Learning to Laugh After 9/11: A Reservist's Perspective

Wednesday, September 07, 2011 - 01:23 PM

A Soldier stands against the Afghan skyline in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan, Nov. 26, 2009. (Air Force Tech. Sgt. Francisco V. Govea II)

Today on the show, we covered what many would argue is a difficult topic: how the terrorist attacks on 9/11 changed comedy, and how comedy changed the way we've dealt in our own lives with that tragedy. We received a listener's thoughtful take that we had a share with you. Like so many, Air Force reservist Theresa Mickelwait lived out days after the attacks in shock, but she learned to laugh again in a strange venue: entering the wars as part of the military response to the attacks. Below is Mickelwait's take: we hope you'll take a few minutes to read it. —Ben Johnson, interim digital editor

A scant few months after evacuating Boston to my greater metro north home in Medford, packing my bags and listening to the eerie silence of the suddenly plane-less skies over my house, I was deployed in support of Operations Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom. That first day and night was chaos. Traffic was thicker than I'd ever seen it leaving the city, but...polite in a way that was frightening. Living directly in Logan's flight path and being in the Air Force reserve and so accustomed to jet noise, I never noticed the air traffic until it was gone. I couldn't sleep. I saw some images on television before I snapped it off, sobbing.

So, I packed my bags knowing that I was either going to the WTC site to begin rescue and clean up or that I was going to go away to war somewhere when whatever body or government responsible came forth. I drank coffee. I chain smoked under a starry night sky devoid of any planes. I cried.

And went to work the next day, grim but determined to let life go on before the recall.

I smiled, I made sounds like laughter, but I definitely found little humor in anything for a long time after that day and that night....and then I was gone to war.

It was there, in the throes of a war just beginning that I truly learned to laugh again. Mostly, we laughed because if we didn't, we'd cry or, at the very least, mope. And sometimes we cried anyway. But the laughter wasn't that on-edge, hysterical laughter that comes from grief, just before the tears. It was the genuine, from the heart and belly laughter - the sort of that leaves you breathless and with sore cheeks afterwards.

A small group of smokers banded together every evening, sitting on plastic patio furniture scavenged from the local dump; furniture that was deadly in it's own right with cracks threatening to pinch or legs that randomly gave way when you sat. Cammo netting was erected overhead, a picnic table was "re-appropriated" from somewhere, the furniture arranged in a circle and someone even found a fake tree. We named the place, "The Maison du Witte" - a bastardized French sounding name that I said meant, "The House of Fun". We mocked one another mercilessly, but not maliciously. We drank enough coffee to keep a small nation's Navy afloat for a year. We chain smoked. We laughed.

We made all newbies who wanted to hang out at The Maison water the tree thrice daily "to keep it alive in this Godforsaken desert". Most thought it was real. One watered it for three weeks before he realized he'd been had...and that was the last we saw of him.

The laughter came from shared trauma, shared joy, shared pain. I have only ever laughed like that with fellow military members in similar situations both in sequestered training environments and during deployments.

But that first deployment, the twisted humors, the outright silliness that marked our downtime - that first deployment after 9/11 was when I honestly laughed again. Afterwards, it became easier to let go until it was just another force of nature as it should have been.

Thanks for listening.

Theresa (Needham) Mickelwait


USAF Reserve


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Comments [1]

john g

The coffee sure was terrible....


Feb. 08 2013 01:30 AM

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