A Navy Chaplain Remembers
Message from William Payne based on Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, 15-16
Certainly, the preacher in Ecclesiastes was referring to a time like 9/11 when he penned his words. History is full of seminal events and pivotal days. In fact, every generation has an event or a series of events by which it is defined. Lest we lose perspective, I will remind you of some that have shaped Western civilization.
- The conversion of Constantine and the subsequent Edit of Milan which legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313.
- The Hijra in 622 when Mohammed fled from Mecca and formed the first Islamic state in Medina.
- The Battle of Tours in 732 when Charles Martel prevented the triumphant Arab armies from annexing Europe.
In American history we remember the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the Battle of Ft. Sumter in 1861, the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, and Armistice Day on 11 Nov 1918.
While growing up, my parents talked about Pearl Harbor Day. Every year on Dec. 7, my mother told me the story. My dad joined the Navy in 1938. He served with subs in Australia during the war. At a young age, my mom left her home on the east coast and took a train to San Francisco. She became a ship welder. Later, my parents met at the Pentagon in 1955. My father retired off the USS Intrepid after a one year deployment to Vietnam. Dec. 7 changed America and the shape of the world for the next 50 years.
In 1963 the assassination of JFK rocked America. I remember the day clearly. The black and white of the TV matched the mood of the event. None will forget the assassination of MLK Jr. and the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement. Even now America is trying to come to grips with the event and the legacy.
I was at my neighbor’s house when I witnessed Neil Armstrong’s “small step for man and giant step for mankind” in 1969. The 1960s had more than its share of seminal events.
I also remember the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989, and the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Up until that time, I believed that we would eventually die in a nuclear war. For some reason, the strategy of mutual destruction did not bring me comfort. I guess it worked. Regardless, the collapse of Communist Europe brought me tremendous satisfaction and emotional relief.
These events came and passed. They changed the character of America. To some extent, their legacy clings to us like the forgotten DNA of a warrior people who conquered disregarded ancestors from the distant past. For good or for bad, they are a part of our collective subconscious.
How does 9/11 compare to these other events?
Historians talk about evolution and revolution. In terms of the theory, 9/11 represents a revolution that has continued to evolve over the last 10 years. It was a day and it is an ongoing event that continues to shape us as it challenges our resolve. The final form and ultimate outcome of 9/11 has not been determined. It represents a sea change that has permanently altered America and the world. So drastic was the fallout of 9/11 that one can refer to pre 9/11 and post 9/11. Literally, it destroyed our innocence.
All of us in the Navy have been touched by that day. When 9/11 happened, I was serving in NAVEUR at the headquarters building at 7 North Audley. We watched on television as the towers collapsed. Following the event, RADM Heart told me to cease all contact with the local imams at the Central London Mosque. He did not want to bring attention to us. Of course, the large American flag and the 4 star admiral’s pennant on top of the building told the world who we were. Daily, radicals menaced us with bomb scares and surveillance. Without external security, we were very vulnerable to an attack. All of this played on our emotions.
A few weeks later, while running through Hyde Park, I unexpectedly came upon the Vice President’s motorcade with its flags. I stood at attention as I waited to cross the road. Large tears rolled down my face. I wanted to shout that I was an American. When I think of 9/11, that is what I remember.
Everyone has their own story and memories. The day has a different meaning for those at ground zero, for those at the Pentagon, and for those who lost loved ones. The nation was inspired by the heroism of the fire fighters, the police and the brave passengers on flight 93. Normal, everyday Americans did extraordinary things. America was inspired by a unity and a united resolve that remains unmatched.
Regardless of what happened on 9/11, from the vantage point of the 10th anniversary we realize that we continue to live in the shadow of the collapsing Trade Towers. I doubt that our generation will write the final chapter in the 9/11 story. Eventually, that chapter will be written just like all the other stories that have gone before it. When it is written, I hope that my children and grandchildren will look back on us with pride and admiration as they remember the personal sacrifices that each of us have made through deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
In closing, my parent’s generation was called the Great Generation, largely because of Pearl Harbor and their response to it. Patriotism, determination, hard work, and the spirit of sacrifice defined them. They survived the Great Depression and defeated the enemies of liberty. They bequeathed to us a better world. Now it is our turn. We must follow their example as we build on the momentum of 9/11 to create a world in which we lead the next generation into a new liberty. The new liberty may not look like the old liberty. Nonetheless, if we do not dare to envision it, it will never come to pass.
Would you pray with me?
Chaplain Bill Payne, U.S. Navy and The Harlan and Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions Ashland Theological Seminary, is endorsed as a Navy Reserve Chaplain. He is a member of the Florida Annual Conference.