It’s not often that you think about the day before the day that everything changed. It’s hard to go back there, not because the day itself was anything but good, but because what followed was so painful. Wading through the memories on the journey back to the last good day requires an elusive depth of courage and energy. Still, I think the journey is worth it. For the recollection of what once was is a reminder also of what could be again.
My day before was a Monday. I remember that it began in darkness as I rose unusually early to begin my last hours of normalcy. I was a twenty-four year old First Lieutenant in the Army serving as the Commander of the Presidential Salute Battery. We were the platoon in the storied 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the oldest unit in the Army, responsible for firing twenty-one gun salutes for the President and other dignitaries. We were also the mortar platoon for our Regiment, maintaining combat proficiency in the unlikely event a war broke out requiring our services.
I drove in darkness to meet the men of Guns Platoon at our barracks in Arlington. A charter bus idled in the parking lot as some of the men stood in groups smoking cigarettes and teasing each other, the way that young soldiers do. I sipped on black coffee while our platoon sergeant, Bobby Stringfellow, gave instructions and took roll call. The mood was light. This was a rare day in the Army. This was known as “mandatory fun”, an obligatory but not wholly unpleasant assignment. We had the privilege of wearing “civies” our civilian clothes, which most of us wore poorly as we were accustomed to doing most of life in an Army issued uniform. We loaded the bus and began our early morning drive north to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. We were going on what the Army calls a “staff ride” which is basically a field trip for soldiers where you tour a battlefield, studying the way the battle unfolded and capturing leadership lessons along the way.
As the leader of our platoon, I had planned this excursion for months. I have always enjoyed learning about history, especially the Civil War period. My great, great, great grandfather fought for a Regiment in Pettigrew’s Brigade in the war that ripped our country apart. The history books record that James Augustus Whitley was one of three men to advance the furthest at the famous Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. He survived the assault but was subsequently captured by Union troops and spent the remainder of the war in a prison camp in New York. So for me our trip that day was a journey into the collision of worlds where my familial forefathers engaged in pitched combat against our 3rd Infantry predecessors.
The rest of the day is a blur. I remember that we were carefree. I remember that we laughed. I remember the kiss of the sun as we walked through the tall grass between the tree-lined ridges. I remember riding home with a feeling of satisfaction at a day well spent with men I respected.
That Monday was September 10th, 2001. The next day our young lives were upended by the violence of war. We didn’t know it then, but that day was the last day we would know peace. Tomorrow our young eyes would see, smell, hear, and taste the stench of death in a way we could have never imagined.
That was twenty-one years ago. The remembrance of this last day of peace is significant for me. In the remembering I am strangely transported back to more innocent times, where life was less complicated. Where the world felt more secure and life more certain. The journey is a good one, for in it I find hope that one day we may find peace yet again.