On the 15th anniversary of 9/11, one Maryland football player — and an Army veteran — reminds us that freedom has a price, too
The silence hangs for an eternity, flickering ever so slightly, the way an image does when paused for too long on a VCR. The honest words, the raging ones, the NC-17 ones, dangle like low-hanging fruit. Tehuti Miles reaches for something else. Higher ground.
“It’s funny,” Maryland’s senior running back says. “I mean, I don’t even know if I should comment on this.”
The conversation turns to Colin Kaepernick, to the 49ers quarterback refusing to stand for the national anthem, refusing to stand and salute a flag Miles watched his friends die trying their damnedest to protect.
A word. The right word.
Miles takes a short breath. He presses play.
“I don’t believe it’s the right thing that he’s doing,” the Army veteran says softly, tiptoeing above a whisper.
“But you can do whatever you want. He has the right to not (salute). But I don’t necessarily agree with that. But that’s just my opinion.”
A word. The right word.
Enraged? Livid? Upset?
“I was kind of upset,” he said. “But like I said, he can do whatever he wants, basically.
“I guess he doesn’t — he doesn’t know. They don’t know. They don’t know what it’s like to be over there, and do that kind of thing. Obviously, guys like the soldiers that go over there, have more of a bond toward fighting for their country. But people that haven’t done it … I don’t know.”
He could almost make out the black smoke in the distance, bellowing from across the Hudson River, the towers smoldering beneath the haze. When Miles’ grandmother and mother weren’t looking, crestfallen, at one another, their eyes were glued to the television, a nightmare movie plot playing out as nonfiction less than 10 miles away.
“I know my mom was worried,” Miles said. “I don’t think I was really scared. I didn’t really know what was really going on.”
He knew a voice over the intercom had cut through the middle of Tuesday music class like a poleax. He knew the principal had told them all something had happened, something big, something awful. He knew parents and guardians were on their way.
Teachers and staff found television sets and steered packs of curious students toward them. Karen Miles arrived a short while after that, and informed Tehuti they were going to his grandmother’s in Jersey City, N.J., almost within eyeshot of the chaos unraveling in the Financial District.
The Terrapins running back was 10 years old when terrorists struck Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, a world turned upside down 15 years ago this weekend.
“I think maybe it woke some people up,” said Miles, who went to high school in Hammonton, N.J., roughly 100 miles southwest of the Big Apple, and walked on to the Terps in 2013.
“For instance, even after that happened, it obviously showed that America has some (security) flaws … and something like that, even though it’s bad, it could be a lesson to rally the country. Now we have all the security on airplanes and at all the airports, and things like that.”
As a millennial, Miles was too young to know much of pre-9/11 life, whatever naivete was punished, whatever innocence lost. But he had a hand in the aftermath, serving four years with the Army following his graduation from Hammonton High School in 2008, including a tour in Afghanistan from March 2010 to March 2011 with 1-71 Cavalry, the 10th Mountain Division. Brothers in arms.
“It’s the same thing in football: I call those dudes my brothers, too,” said Miles, whose Terrapins (1-0) visit Florida International (0-1) on Friday. “(But) with the military, it’s real life. It’s life or death. Those guys really have your back.
“I know we talk about the times with a football team (giving support). With the military, it’s like you’ve got to really have that guy’s back. It’s life or death.”
It’s recon. It’s cleanup. Miles stood guard in watchtowers, M4 in hand, seven days a week.
The worst day was July 10, 2010, approaching an enemy compound. On the other side of a wall, a sergeant had tripped a homemade explosive device, killing him instantly, sending arms and legs askew, a blast so forceful that even from behind that wall, Miles found himself knocked back several feet.
Over 12 months in the Middle East, nearly a dozen members of his squadron were killed. Miles received several medals of distinction, including the National Defense Medal, the Army Service Ribbon, the Overseas Ribbon, the Global War on Terrorism Medal, the Army Achievement Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Combat Action Badge, the Meritorious Unit Citation and the Expert Rifleman Badge.
Upon returning to civilian life, he also battled PTSD for years. Insomnia. Short-term memory loss. Flashbacks. Nightmares.
Come for the hell, stay for the purgatory.
And yet Miles can chuckle a bit at how the War on Terror has since been repackaged, sold and retold by Hollywood, the vagaries of artistic license.
“It’s funny, actually,” Miles said. “I can watch those things because most of them are not very accurate. I watch them and I laugh.
“One dude goes into a house by himself to take out 20 people. That would never happen. You would never go in by yourself.”
The days are long. The years are short. A “glue” guy on special teams, Miles has yet to appear in a game but was named scout team player of the week at least once each of the last three seasons. A 5-foot-10 block of granite, the New Jersey native hadn’t played football formally since high school; the Terps, remarkably, had to jump through all kinds of hoops — including a waiver that featured community college transcripts and military medals — in order to secure eligibility.
“Besides the freshmen, a lot of people know that I was in the military,” Miles says. “And they ask me some questions (about it). But I don’t think I’ve really explained actual stories.”
But he has them, still, some that soothe and others that ache like sin. As a boy, not long before 9/11, Miles had visited the street level of the World Trade Center with his mother, who often trekked to Manhattan in those days. He recalls the candy at a newsstand, sweets at eye level, the rest looming above.
And now it’s gone.
Miles actually returned to the site a few months back, walking outside the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, bridging the decades, scratching for context amidst the majesty and tragedy.
“There were so many people out there, too. (It was) sobering,” the Maryland senior said. “And it was just like, ‘Wow, I walked in one of these buildings, and it’s just a hole in the ground with water and stuff now.’ It looked cool, but just to know that there were two buildings right there, it was kind of crazy.”
A veteran seethes.
A word. The right word.
Naïve? Selfish? Disrespectful?
“It is disrespectful,” Miles said. “I completely disagree. But it’s a free country. And he has the freedom to do that.”
The silence hangs again. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean that it comes without a price.