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On the night of May 1, I lay awake long into the night, switching between the major news channels, trying to put the reported death of Osama bin Laden into perspective. I wanted to feel some kind of happiness and satisfaction in his death, but all I could do was think back to the last time I lay awake for days glued to the television -- on 9/11. I could only think of the victims and all of the military personnel we have lost since that day and their families. We, as Americans, had lost so much at the hands of this man -- not just the lives of so many heroes, but in many ways, our innocence and security.
I will never forget that day and the rush of emotions I felt, but I had to suppress. Unlike most Americans, I had no time to express my sadness or grief, because minutes after American Airlines Flight 77 penetrated the rings of the Pentagon, those of us in the military were at war and we had a military mission to accomplish. Within minutes of impact the aviators in my fighter squadron and I were called into our main briefing room. Our squadron commander, "Spanky," ominously read from a single sheet of paper words that I will never forget and sometimes still cannot believe I heard: "The president of the United States has authorized deadly force against any aircraft flying in the continental United States." (Before that day, I could never imagine a situation where I would fly combat missions over the U.S., especially with orders to shoot down a civilian airliner.) Of all the emotions I felt that fateful day, I had to put away my extreme sadness and harness my anger, to focus on my mission. Ironically, when we took off later that night on our combat air patrol mission, the skies over the East Coast were eerily quiet and peaceful. After a day of unspeakable violence and horror, on that clear, starry night, there was peace. It was surreal.
In the months and years that followed, I -- along with our nation -- would know little else other than war. Without a tangible victory in sight, I remember several times, in both Afghan and Iraq campaigns, rhetorically asking, "What are we doing here?" Victims' families wanted justice, and military personnel and their families wanted some satisfaction that their endless sacrifices were worth the effort. So as I lay awake watching the news the other night, watching the celebrations in the streets, I didn't celebrate, but I wanted to feel that satisfaction. I remembered the last 10 years of war. I recalled the missions I flew on my deployments. I thought about those who lost their lives on 9/11 and the military heroes we've lost since. I prayed for the victims' families and military families who live with a loss we can never replace. I thought of the sacrifices my military brothers and sisters and their families continue to make. I hoped and prayed they got the justice and satisfaction they needed.
For me, I was left with the sadness of all we had lost: thousands of precious lives, our innocence, our security. And I hoped that this was not just the end of one life, but the beginning -- restoring the life we knew before. I came across a quote from a man of peace that seems so fitting for this moment: "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." -- Martin Luther King Jr.
As I eventually fell asleep that night, it was eerily quiet and peaceful. After news of a day marked by violence far away, there was peace. It was surreal.