After much deliberation I decided to leave active duty military service and return to my mother’s home in New York. It was March 2002 and I was an E-5 sergeant and had been one for all of six months. Back in the unit I should still have been considered a buck sergeant but I do not remember ever being called one following the attacks. Those succeeding months of service had garnished us all with a new level of respect that was ignorant of how green we were. Of course, that was also before any of the Afghan or Iraq campaigns redefined what it meant to be a deployed soldier, or a soldier in general.
My mother picked me up from the airport late in the evening, and before she could welcome me back I insisted that we go to what was now called Ground Zero.
“Oh,” she said. “Are you sure you don’t want to go home? I mean, wasn’t it a long flight?”
It had been a very long flight. My last duty station was in South Korea.
“But I should see it first,” I said.
We packed my duffel bag into the trunk and she drove us along the Belt Parkway. From my window I looked out to the black surface of the New York Harbor. My mother cautiously asked me how it felt to be back.
“Strange,” was all I could think to say.
We parked the car in lower Manhattan and walked west, our shoes clicking with each step on the hard sidewalk. As we approached Church Street, I could see that a thin perimeter fence had been erected along the site; I quickened my pace until my hands gripped the meshed wire and my face was only inches away from metal. I pushed my body into the fence located in the guts of a pit that had once been the foundations for WTC 1 and WTC 2. What it had become seemed indistinguishable from any other urban construction site.
“They should be here,” I said softly.
They should be here was what I said, but what I meant to say was I should not be here. Immediately following the attacks I wanted to go wherever the fight was, and kill. Instead, after much deliberation I decided to return to New York and mourn. I wasn’t sure if that was arrogant or noble or cowardly or wise. I thought about the soldiers who inevitably would be led to combat; some of whom were my friends who should have been mine to lead but would now be led by other sergeants. I should not be here were words I repeatedly told myself during the early winter of 2002. I looked down to the sidewalk, slick in the icy cold of early spring and heard my mother ask me if I were ok.
I looked at her.
“Well, are you?” she said.
“Can we go?” I said.
We walked north along Church Street toward St. Paul’s Chapel where I stopped again and took notice of the tributes attached to the iron railing surrounding the chapel’s courtyard. There were ribbons, photos, drawings, flags, and flowers. After very little deliberation I removed my dog tags from around my neck and tied them to one of the black stakes.
“You should keep those,” my mother said, walking toward me. “Give them to your kids one day. When you have kids, I mean.”
When I was a kid, the towers were the highest reaches of the New York City skyline. I remember seeing them while taking day trips to the Statue of Liberty or playing with friends in Battery Park on the weekends or even, later on, while getting stoned in Washington Square Park. And now, being as close as I could have ever been to them, not seeing the towers solidified in me a rich sense of regret.
“I should not be here,” I said.
“Well you are,” she said. “And you should remember that one day you will have kids and they should have those so that they will not forget your, or anyone else’s, loss here.”
“Can we get something to eat now?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “Let’s go and do that.”
We walked slowly back to the car and I thought about what we could eat. After years of being away, there were many things I had missed about New York.