In every generation, there are a few major events which divide our experience into “our lives before, and our lives after.” The attack on America on September 11, 2001, ten years ago this month, was certainly one of those events. It was THE defining event for America in the last decades, and it served as a clarion call to America’s Special Operations Forces. America was under attack. A small group of terrorists were out to attack Americans, American interests, and America’s friends around the world. This gave our Special Operations Forces focus and purpose; America needed us. We had been preparing for this for decades.
Since then, we have fought hard, and we have fought well. We have made a difference, in ways that the American public will only read about in future years, when the reports are declassified and the historians can tell us what really happened. Recently the public got a glimpse of how good we are, when ‘our boys’ got the big prize of Osama bin Laden, and for a while, we basked in the unfamiliar but warm glow of positive publicity as America’s new heroes. But the cost of being central to America’s efforts in this war has been high….and it remains high. The Naval Special Warfare community has lost 69 brothers to enemy action and training accidents since September 11, 2001, which includes SEALs, SWCCs, Techs. And many, many others have been seriously wounded.
Just as America looks at its recent history in terms of before and after 9-11, the families and loved ones of servicemen and women killed during this conflict divide their lives into a different ‘before and after’ – before the death of their loved one, and after. And those many who are seriously wounded have their own ‘before and after.’ In June 2005, we could barely imagine the tragedy of losing 11 of our brothers during Operation Redwing. Now six years later, we have lost double that number in a single incident. And so once again, the horror and tragedy of war becomes all too real to us. “Eleven,” or “twenty-two” or “sixty-nine” – those are big numbers to our small community, but each one of those killed was an individual, a human being, a member of the Naval Special Warfare family, with his own life, dreams, family, hopes and aspirations. A Naval Special Warfare wife who knew some of those killed in the recent tragedy in August, and who knows many of their families well, recently wrote in a public forum,
“They were great, brave men, but do not forget that they were men…these extraordinary men loved, hurt, and laughed with the rest of us…. The images that their loved ones will remember …will not be those of them fast roping out of a helo. Rather, the images that will bring both joy and agony in their minds are those of a gentle smile, a goofy laugh, a knowing look… These were Americans hoping what we all hope; that their families will be able to live the best life possible; that opportunity would abound.”
The whole country mourns the loss of these warriors. We in the Teams mourn the loss of our brothers – men so much like ourselves, men who we knew personally, or if not, men with whom we would have felt right at home. We struggle to understand the pain of this loss to their families and closest friends. The heaviest burden of this war has been borne by the families of the service members killed and wounded. It is a constant, drip, drip, drip of names of good men, our brothers, killed or wounded, with the occasional mega-tragedy, like the one that hit us in August. It impacts all of us, some certainly more than others.
And yet, men are still volunteering in great numbers. The costs have been high, the risks remain high, but the Teams are full of men ready and eager to go into the fray, and to train hard and intensely to be ready when called. Outside the Teams, we have multitudes of men doing all they can to get into our community, so that they too can have the opportunity to train hard to be ready to go with us into combat. There is something we are doing right that remains extremely attractive to America’s toughest, smartest, most versatile, most resilient warriors. Tragedy hurts, but it can also bring us together, solidify our sense of purpose, help us to find strength and spiritual resolve, when we know we must carry on and overcome.
As we try to come to terms with the loss of twenty-two of our own, we celebrate how they lived, and what they did. We celebrate their lives, the way we want our survivors to celebrate our own lives when we pass – to celebrate what have done, and not focus on what we have left undone. All of us will leave this world with work undone; it is reassuring to know that our families and loved ones at home, and our teammates and the next generation of warriors at work, will pick up where we leave off, and carry on.
I had prepared a different essay for Ethos, about how Naval Special Warfare had changed and evolved since 2001. A few days before I submitted it, we learned of the tragedy in Afghanistan. That other essay will have to wait for another time. The loss of these fine men brought home to all of us the costs and sacrifices that our warriors and families have borne since 9-11 – and this recent painful loss is a stern reminder of the horror and tragedy of war. War is indeed about killing and dying – but it is also about heroism, patriotism, determination, brotherhood, and sacrifice. We must not forget to celebrate who these men were, and in so doing, celebrate who we are.
“And then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’ “Isaiah 6:8-10.8