The first time I traveled to New York City was in 1996. I remember how breathtaking the city was from my window seat on the airplane. I can only imagine that same view must have been horrifying for the passengers of those two planes, 19 years ago today. During my trip, I visited the World Trade Center, the famous “Twin Towers”. I stood at their foundation and marveled at their sheer size, like two gentle giants standing side by side. I actually had to crank my neck all the way back just to see the top. Last year, I visited the spot where they once stood so tall. It did not seem like the same place. Yet, there was something so sacred that penetrated my soul just standing there once again.
It’s strange for me to look at the photo of myself standing at the base of the towers, knowing that I was standing where so many would perish on that day that changed the world. For me that photo is symbolic of a starting point that would take me on an incredible journey. One that would shape the rest of my days on Earth. That’s a pretty bold statement, right? Stick with me and I think you will agree.
There are things about tragedy that intrigue me. One is how the brain codifies a moment in time, like a wound, to remain forever like a scar that you often stare at. So vivid are the recollections, like it was just 5 minutes ago. Most of us will recall exactly where we were and what we were doing when we learned of the first tower being struck. For me, I was a police officer attending SWAT try-outs. I was actually doing push-ups when someone walked up to our group and said, “An airplane just hit the World Trade Center”. As everyone found the nearest TV to gather around, it was not long before we witnessed the second strike, then rumors of an additional strike at the Pentagon, then the towers collapsing, then the fate of Flight 93…when would it end? For us, the drip-feed of calamitous news was followed by our predictions of what would be next. “We need to think about open air attacks in public places”, “Yeah, active-shooters in densely populated areas like malls and airports”, “We are definitely going to war over this”, several of us openly remarked with obvious anger in our voices. My emotions made the rounds over the following weeks. Like many around the world, I was enraged, I was grief-stricken and I wanted justice.
I continued to work as a police officer while our service men and women went off to war. I had been out of the Marines for years and I accepted my role in the effort to protect the homeland. But, something deep from within cried out. There was a yearning, a calling I could not ignor. I heard people say, “Thank God I was not on one of those flights.” Like me, there were many Americans who were thinking, “God, if only I could have been on one of those flights.” For a couple of years it stirred in my gut, often causing me to entertain ideas to join the efforts abroad. Finally, in Feb 2004, I put down my badge and gun and picked up a rifle and body armor to became a government contractor, putting me into hostile areas for the protection of U.S. Diplomates. This set me on a path that would land me in the Middle East for the next 12 years, working and residing in Iraq, then Jordan.
In Iraq, I worked first in Al Amarah, then Baghdad, and finally in Basra. Amidst the fighting and tragedy, I met so many friends from around the world. Even today, I still have contact with former Philippine soldiers who were there as contractors, British soldiers that I saw combat with, Dutch soldiers that I shared protection duties with, and New Zealand and Australian contractors who fought by my side while defending our clients. My Iraqi translator became one of my close friends, later becoming a US Citizen and reuniting with each other in San Diego. While in Iraq, I befriended several wild dogs, providing each other with companionship and love. I even saw old friends and acquaintances from my days in the Marines.
Later, I would be asked to take up a post in the neighboring country of Jordan. Little did I know, this place would change my life. I was there during the 2005 hotel bombings and would also find myself in the middle of the 2015 attack targeting my instructor team, resulting in 5 deaths, as we trained foreign partners at a facility outside of Amman. I witnessed Jordan open it’s arms to Iraqi refugees, then again to the Lebanese during their ongoing conflict, then the Libyans and finally the Syrians. I experienced a level of warmth by the Jordanians and Palestinians that stunned me. I’ve said many times, it reminded me of the America I grew up in. When family was center to everyone’s life and decisions. Suddenly, things seemed more simple, less distractions, more authenticity from strangers in the street. Practically every new acquaintance came with an invite to join their family for dinner. As a stranger in a predominately Muslim land, I was showered with gifts on Easter and Christmas. It was strange, it did not make sense from what the news taught me in the years prior. I would fall in love with the people, their food and their family values. In 2007, I met a beautiful Palestinian woman that I would marry and raise two wonderful children with.
So today, I look back on that photo of me standing at the base of the World Trade Center as a reminder. A reminder that no matter how hard life hits you and drops you to your knees, beauty will follow. Grief and misery will always be the first stages of the journey. 9-11 will forever hold pain for loved ones who suffered on that day, and the days that followed. Some dyeing of diseases caused from the debris at Ground Zero, or succumbing to injures sustained. From intelligence officers and soldiers who sacrificed their lives while bringing the architects to justice, to the citizen-soldiers who perished on Flight 93. Among the thousands of tragedies that this day spawned, take solace in knowing that thousands more beautiful stories were created from the ashes. How did that happen? Quite simply, the human spirit yearns to live in the light, not the dark.