Like most Americans, I remember where I was on Sept. 11, 2001. Ford, now in fourth grade, was 10 months old. I was feeding him smashed sweet potatoes and singing “Happy Birthday” to our dog, a Sheltie named Tanner, while thinking of my grandfather Big Jack, who would have been celebrating his 83rd birthday but had died the year before.
Dustin was on deployment. He was supposed to be home in a month. In fact, the aircraft carrier had already turned around and was headed west.
My mom called. “Are you watching the news?” she asked.
“No, Ford and I are having a breakfast birthday party with Tanner. What’s up?”
“Sarah, turn on the news.”
I took the cordless phone into my bedroom and turned on the television. Just then, the first tower collapsed. I sat on the edge of my bed and tried to understand. Then, in an admittedly horrible, selfish way, I realized what this meant for my family: Dustin wasn’t coming home anytime soon.
Later that morning, we got word that the aircraft carrier had turned around and was headed east again.
My experience hearing about Osama bin Laden’s death will be just as memorable, but vastly different.
I was sitting on the couch watching a rerun of “The Colbert Report.” Dustin was upstairs reading. During a commercial break, I checked Facebook on my iPhone. A friend’s post read: He’s dead! Osama bin Laden is dead!
I yelled upstairs to Dustin: “Osama bin Laden is dead!”
Thirty minutes later, we watched the president’s announcement together.
I turned to Dustin and asked, “What does this mean? Will this change anything?” (A few days earlier, Dustin had told me that he’ll soon leave for a 13-month deployment.)
Dustin shook his head. “No,” he said. “Doubtful.”
The next morning, I called my trusted source for all things military: Dad.
“Do you think Dustin will still deploy?”
Dad didn’t hesitate. “Yes, of course,” he said.
I should have been able to answer my own question. I’ve been a military dependent for nearly 35 years. I was born during my dad’s first six-month deployment. By the time I turned 22, my dad’s LES, the Leave and Earnings Statement, reported that he had accumulated 11 years of active-duty sea time. He had been gone half my life. This was between the years of 1976 and 1998, relatively peaceful times.
In the rush to accept and understand my husband’s coming departure, I had grasped at possibilities: Maybe bin Laden’s death means something! Maybe everything will change! But the reality is something different. In 2001, my husband didn’t leave because the attacks of 9-11 had happened. He was already gone. And two years later, Dustin left again for another deployment, which had been planned long before the twin towers fell.
This is one of the most difficult aspects of military life. Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, it made sense when mothers told their children, “Daddy’s going away to help get the bad guys.” That is easier to understand than, “Going away is part of Daddy’s job.” In most cases (unless your dad is on SEAL Team Six), the latter is true: Daddy is going away because it’s part of his job. But society has taught us there has to be a tangible reason and someone to blame.
Which is why I bristle every time I hear John Mayer’s song “Waiting on the World to Change”: “If we had the power/ to bring our neighbors home from war/ they would’ve never missed a Christmas/ no more ribbons on the door.” This is simply not true. War or no war, service members miss Christmases. War or no war, we should remember them with ribbons and flags.
Furthermore, when your husband is gone, Christmas is the last of your worries. Rarely do I hear military families recount missed holidays. Usually it’s “I wish he’d been there for our daughter’s first steps”; or “when I went to the beach, I only packed one chair, and that made me cry”; or “while I ate dinner alone, the only noise in the house was the ticking of the clock in the living room.”
In the aftermath of bin Laden’s death, I find it hard to celebrate for many reasons, one of them being that celebrating in the streets is exactly what the terrorists did on Sept. 11. Mostly, however, I know that bin Laden’s death does not change anything. Not really. Service members still sacrifice. Military families still wait. Troops still die. Husbands still deploy.
The only difference will be that many Americans won’t notice.
It won’t make headline news.
But it should.