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9/11 Stories: A Harvard Grad’s Call To Duty

WBUR is remembering Sept. 11 through the stories of men and women from around Massachusetts whose lives were touched that day — those who lost loved ones, those who responded and those whose lives were affected in more unexpected ways.

Jim Meeks was a senior at Harvard and assumed he would work on Wall Street like many of his friends. But Sept. 11 made him reconsider everything. Meeks wondered if he should join the Army. His father had been drafted to Vietnam, but it wasn’t an experience he had wanted for his son.

Click to hear Jim tell his story, or read it below.

Jim Meeks, at right, in Iraq (Courtesy)

Jim Meeks, at right, in Iraq (Courtesy)

During my childhood my father never mentioned the Army and certainly never mentioned, really, his experience in Vietnam. Every once in a while he would allude to the fact that he learned a number of different surgical procedures in Vietnam that he would never have had the opportunity of learning when he was at medical school at the University of Michigan.

He didn’t talk much about Vietnam, I learned later, because it was an extraordinarily traumatic experience for him. One in which, certainly I think he felt at the time, ruined his life or changed his life in a dramatic way. I think he zipped up a lot of body bags.

“I had been this head usher at The Memorial Church in which all the names of the Harvard soldiers who died in World War I and World War II were constantly surrounding me. … this was actually the method in which I should serve.”
– Jim Meeks

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I never thought about joining the Army before 9/11. It never really occurred to me until that day. I just realized that we were going to be a nation at war and that we were going to be a nation at war for a long time.

Here I had been this head usher at The Memorial Church in which all the names of the Harvard soldiers who died in World War I and World War II were constantly surrounding me every time I was in that chapel. And the more I thought about it, the more I said that this was actually the method in which I should serve.

I didn’t discuss it with anybody, I didn’t ask for opinions, because I was too worried I would chicken out so I just drove down to the recruiter’s office in Downtown Crossing in Boston, walked in and signed whatever papers they put in front of me.

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Some people said, “Well Jim, you seem like a nice guy, how could you do this?”

But my father didn’t say much. He just began to cry. And he said, “Everything I’ve done in my life was for you all not to have to do what I did. And why you would elect to do this, I don’t understand.” But he said, “I’ll support you.”

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I think it’s a very suspicious thing to have a Harvard degree and go into the Army. Which I respect, I’d probably be nervous about having a Harvard person as my commander if I were in the Army.

For my part, I didn’t think of myself as a Harvard man. I thought of myself as a soldier, as an officer. I happened to go to a school at a place that people knew about, but I didn’t want that to be my reputation. I wanted it to be on the decisions I made or my effectiveness as a leader. So I tried to keep it as quiet as possible. But, it gets found out. And I remember at one point, one of my soldiers looked on my personnel packet and saw that I went to Harvard. And he said, “Sir, did you really go to Harvard?” I said, “I went to Harvard Community College.” And he said, “Oh that makes a lot more sense.” Which I took as a big compliment.

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I remember arriving into Iraq on a cargo plane that only could come in and land at night, it had to take a fast nose dive in order to hit the ground quick in order to make sure that anti-aircraft fire wouldn’t be taken.

I finally got to our base in Habbaniya, which was then called Camp Manhattan, and I was given the assignment of being essentially the prison warden. Detainees would still have bags over their heads when I was there, which is frankly ridiculous, and no way treat anybody.

“After Vietnam, the elite institutions, I think, checked out. … the people who have almost achieved the greatest blessings that this country has to offer, those are the people who are least likely to put everything on the line in order to defend it.”

It was extraordinarily hard to be a green lieutenant with little combat experience, and worst of all things to be from Harvard. And it is difficult to be able to tell soldiers, “I know you just watched your buddy get shot and in some cases killed, but you still can’t take out your frustrations on these detainees.”

My second tour was fundamentally different than my first. I was able to train up with my soldiers beforehand. I had my unit, and we went over with a clear mission. There was a sense of optimism that we could achieve what we were sent to do.

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There was a time in which all institutions, from Harvard to Texas A&M to the local community college to people who had no college degree, they all took a stake in defending the nation.

After Vietnam, the elite institutions, I think, checked out. For me it’s a great irony because the people who have almost achieved the greatest blessings that this country has to offer, those are the people who are least likely to put everything on the line in order to defend it. I think it reflects poorly on what this nation represents.

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