United we stand

By: 
Walter Sprague

T

he United States of America: That means something. The title of our country is not an accident. Our Founding Fathers didn’t choose Americo-land or Vespucio-land or something along those lines. They put aside their ideas about which they disagreed and instead focused on those that brought them together. They recognized that while each state was a sovereign entity with the power to make its own laws, they still had one thing in common. It was one country – the United States of America. 

In being united, they overcame the greatest army on the face of the Earth and won their independence. They have united in their belief that God created them to be free men, free women, a free nation. They recognized what this freedom was. It was the freedom to express yourself. It was the freedom to defend yourself. It was the freedom to worship how you saw fit or not at all. Most of all, it was the freedom to live on your terms if you didn’t take that same freedom away from another. These were inalienable rights given to us by God, not by the whims of an ever-changing tyrant, dictator or monarch.

Garrett Borton and I were talking about this. He pointed out the importance of the meaning of words, in this case, “united.”

“What if someone came into Renegade Paint and Pipe,” he said, “And asked me to paint his car? And then I said, ‘Oh, I don’t have any paint.’ What would that say to the other person about me?”

Borton said that his reputation would be worthless at that point. His own company name said one thing, but his business was another. That would make him a liar. He remembered the day after 9/11. Borton said that was one time when it felt as if this country was truly united. We fit our name.

Do we still? I believe that we don’t hold to these ideas of unity and that America doesn’t stand for something special anymore. I know I’m cynical, but the nation looks more divided and more at war with itself than ever, and I can’t help feeling that I’m not far off.

9/11 changed, forever, how I view the world. It wasn’t the horror of those attacks that made the most significant impact on me, nor was it the loss of life. It was the brave people of the fire departments and the police departments rushing into those burning buildings to save others, people they didn’t even know. As I watched documentaries in the intervening years, I got stuck again on how selfless those first responders were. 

Our first responders are amazing people. I’ve heard interviews where firefighters heard about what they would face going into the World Trade Center. Some of them knew they weren’t coming out again, and yet they went in to save somebody else. I saw and heard the heartbreak as one first responder after another broke up, saying things like, “That was the last time I saw him.”

I asked Gene Diedtrich, a volunteer firefighter for 60 years, about his feelings related to 9/11. I needed that perspective.

“We had the occasion to see the towers.” Gene said, “We were in New York in October of 2000. We got to go up in the North Tower during that time.”

He teared up a bit, remembering what happened a year later.

“To this day, I can’t fathom that many firemen dying in one spot,” he said. “It’s still unbelievable.” “You look at the New York City Fire Department. What a tragic thing for them, all the people they lost,” Gene continued.”You know it’s hard to imagine ...what a plane coming in at a couple hundred miles an hour, loaded with that much fuel. The damage and havoc it would rain on a place.” 

He paused for a few moments to collect his thoughts.

Turning his focus to more positive things, Gene said that the federal government has ramped up support for first responders since then. He remembers how hard it used to be to get funds for fire departments. 

“The federal government has been very kind to the first responders since that point in time,” he continued. “We now have billions of dollars across the nation for all kinds of things – for fire training, you know, for the fire service. Policemen and firemen have been a benefactor for those fallen in the line of duty. It’s a huge monetary benefit, I think close to $400,000 now, for in-the-line-of-duty death. …  The federal government has kind of taken the fire service under their wing a little bit …  … for the last 20 years.”

Since then, the Diedtrich family has visited New York City and the Pentagon, where they received a tour of that vast place by their son-in-law, Walter Jackim, currently a retired U.S. Air Force colonel. They visited the memorial in lower Manhattan, where the Memorial Wall stands.

“It’s unbelievable what they’ve done,” Gene said, “It just takes your breath away to see how many people lost their lives.”

“We went to the Pentagon on December 20, 2006,” Gene continued. “We toured the Pentagon the Friday before Christmas. ... We walked many of the halls. We went to the area where the plane hit. Of course, it was all rebuilt by that time.”

Gene’s wife, Joyce, also recalled that visit. 

“The most stunning thing for me, of course, me being a woman, was that there were memorial quilts from each state in the union, and they hung them in these hallways. It was just amazing. It just breaks you apart when you see that,” she said

The thing that struck me the most were their memories of a trip to Ireland just after the reopening of the airports about a week after the attacks. The Diedtrichs already had their tickets, so they took their planned vacation. They felt very secure because of how high the security was in the airports.

“We found the people in Ireland were such that they put me in tears more than once,” Joyce said, “In this pub, this older Irish man stood up and said, ‘Ma’am, are you from America?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘I thought so when you came in.’ He said, ‘We are so sorry for your loss.’” 

She said that time and again the people in Ireland said they were praying for our country.

“I had so much trouble keeping it together,” she said. She said this older man said they were so grateful for how much America had done for the Irish people and that everyone was behind America as she struggled with what had just happened. They were in Ireland for about a week. They said that they met so many supportive people who had nothing but good to say about America.

I keep thinking – if people from another country can get behind the United States in a time of crisis, so can we. As a country, we can find some common ground. These are challenging times for America now. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I can’t help but ask some questions. Are we not still Americans? Isn’t this still the greatest country on the face of our planet? Are we not still relatively free?

Instead of fighting over what we disagree with each other about, can’t we unite in the idea of “America, home of the brave and land of the free?” What are we going to do with our freedoms? I don’t have all the answers. But if we can’t be united and proud to be American citizens on 9/11, when can we? We must realize that united we stand, divided we fall.

 

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