By Pat Halliwell
After completing two years at City College, my son Dustin decided to enlist in the U.S. Army for a four-year term. His initial plans were very specific: according to his contract, after completing basic training and airborne school, he was to be stationed in an Airborne Infantry Brigade in Vicenza, Italy. I was very proud of Dustin, not only for the choice that he had made to serve his country, but also for carrying on a tradition of military service which my father, a first generation immigrant to this country, started as a Staff Sergeant in World War II. But when I shared the news of Dustin’s enlistment with a co-worker, I was shocked by his response: “Is there something wrong? Why would he do that?”
In my eyes, serving in the army was an honorable and patriotic thing to do. My co-worker, however, saw it as an incomprehensible act. At this time in history we were a country at peace and had enjoyed this status for over nine years – the United States had not been engaged in a declared war since the Gulf War crisis of 1990-1991. Lulled into this state of tranquility, I would argue that the lack of patriotism that I witnessed was not isolated to this one man but, instead, may have been reflective of a larger portion of the population. I believe that voter registration and participation on Election Day are gauges of a citizen’s sense of duty and patriotism. According to the U.S. census data, “registration rates of voting-age citizens dropped significantly between 1996 and 2000 for men; women; non-Hispanic Whites; Asians and Pacific Islanders; and all age groups” (Census).
Most Americans have the essentials of life and enjoy the benefits of living in the richest and most powerful country in the world. In spite of this, many people are not willing to take the time to research issues and candidates that directly affect these benefits. The book Why Americans Don’t Vote, written by Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, provides intriguing insights into the mind of a non-voter:
A fair amount of academic work has been directed to explaining why non-voting should not be considered a problem at all. In one major tradition, non-voting is defined as a kind of voting, a tacit expression of consent and evidence of satisfaction (Piven 13).
Prior to our present war, a great number of Americans found themselves content with the peacetime status quo and were satisfied to have others make their decisions for them. The issue of who would run this country and generate its policy was not their greatest concern.
Although my husband and I supported our son’s decision to join the army, we could not have been prepared for the emotional highs and lows we would go through after he left. I will never forget the sorrow and pain in my husband’s eyes as he watched our son drive away with the recruiter on that Monday, September 18, 2000. There is a piercing pain and a feeling of emptiness a parent feels when his or her child leaves home, when he takes those first steps toward full independence and begins the rite of passage that changes a young adult to a man. Although he was entering the armed services during peacetime, this did not eliminate our worry and anxiety that one day Dustin could be in harm’s way, or our fear that during the rigorous training exercises of basic training and airborne school he could be injured.
There was a period of several weeks when we did not hear from our son, which I learned is common for many families once basic training begins. I remember attending a USC football game during this time, and recognizing that tears welled up in my eyes when the national anthem was played. Feelings of patriotism and pride for Dustin overwhelmed me. Although the majority of the crowd was not singing along with the national anthem, I began to sing softly. I had had a great sense of patriotism throughout my childhood, and as I sang our anthem those quiet and inactive feelings seemed to bubble to the surface.
I was raised in a home where love of country was valued, and voting was considered a privilege and an obligation. My mother was in the habit of bringing a voter registration form to all 18-year-old family birthday parties. She volunteered her time for local and national Republican Party campaigns, and, as a teenager, I supported her in “get the vote out” phone calls or dropping off political pamphlets door-to-door.
My long-standing sense of patriotism was further fueled on February 2001 when my daughter, my husband, and I flew to Atlanta and then drove to Fort Benning, Georgia to attend Dustin’s basic training graduation ceremony. When we entered the parking lot adjacent to where the ceremony was to take place, I looked around and saw the largest number of out-of-state license plates that I had ever seen. Many of them were from distant states that would have required several days of travel to appear at the ceremony. I was touched by the efforts all the families had made to be there to support their soldiers.
The graduation ceremony was quite impressive and stirred tremendous and familiar feelings of patriotism and pride within me. The ceremony, which took place in an open field surrounded by a forest, began with a Bradley tank emerging from the trees and barreling past the grandstands as the public address system blared George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone.” Once the tank had reached the opposite side of the field, five soldiers dismounted and advanced through a multicolored smoke screen. The soldiers, complete with camouflaged painted faces, patrolled across the field in a combat formation with weapons drawn. They then maneuvered toward the grandstands while skillfully demonstrating combat techniques. When they reached their destination, the area immediately in front of the audience, the Bradley appeared again, dropped its back hatch doors, loaded the soldiers and swiftly sped off into the forest. The audience was so awed by the demonstration that it had not noticed that the graduating soldiers had emerged from behind the trees and were marching in silent formation toward their proud families. The young men marched with perfect discipline and halted directly in front of the stands. Their unflinching, focused expressions validated their transformation from civilians to trained soldiers.
As part of the ceremony, we heard inspiring speeches from the troop’s Commanding Officer, as well as from war heroes of different eras. We were provided details of the rigorous training to which our sons had been subjected and had successfully completed. It was clear that our sons were now trained soldiers, ready to fight for our great country if called to do so.
Dustin went from basic to airborne training. When we attended his airborne graduation, I could see a visible difference in his face. He looked so focused, mature and confident that, at first glance, I did not recognize him. The rite of passage was now complete; he had transitioned from a young adult to a man. During his airborne training he made a decision to give up his assignment in Italy, instead opting for the most challenging assignment: Ranger training. He successfully completed the Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP) and graduated on June 22, 2001. RIP is an intense three-week training course, so intense that of the 220 men who began the training, only 69 men completed it. Dustin was then assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment, 2nd Battalion in Fort Lewis, Washington.
On September 11, 2001 our focus from feelings of pride and contentment over Dustin’s accomplishments took an abrupt 180-degree turn to feelings of horror and outrage as we witnessed the unthinkable tragedy of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Initially, we thought there had been an accident – one plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The news was covering the smoldering crash when seventeen minutes later the second plane hit the South Tower. The world watched in horror as the reality of what was happening began to unfold. All over America people were watching first-hand the horror of terrorist attacks on our soil.
I had just arrived to work when I heard the details from co-workers. We all huddled around the television in the conference room to watch the horrifying pictures of the plane crashes and then the collapse of the Twin Towers. The images were raw and gut wrenching, and we watched as history unfolded before our eyes. Although graphic and disturbing, the news coverage was a display of straightforward, unedited journalism at its best. The unexpected nature of the coverage left no time for editing and interpretation, very unlike the summaries we tend to see on the evening news. The focus this day was not about ratings, it was about journalism and honest, uncensored reporting.
My senses seemed to be on overload that week, and several emotions were pulsing through me. The September 11th tragedy was like cold water thrown over our warm feelings of excitement, not only for our son’s accomplishments but also for a milestone event in the history of our family: our daughter was getting married on September 15, 2001 in Monterey, California.
We had been disappointed that Dustin was not going to attend the wedding since his military duties did not allow him to miss a training maneuver scheduled in Germany at the same time. Our disappointment turned to anxiety as we pondered the sudden act of war waged against our country and the reality of the response the United States would take to defend against further attacks. Dustin had now been in the army for a year, refining his skills as a warrior for his country. The terrorist attacks jarred our senses, and we were forced to realize that Dustin was now in a position to defend this country directly on the front lines. We didn’t allow ourselves to dwell on the thought that the ultimate price our country would pay could include the life of our son.
Competing with our feelings of anxiety over Dustin were feelings of excitement and joy over the impending wedding. I had been in daily phone conversations with our daughter since the attack and had learned of altered plans for the ceremony, due to safety measures the country was taking. Several guests from out of state would not be able to get to Monterey, since all airplanes had been grounded. One of the groomsmen was stranded in Kentucky, other family members were unable to fly out of Seattle. These were insignificant details compared to what our country was facing, but I couldn’t help but harbor selfish thoughts that this monstrous event had far-reaching tentacles that effectively disrupted everyone’s life.
On Thursday morning my husband and I began the drive up to Monterey via Highway 101. We were on the road that day for over six hours. During this time we observed an outpouring of patriotism in town after town as we made our way up the California coast. These outward expressions of love of country were soothing to me and helped to ease my anxiety as well as to refocus my energies onto my greatest held values of love of family and faith in the goodness of God. My selfish thoughts were fading and I couldn’t wait to get to Monterey to hug our daughter, to feel her love and to know that as a family and as a country we would stand together to overcome these tragic times. For this weekend, I decided, my focus would be on my family, and when I returned I would begin to take action to help those families that had lost loved ones. I would find a way to do my part to make some contribution, even if it was only monetarily, to promote the healing process.
The radio stations were playing one patriotic song after the other, and “Proud to be an American” seemed to be a heavy favorite. As we drove under freeway overpasses, we noticed that large U.S. flags had been draped over the railings in what seemed to be minimally populated areas. We stopped for breakfast in Santa Barbara just as the city workmen were lining State Street with American flags. An American flag waved from each light pole. It was a demonstration of patriotism unlike any I had witnessed before, so pure and heartfelt. Each act of patriotism was helping to heal the country’s wounds created by the tragedy of September 11th. I felt it was a gift that day to watch these all unfold, each gesture stirred in me a sense of awe of this wonderful country that we live in filled with beautiful, courageous, resilient and loving people.
Once we arrived in Monterey we were caught up in the thrill and excitement of the final wedding plans. We were able to transcend the tragedy of 9-11 by escaping into a place of pure joy and hope, the hope that comes with celebrating marriage and new beginnings. During the reception our son called from Germany to talk to the wedding party, family and friends. Dustin’s friends kept relaying to him over the phone, “It is so beautiful, man.” We had all escaped for a few hours from the horror of what had occurred in our country and were able to focus on the enduring love of family and friends that bound us all together. Fortified with the strength that we draw from the love of those that surround us, we were able to move forward and to face the consequences of the difficult decisions our country was forced to make.
When the U.S. responded to the attacks with air strikes on Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 my heart ached knowing that Dustin would soon be involved first-hand in the horrors of war. Early in 2002, he was deployed for the first time on a combat mission to the Middle East. The following morning I awoke with the same realization of all mothers that had sent their son off to war before me: my son might be killed. It weighed on me heavily and brought me to tears. Suddenly a tremendous sense of empathy enveloped me. I had never appreciated the sacrifices of others until now. As a young girl I had watched clips of the Vietnam War on the evening news, but it did not impact me, it seemed so remote. From now on, however, I would not be just viewing pictures of war. The possibility of combat was real and was personal – our son was one of those people who were making the sacrifice to serve their country.
When Dustin received deployment orders, he could not share the details with us. It was mandatory for Ranger missions to remain secret, since they are a part of the elite special operations that work on top-secret missions and covert operations. We were very fortunate to receive phone calls, letters and, occasionally, e-mails from him. Phone conversations were typically one-sided: he would want to hear all about what we had been up to, especially all the local sports scores, but he could say very little about what he was doing. A common reply was, “I’m doing OK.”
During a deployment, Dustin would communicate with us in some manner at least once every seven to ten days. We welcomed any communication at any time from him, even when it meant a quick, two-minute phone call at 2:00 AM. When he would call us he often was brief and relayed that he had to respect a time limit since there was a line of soldiers waiting for their two to five minutes to call home. If he was going to be unreachable for a long period of time, he would give us warning by saying something like, “You won’t hear from me for awhile.” Although Dustin revealed little about what he was going through, just hearing his voice or receiving any communication from him brought us tremendous comfort and peace. It kept our worst nightmare from overwhelming us, a nightmare that begins with a car with government plates parking in front of our house and a knock on the door.
CNN became a source of detailed information for us. It amazed me that Dustin himself had to remain so secretive, while we could occasionally hear reference to special operation missions on CNN. I would sometimes feel angry and wonder if this full disclosure to the public on CNN was compromising the safety of our soldiers.
Throughout this experience my coping mechanism has been my faith. It has carried me through three other combat deployments, and the act of prayer has brought me tremendous peace. My patriotism matured from pride in my country and our son to a desire to take action on these feelings by honoring our soldiers in some small way. I initiated a display table set up in our church, which now features pictures of deployed servicemen and women. At my church we had been in the practice of praying for these soldiers each Sunday by name, but now the congregation had a chance to put faces with those names. It was my effort to make the sacrifices these soldiers were making for all of us real and personal.
The war on terrorism continues to wage and there is no end in sight. Protests over the war, once prominent, have now greatly subsided. More than one thousand American soldiers have lost their lives, and our citizens will have to decide if this price is too high. If patriotism is the love, loyalty and support of one’s country, we all must get involved and do our minimal duty: voting is a first step to action. Love your country enough to decide whether or not to support its elected leaders, but don’t be apathetic about the freedom that we all enjoy. We saw on September 11th how easily that freedom can be threatened and marred by the horrendous acts executed by only nineteen men.
In Howard Zinn’s article, Artists in Times of War, he states, “To criticize the government is the highest act of patriotism.” Is this statement accurate? It is easy to throw stones and tear down government policy, but what do we do to offer or contribute to a solution? Are we voting to select officials that share our values? What organizations are we involved in that are actively promoting peace or are educating others about peaceful methods of resolution? In the 60s it was often said that “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” While having an opinion and professing it are among our rights as Americans, we must not forget to honor those that have made the sacrifice which allows us those freedoms. It is our right to be for or against war, but regardless of our stand, we must remember to support the soldiers.
In closing, I offer one definition of patriotism from my son Dustin himself, who sent these words via email when he was serving on his last combat deployment in the Middle East.
Just like opinions on the war, I know that many Americans might differ on their ideas of what patriotism is. I believe I have had special insight that the vast majority of Americans, and most people in the Army for that matter, will never experience. This experience has helped me to more clearly define what I think patriotism is and to be even more grateful than ever for those that have fallen before me in the name of patriotism. I believe patriotism to be standing by and being willing to fight for the ideals that set this country apart, and always have. I know that what many Americans perceive as human error and questionable leadership have turned people against the government in this country. But I didn’t volunteer to do what I do to appease one man or a certain government for that matter. At the risk of sounding self-righteous, I make all of the sacrifices that I do, and frequently put my life on the line, for people like my family, and for every American back home. So that you people can sleep easier at night knowing that there are people like me out here willing to die, kill, or do whatever it takes to preserve freedom and preserve everything that we as Americans have come to love about our country.
About the Author:
Pat Halliwell is a senior majoring in gerontology. She was born in Los Angeles and now resides in Long Beach with her husband of 28 years. Pat will be applying for USC’s master’s program in occupational therapy and, upon completion, will devote her practice to improving the quality of life for seniors.
Francis Fox Piven, Why Americans Don’t Vote (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 13.