Image courtesy: Pfc. David Hauk, U.S. Army. Kandahar, Afghanistan, November 12, 2009

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ten Years Gone

At Dover Air Force Base on Aug. 9, where President Barack Obama would soon arrive to meet privately with grieving relatives of 30 U.S. troops killed in an Afghanistan helicopter crash three days earlier, I thought of the private meeting President George W. Bush had with families of 9/11 victims on Sept. 14, 2001.

"I had just seen the debris of the towers. I knew it would be a miracle if anyone emerged," the former president wrote in Decision Points, his first book since leaving office. "Yet the families refused to give up hope. We prayed together and wept together."

When President Obama leaves office and presumably writes one or more books, I wonder if he will reveal what was going through his mind as he met with helicopter crash victims and saluted flag-draped caskets carrying the indistinguishable remains of 22 U.S. sailors, five soldiers, three airmen, and seven Afghan troops, which arrived together in an unprecedented series of dignified transfer ceremonies.

The day's solemn, emotionally devastating events were closed to the media. I was not in Dover, Del., as a columnist; I was there helping USO staff and volunteers comfort relatives as they witnessed the heartbreaking return of their loved ones to American soil. Out of respect for the privacy of these grieving families, I will not write about what I saw.

However, as someone who witnessed 8/9/11 up close, I believe it was one of the most important days for our country since 9/11/01. As we remember the tenth anniversary of the deadliest terrorist assault in U.S. history and guard against another attack, we must also guard against forgetting the men and women who protect our homeland from further bloodshed.

A photo taken during the Aug. 19 Rockford, Iowa, funeral of Special Operator Petty Officer 1st Class J.T. Tumilson, one of the 17 Navy SEALs killed in the helicopter crash, is one of the most iconic images of a nation at war since the famous photograph of New York firefighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero.

Lisa Pembleton's picture shows Tumilson's dog, Hawkeye, lying in front of the SEAL's flag-draped casket, refusing to leave its owner in the hours before his burial. The crushing image not only visualizes the far-reaching impact of a service member's death, even on an adored pet, but also reminds us that a U.S. military dog died in the tragic helicopter crash, which is the deadliest single incident for our troops during the entire war in Afghanistan.

A sentence uttered by a friend at the SEAL's memorial service, as reported by The Des Moines Register, also resonates as we reflect on the sacrifices made by our military since terrorists murdered thousands of Americans in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

"If J.T. had known he was going to be shot down when going to the aid of others, he would have went anyway," Boe Nankivel said.

While I spent several hours near President Obama and other dignitaries on Aug. 9, I felt most nervous while in the presence of uniformed troops who came from great distances to salute their fallen brothers. While these men and women don't win elections or take home paychecks comparable to actors, musicians, or sports figures, they are our nation's true celebrities.

During an encounter with the mother of Port Authority police officer George Howard three days after he died while trying to save innocent people inside the World Trade Center, she gave the fallen hero's badge to President Bush.

"I served 2,865 days as president after Arlene gave me that badge," the 43rd president wrote. "I kept it with me every one of them."

Because of the sacrifices of the men and women who keep us safe, we have the freedom to criticize any president. Yet in my mind, one thing is certain about President Obama. I don't believe he will ever forget what he saw three days after 30 Americans paid the ultimate price in Afghanistan.

Still, Aug. 9 in Dover was not about politics. It was about honoring heroes who died in defense of their countries. As we look back on 9/11/01, the moving events of 8/9/11 serve as a reminder of the incalculable sacrifices made since.


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