Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Different Perspective: Seeing September 11 Through the Eyes of a Federal Law Enforcement Officer

This year, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 carries a new and greater significance for me. This new meaning is derived from two developments that occurred in my life in the first half of 2014. The first was that Alison and I visited the 9/11 memorial in New York. I had heard much about the new memorial, but had not yet had the chance to see it in person. By chance we ended up there on February 26, the anniversary of the first World Trade Center Bombing in 1993.

It was an especially poignant time to visit, since the monument memorializes, not only those who were killed at that site in 2001, but also those who perished in Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, as well as the victims of
of the 1993 bombing. Every day flowers are placed in the etched names of any victim who would have celebrated a birthday on that day. On February 26, a special group or roses adorned the section of the memorial dedicated to the 1993 attack.

The memorial is beautifully designed, with water pouring down on all four sides of the footprints of both the north and south towers. The water then pools together in the bottom, before plummeting down anew, into the unknown, beyond the scope of our vision. It is a simple design, but a highly evocative one that allows for personal interaction and poignant reflection.

Each of the names are etched into the sides of the memorial such that light can shine through at night and flowers can be placed inside each name in the manner described above. Several of those names are not names at all, but rather a denotation of unborn children who perished in their mother's womb before ever being given the chance to see the world at all.

In a nation where so many people fight to deny the unborn any recognition of life, it was particularly impactful for me to see those innocents memorialized in this manner.

The memorial also includes a special section devoted to the first responders who perished in their attempts to secure the scene and save the lives of anyone they could.

It is this section of the memorial that grips me the most as I sit down to write today. My perspective of the role of first responders has changed significantly as a result of the other new development I experienced this spring: being offered and accepting a permanent position helping to Protect and Interpret American History in our nation's capital.

I have spent the last four months in training learning what it means to be devoted to protecting the core of the United States of America. At its heart, the job is about safeguarding an idea, the idea that this nation is something special in the scope of world history. For all its faults (and I believe there are many), this nation and the manner in which it was created is truly unique. And I, for one, believe that it represents something that is worth fighting to sustain.

This final picture is one of my favorites that I took when we were in New York. In it you see a tree, just west of the south tower and south of the north tower, which still lives today, despite both towers coming down directly around it. Behind this tree can be seen the new World Trade Center building, rising above the city of New York as a symbol that that idea cannot be so easily overcome. Life that hung on through the devastation foregrounds reconstruction of a nation that accommodates remembrance and honor for the fallen.

So today, the 13th anniversary of the the 9/11 attacks, remember all of those who lost their lives that day, but give particular attention to the firefighters and law enforcement officers who rushed into danger to save others without hesitation. For many of them it was the last action they ever took, and that is something that is worth remembering.    

Previous Reflections

Monday, September 1, 2014

Embracing a New Identity

This Labor Day marks the first time since I began working at Wind Cave National Park in 2009 that I have actually been able to enjoy the holiday as a day off from labor. For the past five years I have either been working at a national park or having to spend the entire day writing my first paper of the semester for a graduate school class. Today I don't have to do either. It is a welcome break amid the stress of training, and a much needed day to catch up with numerous things requiring my attention, including finally getting a post  up on the blog for the first time since I wrote about a New Job Opportunity in April.

Much has happened since last I wrote, and future blog posts will include the details of my final NPS Civil War event at the Wilderness in May, attending my sister's college graduation in San Diego, my exploration of historical sites in the southeast, creating a new home in Washington D.C., and our visit to Acadia National Park. Today I would like to take a broader focus concerning the ways in which recent changes in our life and my experience in training has affected my perspective.

On May 14 I officially worked my last day as an employee of the National Park Service. It was a very strange feeling to drive away from my office at Manassas National Battlefield that day, not knowing if I would ever don the green and gray again. For the last five years I have consistently sought to secure a permanent position with the NPS, and in many ways it felt like a betrayal to be walking away from the agency to take a job somewhere else. But it was not for lack of trying. I feel confident that I have done everything within my power to try and get a permanent NPS position, and despite all of my efforts nothing has come through. It had been a difficult process for me to let go of the Park Service for this next chapter, but, at this stage it simply wasn't going to happen. I continue to believe that I will be a park ranger again one day, but until such a day arrives I am trusting that there is something new and significant in store for me where I am.

That same evening I officially graduated from George Mason University. I met Alison at the school after bidding farewell to Manassas and was awarded my Masters Degree at the Patriot Center. The juxtaposition of the grief of saying goodbye to the Park Service and the celebration of the ceremony to receive the reward for all the work I have done for school for the last 2.5 years was a compelling one. That proximity of loss, achievement, and excitement was made even more evident the next morning, when I reported for my first two days of orientation and training for the new job. Within the space of 15 hours I had left Manassas for the last time, been awarded my Masters Degree, and started a new job and whole new chapter of life.

Following that orientation, having spent less than a week in our new house in DC,  I packed up my car and drove to southern Georgia for three months of training.  I completed that training on August 11 and after a week off which we spent in Acadia National Park in Maine, I returned home to begin the second phase of training here in the DC area.

Going through the training in Georgia was, without question, one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was very difficult to be away from Alison for that long, especially so close on the heels of moving to a new house and finishing graduate school. It was also exceedingly challenging for me to face so many aspects of training that were so far outside my previous knowledge and experience. There were many times during the course of training (especially early on) when I didn't think I could finish it, and when I seriously questioned what I was doing there. It didn't seem to be the right fit and I struggled to accept that it was, in fact, what God had for us for this next chapter. It was so different than what I had thought and hoped we would be doing; moving closer to family with me working at one of the western national parks. But I persevered in faith that there was more at work than what I could see, believing that God had opened this door for a reason.

Even as I struggled to find my place within my class and to embrace this new identity, I sought to do my best in all of the aspects of training. In some areas (physical techniques, tactics, and many of the practical scenarios we were presented with) I was consistently behind the curve and fighting to achieve parity with others in my class to whom that type of thinking came much more naturally. But in other areas I found that I could, not only hold my own, but consistently excel. While I enjoyed the driving training and grew much more competent and confident in dealing with the practical scenarios, the two areas in which I consistently found myself at the head of my class were on the firearms range and in an academic setting.

I emerged as one of the top shots in my class and consistently performed well on the qualification courses, and found myself leading study groups before each of our major academic tests after I set myself apart by achieving the highest grade in the class on the first exam. When it came time to graduate I had the highest academic average in the class and was recognized for that achievement during the graduation ceremony.

So despite my initial doubts and my failure to see the way through early on, in persevering, I found my place after all, and consequently feel a much deeper sense of pride at identifying myself in this new role.

This past Friday evening I was driving back to our home on Capitol Hill from Virginia along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, and as I came around a curve on the road, a perfectly clear night revealed our nation's capital in all of its glory across the Potomac River. In looking at the lights highlighting the Washington Monument, Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, and the US Capitol Building, I was poignantly reminded of the significance of what this city represents. I have had to suspend my dream of working as a ranger in one of the western parks, but the alternative of helping to protect and safeguard the heart of what makes this nation so unique is a pretty good one. And it turns out, I am a lot more suited for many aspects of the job than I had ever suspected. Apparently the big guy upstairs knew what he was doing after all.