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This is the third in a five part series, published weekly through September 11th.

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Andy’s and Ralph’s deaths were an accident.

Everyone who either flies or lives in that world will eventually know someone who is killed in that dangerous course. Sadly, terribly, it’s part of it. But what happened at Columbine High School was no accident, and the terrorist attacks of September 11th were not an accident.

And now here was another component that added to my broader perspective on what had happened to all of us:

A month shy of one year before – October 2000 – I was in Germany to participate in an Air Force exercise, Trailblazer 01, just weeks after the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

mec & cst

My lifelong friend – also a close friend to Andy and Ralph – Cliff Thomas, was also there. He went as part of a contingent of the Syracuse (New York) Air National Guard unit. We had wanted to travel to Germany together since we were small boys, and now here we were.

We spent time with his grandmother and other family members in Oberursel, outside Frankfurt, then drove south and west to Ramstein and Landstuhl for our work. That was the good part. But the sobering part was also there.

Barely a month before, the injured – and dead – sailors from the terrorist attack against the USS Cole had been brought to Landstuhl Medical Center, just one hundred-some yards from where I was staying. Situated in the deep, beautiful woods above the picturesque town of Landstuhl, the US Army’s Regional Medical Center was where all our casualties from the Middle East and Europe were brought. Most of the injured Cole sailors were still there when Cliff and I arrived, and some of them died there.

2009_12_24_Daniel

In the spring of 2011, it was again to Landstuhl that a soldier I had a connection to was taken with life-threatening injuries. My niece was dating a young man from Littleton, Colorado whose brother, Daniel – both of whom had attended Columbine High School – was serving with a Marine unit in Afghanistan.

While on a dismounted patrol somewhere in the Helmand Province, an IED – and Improvised Explosive Device – detonated, and when it did he lost both legs and a portion of his left hand, including fingers. After more than two intensive and tenuous months in hospital, Daniel had recovered sufficiently to travel and with his parents at his side, winged his way home.

I was privileged and humbled to be at Denver International Airport to see Daniel arrive to a huge and awe-struck, yet cheering crowd of family, friends, television cameras and supportive and thankful admirers.

Suffice it to say he is a remarkable and inspiring guy. See and hear more of his story here, from Denver’s 9News.

Today, with the help of an amazing family, dedicated friends, and a true-to-their-word US Marine Corps, he is well into discovering and developing a new life. Be sure to take a few minutes to visit his blog. Click on James Nachtwey’s photo, below to see his piece in TIME.

James Nachtwey for TIME

And so I was reminded once again that although I had at that time been retired from the Air Force for almost three years, the war still raged, then almost ten years on.

Those few weeks I spent at Ramstein’s Warrior Preparation Center – the WPC – just outside Landstuhl in October of 2000, were more than an exercise for me, as it turned out.

The month before had been the USS Cole attack and during the same period my friends in the Colorado fighter squadron were leaving Incirlik, Turkey, having completed their latest turn flying the Northern No Fly Zone in Iraq and were being replaced by my former squadron mates and friends of the Terre Haute unit.

Greg, Chris, mec, Savannah, 1994

All these people I knew, from such far-flung places and this place I was in now in the midst of world events – it all seemed in some way to be centering here. The total experience was powerful and acute, as though I was staring into the convergence of globally significant events with a personal connection to it all.

The personal intensity was compounded, too, because my wife was home and very pregnant with our son, Jace and our sixth anniversary passed during my time away. It was not the best time to volunteer for an exercise overseas, but it was nothing compared to what so many others had committed to. (I had roses sent to her to deliver at work – I thought quite a feat to pull off from half way across the world.)

kkc, jwc, mec, home, 2002 002

The experience manifest itself in a peculiar emotion that, even now, when I think of my time there, generates a unique feeling reserved for that time and place.

– – –

Photo Credits:
USS Cole, DoD photo
Cpl. Daniel C. W. Riley, USMC, Daniel Riley
Landstuhl, inaz4sun, Wonderunderground.com
Cpl DCW Riley wounded, UH-60 crew, James Nachtwey for TIME
Others, Michael Conner
– – –

Next week- Part IV – “Faruq”

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They’re going up all around us . . .

Red Flags

. . . and they mean something – something we should take note of, something that should give us pause.

Here are some Red Flags that tell us there’s a problem.

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1. Everyone’s divided, and it’s right down the middle. Virtually everyone – every group, every sub-group (i.e., US Republicans are split; Dems are split), every country, every individual opinion, falls to either side of the debate (any demonstration on any street has lots of either and any side of the debate; multitudes of opinions as to what to do; whether to punish or further prevent Syria or not. We’re all stuck. The US Congress (even after a classified briefing), parliaments and administrations around the world, the White House, Conservatives and Liberals, pundits and wonks, military leaders.

The Red Flag? There is no consensus. Anywhere, on any level.

– – –

2. President Obama’s Red Lines, indecision and inaction. We should hold our president (and those who aspire to that office) to a higher standard. And all too often some, many, respond that it’s not right to do that. He is human after all, just like the rest of us. But we want, and we should want someone who is not ordinary, but extraordinary. Consider the fact that out of roughly 350 million people, only one person rises to the top of the list as our choice. That by definition is extraordinary.

Barack Obama

And really, admit it: if we wanted just an ordinary person, just a regular guy, you could have me. But you don’t want me. I am a regular, ordinary guy. You want someone is extraordinary. I don’t want me, the ordinary; I want extraordinary.

So if we wanted someone who will do what many of us might do; that is, hesitate, be indecisive, hell . . . I can do that.

But we don’t want that. And we shouldn’t. We expect more; we expect our president to step up and be more.

He says he is confident, but President Obama cannot get himself to step up, whatever the decision, to go or not go; rather he has handed the primary decision-making responsibility for that to someone else (Congress). And even that decision – most are divided on.

. . . And I haven’t even brought up the concern over plan and strategy. Well, that is a military matter. Leave it to the experts. It is not something that should be publicly discussed. To purposefully compromise military advantage is insanity. It exposes ineptitude. Oh, never mind. That’s already happened anyway.

The Red Flag? President Obama’s indecisiveness and inaction.

– – –

3. Neighbors are not stepping up. Where is the Arab League? Governments in closer physical proximity to Syria are hesitant; some are nearly silent; some are vocal. But none, and in particular Syria’s immediate neighbors, have said they would step up and handle it “internally”, that is, within the region, say, the Arab League, for example.

The Red Flag? No Arab League. If it’s not important enough to them to step up, then perhaps we shouldn’t, either.

Photo credit Yossi Zamir-Flash90

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4. Israel assumes we’ll take care of it, and expects us to, like it’s our responsibility. President Shimon Peres confidently states he believes the US will in fact attack Syria. Why doesn’t he hold such an apparent, automatic expectation of say, France, or Italy, or Greece, or the UK, or Germany? Why the US? We are, after all, rather removed, physically, relatively speaking, from the region. In contrast to the long list of other countries, why is it the US’ thing to do? Well, we know why.

We are certainly aware of the sensitivity of the fundamental issues between the Jewish State and . . . well, everyone else in the Middle East, and the history and everything else that goes into it. But there are many other possibilities. In my mind, they begin with the Arab league (so-called) and others in the immediate region.

The Red Flag? It’s too easy to expect someone else to take on another’s responsibility.

– – –

5. Russia and China apparently don’t see it. At least they don’t see it the way half the world sees it. Only issuing warning that intervention should not take place is not a solution. It’s not even helpful. Can they not find a way to be actively helpful? When there is joint Russian-Chinese involvement and a solution proposed, we’ll know how important it really is.

The Red Flag? There is no Russian or Chinese leadership
(not that the world has ever been able to count on it) and specifically, no joint Russian-Chinese inspection team on-site.

– – –

6. Timing and Timeline. Is this urgent or not? Two-year’s worth, watching and bloviating from afar. How is it so important now? After all, it seems that 1,400 people killed in a few days is nothing compared to 100,000 over two years, regardless of how they occurred.

As for the US view of the civil war in Syria, apparently as far as the President has been concerned, watching the body count steadily, rapidly rise to 100,000 (by way of mostly conventional means) is not nearly as concerning and immediate as 1% of that total number added via chemical weapons. Apparently some deaths are more equal than others.

Imagine the possibilities if the US or a broad coalition, to include all the regional players had come together in the beginning. Was there any chance at all the death toll could have been much lower? Even a chance?

And recall Obama’s Red Line declaration a year ago, so confident and strong; so forceful and inspiring and humanitarian-like, in those critical months, then weeks, then days leading up to the election. Among all the other miraculous qualities we attributed to him was also his ability to save the world from despotism. Except in this case. And we were convinced. The only thing he saved was his presidency. His Red Lines have turned out to be dotted lines.

The Red Flag? If it’s not so important to respond to the deaths of 100,000, then perhaps 1,400 is no big deal.

AP photo - 130821_angela_merkel_ap_605

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7. Germany: the true Leader from Behind. Angela Merkel stated that action should be taken but that her country will not participate. Before her comments on Sunday, her Foreign Minister had already made it clear: they’re not discussing it and they’ve not been asked. Maybe we should ask them. Or maybe we should handle our foreign policy that way: we only act if we’re asked. Looks like that’s where the Israeli Rule applies: Yes it’s important enough that someone else ought to take care of it.

The Red Flag? If it’s not important enough for Germany, then perhaps it’s not important enough for us . . . or anyone else.

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8. The Final Red Flag: It harkens back to the Gulf War of 1991, the campaign to evict Iraq from Kuwait. An overwhelming military coalition massed against the atrocities of Saddam Hussein and his regime’s terror.

The Telegraph - UK - syria_2129826b

Israel was not involved in any way, shape, or form. But that did not stop Hussein from exposing further and reconfirming to the world his illegitimacy by attacking a country that was not involved. On our firm and reassuring urging, Israel chose restraint and let us handle it. They certainly didn’t have to. But they understood the broader implications and trusted a friend. Such is the case here.

The Syrian government of course, has no legitimate reason to threaten or attack Israel (let alone their own people with chemical weapons). But the fact that they have speaks to a broader, deeper problem. At the very least it further delegitimizes Bashar al Assad. The time for the world to respond to another call for rescue in the Middle East has long passed.

Still, the rest of the world, our president and government included, is hesitant and in disagreement. It may seem these Red Flags contradict each other with respect to what ought to do be done by whom, if at all, and where does responsibility lie. Not so. It all speaks to the profound complexity of the matter.

The Final Red Flag? Syria’s threat to attack Israel.

AP-acquired photo

– – –

Ultimately there is really just a single Red Flag that stands squarely on Syria’s soil. It proclaims something must be done, and it is the blood of 100,000 Syrians that stains it red.

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