It’s six months since September 11th. On that bright, sunny Washington morning, I was driving to the Pentagon for a meeting, listening to the reports of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. As I was at the south end of the 14th Street Bridge, I saw the exploding fireball on the distant side of the Pentagon. One of my daughters, her husband, and their 4-year son saw the plane as it crashed into the building and exploded. How do you explain to a 4-year what has just happened? How do we explain it to each other? I stopped by church on the way home from the office and prayed. Because many know that I am often at the Pentagon, I received many phone calls that night from friends and family checking to see if I was safe. At such times, we seek solace within our families.
On the Saturday evening following the tragedy, my girlfriend and I drove up to the Pentagon. We stood silently with others on the hillside below Marine Corps Headquarters, next to Arlington Cemetery, among the many candle memorials dotting the slope. We watched helplessly and prayed as rescue teams worked tirelessly under the bright white lights that cast an eerie glow upon the macabre scene of destruction.
Today, six months later, I’m flying back to Washington after two weeks in Germany and Uzbekistan. I’ve traveled overseas several times during the last six years, observing NATO operations in Bosnia and Croatia, conducting Logistic Information Exchanges throughout central and eastern Europe in the former Warsaw Pact nations, and assisting the newly independent Central Asian republics and the Republic of Georgia with their Defense Reform activities. In some small way, I hope that my activities assist in promoting peace. In each country since September 11th, I’ve gratefully accepted the heartfelt condolences and support from our foreign colleagues as they sought to provide solace in our suffering.
As with many Americans, I’ve shared in our communal losses. Our parish lost a very active parishioner in the Pentagon attack; one of our readers lost her brother in the World Trade Center; the ex-wife of one of my co-worker’s died in the plane that smashed into the Pentagon — she was beginning a delayed honeymoon. I attended her memorial service, listening as their two daughters eulogized their mother.
I’ve been around death. Serving two combat tours in Vietnam, I saw Marines die next to me and lost classmates and friends, Jim Egan and Joe Powell. When the man behind you is killed, you wonder why you were spared. Now older former Marines and friends die, in part from injuries received during the war. I mourn their passing and grieve for their families. Twenty months ago I flew home to bury my mother. Mom had recently celebrated her 90th birthday in decent health and only two months before her death had held her latest great-grandchild, my granddaughter. God had called her home; we did not mourn, we celebrated her life and thanked God for being so merciful to her and our family.
But today on Flight 917 grief overcame me as I read in the winter 2001-02 issue of Notre Dame Magazine of the losses suffered by our Notre Dame family. In one sense, these victims were strangers. But they weren’t strangers or friends of friends, they were our brothers and sisters, aunt and uncles, cousins — they were our family — and it hurt, hurt badly. Frequently my eyes teared as I read their names and relationships within our ND family. It was painful to continue, but necessary. Most were really just beginning their lives. They will be so sadly missed that words cannot adequately describe the pain and loss suffered by their immediate family. God had not been merciful.
For me, the passage of the past six months did not lessen the impact of their deaths, rather, reading of their deaths accented the void, the pain, the sorrow, the inability to console. The listing of their names and relationship within our Notre Dame family brought home to me, as no other reporting has, the impact of this horrific act of terrorism. However, it reaffirmed for me the meaning of the term “Notre Dame family.” When one member of our ND family suffers, we all suffer.
As has been written often before, there is no more peaceful place on earth than at Our Lady’s grotto at Notre Dame. In times of difficulty, the candles blaze and Hail Mary’s are offered while fingers lightly touch the stone from Lourdes. Unfortunately, most of us can’t enjoy the solace of being physically present at the grotto. However, like many, I have a painting of the grotto in our living room — I need to stop and pause in front of it more often and say another Hail Mary. My prayer will be that Our Lady and Saint Joseph, patron of a happy death, console those who have suffered so terribly. May we who remain rededicate ourselves to working for peace and justice.