From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul

An Understanding

To protect those who are not able to protect themselves is a duty which every one owes to society.

Edward Macnaghten

When I was younger, I could never understand one thing about my father. Every December, he would watch the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! and his eyes would fill with tears. I remember asking him about it once, why it bothered him so, but as hard as he tried to explain it to me, I could not understand. I knew the movie was about the attack on Pearl Harbor and that hundreds of people had died in the attack, but not why it bothered him so badly. To me, it was something to be studied in the history books. It happened, we went to war, and won. That’s all I could understand of it.

I joined the Navy in 1985, six years after my father had died. You could say I followed in his footsteps. He served in 1955. I’ve made the Navy my career and am stationed on the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier. I started to understand my father’s tears when we were on a training cruise for four days. We left on September 10, 2001. The next day, everything came to a standstill for a few hours as we watched in horror what was happening. We are lucky enough to get satellite TV, and we stayed glued to CNN until we started landing aircraft. I didn’t have much time to think that day—or to feel. My job was to get the names, next of kin information, and embark all these people coming on board.

September 12, I truly understood why my father’s eyes would well up with tears. We were the assigned flagship over the ships that scrambled underway to protect our nation. Before we went on station, we were given one mission that was essential, some would call it a “Show the Flag” mission, but it was the most important mission I’d ever been on. I stood in our forward hanger bay looking out of the bay door as we cruised through New York Harbor. In the distance, I could see the smoke still rising where the World Trade Center used to stand. Around me, others watched also, many crying.

When we returned to port on September 17, it was to a different world, a different country. I had heard about the changes already in effect from people coming aboard and from my wife as well. When I got home I sat and read the papers dated September 12. It was then that I understood why my father felt so emotional about that day in December when he was eight. Young as he was, he knew that innocent people had died. He knew that the safety he had taken for granted was at risk. As I write this, I am deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the War on Terror, if you will, and I think of my son, eleven years old. I don’t know if I can explain to him how I feel, though I’ll try. I hope that when he is older, he doesn’t have to learn to understand through tragedies as great as Pearl Harbor or the terrorist attacks of September 11. But I know his sense of a safe world has been shaken, too.

Those of us who serve do so in hopes of creating that safe world for our children. Our ship received a gift from a local school: a garland made of construction paper on which children wrote words of encouragement. One said, “Thanks for letting my little sister grow up in a peaceful country.” I now know how my father felt that day in 1941. But I can’t bring myself to watch the movie. I’ve lived it myself. I wish my father were here so I could tell him I finally understand. I think he knows, because every so often over the years I’ve felt his presence near. September 11 was one of them.

Robert Anderson

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