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September 11, 2001 was my son's 13th birthday. Having missed exactly half of the first 12 birthdays in his childhood - including every one between ages 7 and 10 because the Navy had required my presence elsewhere - it felt good knowing this year our entire family would be together to mark an important milestone for our youngest member.
Missed birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays; extended overseas deployments; frequent moves - such are the sacrifices that shape the lifestyle of military families. They are borne day after day, year after year, in the bright spotlight of war and in the dim background of peacetime alike, not only by the service member, but also by his or her family. In the aggregate they foster a unique sense of community built around the concept of service. I have lived my entire adult life in this community.
In the last several years, op-ed pieces have begun warning of a growing split between the ethos of the military and the civilian society it serves. The unprecedented prosperity of the post-Desert Storm 1990s did much to validate such a split. Indeed, I would argue, by the end of the decade, public servants in general, and military members in particular, virtually disappeared from the focus of the country at large. America was transfixed by high-tech entrepreneurs and dot-com mania; when these shooting economic stars began fading we seemed content to argue over whether the federal budget surplus was $158 billion or $153 billion - and whose fault it was that these numbers were declining.
And then we all went to work on September 11.
As I was leaving for the Pentagon, I assured my son I would be home early that evening. It was a safe bet, I thought. Although both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees had finished marking up their versions of the Defense Authorization Bill, neither body was ready to go to the floor yet. I expected it would be a quiet day in the Navy's Office of Legislative Affairs, my duty station since leaving command of a submarine in early 1999. As it turned out, I did, in fact, keep my promise to come home early. But my son will remember September 11, 2001, not only as the day he became a teenager, but also as the day the world changed forever.
There were many personal stories of bravery, heroism, or tragic irony that unfolded that fateful morning. Mine is not among them. I was in a meeting on one side of the building clockwise and two floors above where the plane hit the Pentagon. I felt the concussion of the impact; I saw through an interior-facing window the immediate plume of black smoke and a shower of sparks from ruptured electrical cables. I thought it was a bomb (an odd conclusion as I look back, given that I had just seen CNN footage of two planes flying into the World Trade Center towers). I did not see fire or smell smoke until I was outside. By that time emergency crews already were arriving, and America's wealth of "better angels" - our servicemen and women, policemen, firemen, and countless "ordinary citizen" volunteers - were fast at work treating the injured, rescuing the trapped, and through their selfless actions transforming our nation's sense of priorities.
Tragically, 124 dedicated public servants with whom I shared a workspace died on September 11. Amazingly, given the proximity of the plane's impact to where some of my close friends and shipmates worked, I did not know any of the victims personally. That does not diminish the sense of loss I feel, because I know the lifestyle they lived. I know the sacrifices their families endured prior to September 11, and I struggle to comprehend how their families will overcome this great loss.
A few weeks ago I came across an article that appeared in the May 1997 edition of the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings. Written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of a naval officer's loss of four shipmates in a peacetime aviation accident, one passage is particularly poignant today:
"The military loses scores of personnel every year in training or operational accidents. Each one risked and lost his or her life for something they believed in, leaving behind friends, family, and shipmates to bear the burden and celebrate their devotion to our country....They knew the risks they were taking and gave their lives for something bigger than themselves. I'll never forget them, and I'll never forget the day I learned that freedom isn't free."
Those words were written by Commander Dan Shanower, a Navy intelligence officer. Dan was on duty in the Navy's Command Center on September 11. He was among the 124 in the Pentagon who gave their lives for something bigger than themselves. The same can be said for the hundreds of police officers, fire fighters, and rescue personnel who lost their lives in New York City, and for the brave passengers of the airliner that crashed in western Pennsylvania. His or her story has touched every individual and group across America.
In the weeks that have followed this horrific attack, I am comforted that the virtue of service has been restored to a place of honor within our national value system. I am heartened that a sense of resolve and common purpose has, at least for now, gained the upper hand over tactical posturing and partisanship in our political discourse. I am proud that those who lead our nation and our cities have risen to the challenge and that a sophisticated public that knows these leaders possess both strengths and weaknesses has decided to rally its efforts on reinforcing the strengths rather than sniping at the weaknesses.
To the degree we can sustain this new national spirit I see cause for great optimism for the future of public service. Current demographics suggest one-third of our government workers will become retirement-eligible in the next five years. But who will step forward and take their place? Will the call go out publicly as a challenge to belong to something larger than self, or will it appear quietly as a growing list of jobs on the government's "employment wanted" pages? Will those who respond be valued as dedicated public servants, or will they be derided as faceless government bureaucrats?
I suspect we will get what we ask for.
In each of my four tours in the Pentagon, I have been privileged to serve with incredibly talented and dedicated civilian members of the Department of Defense. In the last 33 months I have observed similar qualities among the members of the committee staffs in Congress with whom I deal. I am confident these outstanding public servants are not unique to the organizations where my responsibilities have overlapped. If September 11 showed us anything, it showed us that the foundation of a great nation is the collective goodness of its individual citizens. I sincerely hope the legacy of September 11 is a nation that sees greatness in service and honors those who seek to become part of something larger than themselves. Or, as Commander Dan Shanower would say, a nation that embraces the notion that freedom isn't free.