September 11 - Full Circle After 15 Years
Fifteen years ago I woke up much as I had the previous few weeks on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. It was a Tuesday morning, which meant that I didn’t have a morning weightlifting session with the football team, just a grinding full-pads session in the afternoon in preparation for our Big Ten Conference opener against Penn State that Saturday. I was still trying to shake off the extra hour of sleep as I walked into the cafeteria of the dormitory. My dorms were called The Towers, never an irony before that day.
I walked into a cafeteria that lacked the usual hum of laughter and clanging plates. Students were huddles around the lone television in the corner of the room. As I walked up behind them I saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center. The fog lingering in my brain made the image hard to comprehend. What was happening?
Minutes later the first tower collapsed. Then the second. Within the hour we learned that it was terrorism. It didn’t take long to understand the implications. My country would be headed to war.
I spent the morning in quiet solitude. Two years prior my heart had been set on joining the military. I’d begun applying to the service academies and exploring enlistment options. The desire to serve others stemmed from an experience I’d had as a young boy living in Austria in 1989. It was an interesting time to be living in Europe—the Berlin Wall was coming down and the Soviet Union was dissolving. One weekend my parents took my sisters and me a few hours away to visit a former Nazi concentration camp called Mauthausen. It was a chilling experience for a young seven-year-old boy. It was the first time I saw evil manifest, but the end of the exhibit displayed hope and triumph through photos of the camp’s liberation by Allied forces. My father’s exact words that day escape me, but I imagine he paraphrased Sir Edmund Burke, who famously stated, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” I grew up wanting to be that good man.
During my junior year I began to get heavily recruited for football and, with time, my desire to serve my country began to fade, to be replaced with dreams of playing in the NFL. Slowly and silently my life became less about others and more about me. At some point that afternoon my father called me. We spoke about New York and DC and Pennsylvania. We spoke about what would happen next. Then he said, “Jake, don’t even think about joining.”
The truth was that I was thinking about joining, as were millions of Americans. But the deeper truth was that I was scared. War had always been books and movies. The only war I’d lived through had been the first Gulf War, which had seemed so simple and sanitary. 9/11 made the reality of what we faced all too real.
I convinced myself to stay in school. I told myself that I’d keep my scholarship and get my degree. That I’d be more valuable to my country with a college education and that I could always join as an officer later on. But deep down I knew I was lying to myself. I knew that my real desire was to play professional football, and that if that failed at that I’d probably slide into a comfortable job and leave the military to someone else.
Playing football at the University of Wisconsin.
For the next three years that’s what I did. I played football and went to class, admittedly most often in that order. And each day I would sit on my couch in my house on campus and watch the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unfold. I would watch as young men just like me kicked in doors in Fallujah and I would swallow the guilt of my comfort and privilege. Then one day I turned on the television and saw the breaking news that Pat Tillman had been killed in Afghanistan. It was a moment of reckoning. Pat embodied everything I wanted to be. He was a man of conviction—a man that knew what he believed in and had the courage to live the life he was called to live. Looking in the mirror I knew I’d failed the seven-year-old Jake that wanted to stand up for what was right in the world.
A few weeks later I walked into a Marine recruiter’s office and after several months of back and forth about some medical waivers I received my enlistment contract for the infantry.
On October 25th, 2005 I stepped onto the yellow footprints of Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego to begin my journey to become a Marine. Thirteen weeks later I graduated and, following additional training at the School of Infantry, was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in 29 Palms, California.
Within a few months my unit received word that we were to deploy to Iraq’s Anbar Province in 2007 as part of what would soon be called “The Surge.” The war had rapidly devolved into a quagmire of insurgent factions and when we arrived our goal was to pacify an area colloquially known as the Triangle of Death. The mission was equal parts foreboding and exciting. My fellow Marines and I prepared ourselves the only way we knew how—with alcohol fueled war movie marathons. The preparation proved inadequate.
I spent seven months leading Marines in Iraq. During that time, I experienced the full spectrum of war. I witnessed my friends get maimed and killed, felt mortars land on the roofs of buildings I slept in, crawled through reeds while machine gun rounds exploded the cat-tails above my head, and comforted a man screaming for his mother while he bled from three bloody stumps. Conversely I felt the incomparable highs of combat—that sense of ecstasy after a firefight, the fist-bump with a Marine who just stared death in the face and lived, the pride in a mission perfectly executed.
Jake in Iraq's Anbar Province.
Throughout it all it was often too easy to forget what it was for, other than the person on your right and left. The enemy was dehumanized, the mission became grey, and the violence became normal. The only thing that kept me from slipping down a slope into pure indifference was the children. Our counter-insurgency efforts had us regularly visiting homes to build rapport with local Iraqis, and it was in these interactions that I retained my humanity. The Iraqi children reminded me of my nieces and nephews back home. They were so filled with joy and hope. In my mind I set aside any aspect of policy and focused solely on helping to create a future for those children.
When I returned from Iraq I joined the scout-sniper platoon and headed to sniper school. Only a month after graduating my unit was hastily activated and deployed to Afghanistan. The news was well received—after all, most of us had always seen Afghanistan as the war we wanted to fight. That was where we would deliver the vengeance we all sought. It was the righteous war, the war that had moral clarity.
My sniper team dreamt of stumbling upon Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar on one of our missions and valiantly killing either one for all of America. We’d bring justice to the thousands who’d perished on 9/11 and come home to ticker-tape parades. It was the guide star, the singular inspiration for what we’d endure.
I landed in Afghanistan in April, 2008. Our time in Afghanistan left 2/7 battered and bruised. We lost twenty men and nearly ten-times that wounded. Children once again played a significant role in my experience, though this time for different reasons.
Late in our deployment my team was providing reconnaissance and over-watch for a large-scale sweep through a Taliban controlled area. Midway through a slowly unfolding fight the enemy fighters began employing a tactic we’d seen them use regularly—sending young children forward into the fray to observe Marines’ movements and then run back to report on what they saw. It was horrific to see such disregard for an innocent young life. Time seemingly stood still each time a young face darted around a corner and picked its way across a field. Terror would grip our throats tight us as we silently prayed the children would not be harmed.
Eventually the fight subsided and the Marines we were supporting withdrew. An attack helicopter hovered overhead as our sniper team left its hide. As we began to pick our way down the rocky hill my team leader observed a man two-hundred yards away. We lowered ourselves onto the ground and peered at him through our scopes. There he was, a local Taliban leader for whom we had a standing order to engage on sight. He stood amongst a small circle of young children, the same children who’d just been forced to run to and fro during a firefight. He shouted and pointed and harassed. It was clear he valued those children no more than the AK-47 leaning against the wall. The options were bleak. Spare the children the horror of seeing a man killed in front of them and let the fighter live to kill Marines and civilians another day, or do the unfathomable and kill a man in front of innocent children.
We killed that man. Shot him through the heart mid-sentence. The children scattered. Where they went I’ll never know. But I think about those children nearly every day. I wonder whether we improved their lives by eliminating that man from it, or doomed them to a life of destitution. I have never regretted the choice we made that day, but that choice has come to define war for me.
Jake's sniper team in Afghanistan's Helmand Valley.
Shortly after returning from Afghanistan I made the hardest decision of my life and left the Marine Corps. I was immensely proud of my time in uniform. Leading Marines in Iraq and serving with the most courageous men I ever met in Afghanistan was a privilege. I left the service because I felt lucky to be alive and I didn’t want war to define my life. In silent reflection I found my honor and integrity intact, but found myself not wanting to slide into an existence where war consumed me. I’ve met men that are willing to shoulder that burden for ten, twenty, even thirty years. I admire them and America needs them. We need men and women who can make that sacrifice, who can take the fight to the enemy on distant shores. Thankfully we have them, and so long as the world has those who impart evil for evil’s sake, we’ll have capable soldiers ready to meet them.
But that was not me, and so I left to find some other mission in the world. Only months later that mission would find me. On January 12, 2010, I awoke much as I had on 9/11, unaware that the events of that day would change my life forever. Images of the Haiti earthquake flashed across the television and punched me in the chest. The devastation, the despair, and the gut-wrenching loss of life were evident within moments. In so many ways it reminded me of New York City on 9/11 but for one key difference—this tragedy had no enemy.
I felt the call to serve. This time, however, I would not let fear paralyze me. I didn’t have four years to make the decision. I probably didn’t have four days.
Four days, however, is how long it took William McNulty and me to organize a team of eight volunteers to get down to Port-au-Prince. When we arrived chaos reigned supreme. Everywhere you looked you could only see heartache and suffering. So we got to work.
We called our paltry group Team Rubicon and our first day found us at a makeshift camp for displaced Haitians. Severed limbs, open compound fractures and women in delivery were the norm. Gangrene had already begun to set in some, and the stench was nearly overpowering. Early in the afternoon an older man brought a young boy, maybe six or seven years old, to the plastic chair that sat in front of where I knelt. Gingerly, I unwrapped an oil-stained rag from around the boy’s leg until it revealed a jagged hole that had punctured all the way through the front of his thigh and out the back. The puss indicated it was infected, whether it was from the filthy rag that had served as a bandage or the squalor the child was living in didn’t matter.
In Haiti, only days after the earthquake.
I worked on that child for the next thirty minutes, gently cleaning the wound and calmly reassuring him that everything would be okay. At first he whimpered, but gradually his whimpers gave way to a fierce stoicism. That child was everything for me that day. Like the children in Afghanistan, I’ll never know what happened to him after his grandfather took him away that afternoon. But, in many ways he never left me. He’ll never know the impact he had on my life, but the impact was profound. He sparked within me a sense of purpose. That sense of purpose was similar in many ways to the one I had in the military, though somehow it was different. This purpose was…pure. I felt it and knew that it would never be complicated, that there’d never be moral ambiguity in saving someone.
I came home from Haiti convinced that though my time in uniform was over, my need to serve others was not. We immediately set out to build Team Rubicon into the best disaster response organization in the world. In doing so we hoped to give the millions of men and women coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan a new mission, and through that mission a newfound sense of purpose, community and identity. It was not an easy task.
Team Rubicon’s volunteers and staff have worked tirelessly over the last six and a half years to make that vision a reality. What we’ve come to realize is that Americans are at their best when communities suffer their worst. We saw it after September 11th when the nation galvanized like at no point since Pearl Harbor, but Team Rubicon sees it every week. We see neighbors helping neighbors. Residents crossing over the proverbial train tracks to help strangers they’ve never met on the other side of town. Suddenly everyone knows everyone’s name and neither race nor religion nor sexual orientation matter. We’ve come to say that if we acted every day like we do after disasters we’d be a much better country.
This past week, as news channels began running documentary segments commemorating 9/11 in the lead up to the fifteenth anniversary, I found myself landing in Europe to visit Team Rubicon’s long-term medical clinic at a refugee camp. The camp is the only one of its kind—a factory converted into single-room apartments that are a far cry from the miserable tented camps across town. It allows the families lucky enough to live there to live in dignity and relative comfort.
I spent the first day with Team Rubicon’s volunteer staff who are operating the clinic on two-week rotations. While observing their clinical operations I met two Syrian teenagers named Omaid and Marwan (names have been changed) who had been serving as interpreters for them. Omaid and Marwan were brothers from Damascus, and when the fighting had grown too fierce their mother and father paid smugglers everything they had to sneak the two boys to the border. Had they not left they would have been forcibly conscripted into Assad’s army and sent to the front lines as cannon fodder.
The next day I joined Omaid and Marwan in their sparsely adorned room with their mother and young sister, a girl of only eleven or twelve. I asked their mother to tell me her story. Using her sons as interpreters, the mother began. She was a French language professor at the university in Damascus. She spoke about how she’d fretted for years as the fighting crept closer and closer to her neighborhood until the shelling and aerial bombing finally began. The conversation lasted for over an hour and I hung on every word. The world thinks we’re terrorists, she exclaimed at one point, but we’re not. My sons want to be doctors and engineers. I’m a professor at a university. Why can’t anyone treat us like humans?
Why indeed, I wondered.
I needed to speak to more residents so I went next door to meet with a young, twenty year old Iraqi man from Mosul who was living in a fifteen by twenty foot room with three brothers, his parents and his aunt. His name was Yusuf and his English was just good enough to make conversation possible. Yusuf invited us in and we removed our shoes to join him in the center of the room. My joints groaned as I gently lowered my body to the concrete floor and respectfully tucked my feet under my legs. Yusuf sent his younger brother, Mustafa, to go and get his father. Minutes later a tall, brooding man with a thick Iraqi mustache entered the door and sat down opposite me.
This is my father, Hussein, Yusuf stated. Hussein stared at me with equal parts suspicion and curiosity, respect and contempt. It instantly felt like every sit down I’d had with an Iraqi elder nine short years ago. The conversation started off a bit rocky, with Hussein rattling off a series of questions in harsh Arabic that Yusuf translated to us. Why didn’t the clinic have an ambulance? What happens if someone has an emergency? How long will you be staying? None of our answers seemed to suffice, and for a while I thought that everyone was simply wasting their time.
Hussein looked over to his wife and muttered something in Arabic. Minutes later the wife and aunt were pouring piping hot chai into cups on the floor. Hussein’s smaller sons were crawling all over him and though he pretended to be annoyed you could see the love flash briefly across his face. I took a sip and looked across the brim of the mug, instantly transported back to Iraq. I smiled at Hussein. He didn’t quite smile back.
Finally, I remembered some of the cultural lessons I’d learned in Iraq. Iraqi men respected strength. I sat up a bit taller, lowered my voice ever so slightly, looked him more intensely in the eye, and relayed stronger answers back through his son. There was a glimmer of amusement in Hussein’s eye. The banter got more friendly and personal.
What did you do before you ran this Rubicon-Team, he asked.
I was a jundi, I replied, using the Iraqi word for the lowest rank in the military. That elicited a bewildered smile. Who is this crazy American, I could see him thinking. Turns out Hussein had been a nurse and truck driver in Saddam’s army decades prior.
His son, Yusuf, leaned in. You were in the American army? He asked. I decided not to correct him on the differences between the Marine Corps and the Army. Yes, I replied. He proceeded to tell me that he was six when the Americans invaded his city. With a look that indicated he wasn’t sure how I’d react he proceeded to tell me that he had no love for the American military, but that he knew there were good jundis like me. He then told me that his neighborhood is now controlled by ISIS and that he does not know what has happened to many of his friends. The girls were probably raped and the boys…his voice trailed off. He then made a slash across his throat. He described fleeing Mosul as ISIS entered the city and then, with a painful smile on this face, he told me that if I listened to his stories that I would cry.
I looked at Yussuf and told him I was sorry. I wasn’t apologizing for myself, or for America. I was simply sorry that such a kind young man had been forced to live a life of violence for fourteen years.
Hussein demanded that we stay for lunch. By this time the mood had lightened and the conversation was full of laughter and jokes. I decided to shift the conversation. What do you want to study at the university, I asked Yussuf.
I want to be a doctor, he proudly proclaimed. He pointed to his eyes, I want to be a doctor for the eyes, because the eyes they are, how do you say? They are the gateway to the world.
I thought about that for a moment. I thought about Yussuf wanting to preserve sight for those around him, even after his own sight had brought such horror and tragedy to his own memory. I could sense that he knew what I was thinking and he smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
Where do you want to be placed permanently, I asked. The refugees at the camp were all awaiting decisions on which EU country would accept their asylum requests. Germany and the Netherlands were generally at the top of most lists. Yussuf turned to his younger brother, Mustafa, who was hanging on his father’s shoulders. Where do we want to go, he asked Mustafa.
Austria! He exclaimed.
I looked at young Mustafa and drifted back to my time in Austria twenty-six years prior. It was the place my own journey had begun. That moment at Mauthausen had discreetly set my life on a path that had brought me to that very moment. To a place and time where September 11th, my time at war and my work with Team Rubicon were all stitched together with a common thread.
Have you been to this place, Austria? Yussuf asked.
I have, I replied. It is beautiful and you will make a wonderful life there with your family.
I eventually left Hussein, Yussuf and Mustafa and returned home to the US. Over the course of twenty-four hours of flying I had plenty of time to think about my interactions with both families. I couldn’t help but think that their suffering and heartache was intertwined with what every US citizen had felt fifteen years ago, that the world was too small and humanity too tight-knit for us to ignore it. There is evil in this world, that much I am sure of. I saw the vestiges of it at Mauthausen, witnessed it on 9/11, and fought it tooth and nail while in the Marines. We must have courage and resolve to face it, and thankfully we have heroes willing to kick in doors in the dark of night to battle it. But we also need a different kind of courage. The kind of courage required to battle our prejudices, ignore our fears of those that are different, and reach out with empathy and compassion to those in need of shelter from that evil. America’s might has never been questioned in my lifetime, and I hope it never will. What I hope to see is for America’s kindness to achieve the same repute.
To learn more about Team Rubicon visit www.teamrubiconusa.org