November 05, 2008

Name: James Aalen Bernsen
Posting date: 11/5/08
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: James Aalen Bernsen

On September 11, 2001, I was working as the Deputy Press Secretary for U.S. Senator Phil Gramm in his Dallas office. I woke up that day and as if my instincts told me something would be different, changed my routine. Fixing some breakfast, I had turned on the television and had just started to eat. The anchor was seated in front of a vast backdrop of the New York skyline, in which one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center was engulfed in a wreath of smoke.

As I watched in fascination, the reporter said that there was no indication that the attack was related to terrorism. At that point the source of the explosion wasn't even certain, much less the instigation behind it.

But seconds later, all doubt was removed as a massive fireball appeared on the screen and the second of the twin towers was struck. Literally as I watched.

I immediately gave up my breakfast and hurried to my truck, and drove into work, listening to the radio reports and trying not to lose my composure. Arriving at the office ahead of my coworkers, I rushed to my office, and turned on the three televisions I normally used to track the Senator's media appearances. Turning them all on different channels, I then called the Washington D.C. office and talked strategy with our head press secretary. Nothing like this had happened in America since Pearl Harbor.

With three televisions, my office soon became the gathering ground for our staff. We were watching when the Pentagon was attacked, and when a plane disappeared over Pennsylvania. And we watched in horror as first one, then two, of the twin towers collapsed.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had said after Pearl Harbor that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." But fear itself is hard to fight, when the true scope and nature of the threat are nebulous, the origins undetermined. Not knowing who or what was targeted, the order was given by the Senate to evacuate all capitol offices in Washington, and shortly after, the district offices as well. Soon, the staffers -- mostly young, 20-something kids -- gathered in the state director's office. In subdued tones, we stood in a circle and prayed. I will remember to my dying day the image of one of the girls, wiping away tears. Just the day before, she had been a carefree youth with no fear in the world. That day, I saw fear written large across her face. Across the face of a fellow American. Someone who had never done anything to hurt or oppress anyone, but was a target nonetheless, as we all were.

And then they left, all of them. Except me. I had been asked -- and agreed -- to stay behind to man the phones. With the D.C. office mandatorily evacuated, I became the only office contact for the Senator. Throughout the rest of the day, I answered press calls and drafted press releases for him in consultation with the D.C. press secretary, who gave me guidance on the phone. As he read off the Senator's words and I typed them out, the gravity of the moment was impressed on me. After finishing up the press release and sending it out, I was suddenly confronted with an aweful silence in the room. My televisions were muted and with my work done, I felt both relieved and drained.

It was then that I began to contemplate at last the new age we had entered, and to consider what my role in that age would be. Certainly, in my job, I was in a greater position to act and shape the world than I had been in even a couple of years before as a small-town journalist. But was this a real role? Was it enough to simply type out a press release calling for a war on terrorism and leave the fighting up to other people's sons, daughters, mothers and fathers?

I felt compelled at that moment to drop everything and sign up for the military. It was a natural, emotional reaction. But there was a catch. In two months, I would turn 30 years old, and that was the cutoff for most military recruitments. It seemed that my destiny would be to watch, from the sidelines, a great drama unfolding without me. For many, this would have been a relief. For me, perpetually inspired by heroes of older generations, it was a torment.

September 11 was a Tuesday. That Friday, I walked with a friend to the Catholic Cathedral in Dallas for Mass. Passing through an indoor mall, we stopped at a booth for the American Red Cross. They were taking donations of anything and everything. I reached into my wallet and found only one piece of currency -- a fresh, $100 bill. And nothing else. After a moment of hesitation, I handed it over. The woman who received it was stunned. I didn't look rich, and despite a great-sounding job title, government work doesn't make you rich either. But it was something, and I felt I had to give. After I had passed her the bill, I felt a growing sense that I had done the right thing. It was silly, really, to worry about $100 when so many people had lost so much.

Almost as an afterthought, the woman stopped me before I could walk away, and gave me a small plastic American flag. "Thank you, and God bless you," she said. I took the flag and carried it with me to the prayer service.

As you can no doubt guess, I have kept this flag with me throughout the years. I kept it as I made the decision to join the Navy Reserves after finding a program that would take me and let me serve despite my age. I kept it as I was commissioned, as I went through my first year of training. I kept it through my second and third years as I served as a reserve officer, putting in weekends working on projects that relieved the strain on the folks on the front lines. Finally, my time came to go forward as well, and as I packed last July for my year in Iraq, I mused for a moment on the flag, hanging on my bookshelf. I pulled it down without a moment's hesitation and stuck it into my backpack.

My flag was with me through every part of my journey. It was displayed proudly in my foot locker at Fort McCoy. I carried it through Kuwait, and it was in my backpack as I boarded the C-130 to Iraq. Moving into my new trailer, I stuck it on my wall. It was there, and emerged unscathed as that same wall was riddled with shrapnel following a rocket explosion last November. Though the wall nearby was pierced, the flag was untouched.

Finally, as I left Iraq, it was with me. At my last stop in theater, at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, I unfurled my tattered September 11 flag and snapped a picture -- something I had never gotten around to doing up to that point. It's only a small piece of plastic, but it's a reminder -- a bind -- which ties my service today to that moment so many years ago when we all felt small, unempowered and vulnerable. And yet it reminds me of all that I did throughout those years to change from a civilian who could do nothing, to a serviceman who could do something. My role may have been small -- but like a voter on election day, one person, doing their small part, can make a big difference, when multiplied by thousands.

And across America in the last few years, thousands and thousands of Americans did just what I did. They all had some experiences which they look back to, which reminds them, just as my flag does. And like me, those thousands of Americans are doing their part. As I left Iraq, I knew it was in good hands, because so many of those people had come and so many would follow. Somewhere, deep down, we all have a little flag which inspires us -- a small, insignificant token which represents something greater, something noble, and something to which we are willing to dedicate our lives. And that's what keeps us going.

Framed Bernsen flag


welcome home

Thank you for your service James.
You are a very good writer, I hope you take some time to write about more of your experences in Iraq.
Bless you.

Thank you for your service to our country. You are a wonderful person and I enjoyed reading your blog. Welcome home!!!!

You speak words from my heart that I cannot express. I've carried a simple signature on an old mimeograph almost 40 years. It would be the last thing I would ever part with. From your lips to God; from your keyboard to human hearts.

Phil Gramm - architect of the de-regulation of wall street - his wife was deeply involved in Enron. None of this has anything to do with Iraq or your involvement in the war. Thanks for serving.

As Veteran's Day approaches, thank you, again, for serving. Please write more.

James, First you are a good writer and I hope you continue to always write from your heart as it is a beautiful thing. If I had been in the Senate before we invaded Iraq I would have voted no to give President Bush the power to do so, but your blog states something deeper and more important. It is fellow citizens like you that still makes me so proud to fly my American flags. Thank you so much.

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