A Decade After 9/11

By Ilario Pantano

Thank you to the families, including my own.

Is this as close to victory as we are ever going to get?” I wondered aloud as I absorbed the headlines. I’ve been struggling with that question, and perhaps you have too. But I have drawn some conclusions: Today, we may all feel like SEALs, but the credit doesn’t go to our military or our politicians. It goes to the military families: the spouses, the children, and the parents who have made this long war possible.

We’ve been at war for a decade, and only 1 percent of this country has any idea of what that actually means. Neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush has kissed his wife goodbye four, five, or six times to go into the unknown.

Last night, our friend Rachel was over for dinner with her two-year-old son Henry. My boys love to play with Henry, and when his daddy is away on a nearly year-long deployment, it’s nice for Henry’s mommy to have a few minutes of distraction. After my time in Iraq, my wife, Jill, could relate to Rachel’s struggles as a “single mom,” and we had a nice dinner talking about nothing and certainly not the family business. Henry’s dad is on his third “trip” to Afghanistan in three years, and for him, as a Marine infantry officer, the trips aren’t just long. They are dangerous.

With the news of bin Laden’s death, many friends have reached out to connect with Jill and me. “What do you think?” they ask. My friends know that like so many Americans, Jill and I were deeply impacted by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. With the air still thick with smoke and death, we almost cancelled our October wedding in lower Manhattan.

On Sept. 12, 2001, I started what would become a year-long process of reentering the Marine Corps. A part of me died on 9/11, and in the weeks that followed, I would have my first of many struggles with survivor’s guilt. Men from our neighborhood firehouse were killed, and friends from my days on Wall Street died, too.

One of the buildings where I had worked (4 World Trade Center) had been destroyed, and soon I would watch as my father’s tourism business shriveled and nearly died. Yes, it may be hard to remember, but between anthrax scares and jihadists, there was a time in 2001 when New York became a no-go for tourists.

My entire focus shifted from easygoing self-indulgence to national security. I don’t know how Jill put up with the transformation; it was never easy. I left the house on the morning of 9/11 with hair down to my shoulders as a media executive, and I returned home with a head shaved “high and tight.” She cried. We both cried. Our country had been attacked, and we were at war.

In the years that followed, Jill told me that my sense of humor died that day. I became consumed with defending the homeland as America awoke to confront a threat that had long been denied. I was inspired by the heroism and valor of men such as Johnny “Mike” Spann, a Marine–turned–CIA paramilitary officer who was killed in November of 2001. Mike was the first American killed in the War on Terror, and he left behind a wife and children.

In time, I became friends with Mike’s dad, Johnny Spann. Mr. Spann shared a tragic revelation: Mike had been part of earlier missions to kill bin Laden, but the Washington leadership (Clinton) had dithered and missed opportunities. I can’t imagine what the Spann family is feeling right now, but I know it will never bring Mike back.

The enemy brought a new kind of war to our doorstep, and just as today we all feel like Navy SEALs, ten years ago we all felt like victims. We quickly went on offense, and, like millions of Americans before us and beside us, we raised our right hands and said, “Send me.” Mike Spann was one of the first into the breach, but there would be more.

For every Pat Tillman, thousands of ordinary men and women left success and comfort for the austerity and death of the battlefield. After a year of volunteering, seeking waivers, and reapplying for a massive pay cut, Jill and I finally packed up our lives and headed off to Quantico for Officers Candidate School. Our little family didn’t know what to expect, but we knew we were headed toward the sound of the guns.

That September 12 decision and the experiences in war that followed changed our lives forever. As I reflect on the choices and the decisions that put ensuring our national security above all other callings in my life, I am left with one thought: I owe my wife big time!

Jill, my love, as I struggle to reflect on life after bin Laden, all I can find myself wanting to do is say thank you. Thank you for enduring.

For ten years, Jill has braved our family’s commitment to engage in the War on Terror, but this was never her plan. Yes, she knew I had been a Marine in the Gulf War, but those days were long behind us. As we planned our wedding in the summer of 2001, the last days of innocence, the thought of service and sacrifice was a footnote. It was history. It would become our story. In the time since 9/11, she has endured uncertainties, relocations, false alarms, and death threats.

She left her friends, her family, and her home so we could fight this fight together. She raised our son by herself while I was stationed at Quantico and we lived out of boxes. When the infantry-officer course kept me in the field for 45 out of 60 days, she made a home for us that I never saw. Even our dog stopped recognizing me.

After a year of training, I was finally assigned to my combat unit. Jill had packed up and moved our home to Camp Pendleton, Calif., only to be told that there had been a change in my orders, and the new destination was on the other side of the country at Camp Lejeune, N.C. The moving trucks arrived the day we signed a lease on our small apartment in Wilmington with a baby in her arms and a seabag in mine. Two months later, I was off to Iraq, and she was left to make friends and start a life with no family within 500 miles.

The television news offered no comfort as American bodies were hung from a bridge in Fallujah and the world went crazy. While her husband was fighting for his life, a new baby in her belly was fighting for his. It’s hard to share the frightening aspects of a pregnancy over a staticky satellite-phone call once a week. The letters home were a comfort, but the weeks of delay made it uncertain whether the sender was actually even alive. A video we shot of daddy reading a story book might be all the father that our two-year-old would ever know.

Ahh. Relief, Homecoming! The relearning and reconnecting that comes after a half-year separation begins.

The effects on her husband were not subtle. Real war — shooting and killing war — changes a man. Her husband was different. Her husband looked different, sounded different, smelled different. My chemistry had changed. My salt was saltier and my heart was heavier.

Home for two weeks, and then off to the hospital for a second baby! Mommy recovering nicely in the adjustable bed. Daddy watching the TV as Fallujah gets invaded for a second time. The joy of a son being born is tempered by brothers being killed.

All of these experiences are so common amongst the warrior class that to us, they are almost taken for granted. Ask your friends. Ask your neighbors. Their stories will be just as vivid, and so will their scars.

How many of us leave the battlefield and never stop mourning for our fallen brothers?

Every time I see my friend José, we cry thinking about his men being killed by an IED. Some friends I have learned to avoid because the emotional wreckage is too painful. One of my men, a boy really, who lost an arm in a firefight, survived Fallujah and Walter Reade only to succumb to the demons of war here at home. We spent days looking for his body, and then we buried him at Arlington. Some of my Marines have missed him so much that they tried to follow him to Arlington. Others have detoured through state and county jails as they struggled with alcohol and drugs.

When I was a deputy, we had troops in jail who had been arrested by men from their same National Guard unit. Think about that: Fighting side by side one day. Arresting your brother the next. What does that hell do to a man? To a marriage?

If it weren’t for God’s saving grace and the power of His healing, I would be lost. And I praise God for you, Jill. Your love and resilience has saved me from the dark corners of this post-9/11 odyssey.

With the achievement of this decade-old goal, I have become painfully aware of the debt of gratitude that I owe you, honey. The debt is echoed and compounded across this country. From shore to shore, in every neighborhood and every walk of life, America owes its military families. For a decade you have soldiered on and toiled, not just with spouses, parents, and children at war, but with the consequences of their broken bodies and broken hearts when they come home.

I love the gunfighters, but the true credit goes to the military families. Seven thousand coalition forces have died in combat since 9/11. Over 40,000 have had their bodies wounded, and over a million have engaged in this new form of combat that leaves deep scars of its own. Without your loving homes, tender embraces, and courageous hearts, our troops would not be up to the task.

For us, from SEALs to supply clerks, it’s the support of the families that makes it all possible. It is the families that pay the overdue bills, cook the missed meals, and dry the longing tears. Theodore Roosevelt said the credit goes to the one in the arena. I say the credit goes to the family, without which the arena would be empty.

So I say, rejoice today and give thanks to God. This small victory is a testament to American perseverance even in the face of unspeakable barbarism and psychological warfare. And this fight is far from over. Sure, we have more planes and tanks, but an enemy willing to kill its own women and children with bomb vests cannot be dismissed. And while we may have finished bin Laden, don’t ever forget how viral this movement of radical Islam has become.

I know you remember Daniel Pearl, a victim of Pakistani “tolerance,” but do you remember Nick Berg? I was fighting just outside of Fallujah in May 2004 when the little radio in our company combat operations center broke the savage news. Nick was only 26 when his head was cut off by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. I watched the video again just yesterday, and you should Google it, too.

You don’t really believe it could happen, and clearly neither did Nick. He sits in his orange jumpsuit like a fat lamb. He’s surrounded by masked gunmen, and Zarqawi reads a long, rambling statement. Nick just kind of sits there, and the men behind him hardly even shift their weight as the time goes by.

Suddenly Zarqawi is done reading. The knife is in his hands before you know it. A knee rests on Nick’s back while Zarqawi straddles him and starts sawing back and forth. One hand grips Nicks scalp, wrenching the neck in order to get a clear angle on the throat. The gunmen stand around chanting “Allahu Akbar” as if they were cheering on a fraternity hazing. Nick shrieks the shrill screams of a child, and then Zarqawi shows his lifeless head to the camera.

The image of a masked terrorist triumphantly holding Nick’s head has always struck me. It became much more personal two years later, when my own head would appear superimposed on Nick Berg’s in that same image. The FBI told my family that the website containing that image “originated in Pakistan.” The FBI also called to tell us that a cell in Ohio had information on my mother, my wife, and me.

That was the inevitable outcome of a highly publicized military investigation in which I was charged with murder for killing terrorists in combat. You can thank the breathless panic whipped up by our media for that one. Later, all the charges would be dismissed, and I would be granted a fresh combat command, but I chose to resign in order to protect my family. I became a deputy sheriff in North Carolina, determined to continue keeping my family and my community safe from these monsters, but the scars would linger.

Today, my commitment to keeping America safe is stronger than ever, which is why I am running for Congress. But that choice has had consequences for my family too, and the threats have picked up again. Jill, have I thanked you enough lately for your courage? You won’t be deterred, and neither will I.

Churchill said, “It is not enough that we do our best. Sometimes we have to do what is required.” Killing bin Laden was not our “best,” but it is what the situation required. In this long war, we may never have another reason or opportunity to celebrate like this.

“But is it truly a victory?” I asked one of my brothers-in-arms, a Marine officer turned shadow warrior.

He said, “In this fight, it’s as close to victory as we are ever going to get.”

We paused to reflect on how the war had changed both of our lives. He too joined the Marines after 9/11. He’s one of America’s best and brightest and could have done anything, but he and his young family have committed themselves to fighting our nation’s enemies. He too was inspired by men like Mike Spann, and he knows there will be dark days ahead, but today, he assured me, “It’s a victory, baby. It’s a victory.”

— Ilario Pantano is the author of Warlord: No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy.