Commentary: A 9-11 Widow Reflects on a Visit to Troops in Iraq
By Christy Ferer
(Editor's Note: The author has updated this commentary from a previous version that was widely distributed. It is her account of a trip to Iraq June 2003 to visit U.S. forces there. Used by permission.)
When I told friends I was making a pilgrimage to Iraq to thank the U.S. troops, their reactions were underwhelming at best.
Some were blunt: "Why are YOU going there?" They couldn't understand why it was important for me, a 9-11 widow, to express my support for the men and women stationed today in the Persian Gulf.
The reason seemed clear, as far as I was concerned. I was going not to embrace the war, but to embrace the warriors.
I didn't intend to use the emotional capital generated by my connection to Sept. 11, 2001, to defend the U.S. presence in Iraq, and I am certainly aware there is no proof yet that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9-11. But I wanted to go there because I am the daughter of a World War II veteran who was decorated with a Purple Heart, and because I am the widow of a man who lost his life in what some feel was the opening salvo of World War III.
I wanted, needed, to honor my father and my husband, their service and sacrifice, by standing before those who were now making sacrifices and serving our country.
Some 150,000 troops were sent halfway around the world by our government, and therefore in all of our names, to depose Saddam Hussein. Saddam's despotic regime fueled volatile anti-American sentiment that many feel is connected to terrorist attacks like the one that took place on Sept. 11, 2001.
But my friends' reactions were so politely negative that I began to doubt my role in the first USO/Tribeca Institute tour into newly occupied Iraq. Besides, with Robert De Niro, Wayne Newton, and Rebecca and John Stamos, who needed me? I'm hardly a celebrity.
Did U.S. soldiers really want to hear about my husband, Neil Levin, who went to work as director of the Port Authority of New York on Sept. 11 and never came home?
How would they relate to the two other bereaved people traveling with me -- Ginny Bauer, a New Jersey homemaker and mother of three who lost her husband, David; and former Marine Jon Vigiano, who lost his only sons: Jon, a firefighter, and Joe, a policeman?
As we were choppered over the bleached deserts, I wondered if I'd feel like a street hawker, passing out Port Authority pins and baseball caps as I said "Thank you" to the troops. Would a hug from me compare to hugs from a Victoria's Secret model, or the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders?
The first "meet and greet" made me weep. I knew I had made the right decision, to do anything I could to support these new warriors. My own daughters are old enough to be soldiers. Here were their peers -- 18-year-olds, armed with M-16s and saddlebags of water in the 120-degree heat. The soldiers swarmed around the stars for photos and autographs. Then it was announced that a trio of 9-11 family members was also in the tent.
It was as if an emotional dam had burst.
Some wanted to touch us, as if they needed a physical connection to our sorrow, and living proof of one reason they were there. One mother of two from Montana told me she'd signed up because of 9-11, and dozens of others said the same. One young man showed me his metal bracelet engraved with the name of a victim he'd never known and that awful date none of us will ever forget.
At every encounter with the troops, there was a surge of Reservists -- firefighters and cops, including many who had worked in the rubble of Ground Zero -- who had come to exchange a hometown hug. Their glassy eyes still didn't allow anyone to penetrate to the place where their trauma is lodged, the trauma that comes with devastation unimaginable to those who didn't witness it. It's there in me, too. I forced my way downtown on that terrible morning, convinced I could find Neil beneath the rubble.
I was not prepared for the soldiers who showed us the World Trade Center memorabilia they'd carried with them into the streets of Baghdad. Others had been holding in stories of personal 9-11 tragedies that had made them enlist.
To those men and women, it didn't seem to matter that Saddam Hussein's regime had not produced the murderers of Sept. 11. Despotic rulers like Saddam fuel the volatile anti-American sentiment that breeds such terrorism, they felt: to stabilize the Gulf region was to protect U.S. soil.
At Saddam Hussein International Airport, where Kid Rock gave an impromptu concert in a steamy hangar, Capt. Jorge Vargas from the Bronx tapped me on the back. He'd enlisted in the Army after some of his wife's best friends were lost at the World Trade Center. When he saw the piece of recovered metal from the Towers that I had been showing to a group of soldiers, he grasped for it as if it were a grail.
Then he handed it to Kid Rock, who passed the precious metal through the 5,000 troops in the audience. They lunged at the opportunity to touch the steel that symbolized what so many of them felt was the purpose of their mission. Looking into that sea of khaki gave me chills, even in the blistering heat.
To me, those troops were there to send a message not to just one country, but to an entire region that breeds the brand of terrorism that murdered my husband and some 3,000 others.
When I got to the microphone, I told the soldiers we hadn't made the journey to hear condolences, but to thank them and to say that the families of 9-11 think of them every day. The crowd interrupted me with chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" Many cried.
What happened next left me with no doubt why I had come.
There I was onstage, quaking before thousands of troops because I was to present a small piece of the World Trade Center steel to Gen. Tommy Franks. As I handed him the icy gray block, his eyes welled up.
I was stunned when the proud four-star general was unable to hold back the tears, which streamed down his face as he stood at center stage before his troops. The men and women in khaki fell silent. As he turned from the spotlight to regain his composure, I put my arms around him and tried to comfort both of us with an embrace.
(Christy Ferer was appointed in June 2003 to the Family Advisory Board of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the agency responsible for rebuilding and revitalizing Lower Manhattan, by New York Gov. George E. Pataki. She also serves as a special assistant to New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as a liaison to families affected by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.)