Wake up America, We are a Nation at War

By: Greg C. Reeson

Some of the most interesting experiences I have had during my travels to and from the war in Iraq involved the necessary fuel stops in other nations along the route that would take me to Kuwait, the jumping off point for military forces and equipment rotating into the Iraq Theater of Operations. Both political climate and public sentiment played crucial roles in determining the type of reception that American soldiers received upon landing, and I was struck by the differences among nations that were considered American “allies.”

To illustrate, allow me to provide a few examples. In Rome, Italy, we were not allowed to leave the plane during our stop. We remained parked on the tarmac and airport personnel brought out portable stairs so that smokers could descend to the bottom for a cigarette break. I stepped outside just so that I could enjoy a breath of fresh air, having been trapped inside our plane for the past 15 hours. We were told by some airline workers that we were restricted to the plane because of the Italian public’s opposition to the war, a notion I found somewhat strange considering the Italians had a respectable number of troops serving in Iraq and then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was a staunch supporter of President Bush and the war.

Prestwick, Scotland offered a situation that was a little better, but not much. Upon our arrival in Prestwick, we were informed that we could in fact disembark from the airplane, but would be restricted to an outlying hanger area away from the main terminal. So we walked down the steps and across the aircraft parking ramp to a building far removed from the places normal air travelers frequent. To make up for the lack of food and beverage establishments that I and my soldiers would most certainly have patronized, airport officials set up a makeshift snack bar with crackers, cookies, sodas and coffee that we could purchase, with American dollars of course.

Shannon, Ireland provided by far the warmest reception I received outside the United States. Not only were we allowed off the plane and into the terminal, but our soldiers were free to go where they wanted, when they wanted. We ate at the restaurants, shopped in the duty free store, and even enjoyed a few spirits at the airport pub. The people were warm and friendly, and I almost felt like I was at home. The same was true for my stop in Gander, Newfoundland, where ordinary travelers would come up and greet us and wish upon us God’s blessings. And my only two stops in the United States, at JFK in New York and in Bangor, Maine, were exactly what you would expect them to be: warm, loving, supportive layovers where complete strangers treated you like their closest family members.

So when the Washington Times ran a story last week about American troops returning from Iraq being barred entry to the airport terminal at Oakland International, I was a bit taken aback. According to the Times, an unnamed Marine reported that the airplane carrying the troops parked some 400 yards away from the terminal, without access to food or bathroom facilities. The Marine wrote in an email to a couple of Republican congressmen that “Every Marine and soldier felt the message loud and clear. ‘You are not welcome in Oakland!’”

I can understand restrictions in places like Rome and Prestwick. Geopolitics is a complicated affair, and relations among nations involve lots of give and take between countries trying to achieve foreign policy objectives while satisfying fickle publics. But if the allegations are true, how does this happen here at home?

The Times article stated that the 200-plus Marines and soldiers aboard North American Airlines Flight 1777 had been through the customs screening process at JFK and had been allowed into the terminal in New York. The Marine who made the allegations said the troops were told they could not enter the terminal in Oakland because they had not been cleared by the TSA. The Port of Oakland issued a response, quoted by the Times, saying “The airport received information that the passengers were not screened by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at their originating airport and that weapons were on-board the aircraft.” The TSA then responded that since the troops had been through Customs, no TSA screening was required.

It sounds like it was all a big misunderstanding, but the question remains, how does this happen in the United States? So the airport received information that the passengers had not been screened by the TSA and that there were weapons on board. Did anyone bother to ask what type of passengers might have weapons aboard a commercial flight within the continental United States? Common sense should have dictated that this was probably not your run-of-the-mill charter and that someone at Oakland International should have asked a few more questions before directing the airplane into the airport’s sterile area.

Part of the problem is that we are a military at war, but we are not a nation at war. A large segment of the American population has returned to pre-9/11 routines, seemingly unaffected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and by the very real threats posed to our nation by Islamic extremism. Security precautions have become inconveniences that make it much easier to push out-of-the-ordinary situations to a sterile area to be dealt with by someone else, rather than asking a few more questions that could result in our soldiers and Marines being treated like the heroes they are.

Our troops returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and anywhere else that puts them in harm’s way, deserve the very best that we can give them. Something as simple as security screening should never result in quarantine for American soldiers returning home after serving their country overseas. To prevent incidents like the one in Oakland from happening again, Americans must wake up out of their slumber and acknowledge that we are not fighting President Bush’s war, or the Republicans’ war, or the military’s war, but America’s war. The sooner we do that as a nation, the sooner we will be able to defeat our enemies and honor those who live their lives as servants of our country.


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