News of the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11 changed my life in an instant. I witnessed part of America’s tragedy from my boss’s window at the Time & Life building in midtown Manhattan. Just bocks away, both Twin Towers collapsed like a stack of cards. Fortunately, none of my family or friends was killed or hurt, but I was still sick with fear because I knew what would come next.
As a military baby, I have faced the threat of war my entire life. Between my grandfather, Mark, my uncle Eric, and cousin Trey, who are all retired Army soldiers, my relatives have fought in almost every major American military conflict since 1941, including World War II, Vietnam, the U.S Invasion of Panama and the Persian Gulf War. My father has also served, though not in war. A retired lieutenant colonel, he was one of 83 people of color to graduate from West Point in 1974 and was the first Black disciplinary officer for the prestigious academy in 1985. Following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, he was appointed team chief for the Army, Ammunition and Weapons section. In layman’s terms, that means Daddy had to account for Army’s weapons and ammunition.
Over the years, I lived vicariously through his accomplishments. As his little girl, I was proud and patriotic. But secretly, I was also afraid. As I watched the U.S. military invade foreign lands like Panama in 1990 and the Persian Gulf in 1991, the threat of war haunted me. Would my Daddy be called to war? What if he was killed? How would we survive without him? I longed for my father’s early retirement so we’d never have to face the casualty of war on our front porch.
Blacks in the Military
Despite these fears, I’ve often defended my family members when people who feel that Blacks are overtly oppressed in this country, and say that Black men and women have no place in the U.S. military. I’d always argue that an enemy’s missile doesn’t discriminate. In many ways, I even consider myself pro-military, especially when so many young people — Black and White — seem to be so misguided. The military’s hard-line message about fighting for “duty, honor and country” would instill in them a much-needed sense of pride, responsibility and discipline.
I don’t regret my military upbringing because it afforded me many luxuries. At an early age, I became a world traveler on Uncle Sam’s dime, experiencing countries like Germany, France, Morocco and Turkey. And, many of my friends who may never have gone to college were able to do so through the G.I. Bill, the military academies and ROTC scholarships. All our lives, my father encouraged me and my younger brothers — Kelley, Warren, and Wesley — to carry on the family tradition by enlisting in the military. After all, he argued, we could get a $100,000 education for free.
But I wasn’t having it. When my time came to head to college in 1994, I declined a four-year Army ROTC scholarship and offers to attend West Point and the Naval Academy, and opted instead for the University of Virginia. I wasn’t up for getting yelled at by my superiors or facing hours of physical fitness training in the blazing sun. At first, my parents argued with me about my decision, but they realized I wouldn’t budge.
But my brothers, one by one, have started to fall in line. That’s why, annoyed and a little nervous, I dogged Kelley, 24, when he went to West Point a year later, and Warren, 18, when he started at the U.S. Air Force Academy this fall. My youngest brother, Wesley, 16, recently admitted that he’s also felt the years of silent pressure to conform to the military mindset, though he is just a junior in high school.
War at my Front Door
When my father left the Army in 1997, I thought, finally, my family was safe. But in the wake of last week’s tragedy, once again, war is at my front door. My brother Kelley serves as a pilot for one of the Army’s most technologically advanced, battle-ready helicopters, the Apache Warhawk. As of Sept. 11, he is on call, and may be told to go to war. And my daddy, who lost one of his friends in the attack on the Pentagon, where he worked for six years, is talking about re-enlisting in the Army at age 51. Initially I thought he was crazy, but I understand when he says anything you spend half your life protecting is worth preserving for the other half of your life as well.
None of this helps when I know that their patriotism could put them on the battlefield. With the talk of military strikes, all branches of the armed forces are moving into battle positions. I worry about what my military family life might mean for our future. My mother, who always supported my dad wholeheartedly in his mission to raise soldiers, had become less and less vocal about military matters in recent years. But Sept. 11 was her wake-up call. And while she hasn’t told my father this, she’s told me she’s worried about Kelley’s safety and that sometimes, especially now, she wishes none of her kids had ever enlisted.
Live free or …
While I don’t want to lose the men in my family to war, I do want the United States to protect our way of life — by any means necessary — by persecuting those responsible for the thousands of innocent lives that were taken so mercilessly on Sept. 11. I love my country and I’m furious that such evil was committed on our home soil.
Even now, as I waver between fear and anger, I realize I’d much rather perish than live in a country — even a country that enslaved my ancestors 400 years ago — where I was not free. I know that with racism, oppression, sexism, capitalism and all the other “isms”, freedom is a relative term. But I also know that every American, regardless of race, loses out if our constitution and democracy are not protected.
Each of the beloved men in my life knew from the first time they donned their green Army uniforms that the penalty for choosing to serve their country could be death. And while I certainly would not wish that fate on any of them, I’m incredibly proud to know that they — including my “baby bro” Kelley — were courageous enough to sacrifice that much for me. Families of the men and women of the United States Armed Forces face the threat of war every day of our lives. And we must show bravery and courage despite the unsettling thought that one day our loved ones could die for the sake of our freedom. After the attacks on Sept. 11 it’s the very idea of freedom that helps me — along with millions of other Americans — rest a little easier at night.
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