Most people remember exactly what they were doing ten years ago next Sunday morning. How will that influence what you do on 9-11-11?
By Jane Hess Collins
Ten years ago I was a Lieutenant Colonel with the Air Force Reserve and had just completed ten months of military graduate school at the Air Force’s Air War College (AWC). Our class of 265 senior officers from all branches of service and 45 NATO countries had spent much of the previous year preparing for leadership at the joint-service level and understanding our military’s contributions to national security. That spring we studied current and future threats to America’s interests.
Specifically, we learned about a whack job named Osama bin Laden.
After graduation, since I opted out of a follow-on active duty assignment, I headed to India with Global Volunteers to teach English to Hindu orphans in the village of Porur located just outside of Chennai. Our eclectic group of eleven ranged in age from teens to sixty-somethings, and we were a collection of college professors, a Ph.D. biology candidate and a handful of adventure junkies.
The village of Porur was indescribably poor. We kept the windows open at night in the 100-degree heat because our house had no air conditioning. I coated myself in DEET each night before bedtime and still had bites the size of quarters the next morning. Thankfully we had a flush toilet, electricity and a shower that dribbled water. We stepped around cows lying in the dirt streets. We wrapped our garbage in plastic bags and threw them into the ditch at the end of the street, next to the open sewer where the water was an artificial, disgusting turquoise color. A white plastic bag with a big yellow Smiley stayed stuck in the turquoise water for two weeks. Garbage men picked up the trash on Mondays unless the wild dogs found it first. Initially I was horrified at tossing rotting food onto the side of the road. At the end of three weeks I threw garbage like a pro.
India is 12 ½ hours ahead of the U.S. east coast. We didn’t have a television so we relied on a nearby internet café for our news. The computers were slow but cost only a dime a minute, and we joked that our group put the internet café owner’s kids through college. The nearest phone was about three blocks away. It was a huge metal container, like the one Clark Kent used when he changed into Superman, and painted bright red like an English one.
The evening of September 11 one of us had called her sister and learned about the first plane crash into the World Trade Center tower. At first we thought some careless pilot had done something really stupid. I don’t remember how we heard about the crash into the second tower, but when we found out, we knew something horrible had happened.
Later that evening, half of our group watched CNN at the Christian neighbor’s home, while the rest of the team and I watched FOX News with the Muslim neighbor family. As the Muslim wife offered us tea and cookies and repeated over and over in broken English how she hoped our families were all right, I had a horrible premonition of the next few weeks:
1. Osama bin Laden would be identified as the mastermind behind the attacks, and
2. Anti-Islam sentiment would spread throughout parts of America
It was like watching a deadly tsunami surging toward shore, and I was helpless to stop it.
We continued to teach our kids for the next ten days. The directors were Christian and most of the orphans were Hindu, so it was an odd mix of Hinduism and Christianity. On our last day the directors organized a celebration to thank us for our three weeks with them, including a prayer for our safe return home.
We started out–the volunteers and orphans–kneeling on a straw mat spread over a rough cement floor. One by one we volunteers stood up as our knees began to hurt. Even though I had three years of Catholic school under my belt, I was no match for those kids. They knelt on those straw mats for two and a half hours, praying to a deity that I’m pretty sure they didn’t really understand for our safety, our families and our protection. Some of the kids were crying. I remember how we volunteers peeked at each other sheepishly, thinking of the homes, families, friends, cars and jobs waiting for us when we returned.
Since that India adventure I’ve stopped complaining about gas prices and property tax increases. When lattes go up a dime at Starbucks I remember my orphans and the gratitude for the lesson in humility they taught me.
Next Sunday I’m joining the 9/11 Unity Walk. Thousands of others will participate in one of the community projects organized for 9-11. For still others, Sunday will be business as usual.
The people I’ll think about next Sunday will be that small minority who view next Sunday as just another day of existence with the unforgettable, continual pain having lost a loved one through a plane crash or on the battlefield.
I won’t know who they are. They may be alongside me in the Unity Walk, closing a real estate deal or sitting numbly at home in silence.
Jane Hess Collins helps and encourages people to give back through her volunteering, writing, speaking, coaching and workshops. You can follow her other Get Out and Give Back volunteer stories on Facebook, Twitter and her website. If you’d like her to volunteer with your organization, contact her here.