NBC's Tom Brokaw called them "The Greatest Generation." They witnessed and participated in most of the significant events of the 20th century. Representatives of what has been called the American Century were asked "Where were you on 9/11?"
It was posed as a question of remembrance and reflection. It could also have been interpreted as a national plea. But, their answers may be as vital to tomorrow as their service was to yesterday.
"They" are the Military History Group who meets at the Hollin Hall Senior Center, just off Fort Hunt Road, once a month to discuss military events in world history. The subject of Monday's two-hour discussion was September 11, 2001.
Each recalled where they were and what they had been doing when they first heard the news. But, the actual attacks and their emotional responses at that moment were less significant to them than how the event, coupled with their life experiences in the national conflicts of the past, and what 9/11 portends for the future.
In sharp contrast to the media and celebrity overload that has become as predictable as last season's weather forecast, these men and women pierced through the emotional fog to place that day and its tragic events in historical perspective. They offered sobering and sage advice to today's populous and leaders, some of whom are their own offspring.
SERVING AS GROUP leaders for the 24 men and women seated around the room were Stan Wielga, an Army veteran of Vietnam, and Sheila Melville, a former member of the British Navy who survived World War II and has been a resident in this country for the past 50 years. Their perspectives were a juxtaposition of "Britain's finest hours" and some of America's darkest.
Others recalled not only World War II with its triumphs and failures but also Korea, Vietnam, and terrorist tactics from London to the USS Cole. They brought a panoply of experiences and observations to the table from Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima and Inchon to Saigon.
As they reflected on their locations and actions one year ago there was a nearly unanimous resignation that this was not the beginning of the so-called "War on Terrorism" but merely the continuation and, perhaps, the expansion of an ongoing phenomenon that has been, and will always be, with us.
"This was not the act of thugs. But the beginning of a religious war. That's what we have to keep our eye on," warned Walter Kline, a World War II Army veteran. "We will never totally win because these rascals will be doing this 100 years from now."
AS FOR THE EXPENSE of pursuing this conflict, "America is so rich, in so many respects, supporting a war doesn't faze me at all," he continued. "But I'm not sure attacking Iraq is the answer. If we get bogged down in the Middle East what's going to happen with China. That's what worries me."
Kline further cautioned, "We need to keep our eye on the job ahead of us and not be so obsessed with the past. The real threat is the ability of terrorists anywhere to develop weapons of mass destruction."
Melville noted that the group had been meeting for seven years. It started with four participants and has grown steadily. She recalled that one year ago, "When I heard the blast [attack on the Pentagon] I just thought the guys at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge had mistakenly set off their dynamite."
She harkened back to her days in London during World War II. "The BBC only had three news broadcasts a day, morning, noon, and evening. As last Sept. 11, progressed, I thought how easy it is to get overloaded by TV," Melville reflected.
"But, then I noticed the increasing silence, no planes and very little traffic. I thought to myself, this will change our lives forever," she said.
Ralph Dunham, another Army veteran, admitted, "I stayed glued to the television all day." He also reminded the rest that, "World War II was the first major conflict where more civilians died than combat soldiers. We have forgotten that."
Although, he understood the desire to reflect on Sept. 11, he cautioned, "If we dwell on this too much they will have won. We have to pick up our socks and move on. England suffered everyday during the blitz. They can't have a memorial for every day. They lost many thousands. Then we did it to the Germans and the Japanese. You have to put this in perspective."
THE NEED TO keep things in perspective was echoed by Bill Connor, a Navy veteran from the Korean conflict. "I find in talking with younger people, including my own children, they have no perspective of what the world can really be like. This is the greatest calamity in life to them. This is their benchmark for terror. We lived through millions of deaths."
He noted, "In World War II we killed more in the fire bombings of Germany and Japan than the two atomic bombs did together. This [September 11] is not the worst thing that ever happened to mankind."
Chester Smith, a World War II marine who served in the Pacific Theater, speculated, "The one thing about 9/11 is that the populous of this country may gain a better understanding of what war is really all about. It's not just about what's on television - it kills people."
Mary Catherine DePolo, a World War II WAVE, had been at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Washington for a check up when the attack occurred. She said her daughter told her they had to leave because of the attack on the Pentagon.
"We left the hospital but got trapped on the Memorial Bridge for five hours. We picked up some people who were walking from the Pentagon. One girl was covered with ash."
Melville said, "You can't stop terrorism everywhere. There will always be terrorist. There always have been. In Britain there is the conflict with the IRA. When [Ronald] Reagan was president he spent so much money on the military he bankrupted the Soviets. I hope we don't spend so much on this we bankrupt ourselves."
To this Dunham chimed in, "They sure have messed up the stock market already."
SEVERAL SAW SEPT. 11 not just as a tragedy but as a challenge and even an opportunity to strengthen the American people. "You need hard times to make you stronger and they make you grow," said Ruby Grant, a military spouse with a son stationed at the Pentagon. "Four of my son's office mates were killed that day. He was not at the Pentagon at the time, thank goodness."
Doug Carter, a former Army career officer who had seen duty in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, warned, "We are in a position today we have not been in before. There is a desire among the American people to go back to the way their world was before last September. It isn't going to happen. What has been happening in Israel will happen here."
Another concern expressed by the group was that the whole incident was now being overplayed, thereby elevating the terrorists to a level they did not deserve. "We are running this thing into the ground," Wiegle exclaimed. "We are making the enemy far more than they are. We are giving them a sovereignty they don't have."
He also stated, "There's a lot of concern about calling this a war. It's a police action, not a war."
That sentiment was echoed by Carter. "Bush doesn't have the right to declare war. Congress does that. To say that the resolution passed during the Gulf War is still in effect is really stretching it."
The Bush administration threat to go it alone in another showdown with Iraq drew the wrath of Melville.
"If your going to call it a war you'd better have a few friends and air bases," she emphasized.
Melville also expressed her frustration with President Bush's absence from Washington last September 11. "The best thing the Germans did to unit the British people in the early part of World War II was to bomb Buckingham Palace. That really made us mad. But it also united us when the King and Queen stayed right there and walked among the rubble.
"The president should have come back to Washington immediately instead of flying all around on Air Force One. He should have come back and addressed the American people from the balcony of the White House in the fashion of a Churchill. When I saw Giuliani walking around New York, mingling with the people at ground zero, he reminded me of Churchill."
CARTER REMINDED Melville that the president doesn't have much choice in such matters, "It's really up to the Secret Service. They are in control," he insisted. Her retort to that was, "I bet Harry Truman would have been in control. Not the Secret Service." Carter conceded, "The president should have more control over such decisions."
One of the primary conclusions reached by the group was that this conflict was different than any this country has faced in modern history. Melville agreed with Kline, "This is a war of religion. It goes back to the crusades. Our enemy has a whole different view of life than we do. That is why they use suicide bombers."
Kline, warned, "They bear a grudge for hundreds of years. It's almost an impossible re-education task to overcome their hatred of us. Situations like this go on forever, just like the British and Irish or the Palestinians and the Israelis. They're both right and they're both wrong."
In bringing the discussion full circle, Carter said, "Where were you in history. The real question is, 'what do we do now?' We can't change the past but we can change the future."
Wiegle concluded that there are two phases ahead, defense and offense. "But whatever we do it should be done with our allies. Not unilaterally."
As a Vietnam veteran his words carried a warning from the past. In answer to their own question, where were they one year ago, this group was having another discussion about another war on September 10, 2001. The subject was the Korean "conflict." The only war from which America has had no exit.