“If there must be trouble,” said American patriot Thomas Paine, “let it be in my day, so that my children may have peace.”
The third anniversary of the September 11 attacks is a grim reminder that we do not have peace in our day–nor will we for many days to come. But recent, horrific events in Russia–the slaughter of innocent children–remind us of something we should take note of today: Since September 11, 2001, there have been no attacks on American soil. This can be attributed to many factors, but much credit must be given to one salient fact: Our fighting men have enticed terrorists away from our cities and towns, away from our families and neighbors, and onto the terrorists’ own turf: Afghanistan and Iraq. Terrorists continue to slither into these lands to fight our soldiers there
, instead of attacking our children here
For our soldiers’ willingness to subject themselves to this I am daily and eternally grateful. But the cost to them, and to their families, is high: A thousand soldiers have died combating terror; thousands more have been wounded. This weekend we remember the bravery of those New York firefighters and cops, and those businessmen on a doomed plane, who ran into danger, giving their lives so that strangers might live. But we should remember, as well, the sacrifice of those to whom these brave men passed the torch: the soldiers who have spent the last three years on the front lines of the war on terror. Just as we learned the stories of those we lost on the first day of that war, we should learn the stories behind the Purple Hearts and Silver Stars and Soldier’s Medals our troops are earning now.
I had the opportunity to speak with half a dozen soldiers and Marines who have recently returned to the United States after duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among them is Marine Cpl. Charles Bigham, 27, of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, who was awarded the Purple Heart for his actions on March 30, 2004. That day, Bigham was with the 2nd Military Police Battalion, 2nd Force Service Support Group, providing security for a convoy outside of Fallujah, when three militants suddenly opened fire on them. Bigham’s Humvee chased them into the desert, where two escaped by car. The third, whom the Marines shot and wounded, disappeared down a hole. “When we got close he jumped up and started shooting at us with an AK-47,” Bigham recalls. “We shot back and he ducked down into his hole, and we threw grenades down the hole. The grenade blew up and we heard the guy scream, so we started back toward the hole. He jumped back up and started shooting at us again, so we took cover. I pulled my grenade out and as I was throwing it into the hole, he was throwing his grenade out. It landed about ten feet to my left side,” and a piece of shrapnel from it “tore a hole in the left side of my nose about the size of a dime, hit the bone of my nose, wrapped around behind my eye and lodged in the left orbital socket. One of my buddies stood up and shot the guy and killed him.”
Bigham lost 60 percent of the vision in his wounded eye and underwent reconstructive surgery on his face. Now back at Camp Lejeune, Bigham has lost none of his enthusiasm for the Marines. “I would love to stay in the Marine Corps, but I’m pending a medical separation,” he says regretfully.
Purple Heart recipient Jim Mosner, a 36-year-old husband and father of two, is a platoon sergeant in a Bradley (tank) platoon. On December 16, 2003, “We were at Fallujah, watching Highway 10 for insurgents.” Mosner’s driver had dropped down the ramp of the Bradley and gone to the back of the vehicle to secure the equipment. Without warning, the wall of the cinderblock house they were backed up against “exploded into the Bradley. It blew me over the seats and when I got hit I didn’t feel it. I got up, I got hit, and went into the house. My gunner came up behind me and grabbed me and asked me what I was doing. And I said, ‘We have to get the guys out of the house.’ And he said, ‘You’re hit!’ The blast had blown off the top part of my head, the left side of my face, and my left ear. I received shrapnel in the chest, and broke both my legs. I was in a coma for a week.” Four surgeries later, Mosner is “doing fine”–and plans on staying in the Army.
Purple Heart recipient Army Maj. John Silverstein, 36, of the 541st Corps Maintenance Battalion, was eating dinner at a logistical base near the Baghdad airport when, on January 7, “We were attacked just after sunset by a 160 millimeter mortar crew,” he says. “A mortar round hit high on the building next to the mess hall, and the shrapnel went through the mess hall and caught me in the left shoulder. We sustained about 30 wounded that night and one KIA. It was a pretty long night.”
Now back at Ft. Riley, Kansas, Silverstein says the war in Iraq is “absolutely” worth the losses America is sustaining. “Is it a hard thing? Sure. But there’s no doubt in my mind we’re doing the right thing.”
Purple Heart recipient Army Capt. Sean McWilliams, 32, was helping prepare for a local election on October 16, 2003, when an improvised explosive device went off. “I ended up with a golf ball-sized hole in my side and shrapnel all over the right side of my body and my lower legs. One of the Iraqis who was a doctor came up to treat us,” McWilliams says.
Heliported to the 28th Combat Hospital in Baghdad, McWilliams underwent surgery to “get the metal and rocks out.” More surgery followed in Germany before he was sent to Ft. Riley. He is now preparing to return to Iraq for the third time, eager to assist Iraqis who are “very dedicated to freedom and the principles of democracy.”
Three years ago, the actions of those New York firefighters brought words back into our vocabulary that we had almost forgotten: Words like gallantry and valor. Today our fighting men are burnishing these words in Iraq.
Like the firefighters, many will die in the effort to rescue others. Among them is Sgt. Andrew Baddick of the 82nd Airborne Division, who, on September 29, 2003, threw himself into treacherous waters near Abu Ghraib to rescue a drowning soldier. After pulling him to safety, Baddick again jumped in the water to save a second soldier but, unable to overcome the force of the current, Baddick was swept away.
The willingness to sacrifice one’s life for another in wartime is why, in the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas placed his discussion of just war in his chapter on charity and love of God. John Calvin called the soldier an “agent of God’s love” and soldiering justly a “God-like act.” Far from viewing war as a “necessary evil,” Calvin considered that “restraining evil out of love for neighbor” imitates God’s restraining evil out of love for humanity.
A world in which soldiers refused to do this would be a world overrun by those who do not hesitate to murder innocents on planes, in skyscrapers, and in grade schools to get what they want.
On the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, we should remember with gratitude the sacrifices of those who refuse to allow this to happen: valiant men and women willing to lay down their lives to protect their neighbors.
–Anne Morse is a freelance writer in Virginia.