What Bin Laden’s Death Means: One Veteran’s Take

05.02.11 7 years ago 111 Comments

I went to the Yankees game yesterday. After the familiar sounds of victory — Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” followed by Sinatra’s “New York, New York” — my girlfriend and I walked against the crowds surging toward the subway, across Jerome Avenue to a stately hillside building that was once Woodycrest Children’s Home, the building where her mother was raised. As we snapped a few photos, an elderly gentleman approached us and asked what our connection to Woodycrest was. He too was a product of the group home, and Jenny provided him with the names of her relatives that had grown up there. Had he known her mother, Isabel Martinez? No. Her aunt, Alyce Martinez? No. Her uncle, Joe Mojer? The old man’s eyes lit up. Yes, he had played basketball with Joe. Joe was quick on the court and well-liked off of it. I felt the warmth of the old man’s memory, his connection to this old building that was once something else.

I learned of Osama Bin Laden’s death last night the same way I learn of all deaths: via Twitter. I turned on the TV, gleaned what information was available, and felt — for the first time since I became a writer — a complete and profound loss of words. Twitter and Facebook were exploding, but I closed them without typing a letter. I felt that I should be doing something to make the moment memorable: popping champagne, hugging loved ones, kissing strangers — but it was 11 o’clock on a Sunday night. My roommate was asleep. The only company I had was my dog.

I poured myself a bourbon and called my friends from the Marines, the men who’d commanded tanks with me on the way to Baghdad eight years ago. Bin Laden’s death was the impetus for the phone calls, but the conversations soon turned to other subjects: wives, kids, jobs. The last time I spoke to Jeremy was in February after the Super Bowl. The time before that, his birthday in July, I got his voicemail. We don’t talk enough.

It was after midnight when I got off the phone and finally watched Obama’s speech. I was drunk and needed sleep but went out to a bar because Bin Laden was dead, goddammit. I was hoping for a party, a collection of firefighters and veterans toasting the fallen and celebrating long-sought closure. But there were no firefighters. No veterans. No closure. Just a handful of people drinking on a Sunday night. My only company was a Vietnam draft dodger. He had a wife, two grown daughters, and a bushy white beard that he’d had since he moved to the neighborhood 40 years ago, back when 7th Avenue was all head shops and dive bars. I asked the bartender for a Baker’s on the rocks but he misheard me and poured a Grey Goose. I drank it.

I stayed and talked to the guy with the white beard until last call because it beat drinking by myself and talking to my dog. It wasn’t fun or memorable, but at least I got drunk. At least I’m still alive. The same can’t be said for the three thousand people who died on 9/11 or the six thousand servicemen who’ve been killed in combat since then or the unfortunate people of Iraq and Afghanistan when war landed on their doorsteps. Not Brian McPhillips, who was shot in the head south of Baghdad in 2003. Not Andy Stern, whose last act was identifying and reporting an IED before it blew up and sent steel through his head. For the last eight years, I’ve been trying to attach some kind of meaning to all the death around me — to the deaths of my friends, and to the deaths that I caused. So much human life snuffed out: thousands upon thousands of dominos knocked over because of the actions of one man.

I walked home with tears in my eyes, thinking or perhaps hoping that my friends died for a reason. I thought of the old man at Woodycrest: I saw him going through old memories and names he’d known decades ago, searching for connections. We’re all searching for connections.

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