In May of 2001 my son, Jonas, graduated high school. He decided against going to college, opting to join the Marine Corps. I wasn’t all that crazy about it, but I also knew the structure and discipline of the Corps would probably be good for him. And, we were in peacetime. So, Jonas went off to boot camp at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, CA.
Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was standing inside Jeems Shoe Store in Greenwood, MS, talking with the proprietor, Tracy. His TV was on, and we watched in disbelief as the north tower of the World Trade Center belched smoke into the Manhattan skyline, then we saw the second airplane strike the south tower. It didn’t take long for me to make the connection that we were on the verge of war and that my son was going to be a part of that.
Jonas was one of the first on the ground in Afghanistan. As an electrician, he helped construct the air base at Bagram. A nephew of mine piloted one of the C-130’s that dropped construction equipment at Bagram so an airstrip could be built. Later, he was the first to land on that very same airstrip.
Jonas was in Afghanistan for 13 months. He came home briefly before being deployed to Fallujah (Iraq) for 7 months. Thankfully, he came home without any major injuries. As for me, during those years I was scared as hell. I would cry at the drop of a hat. I still can’t and won’t even attempt to watch a movie that focuses on the fighting in that war. I just can’t do it.
When we undertook our final withdrawal from Afghanistan and started evacuating Afghans and Americans a couple of weeks ago, all the fears about my son’s safety came flooding back and the tears coursed down my cheeks again. This year it will be 20 years since 9/11. Twenty years. Yet, for me, sometimes if feels like it was yesterday. Sometimes—like right now—it feels like it’s today.
There’s an old Irish/English ballad, Danny Boy, that’s about a father’s love for his son who has gone to war. It’s a bona fide, first-class tear-jerker. Not long after Jonas arrived in Afghanistan, I wrote my own version of that story: Danny Boy 2001. Here are the lyrics:
The fires have come into our skies.
The tears, they fall down from our eyes.
The death of innocence and joy.
Warm up to sing O, Danny Boy.
We’ve faced no combat in this land
brought by a foreign warlord’s hand.
The safety’s gone we once enjoyed.
I think I hear O, Danny Boy.
The President has said that we
must fight to save sweet liberty
with every means we can employ,
e’en though we sing O, Danny Boy.
O, God, you gave your only son.
He bled for each and every one.
When Jesus died to end all wrong,
God, did you sing O, Danny Boy?
O, Lord, I pray I’ll never see
the death of peace and liberty.
And Lord, I pray come peace or war,
don’t make me sing O, Danny Boy.
O, Lord, I pray come peace or come war,
don’t make me sing O, Danny Boy.*
Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs has estimated the total human cost of the post-9/11 wars to be as high as 507,000 military and civilian deaths. That doesn’t include wounded survivors. Jonas wondered aloud to me about whether the post 9/11 war was all for naught. The best answer I could give was that now there’s an entire generation of Afghans who’ve grown up with more freedom than their ancestors. Surely that’s worth something.
*Danny Boy 2001, © Copyright 2001, Randall S. Weeks (ASCAP). All rights reserved.
Originally published in Oxford, Mississippi’s The Local Voice. http://www.thelocalvoice.net/oxford/the-view-from-the-balcony-twenty-years-of-9-11/