Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Military Epiphany

Beth Underwood

When I left my career in architecture to pursue a degree in journalism, I felt quite confident that I knew exactly what I wanted out of life. I also knew what I didn’t want – namely to spend the rest of my life working for newspapers. Oddly enough, in the 10 years that followed, I’d done nothing but work at newspapers, with a couple of exceptions.

Veterans Day, 2004 was no exception. I was covering the annual ceremonies in the heart of Americana – Livingston, Tennessee. My move from big city south Florida to the small town USA had come less than a week earlier. And as I took in the faces of strangers, I’d wondered if making this move strictly to be closer to my family in Kentucky was really worth it.

After looking around for interesting photo ops, my attention turned to the first speaker, who seemed rather out of place. She wasn’t in uniform and appeared to be about my age. As she spoke, I realized she’d have preferred being anywhere but there, that day. Her son, 21, had been killed in Iraq six months earlier. She was followed by another mother, whose son had also been killed in Iraq only 90 days prior.

While unspoken, a palpable anxiety hung over the crowd. More than a hundred other parents in attendance, whose sons had deployed with the local National Guard Armory, were quietly praying they’d never receive that news.

As I stood on the courthouse square, I had no doubt that I was there for a reason. That there were stories that needed to be told – that I was going to tell them – and Livingston, Tennessee, was where I’d begin.

Because of the numerous members of America’s Armed Forces who’ve taken me under their wings, I’ve received an eye-opening education on the threats facing our military in theater as well as the threats facing us - here in the United States.

I’d learned so much, in fact, that I was convinced I knew enough to be able to spot an improvised explosive device if ever a situation should warrant my skills. I knew the various devices and detonations like I knew the back of my own hand, and knew to expect the unexpected.

Last year, I got my chance at Camp Shelby’s mobilization and training center. The Camp includes a mock IED walk, preceded by a lesson in some of the types of IEDs currently in use by terrorists – like a child’s walkie-talkie that detonates a baby doll stuffed with explosives, or a pile of leaves that covers a thin tube, detonating a 155-round under the pressure of a Humvee’s tire.

As the IED walk began, I was loaded with confidence and overly anxious to show off my IED-spotting skills, which is probably about the time that the first dynamite charge caused me to jump out of my skin. I’d missed the explosives hidden in a hollow log.

I did find a marker, though – a small strip of yellow fabric hanging on a tree limb. Unfortunately, I missed the IED it was marking. I also missed the wire strung across a doorway, one foot off the floor. In fact, I missed every single IED planted on that walk, evidenced by the half-dozen or so dynamite charges that accompanied each miss.

Although I’d struck out on the IED walk, I left Camp Shelby with deeper insight as to what we face as citizens in the post-9/11 world. In light of the most recent terror attempt last week, it is critical that Americans understand the enemy and realize there is no length to which they won’t go.

As a new decade unfolds, we must recognize the threat of terrorism is not confined to Iraq or Afghanistan, but lives among us in our homeland. Failure to accept that truth will make us easy – and culpable – targets. Contributing Editor Beth Underwood is a freelance military writer in central Kentucky. Her articles have appeared in Military Officer, Military Writers Society of America newsletter, and numerous newspapers. Her website is Southern Fried Conservative.

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