As we watched the towers crash, as we absorbed the sheer horror of it all, those of us in the in the military community suddenly realized that our lives were changing completely. I spoke with a friend who told me that she turned and looked at her husband and said in disbelief “you’re going to war.” I remember listening to my coworkers’ questions –”so is your husband going to go to war? How do you feel since your son is in uniform?” I had no answer. Nor did my husband when I finally got home that night. The need to gather with the family that most of us experienced that day; that need to reach out to our loved ones that the sight of that destruction triggered was given an additional weight in the homes of the military. If this was the beginning of war, as was being shouted in banner headlines on the news, our family members would be the first to go.
I spoke with my father, who was a young man in December of 1941. He told me it brought it all back, but the difference was that there was so much more information! The sight of recruiting offices with lines down the block was something Dad remembered vividly. There was no one in the military in his family at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Now his son-in-law and grandson both waited by the phone for a call.
The “what if” entered our lives that day. The need for a power of attorney, the reminders to “update your will” that came from Command, the rush to update the paperwork, the armories that became very busy; all these reminded us that we were a community at war, even if the nation had been told to go shopping, to go on with “life as usual.”
9/11 became the day in our lives when our futures changed, when the uniform hanging in the closet meant more than one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. Although everyone who raises their hand and swears to “protect and defend” understands that this is always a possibility, the reality came as a blow to many family members of the National Guard.
Since that day the National Guard has been altered, used, and some would say abused. The longest continuous deployment of both wars has been that of the Red Bulls, the Minnesota National Guard. Living through that was an exercise in patience, anger management and survival skills. These citizen soldiers, some former active duty but many who had not served as an active duty soldier, sailor, Marine or airman were suddenly tasked with a new reality. Not only the guardsmen are affected when a state Guard is activated; the ripple effects run through the cities and towns of that state. In some towns, almost the entire police force are guardsmen; firehouses were staffed by retirees since those younger firemen had been activated.
When the guardsman is activated, their employer must hold that job open for them. In the case of the Minnesota National Guard those jobs had to be held open for 22 months. I have spoken with human resource staffing directors who told me that they knew a guardsman is a great employee; that it was illegal to not hire someone because they are in the National Guard; but that if faced with two people of equal ability, one a guardsman and one not a guardsman, they would hire the civilian. It’s a matter of practicality. This has resulted in unemployment among guardsmen that creates an additional problem for them and for their families.
Contrary to what we thought at the beginning of these wars, the National Guard is not just used here in the US to free up a unit to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. These citizen soldiers come home with the same problems of PTS, TBI and family pressures as those of the active duty military.
Unfortunately, the support for the National Guard often ends when their orders for active duty expire. Their families are dealing with the same reintegration problems, but with much less support than that given to us in the active Army. They are also not usually around the military base, or Army post. They are in our communities, they are your next-door neighbors.
My community lives with the fallout from 9/11 every day. The wounded and their families, the deployments that continued even after bin Laden was killed, are a part of reality of military life. This anniversary will come and go for most of the country. The flags will be rolled up, the chairs at the commemoration ceremonies will be folded up and put away and America will go back to normal life on Monday. Except at Bethesda/Walter Reed, except at Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune, Newport News and Lackland Air Force Base; and the homes of the men and women for whom deployment continues, recovery continues. That is our “new normal.” A decade later, it is still affecting us; and will do so for decades to come.
Photo: courtesy of the author