WHAT SURVIVES: Outlook features four lives shattered and transformed by Osama bin Laden: A woman whose mother was killed on 9/11; a Marine sent to war; a detainee held in Guantanamo; and a Muslim-American mistakenly put on a no-fly list.
At Marine combat training, we had just finished a land navigation assessment — using coordinates and compasses to find boxes in the woods — and begun eating our MREs when word was passed down by our corporals that the captain would be addressing us soon. I still wonder how that pale, tall Marine with the fire-red mustache felt when he delivered the speech that changed all of our lives that morning, Sept. 11, 2001.
He relayed the information that everyone else in America and most of the world already knew: Two towers destroyed. The Pentagon bloodied. Another flight fallen out of the sky into a field in Pennsylvania. His silver bars often caught the glint of the North Carolina sun. “Gentlemen,” he concluded, “if ever there were a time to take this training seriously, that time is right [expletive] now.”
We finished our meals and went back to work. It almost felt like a hoax, as if our instructors were playing a game with us to see if we’d crack. Much of your training in the Marines is based on putting you through mental anguish and measuring and analyzing your reaction. A few weeks before, at boot camp, my drill instructors were screaming, “I bet the Chinese are training harder than you!” It felt off-script to suddenly be assigned another enemy, Islamic fundamentalism.
That night, during more navigation training, one of our corpsmen drove his pickup truck to our final rally point at the end of the testing and let his AM radio blast the news. I remembered learning once that when “War of the Worlds” was broadcast on the radio for the first time in 1938, people who heard the transmission freaked out and armed themselves. I listened to the radio for five minutes. The detail was too real to be a hoax. I was already armed.
I was 17 years old, and I knew then that despite having enlisted as a Marine Reservist during peacetime, I would be going to war. If Osama bin Laden had never carried out his attack on American soil, I, as a reservist, would have simply gone to college, cut my hair once a month, graduated at 21 and used the word “Marine” only on my resume.
During my first tour — the invasion of Iraq — the patriotism and resolve we all felt on 9/11 were palpable. Some of the reservists from New York wrote “we will never forget” on their helmets and named their section of the base after 9/11 heroes in their unit who had given their lives that day. I didn’t see the connection between the attacks and our invasion, but I did see this new battle as an effort to prevent future terror and protect the home front.
Bin Laden was still hiding somewhere, but at the time it seemed as though Afghanistan was on its way to becoming a stable democracy. I was eager to be where the new action was, in Iraq.
But the war in Iraq continued even after the president declared “mission accomplished,” and the battle plan and its objectives felt more daunting, overwhelming and confusing during my second tour, a year later.
As a civil-affairs Marine, a nation-builder, I had just arrived in Fallujah to help rebuild and strengthen the city’s infrastructure when two Blackwater contractors were hung from a bridge in 2004. The first battle for that city began, and it was deadlier than anyone had imagined. The Abu Ghraib scandal had occurred just before that, further inflaming Islamic fundamentalists. And thousands of insurgents — wannabe bin Ladens — were flooding Iraq to make it the place of their holy war. That April became the bloodiest month of the conflict at the time. And 100 casualties a month became normal.
Later that tour, on the Syrian border, we battled hundreds of foreign fighters, many of them members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who had heard bin Laden’s calls to arms and wanted to make a stand.
While at war, to consume your mind with the politics of the battle — the should-we-be-here and is-this-a-just-war questions — will make you mad. All I knew was there were a lot of insurgents who tried to kill us often. But we wanted to preserve the freedom we created for the people who lived there. We wanted to give them hope, and many of my friends have died in Afghanistan and Iraq for that reason.
William Salazar, a combat photographer on my team who stayed behind, was killed by a suicide bomber a month after we left. Mike Starr, a friend from high school who went to boot camp with me, died in a helicopter crash in 2005 in Iraq. His casket was never opened. Two Marines I had helped recruit, Norm Anderson and Joshua Snyder, were killed in combat in Iraq that same year. I couldn’t bring myself to attend their funerals because of the guilt. And Bill Cahir, a former reporter and congressional candidate, a sergeant in my unit and a good friend, was killed in Afghanistan in 2009, on his third tour. Many people flooded his Facebook page this past week — the occasion of bin Laden’s death — to honor him. One friend wrote: “We got him, brother. And we’ll persevere in our larger mission. Semper Fi.”
When the news came of bin Laden’s death, I felt numb at first. Rather than exult, I could only mourn my friends and the other Americans who lost their lives. My roommate — my best friend and another Marine veteran — suggested we do a shot to celebrate bin Laden’s killing.
We had only imported alcohol on hand, so we chose a couple of ounces of rum from Puerto Rico instead of French liqueurs or vodkas. We continued watching the news: the slips in verbiage that confused “Obama” and “Osama”; the bold, galvanizing speech of the commander in chief; the crowds gathering on the streets of New York and at the gates of the White House. I knew, despite living in Towson, that I had to be at the president’s home, too.
I raced down I-295 in my Lincoln and scanned the different AM stations. Yes, he is dead. Shot in the head. SEAL Team 6. A good and historic day.
I parked several blocks from the White House and could hear the cheers reverberating. I saw cars zipping through the cross streets, honking their horns, sometimes a passenger’s hand holding the American flag out the window.
The scene outside the White House felt like a big hug. It didn’t matter that I had come alone; I was here with a thousand of my fellow Americans. And we were wild with patriotism, even cheering the cops who were trying to corral us away from the fence.
We sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” We said the Pledge of Allegiance and high-fived. I had arrived wearing a scarlet and gold-lettered USMC T-shirt. Among the college students and other veterans, a group of active-duty Marines from the barracks at 8th and I in Southeast Washington had shown up, too. They carried the colors of the Corps. I shoved my way toward them, and we all sang the Marine Corps hymn. Marines of many other generations joined us, some with beards, some in their 60s, some with beer guts and tight T-shirts that didn’t fit anymore.
As a veteran and a citizen of a nation at war for almost a decade, I can say that we don’t seem to get many victories in these modern wars. They feel unending, and their objectives seem hard to define. But everyone can cheer bin Laden’s death like we did that night.
For a moment, turn off your mind, like I had to in Iraq. Turn off the politics. Turn off your philosophical debate over whether it’s right to celebrate a man’s death. Just cheer for the troops. Cheer for your country. And remember the fallen.
Marine Corps Reserve Cpl. Dario DiBattista served from 2001 to 2007, deploying twice to Iraq.