Early morning September 11th, 2001, I was going about my usual job. I was an Aircrew Flight Equipment Technician stationed in Massachusetts. My job was to maintain the survival gear used by the aircrew members that flew the F-15’s there on base. That morning I was in the middle of a G suit inspection when the sirens wailed. “ALERT! ALERT! ALERT!” was heard over the speakers. I didn’t think much of it. We’d been through this drill before many times. The mission of this base was to protect the skies of the east coast, from Maine to Virginia. There had been a few times when a pilot in a small private aircraft failed to respond to an air traffic controller and my aircrew had to “escort” him to the closest airfield to meet with local law enforcement agencies. Today we figured some dumbass was the lucky winner. The voice came over the building speaker telling us that two airplanes had just flown into the World Trade Centers.
Time stood still. This was no numb-nut, this was the real thing. Almost as if I became the well-oiled machine, my training kicked in and I was in the suit-up room helping the two ALERT pilots put on their equipment.
Off the pilots went and off the rest of us went to the break room to see what the news could tell us. We sat there watching it all unfold. We watched the towers crumble one at a time. We saw footage of the Pentagon’s damage. I remember thinking, “Those were our people, our family inside the smoldering wreckage.” At that moment we knew that our service to our country would change drastically. I could see my children in my mind. Jacelyn was only three and Dorian only one. How young they were, thank God, to not have to see this and still so young that this event would change their lives forever.
We then got the word that the base was on lock down. No one was leaving and we didn’t know how long that would last. Our aircrews were still in the air patrolling the skies, making sure we were safe. What did our personal guardians see from so high above?
I called the daycare and asked to speak to my children. I told each one that I loved them and mommy would be home late. It was up to my husband now to take over both roles.
Four years later, things changed again.
Even before I woke up early that morning I could feel the heat beating down on my building. Not just heat but a dry-your-tongue-instantly heat that Kandahar produces. As soon as I stepped outside, the heat tripled, or at least that’s how it seemed. I thought the soles of my boots would melt into puddles if I didn’t start moving. As I started my long walk to my work area I noticed that there was a fine cloud hanging in the air. I must have just missed a strong wind. The baby-fine powder that was shifted about had created a veil, distorting the outlines of the building and tents around me. I sneezed. This cloud was now invading my nose and eyes. To think I only had to deal with 90 days of this fun.
I arrived to work to find this dust had already made its way inside. I chuckled because it reminded me of the movie “The Blob.” It found its way into every little nook and cranny. It wouldn’t be worth vacuuming or dusting here.
My office area was small but well-organized, just like my office back home. Each set of aircrew gear had a designated locker. Just past the lockers was a crew rest area. It had a couch that was pretty clean, considering, a TV with a DVD player and a mini fridge stocked with water, hajji soda and ice cream in the upper compartment. I could hear my personal angels singing when I found the ice cream. It had the feel about it that we all wanted.
My children were my home. Thousands of miles away my home waited for me. They waited for the phone calls and for the letters that moved so slowly in the mail. I too got excited with the thought that a homemade card was on its way with the scribbles and haphazard hearts drawn on it. Those cards made me feel as if I was getting my big hugs in the morning and a quick kiss before my children went off to school. My home is where my heart is.
Today’s work brought me in a different direction towards home. My shop needed to refresh its supply of survival first-aid kits and to get that done I needed to bring them to the army medic building down the road. I gathered what I needed to bring and started the hot walk to my destination. The walk there really was a surprise. What I thought was a God-forsaken place actually had some beauty. It was a diamond in the rough. Lush, green plants each with a beautiful palate of colored roses were to my left. Behind this rose garden was a building that could pass as a sand castle with its round flowing gables. The mortar and mud structure stood out from the other square structures on post. This had been the airport before the Russians invaded decades before.
The Medic Building did not have the typical look or feel of an institution hospital. This building looked more makeshift, less permanent. The plywood walls gave it away. Walking into the front door I instantly noticed a clean smell. Surprising, considering the other buildings on this post smelled of dirty armpits. I was greeted by a soldier sitting behind a desk. He couldn’t have been older than 19, but looking at his eyes I knew that he had already seen more than many trauma doctors twice his age. He seemed happy to step away from his desk job and help me with what I needed. I followed him through a maze of doors.
The recovery room was dark, peaceful. An occasional beeping noise was faint. Beds were neatly lined up and evenly spaced. Here and there a few were occupied by a soldier or a Third Country National (TCN for short). I walked by the soldiers and smiled. Not a full “show ‘em your teeth” smile but one that was enough. I care that you’re here. I ignore the TCN’s. We walk into yet another room of this labyrinth. Here is where I lost my breath. Not due to a cloud of dust or veil, but because of a crisp, clear picture that was right SMACK in front of me.
As a mother of two beautiful children my job is solely to protect them, to give them the best life that I can and to teach them to be decent, caring and productive human beings. Being a service member and mother I guess I’m a little more protective than the regular civilian. I know what bad guys can do. I know firsthand what kind of effect war could have on American children. Or, at least, I know from my side of the war. I knew that we were lucky living in the United States that we haven’t had a war on our soil for over 150 years. We are very lucky to not worry daily about stepping on land mines or being caught in a sniper’s crosshairs. These things happen where the bad guys live. What lay before me, in adult-sized beds, were the bodies of two small children. They seemed the same ages as my Jacelyn and my Dorian. These were children with more bandages than skin, and tubes and hoses protruding from their tiny bodies, unmoving eyes closed. They each had a stuffed animal given to them by the medics as a means of comfort. The first child had it tucked under an arm; the other child had no arm where it should have been. After a second look, I noticed this child wasn’t missing just an arm but also both legs.
I wanted to be sick. I wanted to cry. I wanted to run over and caress their faces and tell them it would be alright even if their mangled bodies and minds would never make it out alive from this room. However, the soldier that was trying to guide me pulled me by the arm and told me to keep moving. The look on my face must have given me away because the words his lips formed — “not going to make it” — answered all of my questions.
These children were human shields, I later found out, and the bad guys got away. I thought I knew what war was and the good and the bad that can come from it. I was wrong in every aspect. I knew that no matter how hard I tried to be good at my job, no, great at my job, sights like these would never go away. I will never be able to protect my children from the hard truth of human cruelty, but I will be able to teach them the value of freedom.
And to think, all I needed was a box of band aids.
Written for Dr. David Odhiambo’s ENG 100: Composition I