The balmy afternoon yesterday was a reminder of the Sept. 11 of four years ago, but not everyone remembered, as Scott Erwin learned. Hours before he gave a Master’s Tea at Saybrook College on Sunday, a man asked him, “Why are all the flags at half staff?” He answered that it was four years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “Oh, really?” the man replied. “How soon we forget.”
Erwin, 23, a foreign policy research associate, told a packed Saybrook crowd about his 10 months in Iraq with the Coalition Provisional Authority, where he was shot four times during an ambush in central Baghdad. Having just visited the Astrodome in Houston a few days ago, Erwin also described the relief effort in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
At the tea, entitled “In service, on 9/11 and beyond,” Erwin described his journey to Iraq. After an internship with Vice President Dick Cheney, he said he received an e-mail from the White House ordering him to go to Iraq as a civilian policy adviser. Erwin’s senior year at the University of Richmond would have to be put on hold. He was going to Iraq.
“At first, I thought it was a prank,” Erwin said.
But he soon discovered that his order to Iraq was no laughing matter. Within a week, he found himself in the heavily-fortified Green Zone, where he jokingly said he “helped reconstruct Iraq one spreadsheet at a time.”
Erwin, after some time in Iraq, decided that he could do more for the Iraqi people than sit behind a computer screen exercising his fingers. He, along with a college student named Zahra, founded Ambassadors of Democracy, a 16-course curriculum that taught the basic pillars of democracy to university students.
“The students had a ‘textbook definition’ understanding of democracy, but nothing in regards to practical application,” Erwin said. “I was asking what democracy meant to them.”
He got the answer, he said, in May 2004. An Iraqi newspaper was shut down for an “improper” endorsement. Some Iraqis took to the streets in protest, he said, asking, “Is that democracy?” Erwin’s students, however, chose to address their concerns in the form of letters and debate.
The next month, Erwin was shot four times during an ambush in central Baghdad. He said he was the lucky one. Two Iraqi policemen, both of whom were his friends, were killed. Both men were fathers and both, “saw children as the future,” as the insurance that freedom would prevail despite overwhelming adversity, he said.
Erwin, who graduated from the University of Richmond in May and now works as a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, shifted gears in the tea and discussed the nation’s response to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast region.
“I am amazed by the response,” said Erwin, who volunteered at Houston’s Astrodome, which is currently housing thousands of evacuees from storm-ravaged New Orleans. “There are more volunteers than there are people actually displaced. People stood in lines in the parking lot hoping to get in to have the chance to volunteer.”
He also criticized Bush for what he said was a lack of leadership following the storm.
“President Kennedy said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ We haven’t gotten that call from our president,” Erwin said.
Students expressed a mixed reaction to Erwin’s message.
“[The talk was] inspiring in the sense that he was making a non-partisan call to service,” Martha Grant ’09 said. “[It's] something the ‘me’ and ‘me, too’ generations, as Master [Mary] Miller commented, lack.”
Edwin Evenhard ’09 said he walked away with more of a melancholy feeling.
“No conclusion was reached,” he said. “We could have gotten a lot more specific about these topics of service.”
Erwin, a recipient of the Defense of Freedom Medal — the civilian equal to the Purple Heart Medal awarded by the U.S. military — charged students to willingly adopt the responsibility of serving their country.
“We can take America forward in a way only we know how and make our generation the ‘Greatest Generation,'” he said.