The first time I wrote something for Mockingbird, it was in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. Often, after these tragedies happen, a reactionary narrative responds with stories that are meant to “restore our faith in humanity,” as if the people on the ground are all heroes and the people who set off the bombs were actually robots from another planet. Turns out, we are all human beings. Plus, it is a well-documented fact that I gave up on restoring my faith in us a very long time ago.

I was a senior in high school in May of 2001. And in Mississippi, which offers up more than her fair share of military members, I watched so many of my classmates join the army. Things were peaceful then. No one remembered Pearl Harbor. No one thought about Vietnam. A few of our fathers has served in Desert Storm, but we had a pretty victorious rear view mirror from which to safely view that conflict. The army seemed like the best plan for someone who did not want to go to college yet and was ready to head towards adulthood.

On September 11, 2001, when the planes hit the first tower, all I could see were the faces of those boys from my high school who had signed up to go into the United States Army. Even then, even at 18, I knew that what they signed up for was going to be very different than what we had all envisioned for them. Suddenly, everything that we knew about the safety of the world and the stability of our lives was going to change. I wondered how they would manage such a derailment of their peaceful military service plans. Some of them survived. Some of them did not. A few of them made it home and still died at their own hand.

welles-and-motherWith the 15th anniversary of 9/11 this Sunday, we are seeing another news cycle full of an outrageous need to think better about ourselves. We are told that we have “overcome” what happened that day. We are told that we should feel patriotic at moments like these. I struggle with feeling anything but deeply sad. I desperately need a reminder of God’s consolation.

ESPN correspondent Tom Rinaldi has given me just such a story. In The Red Bandana, Rinaldi tells the story of Welles Crowther. As a child, Welles’ father had given him a red bandana to use in church if he needed to blow his nose. He wanted his young son to keep his pocket square intact. Welles carried the bandana with him always.

wellesWelles had been a firefighter as a younger man, but on September 11, 2001, he was working on the 104th floor of the South Tower as an equity trader. When the tower was hit, Welles tied the bandana across his face and used the training he had received as a firefighter. He would take one group of people down to safety, only to turn around and go back up to get more.  He saved as many as twelve people before the structure collapsed and killed him. Months later, when his remains were discovered, Welles’ body was in the lobby of the tower, among uniformed firefighters. As Rinaldi describes it, Welles was “75 feet away from the rest of his life. But he didn’t make the walk. Instead, he stayed to help.”

We should not miss two very important lessons here. First, being a hero is a catastrophically horrible thing to ask of anyone. It will cause you great harm and can very well kill you in the process. Second, God asked Welles to be a hero that day.

God made sure Welles had a deep love and devotion of firefighting. God gave Welles a relationship with his father that made him treasure the red bandana that would protect his face. God created Welles to be a hero in that moment and for that place. And on this, the 15th anniversary of 9-11, I thank God that Welles was precisely who he was made to be.