We’re Americans first, all other things second
On December 9, 2003, I was shot down by an SA-16 shoulder-fired missile in Fallujah, Iraq. My co-pilot and I survived, were rescued and made it safely back to base with minor injuries. We attained a sort of celebrity status within our unit and everybody wanted to hear our story. Because we were okay, and because soldiers can find the humor in absolutely anything, it became sort of funny. My soldiers would discuss who was going to play them in the movie and they would sift through my mail looking for invitations from Oprah to be in her show. One of my soldiers had my endorsement completely planned out for his line of Combat Cosmetics, complete with commercials that showed me escaping from the enemy while applying eyeliner and lipstick. It was good escapism and I welcomed the jokes and laughing it allowed.
Three weeks later, on January 2, 2004, I was just sitting down to eat in the mess hall when one of my soldiers came running in to find me. “Captain Hampton was shot down” he told me. I left my tray on the table and rushed to the Tactical Operation Center to find out more. As soon as I walked in, I knew something was really wrong. Calls to the aircraft remained unanswered. Helicopters were being quickly mobilized to perform a rescue. Our operations officer was in contact with a nearby ground unit, en route to the location to find out more about the situation. As I was standing there feeling helpless, a senior officer looked at me and asked if Captain Hampton and I wore some sort of special perfume that attracted the enemy. I was too stunned to be offended.
Capt. Kimberly Hampton and I had shared the camaraderie of being the only two female company commanders in a testosterone-pumped, combat aviation unit. With around 120 pilots, six of us were women. Kimberly was shot down very close to where I had been shot down at almost the same time of day doing a similar mission. She did not survive, although her copilot did. The shoot-down jokes were no longer funny and the laughing that was so common in my company stopped. I couldn’t get past the parallels and kept wondering if the universe was keeping score and Kimberly had been killed because I had somehow escaped death. Twelve years later, I still feel the pressure that I have to do more than most since I’m carrying the load for two of us. Rationally, I know this makes no sense, but that doesn’t change how I feel.
But life does go on. I’ve married, had kids and moved around until I finally found a home in western Colorado that I never expected to love so much. Which is how I found myself totally caught off-guard last Friday when I arrived for the Scenic Elementary School flag ceremony held each Friday and realized it was the annual Patriots Day ceremony, started 14 years ago on the first anniversary of 9/11. Students read an account of what happened that day and I, like every other adult there, was immediately transported back to where I was on that horrible and confusing day.
I had attended Fordham University in New York City and left for the Army’s flight school after graduation in 1997. I loved the city, identified as a New Yorker and was sure that I would return to live there one day after the Army. On 9/11, I was stationed in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and watched the entire day unfold, like the rest of the world, on TV. I made calls to friends and family who lived in New York and remember an especially powerful phone call with the father of a good friend who I had been unable to reach. He was a retired NYC firefighter who later died from pulmonary complications probably related to the time he spent at Ground Zero in the days after the attacks. He told me, “This is your city, too,” when I told him I felt so disconnected and far away. I had yet to fully understand how much the world would soon change.
In the days and months that followed, we reached a level of civility in the midst of catastrophic circumstances that we haven’t reached since and I couldn’t help but reflect on how far we’ve grown apart as a nation in the past 15 years. I reflected on the loss of life and the scars left on those who survived and wondered if it was all worth it. The lessons that we teach our children — to be respectful of each other, to not take the American flag and what it represents for granted, and to work hard and be nice — don’t seem to apply to us as adults. We teach our children about 9/11, yet have allowed ourselves to forget that we are all Americans first and then the other things second.
I think it’s time we remembered. It’s our country, too.
It’s why we live here.