I had dinner last week with a friend whose name, for reasons that will be obvious, I can't say. I can't say exactly where he works or what he does. When I ask his wife about him, she usually tells me that he is on his way from a place he can't tell us to another place he can't tell us. He is a little more forthcoming: He spends most of his time in the most dangerous places in the world. War zones are a particular specialty. He gets shot at: There is one bullet wound that I know of, in his stomach. Lucky. He tries to avoid suicide bombers and explosive devices, although he's come close to both (about a dozen times) in the past year.
His job, for which he is paid $154,000 a year, is to put his life on the line to save ours and those of our children. Kids right out of law school make more than he does to review documents and prepare more senior lawyers to prepare witnesses. (He went to law school 20-plus years ago.) While he jokes about that, he doesn't think they get the satisfaction from their work that he does. They also don't read intelligence reports every morning at 5 a.m. that often make (even) his hair stand on end.
We talk about his work, as much as we can, and what he always tells me about are the unbelievable people he works with — their smarts and courage and determination and ability. He sings the praises of the retired Navy SEALs who have gone from risking their lives on the front lines to risking their lives on whatever lines need attending.
The hardest parts of this "job" of his (he never tells me exactly what his title is or who he works for), he says, are the challenges of fighting an enemy who doesn't wear a uniform and looks like anyone else in the community, as well as the special challenges brought on by American values, which (admirably, but still) so value the lives of innocent women and children that we can't or don't take the aggressive action many in the field consider essential to our safety.
We talk about the benefits, but mostly the drawbacks, of civilian/political control. I tell him about a line in one of my favorite Daniel Silva spy novels, about how the Americans know everything and do nothing. He just laughs. We don't do nothing, he explains, but we also don't do what many foreign operatives with fewer moral and political constraints would do.
I ask his wife how she deals with the worry. (I worry when my loved ones get on planes, let alone go back and forth to countries that cannot be named.) She tells me that, over the years, she has just learned not to think about it. Actually, technology has made things a little better. He tries to call her every day on his encrypted satphone so that, even though she doesn't know where he is, she at least knows he is alive.
When I express my admiration and thanks, he waves it away, pointing out that he is one of so many and, because he is fairly senior, faces fewer threats than so many others. Then he goes back to extolling his nameless colleagues.
Whenever I see a man or woman in uniform, I thank them for what they are doing for me, for my family, for my country. But guys and gals in short-sleeve shirts who look like your average Joe or Jane are much harder to thank. They don't talk about what they do; their business cards say almost nothing (is that a real phone number, I wonder) or less than nothing; they don't tell you where they've been or where they're headed except in the most off-handed way. How is the weather in Afghanistan, I ask, and he just laughs.
The world is a very, very dangerous place. There are many people out there who would like to hurt us; who value their own lives and those of their children so little that every day they are trying to figure out ways to sacrifice them in order to harm us; who, frankly, I'm just as happy to know nothing about, because the more I know the more terrified I get. We Americans are the luckiest people on the face of the globe.
My friend and his colleagues put their lives on the line to save ours. I don't know how to thank these brave men and women. I don't know how to express my admiration and gratitude, when the whole point is that we don't know who they are. This is the best I can do: Thank you. God bless you and keep you safe.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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