It’s been one year since I joined the military and this morning I took a bus into London. Wearing jeans, a t-shirt and an iPod, and leaving my camera at home, I was stopped by summer tourists with maps and accents I’d never heard before as I made my way through the city on the tube. But maybe they mistook me for a Londoner because I knew exactly where I was going.
Tavistock Square is a quiet, one block park carved out of the middle of office buildings and apartments, where trees and benches and paths and picnickers defy busy city streets. And one year ago here on the 7th of July a terrorist boarded a bus and detonated a bomb, shearing the red double-decker in half and sending the top deck into the air amidst a sea of fire and metal and flesh. That day, three other blasts in different locations would send London into pandemonium and turn the city into the newest battlefield of global conflict.
I had been to places like this before, in Lower Manhattan and downtown Amman. Tavistock Square was the most recent stop in an intensely personal journey that began one year ago when I entered U.S. Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs. But my journey is just one of many thousands in my generation who have committed to serving and training to become military officers under the ominous and urgent shadow of this global war. During this year we’ve been pushed to our absolute limits – physically, mentally, and emotionally. In just one year, the transformation my classmates and I have undergone has made us virtually unrecognizable from our former selves – and we’re just beginning to write the history of how our generation will meet the challenges of the Long War.
One year ago, a friend I know spent his summer refueling and repairing Cessnas on the tarmac of his small hometown airport in Omaha. This year, he’ll be observing from the flight deck of a special operations cargo plane with night vision goggles hanging from his helmet as he watches the European countryside race past two hundred feet below. One day he’ll be the aircraft commander who leads his crew to air drop badly needed humanitarian aid into a war-torn African village… and when the parachutes rapidly unfurl over the crates of food and water and medicine above the village, the sound will resonate louder than any speech ever given at the United Nations.
One year ago, a guy I know spent the night partying on the beach with his friends. They had been through a tough year of military preparatory school and they spent the night launching fireworks out over the Gulf of Mexico and saying goodbye to their girlfriends… at least for awhile. This year, he’ll get the chance to hang his feet off the back of a combat helicopter buzzing over the English coastline and toss target flares into the North Sea. He’ll feel the rush and horrible power of firing a heavy machine gun from that helicopter. He’ll be humbled and shaken by the experience, but one day he’ll be the pilot of a helicopter that will evacuate Americans from an embassy in a war zone.
One year ago, a girl I know spent her summers wakeboarding with her friends on Tampa Bay. This year, she’ll strap into a fighter jet and witness close air support maneuvers from the back seat. She’ll be scared to death and sick to her stomach, but one day she’ll be the pilot who is urgently re-tasked in mid-flight to attack an emerging target of opportunity. With poise and confidence she’ll punch the fighter jet’s afterburners and arm her laser-guided bombs, and she’ll make certain the insurgent safe house is anything but.
One year ago, a guy I know ran a high school cross country race for his personal best time. Drenched in sweat and out of breath, he cheered on his teammates as they each crossed the finish line. This year, he’ll find himself running across another field, this time with an assault rifle. This year, laden with body armor, he’ll find himself leading his team not to a finish line, but into an enemy encampment. Drenched with sweat and out of breath, he’ll yell out commands and give orders to his teammates, orchestrating order out of chaos while projectiles fly and percussions echo at close quarters. He’ll be in training and the bullets will be filled with paint and not lead, but soon he may need to use the same poise and leadership in the towns and streets of central Iraq.
And one year ago, a guy I know was having trouble working up the courage to ask his high school’s prom queen out on a date. This year, he’ll be working up the courage to let go of an airplane for the first time one mile above the earth’s surface and freefall before pulling his parachute and maneuvering to a drop zone the size of a postage stamp. He’ll visit his hometown months later with jump wings on his chest and ask if the former prom queen is still available – she will be.
I continued in London until the battery drained on my iPod. At the end of the day, while the long summer sun still burned late and low in the sky, I took the train north back to East Anglia and back to the Royal Air Force base where I spent my summer in England. Walking back to my dorm I passed a small memorial made of rock and marble next to a round-about. Two tall, green hedges in the shape of towers stood in the center of a concrete courtyard with five sides forming a pentagon. Then I saw two small children playing around a bench on the memorial, laughing and comparing their long shadows against those of the towers. Then one pointed to the engraved marble at the foot of the towers and their mother bent down to them, held their hands then said something quietly. She found words, but I could not.
What the American people need to know is that there still exist hundreds of thousands of young men and women in America who have made the decision to contribute to this fight. We’re contributing in public service, the military, and on college campuses across the country. Many in our generation – most in our generation, will not join us in this choice. Yet we think it’s worth it. We joined not because we want war, but because war is the most repulsive and despicable thing we know, and we’re certain that without a struggle for democracy, stability, and human liberty in the Middle East there can be no peace. And just maybe one day – many, many summers away from this one – we’ll be the generation that finishes this fight.