Letter #5: It’s time to get back up
January 6, 2021
I sat here and watched the cursor blink on and off on my computer screen for what seemed like an hour before I could start this letter. How do I explain to you what happened today?
I am full of emotions right now…disappointment, rage, confusion…and above all, a heavy curtain of sadness. I feel an overwhelming sense of loss — like the passing of an old friend I have known and loved for many years.
It has been a dark day for American democracy.
The events of today left me stunned. I was on a call with one of my team members, discussing the 12 and 140 from my last letter to you. We were talking through the various consequences that could transpire as a result of these leaders seeking to overturn the election results and reject the electors, when he suddenly stopped mid-sentence.
“Are you watching this?” he said with alarm. “They just said they’re evacuating the Vice President and Speaker. It must be some sort of bomb scare.”
There was a long pause. We tried to continue the meeting. Then another interruption: “Shots fired in the Capitol?!” he said in amazement.
We stopped and turned toward our monitors and phones to watch as cameras depicted an angry, frenzied mob — some carrying weapons — overrunning an undermanned, ill-equipped team of Capitol Police in an all-out assault on the Capitol Building — the home of the United States Congress, the “People’s Branch” of government. The United States Capitol building had not been breached since the British set fire to it in August of 1814.
We watched in disbelief as rioters climbed the walls, broke through windows and ransacked Member offices. Members, their staff and journalists hunkered down inside a locked chamber as Capitol Police barricaded the door and drew their weapons, aiming in on rioters attempting to shatter the windows and break into the chamber.
“So, it’s finally come to this,” I thought. I felt as if I was watching part of me dying right before my eyes.
We quickly ended the meeting. I stayed glued to my monitor trying to figure out what was happening as events played out on the screen. Fear, chaos and confusion were rampant.
My phone buzzed as an alert came through with a message from Mayor Bowser mandating a city-wide curfew for D.C. from 6pm until 6am the next day. I looked outsides as fleets of police cruisers raced past our house down 16th Street heading toward the Capitol.
I somberly walked out to the garage to make sure we had the go-bags prepped in the car in case your mom and I needed to leave quickly tonight. I’ve been missing you a lot lately, Trin, but tonight, I’m glad that you are safe with family in Texas. It looks like it could be a long night.
How did we get here? Is this the country that my friends and I and so many other brave men and women in uniform fought so hard to defend?
I had seen this story play out before…but not here. Not in our home. Not in America.
My thoughts flashed to December 27, 2007 when I found myself sprinting through the streets of Nairobi, Kenya alongside my friend Boke — our hearts pounding, as an angry mob of hundreds closed in behind us with machetes and AK-47s.
Kenya had been the shining star of democracy in East Africa before that fateful day when an election gone poorly and lies and conspiracies seeded by elected leaders caused violence to explode across the country as hundreds of thousands of Kenyans rose up in frustrated dismay and rage — seeking to violently take back what their leaders told them had been stolen from them.
Over 1,000 men, women and children lost their lives and 600,000 were displaced from their homes in the dark days that followed.
I never dreamed that I would see fear and divisiveness like that here at home on our own shores.
An overwhelming feeling of sadness came over me as I watched the mob in the occupied Capitol grounds. This was the representative seat of American Democracy…the symbolic center of power for the very people who now seemed bent on destroying it.
Then, slowly…like a small spark that grows into a blazing forest fire, my sadness turned to rage. This is what happens when we do not value moral courage in our leaders. This is what happens when we compromise and accept leaders who trade virtue and integrity for expediency and short-term gains.
I thought back to the words I wrote to you less than a week ago in a letter about the 12 and 140:
“…but today, I need to talk with you about the actions that our leaders are taking right now as I write this letter — actions that jeopardize everything that we have fought so hard to protect and preserve. Actions that, as I read the headline in my newsfeed, gave me a sinking feeling in my chest and confirmation that the idea of America is truly in danger…I want you to understand the importance of moral courage — of doing the right thing when it’s hard. And I want you to see what happens to leaders when moral courage is replaced by cowardice. I want you to be able to recognize the difference between a leader who is showing true country-first courage and strength and one who is being a self-interested coward wrapped up in a nice bow of flowery patriotic language when the TV cameras are on.”
Today, sadly, you are seeing what happens to leaders when moral courage is replaced by cowardice. We are witnessing a dark chapter in American history, and it is our leaders — not an angry mob — who got us here.
Earlier in the day, I watched one of those leaders, President Donald Trump, stand behind a podium in front of the White House and deliver a rage-filled rant full of disproven lies and conspiracy theories — purposefully inciting thousands of struggling, hard-working Americans to revolt against the very institutions that protect and provide for their freedoms.
He lied to them — telling them that he was their only hope, that he was the last thing standing between them and the destruction of all that they hold dear — their freedom, their families, their faith and their way of life.
He lied to them telling them that their voice and their rights had been stripped from them. He harnessed their anger and frustration all for his own selfish gain.
“You will never take back your country with weakness,” the President said. “So we’re going to, we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue…and we’re going to the Capitol and we’re going to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones, because the strong ones don’t need any of our help, we’re going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”
And walk down Pennsylvania Avenue they did — leading to an open assault on the seat of American democracy — recklessly endangering the lives of his Vice President, 535 Members of Congress, their staff and journalists and ending the lives of five Americans within the Capitol building itself…all while he retreated like a coward to the White House to watch events that he set in motion unfold on television from behind his protected walls.
Today as I was writing this to you, one of my old friends sent me a note about today’s events that I want to share with you. Billy is like a brother to me — an infantry Marine I was humbled to serve with during combat operations in 2003. His note to me was powerful, and I think his words do an excellent job describing the actions today of President Trump and the 12 and 140.
“I have a single, haunting memory from Iraq that keeps creeping into my mind as I have watched the events of today unfold.
I was walking through my fitness facility at work, talking with the guys getting their workout in, and they happened to have the OAN network on the big screen. They had all paused to watch President Trump addressing the crowd outside — posturing with empty rhetoric and anger, and I just thought, “This guy…no good can come of this.” And then we all saw what followed…
I was immediately reminded of an experience I had in Iraq in 2004.
After you and I parted ways in 2004, Jim Gray and I were tasked with standing up an Iraqi Commando Academy outside of Ramadi. One of my greatest frustrations came each and every Friday afternoon when insurgents would sneak in with numbers of Iraqi families going to midday prayer. These agitators would deceive families with lies and fabricated stories about us — inciting them to fight and expel us by any and all subversive means. These fiery speeches would be followed by rocket and mortar attacks, and angry mobs assaulting us with everything from SKSs to RPGs. But do you know who wasn’t in the fray that followed? The agitators. They had run back to Zarqawi, to tell the boss “they done good” while those innocent Iraqi families they had lied to did their dirty work.
As I watched this stuff play out today, I couldn’t escape an awful thought, “I just watched the President of the United States lower himself completely to the level of scumbag agitator.”
Regardless of the person, it’s just such a difficult thing to watch — to see our Commander-in-chief take that sacred office and turn it into something comparable to those cowardly actors we fought so hard against in Iraq.”
This is what happens when leaders act in cowardice and self-interest. This is what happens when power and greed replace honor, courage and self-sacrifice.
It’s now Saturday morning as I finish this letter to you. Five Americans are dead because of the assault on the Capitol — including one Capitol Police officer. They are dead, not as a result of a suicide attack from an ISIS or Al Qaeda operative. They are dead as a result of actions taken by cowardly, narcissistic American leaders who tried to use the events of January 6th to gain power and prestige for themselves.
Leadership is a two-sided coin. Yes, leadership comes with power and authority, but it also comes with the heavy burden of responsibility, accountability and duty. Our leaders must understand that power and authority exist only to bring about positive change and results in the lives of those they lead. Real leaders understand that they must be held accountable for the actions they take — and for the actions they fail to take. Real leaders don’t blame others for their own mistakes and failures. Real leaders give credit to their teams when things go well and take full responsibility for failure when things go poorly.
Men and women who lead with these principles and values in the forefront inspire others to do good in the world. They are able to bring about change that transforms lives and communities for the better. They are able to secure freedom, heal division, find truth and ensure that justice prevails.
I want you to remember this day. Remember that leadership really matters, and words have consequences. When leaders, blinded by power and ambition can’t see beyond their own self-interest, it is their people who pay. It is their people who suffer.
There is no excuse for the terrible leaders who lied and deceived and led America to the brink — political leaders, business leaders and media leaders. These are the names you will read in the history books years from now: Donald Trump. Ted Cruz. Josh Hawley. John Kennedy. Cindy Hyde-Smith. Cynthia Lummis. Roger Marshall. Rick Scott. Tommy Tuberville. These are the names who will be remembered for betraying the American people and attempting to lead us down a path of self-destruction for power, greed, and ratings.
But there is another side to this coin. Trying times of crisis serve as the fire that can reveal true character and courage. There are other names I want you to remember: Adam Kinzinger. Mike Gallagher. Liz Cheney. Mitt Romney. History will remember these names too, but for a different reason. These leaders will be remembered as those who had the moral courage to stand up against the President and their political party leadership and do the right thing. I may disagree with these leaders on many issues, but in this moment, when it really mattered most, they chose the side of democracy. They chose to tell the truth and serve the American people and the Constitution of the United States instead of serving their own political interests.
My heart breaks for America tonight. But I am a man of hope, and I believe we can come back from this. This week is a wakeup call for all of us — starting with me. I had taken American democracy for granted. But our liberal democracy is fragile. It can only survive and remain intact through the virtue and deliberate actions of its citizens and those who represent them. That means us.
Americans are strong and resilient. We are the comeback kid nation. We are the scrappy revolutionaries who overthrew an oppressive monarch. We defeated fascism and communism together. We are a people who never quit…a people who relentlessly pursue justice and the freedom of lasting meaningful choices for all who wear the American identity — regardless of what we look like or where we come from.
We have been beaten and knocked down in this last season. But now it’s time for Americans to get back up. It’s time to throw off the chains of hate, fear and division that demagogues and cowards have used to shackle us for too long and rise together to find common ground as a nation.
Don’t give up on America, Trinity. This is your country. This is my country. Let’s get back up tomorrow and make it better.