It’s strange to think that 11 years ago last night we went to sleep peacefully, without any notion that the following morning, we would be thrown, ready or not, into the longest war in American history. It’s hard, now, to imagine a time when words like Fallujah, Nasiriyah, Haditha, and al-Qa’im didn’t provoke an emotional response, or when the date, September 11th, had no special place in the calendar year. But it’s equally difficult to remember what my classmates were like before the burden of war was placed on our shoulders, forcing us to grow up faster than any of us had imagined.
Our country’s response to the attacks brought out the best in us, a silver lining on the cloud of dust where the World Trade Center had so recently stood. I first realized this a week after the attack while I was watching the Daily Show, and Jon Stewart said, “This attack happened. It's not a dream. But the aftermath of it, the recovery, is a dream realized. And that is Martin Luther King's dream. Whatever barriers we put up are gone. Even if it's just momentary. Any fool can blow something up. But to see these guys, these firefighters and these policemen and people from all over the country, literally with buckets, rebuilding . . . that’s extraordinary. And that's why we have already won.”
Eleven years later, as our nation is as divided as it’s been in recent memory, perhaps we should concede that the unity we experienced immediately after 9/11 was only momentary for some people, which makes it even more discouraging to watch the spectacle that national politics has become.
My chapter in the book In the Shadow of Greatness [a book which compiles stories from the U.S. Naval Avademy Class of 2002] explains why I haven’t lost hope, because I’ve spent the years after 9/11 surrounded by people who continued to live that dream, and who continued to set their differences aside, put themselves in harm’s way, and unfailingly do what their country asked of them. Those same people inspired me to start a nonprofit to help more people like them become elected officials.
Over the last decade, while politicians have argued over who is responsible for causing our nation’s problems, our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have unfailingly done what America has asked of them, even when doing so meant enormous personal sacrifice. For example, my classmate Gary Ross, whose chapter precedes mine, kept himself closeted until Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell was lifted so that he could continue serving his country.
Or my classmate Matt Freeman, the namesake of one of the Patriot Week partner organizations. Matt was killed in action in Afghanistan, and I learned about it on Facebook. While that’s not an ideal way to find out about a friend’s death, I remember immediately looking at Matt’s Facebook page. Just before he was killed, Matt had posted something that someone had interpreted as disagreeing with President Obama, which led a couple of his friends to start arguing about it on his Facebook page. I remember being so impressed with his response. He wrote, “hey, hey don't fight on my page. I disagree with some political decisions but he is my commander and chief and I support him in all military decisions.” To my knowledge, that was my friend Matt’s last Facebook post.
In our last two national elections, the country registered complete dissatisfaction at the voting booth. But if we’re going to turn the ship of state around, we need to do more than simply replace the helmsmen over and over again while hoping for a different result. We need people like Matt Freeman in the pilot house.
I believe our country has the best political system in the world, yet the selection process does not always favor candidates who are selfless, courageous, or willing to set aside their differences to do what is best for the country. Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which imposed a terrible burden on the military for over a decade, have forged a generation of leaders who exemplify these exact virtues. Polls consistently demonstrate that while Americans trust Congress less than any American institution, they place the most confidence in the men and women in uniform, and when you read about some of my classmates, it’s not hard to see why.
The book is titled In the Shadow of Greatness, because my generation was lucky enough to learn from the example of the generations of veterans that came before us. If we are to truly live up to their example, our service to our country must continue after we’ve returned from the battlefields of the Middle East, and with that I’ll close out with the final paragraphs of my chapter.
I believe it’s true that to whom much is given, much is expected. As the Iraq and Afghanistan generation returns home and begins taking the nation’s reins of leadership, I’m reminded of exiting Camp al-Qa’im. Like the battle names on the stone barriers, we have the examples of patriots from George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy, who became some of our country’s most esteemed leaders after returning from war. We can look to Senators Ted Stevens and Daniel Inouye, who both fought in World War II and despite representing opposing parties maintained a lifelong friendship. We can look to John McCain, Bob Kerrey, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel, who, despite facing enormous challenges at war, upon returning took the lead in normalizing relations with Vietnam, helping to heal a wounded nation.
It’s now our responsibility to uphold the legacy of those who have gone before us, as we, in keeping with the mission of the Naval Academy, “assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship, and government.”
This is an excerpt from a speech delivered on Sept. 11 2012 at the Navy Memorial. To buy a copy of In the Shadow of Greatness click here; all proceeds go to Veterans Campaign.