By Christi Ferer - from 1stAdmPAO
When I told friends about my pilgrimage to Iraq to thank the U.S. troops, reaction was under whelming at best. Some were blunt. “Why are YOU going there?” They could not understand why it was important for me, a 9/11 widow, to express my support for the men and women stationed today in the Gulf.
But the reason seemed clear to me. 200,000 troops have been sent halfway around the world to stabilize the kind of culture that breeds terrorists like those who I believe began World War III on September 11, 2001.
Reaction was so politely negative that I began to doubt my role on the first USO / Tribeca Institute tour into newly occupied Iraq where, on average, a soldier a day is killed.
Besides, with Robert De Niro, Kid Rock, Rebecca and Johns Stamos, Wayne Newton, Gary Senise, Lee Ann Wolmac… who needed me?
Did they really want to hear about my husband, Neil Levin, who went to work as director of New York Port Authority on Sept. 11, and never came home? How would they relate to the two other widows traveling with me - Ginny Bauer, a New Jersey homemaker and the 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 deserts that looked like bleached bread crumbs, 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 mean anything at all in the presence of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders and a Victoria Secrets model?
Our arrival at the first “meet and greet” made me weep. Armed with M-16s and saddlebags of water in 120-degree heat, the soldiers swarmed over the stars for photos and autographs.
When it was announced that a trio of 9/11 family members was also in the tent it was as if a psychic cork on emotional dam was popped. Soldiers from every corner of New York, Long Island and Queens rushed toward us to express their condolences. Some wanted to touch us, as if they needed a physical connection to our sorrow and for some living proof for why they were there. One mother of two from Montana told me she signed up because of 9/11. Dozens of others told us the same thing. One young soldier showed me his metal bracelet engraved with the name of a victim he never knew and that awful date none of us will ever forget.
In fact at every encounter with the troops there would be a surge of reservists — firefighters and cops including many who had worked the rubble of Ground Zero, came to exchange a hometown hug. Their glassy eyes still do not allow anyone to penetrate too far inside to the place where their trauma is lodged; the trauma of a devastation far greater than anyone who hadn't been there could even imagine. It's there in me, too. I had forced my way downtown on that awful morning, convinced that I could find Neil beneath the rubble.
What I was not prepared for was to have soldiers show us the World Trade Center memorabilia they'd carried with them into the streets of Baghdad. Others had clearly been holding in stories of personal 9/11 tragedies that had made them enlist.
USO handlers moved us from one corner to the next so everyone could meet us.
One fire brigade plucked the 9/11 group from the crowd, transporting us to their firehouse to call on those who had to stand guard during the Baghdad concert. It was all about touching us and feeling the reason they were in this hell. Back at Saddam Hussein airport Kid Rock turned a “meet and greet” into an impromptu concert in a steamy airport hangar before 5000 troops.
Capt. Vargas from the Bronx tapped me on the back. He enlisted in the Army after some of his wife's best friends were lost at the World Trade Center. When he glimpsed 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 the Holy Grail. Then he handed it to Kid Rock who passed the precious metal through the 5000 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 - which puts them at risk every day in the 116 degree heat, not knowing if a sniper was going to strike at anytime.
Looking into that sea of khaki gave me chills even in that blistering heat. To me, those troops were there to avenge the murder of my husband and 3,000 others. When I got to the microphone I told them we had not made this journey for condolences but to thank them and to tell them that the families of 9/11 think of them every day. They lift our hearts. The crowd interrupted me with chants of ” USA, USA, USA.” Many wept.
What happened next left no doubt that the troops drew inspiration from our tragedies. When I was first asked to speak to thousands of troops in Quatar, after Iraq, I wondered if it would feel like a “grief for sale” spectacle.
But this time I was quaking because I was to present the recovered WTC steel to General Tommy Franks. I quivered as I handed him the icy gray block of steel. His great craggy eyes welled up with tears. The sea of khaki fell silent. Then the proud four-star general was unable to hold back the tears which streamed down his face on center stage before 4,000 troops.
As this mighty man turned from the spotlight to regain his composure I comforted him with a hug.
Now, when do I return?