer physically and emotionally from digging through the wreckage, looking for survivors, recovering remains of the people we lost, cleaning up the debris, and rebuilding.

It was the airline industry and its employees that held their own grievous loss in check so that they might fly again—not just for commerce and free markets, but so a way of life could get back on its feet and give the finger to a group of radical terrorists.

It was the guardsmen and women called to duty from states all across our great country—the weekend warriors had a mission unprecedented in our nation’s history, and they committed to doing their part, and doing it well.

It was normal, everyday Americans, from all walks of life, doing what they could, where they were, no matter how big or small.

It was our military. Courageous men and women who would fight and die for an idea—that life, liberty and the ability to passionately chase our dreams still matter.

They were the first wave of heroes.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a national tragedy for America, but for the men, women and children who lost family and friends on that day it was incredibly personal. We really had no choice, though. We had to stand back up. We would grieve, but we’d do so on our feet and moving forward.

The Day Before 9/11

In Korea, a soldier’s daughter is jetlagged and lost in her new school. In Germany, a military family welcomes the birth of a second child. In the aftermath of 9/11, both families—dads, moms, and kids—will fight the war on terror.

A harrowing true story that spans America’s first decade post-9/11, The Day Before 9/11 portrays in riveting detail the sacrifices made by military families serving overseas and the enduring pain that accompanies the tragic loss of life.

Use this Amazon affiliate link to read more.

The Rainy Season: “a ticket to Afghanistan”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

In the days after 9/11 the home economics teacher at my military school in Korea had students baking cookies for snipers. That probably sounds strange. It felt surreal. Our small army post had brought in snipers from Seoul and placed them on the roofs of our housing units and school buildings. Just one of the many things I hadn’t prepared for in college. We also had military police riding school buses and patrolling our hallways. They carried M-16s loaded with live rounds. The MPs got a lot of cookies, too. Most of the classroom windows had to be covered with dark-colored bulletin board paper. Our military post was surrounded by a vertical city of three-and-a-half million people. We didn’t want student silhouettes lighting up the scopes for any Johnny Jihad snipers that might have found a perch high above our perimeter wall. Students weren’t allowed outside for recess either. Instead of the playground our students used the library and cafeteria—though not for reading and eating. Sometimes we’d march students up and down the stairwells just to burn off excess energy. Or to give mental health breaks to workers in the library and cafeteria. We also had to cancel after school sports and extra-curricular events.

My principal obviously wasn’t going to China.

Not anytime soon.

We had constant briefings from the military command. We were told to blend in and be vigilant, but no one told us how to do those things. Somewhere in Washington D.C. a PowerPoint was being tweaked. But we hadn’t seen it yet. Meanwhile, the media said “live your lives or the terrorists win” and most of us were on board with that. But we were also on board with the snipers hanging with us for a while. If that was a contradiction then so be it.

The military went to war for our country.

So did military spouses. So did military brats.

My principal had been with the Department of Defense for three decades. His name was Ray and he was a tall, imposing figure. His tendency to be abrupt was often mistaken for impatience. In fact he just didn’t like wasting time. There really is a difference. He was honest, quick and decisive when settling routine matters but he was deliberate and uncannily intuitive when counseling teachers or students. Ray had been an airman before he was an educator, and now he was leading military students and teachers in a crisis unlike any that our school system had ever faced.

“We have to be normal for our kids,” Ray said. “Nothing else will be. Not for a long time. They need homework, quizzes, essays and tests. They need structure and assurances. It’s not going to be easy. I don’t care. We’re going to do it anyway. We’re going to help each other. And we’re going to be successful.”

It was tense, and stressful—but we did our best. Not just for our students and the soldiers stationed in Korea with us, but for our country and military at large, our families and friends back in the states, and with heavy hearts we did our jobs in honor of our colleagues in New York and D.C. and western Pennsylvania who persevered daily in classrooms with circumstances far worse than ours. We did our best to move forward and be normal so our way of life could get back on its feet and give the finger to a group of radical terrorists. As athletic director, I thought moving forward and being normal meant our athletic teams should be competing. But it was a decision for the military command and for sure no one was going to ask for my opinion.

I began every day by asking Ray, “Any news on sports?”

He would answer, “Nothing.”

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. That’s how it felt.

Then one Monday morning I asked, “Anything?”

Ray looked up from his desk and said a single word. “Shanghai.”

“What about Shanghai?”

“I don’t want to go.”

“Okay.”

Ray said, “I’m sending you instead.”

“To Shanghai?”

“You’re in here every day begging for something to do.”

“With sports.”

“I spoke with the superintendent. Sports and extra-curricular activities are going to resume next week.”

“Finally—”

He waved his hand to cut me off. “First you have to go to Seoul for updated force protection training. Then you have to brief our coaches and athletes on new procedures. Then sports can start up again.”

“Great—”

He waved again. “They’re faxing travel orders for you to fly to Seoul.”

“Okay—”

“After Seoul you’re going to Shanghai.”

“But—”

“I don’t want to go,” he said again. “I could feed you a line and say it’s an honor the superintendent chose to send you in my place. I won’t. He didn’t. I told him you would go because I thought it would force him to cancel Shanghai. But he agreed, so now you’re stuck. The good news is you’ll be back in time to get sports going again.”

“What am I going to do in Shanghai?”

He shrugged. “Buy some whiskey in duty-free.”

“I don’t drink.”

“It’s not for you.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“Buy a suit. Wear it. Leave your hat at home. Smile. Nod. Give him whiskey and bow a lot.”

“Him” was the Chinese principal. He’d given Ray some expensive alcohol back in May. Ray gave me a few other particulars and I spent the rest of Monday teaching and adjusting lessons plans for my substitute. I arrived in Seoul on Tuesday evening and got a room at the Dragon Hill Lodge on Yongsan Army Garrison. The security briefing took place Wednesday morning at the DoDDS-Korea District Office, which was on the same post and within easy walking distance from the Dragon Hill.

Every DoDDS athletic director on the peninsula was in attendance.

The district safety and security officer gave the briefing. The SSO was a guy named Harkins. He was early forties with a high-ranking civilian position and a generous salary. Harkins was tall and wide, but fit. He had a high-and-tight military cut and no doubt his personal one-step plan for increased safety and security was to spend more time in the gym. I’d been in a few briefings with Harkins. He’d always been an outgoing, no-nonsense guy. But this morning his eyes were puffy and tired and his affect resembled a defeated warrior.

I gave a concerned look to a few colleagues and got a few shrugs in reply. The bottom line is we were all tired and stressed. None of us had a clue what would transpire over the next few months. Why should the SSO be any different?

Harkins said, “I have a PowerPoint. I’m not going to use it.”

Which would have been welcome news in different circumstances.

“I was a soldier. I fought in Desert Storm. We lost good soldiers, marines, airmen. But this war is different.” Harkins was really struggling. He paused a beat, and when he continued it was with an emotional plea. “Let’s not lose any of our kids. We can’t lose any of our kids.”

I understood why Harkins hadn’t used the PowerPoint.

This wasn’t “updated force protection training.” The only thing that had changed post-9/11 was Harkins had been much more insistent this time. Like cleaning up after lunch. Ultimatums on top of earlier ultimatums. Apparently our new plan was, “From now on you need to listen when we talk about safety and security because this time we really mean it.”

I shouldn’t be cynical.

It was a difficult time for everyone. Maybe it was even more difficult for Harkins. He was a tough, ex-soldier whose country was going to war—only he’d been tasked to fight with something other than bullets. Ground Zero was still burning. What Harkins really wanted was a ticket to Afghanistan.

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The Rainy Season: “An indiscriminate giver and taker of life”

Prologue

Its headwaters flow out of the Tibetan Plateau along with the Huang He and Yangtze rivers in an area that is part of Qinghai Province, China. Its name is Lan Xang Jiang—literally, the “Turbulent River”—and it flows southeast through Yunnan Province and the Hengduan Mountains for more than fourteen hundred miles before it turns fully south and takes on a different name for the rest of its journey: the Mekong.

The_Rainy_Season_cover-HIGH-RESIts currents are no less turbulent in Burma or Laos where the river is a line of demarcation, the place where China ends and Southeast Asia begins—but here its name has a different meaning, given by peasant farmers in Laos who depend on its waters for fish, transportation, irrigation and life.

Mekong is the “Mother of Water.”

It’s an appropriate name given that the river crosses nearly three thousand miles on its journey from the mountainous terrain of Tibet to its delta in Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea—and at various points along that path you can stand in Laos and look north across its waters into China, south into Cambodia, east into Vietnam, or west into Burma and Thailand.

No matter the border, the Mekong has been an indiscriminate giver and taker of life in Southeast Asia for thousands of years.

It’s a paradox like civilization’s other great rivers—be it the Nile, Indus, Euphrates, Ganges or China’s Sorrow the Huang He—for without its waters life is a daily struggle for survival; yet with its waters life is a daily bet that natural disasters and diseases will visit someone else’s village, because it’s not if, but when it’s going to happen that’s the relevant question.

My first glimpse of the Mekong came from the window seat of an MA-6 at about three thousand feet as it was on final approach to Pakse International Airport. The twin turbo-prop engines and narrow fuselage fitted for about four dozen or so passengers weren’t designed to instill one’s confidence in flying—and the plane being manufactured in China was no help in that regard, either—but for someone who has never had a fear of flying the one thing that was a very real concern as the plane descended through clouds and banked hard to the right was the weather. It was summer, the beginning of the rainy season in this part of the world, and for the last ten minutes the plane had been buffeted up, down, left and right at the behest of high winds and torrential rain—but then the river came into view, and whatever worried thoughts I’d had were pushed from my mind. I stared out the window, trying to take in as much as possible, because this river, more than anything else, was a visible symbol that represented why I’d embarked on this journey in the first place: my dad survived a war that he fought beside this river; my uncle died in that same war; and now I was here because of a war, too—that other indiscriminate giver and taker of life.

This new war began before my nieces were born but it continues today, even as they prepare for middle school, which means the only world they’ve ever known has been one that’s at war, and they can’t picture it in any other form. I belong to the other group—the one made up of people who not only remember how it was before but who, because of this war, have lost something along the way. Not a spouse or mom or dad or brother or sister, like so many others, but a small group of society that lost a part of our humanity all the same.

When you’ve lost something that important you go searching for it.

I did, anyway.

The MA-6 descended rather smoothly, all things considered—though we’d been so low flying over the river that it felt like we were making a water landing. I could see villages, boats and people whose way of life I’d known and experienced only through books, pictures, and videos, but one I’d soon walk amongst. The runway was an elevated strip of asphalt cut through a rice paddy, and the terminal was built to resemble a Buddhist temple. The plane landed and I disembarked with the rest of the passengers onto a tarmac area that was considerably lower than the runway. No doubt it was meant to facilitate the runoff of water during the rainy season. It also meant sloshing with carry-on luggage through seventy-five meters of ankle deep water.

But I didn’t care about that.

I stood on the tarmac as the other passengers scurried to the terminal. The sky was low and gray and I braced myself outwardly against the rain and wind. Inwardly I steeled myself for what was ahead. The first flight on this journey had been more than three weeks ago, but in reality my whole life had led me to this place. I had seventy-five meters left to cross on foot, one final passenger terminal to navigate, and a rendezvous with destiny on the other side—for at that point I would have gone as far as possible by all other means. For the rest of this journey I’d be relying on the river.

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