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We are a people of memory — and hope

First slide

In seventh and eighth grade, I was mostly a benchwarmer on my basketball team at the Wheaton Christian Grammar School in the western suburbs of Chicago. But a guy six years my senior would come to watch the games. His name was Todd Beamer.

His little sister was in my class, and he was friends with my coach, so he’d often walk over from nearby Wheaton College, where he was a student. When Todd entered the gym, you could feel the energy level go up. We played better as he cheered us on. Sometimes we even won. 

Years passed. I married the love of my life in the summer of 2001, and we settled down in Washington. Early on the morning after 9/11, I biked over to the American Red Cross headquarters on 17th street to give blood. I joined a hushed line that stretched for blocks. The streets that Wednesday morning were still. F-16s circled overhead and smoke from the Pentagon blackened the sky.

Somewhere in the haze of those days, I learned that Todd Beamer led the rush on the cockpit to retake UA Flight 93 from the terrorists. After praying Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer on the phone, his last words — “Are you ready? OK, let’s roll”— sounded just like what he would yell from the stands at my games.

Years passed. In 2005, Kirk, my youngest brother, fluent in Arabic, informed the family that he was leaving for Fallujah to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) reconstruction efforts there. In his training, the Marines taught him how to swat incoming grenades out of a Humvee. Soon, I found that my days were held captive by the news cycle: the latest IEDs, helicopter crashes, and the snipers picking off Marines in Fallujah. My 10-month-old son uttered Baghdad as one of his first words.

Out of my office window in Arlington, I kept seeing helicopters and fighter jets. Eventually I realized that they were doing flybys for funerals of the newly fallen at Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. I finally went over, and soon found myself standing before the freshly dug graves of the men and women who guarded my brother, whose birthdays were so close to mine, whose spouses and toddlers I would see decorating their graves.

I kept returning on my lunch breaks, sometimes with flowers in hand. Every time I stepped out onto the ground of Section 60, the front line had advanced. The pristine sod yielded foot after foot with new rows. Always, new names.

Then one December day in 2005, my brother, away from Iraq for some R & R, climbed out onto a second-story hotel roof and jumped headfirst to the concrete below. In what doctors later identified as a “fugue state,” he had been perched on the roof, convinced he needed to thwart the advances of the Fallujah sniper.

My brother recovered from his broken jaw and wrists and, once back in the U.S., began advocating for the resettlement of his former Iraqi colleagues — translators and other staff who stood shoulder to shoulder with U.S. forces, but whose lives were now at risk. My parents welcomed Yaghdan, an Iraqi staff member of USAID who had worked with Kirk. Soon my Dad was giving me regular updates about the man he called “my Iraqi son.” And soon, I was following not the news cycles from Iraq, but my Iraqi brother’s acceptance into an MBA program, his job search and the birth of his first child.

There are painful days on the church calendar — the slaughter of the innocents, gruesome martyrdoms, the silence of Good Friday — but mark them we must. We don’t erase dates because we are a people of memory and of hope. We have obligations.

On our civic calendar, the 20th anniversary of 9/11 will likely subsume us in macro stories, retrospectives, sweeping assessments and Taliban photo ops in the shuttered U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

But at the micro level, there are necessary things for us to do in these days. Giving blood. Decorating graves. Welcoming refugees. Checking in on widows, orphans, amputees and the walking wounded. Praying for those who defend us, and for the souls of the faithful departed. Hugging our children tighter.

I myself will call Yaghdan to see how his newborn son is doing. And I will tell my kids the story again about how when a man named Todd Beamer came to our games, there was something special in the air. And there still is.

Johnson and his wife, Ever, are cofounders of trinityhousecommunity.org.

Find out more

For information on how you can assist Afghan refugees through diocesan Catholic Charities, go to ccda.net/give-help/donate-goods-and-transportation/help-immigrants-and-refugees.





© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021