From Indifference to Active Duty: Reflecting on 9/11 and Its Aftermath

9/11/2001. For me, a college student at that time, the day started out like most others. The events that unfolded were shocking, but little did I realize the effect they would have on my life,…

9/11/2001. For me, a college student at that time, the day started out like most others. The events that unfolded were shocking, but little did I realize the effect they would have on my life, including nearly leading to my death.

The events of 9/11 largely had little effect on my day-to-day life at first other than in externals. I watched the news and felt that I was experiencing something historically significant. More generally, however, I did not follow political or military affairs closely. As days became months and years following 9/11, I felt its effect mostly in more non-descript “inconveniences,” such as increased security at airports.

I gave little thought to the military action that took place in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Soldiers were facing deadly situations nearly every day less than a month after the fateful events of 9/11. I, like most of America, had largely been shielded from the reality of these experiences. I was aware of it, certainly, but it was more on the periphery, like getting updated on the scores from last night’s sporting events.

The bitter reality of the war itself was far from my mind as I went to school and worked in the daily grind in the years that followed. There were, however, a few persistent reminders. My college roommate at that time was in ROTC, and I thought he was crazy for it. Why would anyone want to get up at 5 am and go and hike in the mud—especially when joining the military would most certainly lead to going into harm’s way? My background weighed significantly on my opinion of the military. My father grew up in a Quaker household, and my mother had strong Mennonite ties. Pacifism, while not my personal philosophy, was largely an experiential reality in my family.

Several years later, while in seminary, I had warmed slightly to the idea of military service. I became a Chaplain Candidate at the suggestion of a mentor who felt that this ministry could be a good fit for me. I trained with the Army in the summers and found the Army’s “boots on the ground” philosophy of ministry fit well with my own. I wanted to be with those to whom I was ministering, enduring the same difficulties as them, and ministering Christ’s presence in the midst of the ups and downs of life.

At that time, during the height of the Global War on Terror, there were many more downs than ups for those in the military. Who would be there to minister to these Soldiers as they went into harm’s way? This was a reality that I could no longer ignore. I could not stand on the sideline while my peers faced difficulty, hardship, and death.

I joined the Army as an Active-Duty Chaplain. I was in full time service for a little more than a year when I was sent on my first deployment to Iraq. I did not carry a weapon, but that did not mean that I was not in danger. As I convoyed across the northern half of Iraq, I ministered to the 1,800 Soldiers who called me their Chaplain. I came to love the country—its people, history, and food. I felt that I had made a difference in some small way, and I was happy to make it safely home after a year.

After a couple of years, I was deployed again—this time to the high desert mountains of Afghanistan. The landscape was beautiful, but also foreboding in its own way. This was a different kind of deployment. There was no convoying in vehicles. Rather, we flew—both due to the difficult terrain and the inhospitable locals. This was the country that had harbored Osama bin Laden and was the target of the earliest U.S. strikes following 9/11. The animosity of terror groups was evident in the nearly daily rocket attacks that our Forward Operating Base (FOB) received. Taking cover from these attacks became a part of my daily routine as a Chaplain there.

One day, not too long after I arrived in Afghanistan, the reason for taking shelter in bunkers became evident. A rocket hit about 20 yards from me, striking just outside of my chapel. I was wounded by the blast, but thankfully was shielded from worse injury. I spent about a week in the hospital but was able to eventually finish out my deployment. Others that I served with there were not so lucky. Upon returning home, I attempted to come to terms with what had happened. I spent more than a year in occupational rehab, but the emotional and spiritual wounds were still present.

I felt God calling me to explore how people, including myself, recover from trauma. In particular, I was interested in ways that faith enables individuals to be resilient. I decided to leave Active Duty service and move to England to pursue doctoral work on the subject. All the while I remained a Reserve Chaplain in the Army. This has kept me connected to the military, and to all of the ways that the world—and I—have changed since 9/11.

This is why 9/11 matters to me. This is why Afghanistan matters to me. I cannot speak for many others whose lives have been irreparably changed and affected by these events. But I can speak from my own experiences. They matter to me personally, not merely as a matter of politics. Afghanistan is woven into my story at multiple points. It was there behind the scenes in the events of 9/11, even though I did not know the significance that day would hold for me. It was the setting of one of the most life-altering moments that I have experienced. It is the place of my sacrifice, the sacrifices of those that I love and of many that I know. My wife was one month pregnant with our first child when I deployed to Afghanistan. She sacrificed much to have me gone. The families and loved ones of countless service members have suffered greatly. That is to say nothing of those who did not come home as well as the people of Afghanistan themselves. War is a costly endeavor, and not only in terms of money and blood.

The withdrawal of the last American troops, nearly 20 years after 9/11, is significant. Many have concerns and questions. There are no easy answers, and you will find no armchair quarterback here. Still, my emotions are too deep-seated and complex to ignore. My first reaction was great sadness—at what had happened, and at what was unraveling. Eventually I found myself feeling anger. My anger was largely directed at the broken world in which we live. Why do such things happen, and why do there seem to be no good answers?

These realities, experienced by me and many others, highlight the transitory and broken nature of our world. Here we have no lasting home. My anger is a testament to this reality. The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 and the withdrawal from Afghanistan bring these to the forefront of our individual and collective imaginations.

I believe that God’s heart is also saddened and angered. God is not looking on from afar, disinterested and unaware. The cross of Jesus Christ displays a God who comes in the midst of human suffering and takes it on as His own. He calls His followers to do the same. If nothing else, the story of my life, especially since 9/11, has been characterized by this ‘co-suffering’ (i.e., compassion). My family and I chose, in one measure, to enter into the suffering unleashed by the events of 9/11. Our motivation through it all was the love of God With Us, Immanuel. We did not emerge unscathed. Were the sacrifices worth it? Viewed solely in terms of temporal temporary gains, this question remains. In light of eternity, however, the calculus will be quite different.