One year after the death of Osama bin Laden, I look back at the day I first heard the news …
I was in Washington DC for Milblogcon, a military blogging conference. I was just getting off the redeye from the West Coast, and as I complained about lack of sleep operators half way around the world were preparing for the longest night of their lives. As I hobbled through the halls of my Pentagon tour wincing about pinchy shoes and long hallways, President Obama and his cabinet were huddled around a table in the Situation Room, readying themselves for an assault in Abbottabad that would bookend an era.
I remember walking past the Offices of the Joint Chiefs, past the soon-to-be-innundated press room, and into the Pentagon’s “Heroes” Memorial. We looked out silently across the lawn where a hijacked airplane had bounced before crashing into the E Ring onSeptember 11, 2001. The chapel was a quiet, eerie place washed in green light. As I stood looking at the names carved into the memorial, the military and civilian lives taken there were about to be avenged. As I signed my name in a memorial book, a SEAL team was preparing to board a chopper, descend into a compound, and find the man they had been hunting for the entirety of their careers.
The next day as a panel of military representatives spoke about the lightening speed of social media and how it affects military operations, a Tweeter half way around the world was unwittingly relaying the explosions he was seeing in Abbottabad.
Later I was invited to a dinner with some reuniting officers who spent time together in Afghanistan. It was a privilege to participate in their proprietary brand of friendship, and to share a moment with those who clearly understood writing a blank check in the name of freedom. And as we laughed somewhere in the Indian Ocean the body of Osama bin Laden was aboard the USS Carl Vinson, quietly being prepared for a burial at sea.
Sunday I was headed home, on a layover at JFK. I was thinking about St. Patrick’s Day in New York right after 9/11. I remembered the bars, filled with blue Port Authority uniforms and an unhinged version of patriotism. As the boarding call came I saw a short email from my husband: “Sorry no Skype…been a bit busy. I better get back to work. I Love You, Me.” I glanced at the Royal Wedding on airport TV screens and walked to my gate.
Once on the plane, I drifted to sleep with CNN playing and a book in my lap: Welcoming Your Servicemember Home. I was jolted awake by the captain’s loud and pressured announcement from the cockpit: “We just heard the news. It is confirmed. Osama bin Laden is dead.” I jerked up in my seat, staring at the mini TV screen in disbelief. The plane full of New Yorkers erupted into applause and my seatmates stared at me. I kept my eyes straight ahead trying not to cry, focusing on the news. But they already saw the title of the book I was now clutching to my chest. In my peripheral vision one of them wiped a tear. I remained paralyzed, gripping the book with sweaty palms, my heart swelling and thumping, listening to every word Wolf Blitzer spoke as if history was unfolding before my eyes. And it was.
Now, one year later, that single event still stands for the fulfillment of a promise, the persistence of a nation, and proof of the indolent intention of the United States’ military machine. But I still feel guilty for being happy about the death of a human being, I still feel regret for the deep wake of lives lost and families affected by the evil of one man, and I still feel dissatisfaction because Osama bin Laden’s death was the end of an era, but not the end of a war. I still see body bags coming home, still see wounded warriors and their families looking for work, and I still read about al-Qaeda and the Taliban infiltrating the other regions where our servicemembers deploy every day.
Yet one year later, I still live in a free country. And one year later, I’m still proud to stand behind an entire military community that will never forget. And one year later, I’m still one of the civilians who is humbled by those who continue to sacrifice to make that memory important, and to make that freedom available for my children in the years to come.
Lori Volkman is a deputy prosecuting attorney in the Pacific Northwest, writer, mother of two, and the spouse of a Navy man who recently entered the reserves after returning from his last mobilization to the Middle East. She writes and speaks about motherhood, middle-age, and military family reintegration. Her other stories can be found online at www.wittylittlesecret.com.