Why We Served

A few weeks ago, a reader posted a question in the comments section of an essay I wrote on the topic of Confederate monuments. I’ve said just about all that I think I should on that subject. If you’re interested in my perspective, you can find it here. I’m not interested in old statues today. Today I’m only interested in the question.

Which was this:

A century and a half from now, how will people view my service during the conflicts in which I served, once history has had its way with them?

That’s a hell of a question.

When all the personal attachment and sentimental courtesies have dried up. When all the blood is out of it and all that’s left is the cold numbers of dead and the narrative of winners and losers. When no one alive knows a person who ever knew a person who died in it. What will they say about those that served in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom?

I’ll say it again. That’s a hell of a question.

Because I have no answer.

Whatever the prevailing opinion is, I hope that someone comes across the following passage on their way to it. It was written by Commander Brendan Stickles, USN, the Commanding Officer of Electronic Attack Squadron 130, one year ago today, on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 while he and his troops were deployed to the Arabian Gulf on board the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower.

“In 2013 President Obama pointed out, correctly I might add, that “the odds of dying in a terrorist attack are a lot LOWER than dying in a car accident.” The fact is, spread out among over 300 million people and the 15 years since Sept 11th 2001 you are more than 10,000 times more likely to die in a car crash then at the hands of extremists. That should make you sleep easier.

But this week, I’m not thinking about car accidents. I’m thinking about my home town of Glen Rock, New Jersey. Glen Rock is 2.7 square miles about 20 miles northwest of New York City. We have one high school, one bar, one Catholic Church and three pizzerias. It’s a great little town with a fantastic school system and people that look out for each other. Despite what you may think about New Jersey, it was a great place to grow up and I’m proud to call it home.

Unfortunately, Glen Rock lost more people on Sept 11th per capita than just about any other city in America. Hundreds of my neighbors were in NY on that morning. 11 of them didn’t make it home. That equates to one person dead for every quarter square mile – about three city blocks. It was a tough day.

The commute from Glen Rock to the World Trade Center takes about an hour and fifteen minutes. Add in a walk to the train and the trip up to the 90th floor of the Trade Center and you had better give yourself a solid hour and a half. The first plane hit at 8:46. That time is important, because the stock market doesn’t open until 9:30. Despite common perceptions about Wall Street, the people sitting at their desk prior to 9 am usually aren’t tycoons or billionaires. People there early are building their own American Dream. They are real people who got on a 5:15 train to be at their desk by 7am. They are grinding out life in the city so they could afford to live in Glen Rock and have their daughters and sons go to Glen Rock High School and then go to a good college or maybe, just maybe, if their kid gets lucky they can squeak into the Naval Academy.

The 11 people who died were young. They all had families. None of them were rich. All of them owned houses in the suburbs they were working their asses off to afford. They were people like Grace Allegra-Cua who was 40, Anthony DiOnisio who was 38, Brendan Dolan who was 37, and Tim Finerty who was 33.

This year Sept 11th is sadder for me than usual for that reason. I am 39 years old. Katie and I recently bought a house. Earlier his week our kids started the school year in 3rd grade, kindergarten, and preschool. We aren’t rich but we are doing fine, I work hard but I have a good job, and I go to work each day trying my best to make a better life for the people I love. This year, I am exactly like 11 people from Glen Rock were back in 2001. They were Americans who went to work on a beautiful Tuesday morning and then due to the hate and cruelty of others they didn’t make it home. Their family probably doesn’t care about car accident statistics. They just miss their mom or dad.

I keep waiting for the Navy to time travel me back to September 10th 2001. I’m starting to accept that is probably not going to happen, so if that isn’t an option, on Sunday – the 15th anniversary of Sept 11th – there is no place I’d rather be than here. I believe in this team. I believe that what we are doing is making the world safer. I believe that you and I can do this job better than anyone else can. It is a privilege to be on this ship. It is an honor to fly your jets. It is my pleasure to serve the country, and the people of Glen Rock. I honor my hometown by doing my small part to make sure nobody attacks there again.

To all the sailors in VAQ-130, on behalf of the citizens of a small town in Jersey, thank you for your service. Congrats on making it half way through deployment. Thanks for taking the fight to those who wish us harm. Thanks for honoring the memory of my neighbors who lost their lives. The President was right – the people in Glen Rock are still way more likely to die in a car crash then a terror attack. However, he and I both know that isn’t because of luck.

Keep up the good work, and as always, I’m incredibly proud to be a part of this team.

                                                                 -Brendan R. Stickles”

That’s my old Annapolis roommate reminding his sailors—and me—why we served.

Sixteen years ago today, the world blew apart for many people. Few more than the men and women in the armed services. Today we honor the memory of those we lost on 9/11 and every day after. And the iron resolve of the men and women who took up the task of doing whatever they could to ensure that it never happens again.





4 thoughts on “Why We Served

  1. Another excellent commentary. There are those who need to consider the consequences when supporting a “peculiar institution”.


  2. That question might legitimately be asked of any war. I wonder if it might not be more relevant to democracies, whose citizens serve more from a sense of duty than any compulsion?


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