In Afghanistan I slept with a Beretta under my pillow. 

It was a heavy, black, Army-issue pistol that looked like it had seen more years of service than I’d had days in uniform. The Beretta went with me everywhere. A lanyard attached the sidearm to a loop on my uniform, but wasn’t needed, as it was never out of arm’s reach.

On patrols it served as a secondary weapon to my rifle. When I ate chow with other lieutenants it sagged in a leather holster on my hip. And when meeting with Afghan elders or the local government leaders — conducting the Army’s diplomatic “hearts and minds” counterterrorism — the pistol hid in my lower back, an insurance policy tucked into my belt in the event diplomacy failed.

But at night, the Beretta — loaded with a magazine full of 9 mm ammunition — offered a blanket of protection in case our Kandahar base was attacked and overrun. 

Watching Trump loyalists overtake the United States Capitol during Wednesday’s amateur insurrection, I instinctively thought, “Where was my Beretta?”

The concern came subconsciously and felt ridiculous, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. I knew I was safe, reporting on the chaos in Washington from my Salt Lake City apartment. And more importantly, the country wasn’t anywhere near civil war.

But the scene playing out in D.C. looked exactly like the worst case scenario that had looped though my mind every night of that deployment — and in countless nightmares since. Those horrors crept back into my dreams Wednesday night as I tossed against my unarmed pillow in the dark.

It wasn’t really the Beretta I was missing. What my former soldier’s mind was missing, and looking for, was assurance. My brain was really asking, “Where is my democracy?”

There’s an aphorism in the military, particularly in the chaplain corps, that “there are no atheists in foxholes” — meaning even nonreligious soldiers fighting desperately for their lives would look for comfort in a God. This may be true, but I fortunately never found myself counting hand grenades and half empty magazines as an enemy breached our gates overseas. The higher power I did see soldiers turn to most — whether it was during a firefight or while mourning our dead — was that whatever the loss, it was worth it in the name of democracy.

That commitment to one’s oath to defend democracy — even to the grave — is what united soldiers. It’s that spirit, from service members and civilians alike, that has held this country together for over two centuries.

To commission as an Army officer in the summer of 2009, I had to take that oath, freely swearing to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same” and that I would “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office. ... So help me God.”

The responsibility of that oath, however freely and eagerly carried, becomes more ingrained every morning you blouse your uniform in combat boots. That oath gets even clearer with every trigger pull at a predeployment range to practice with a newly issued Beretta.

Violent protesters, loyal to President Donald Trump, storm the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. | John Minchillo, Associated Press

On Wednesday, the president of the United States told a crowd of supporters they were “going to have to fight much harder” and that they should “walk down to the Capitol,” where Congress was preparing to certify that President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris had won the 2020 presidential election.

When his supporters reached the Capitol building, several climbed onto scaffolding and replaced an American flag with one that bore the name of their demagogue. The stars and stripes, the same flag every soldier wears on their uniform, was tossed to the ground and a Trump campaign flag was hoisted into the air. It was that moment I first reached to my lower back, worried democracy was failing.

But it wasn’t.

Before sunrise Thursday morning, Congress — a model of America’s republic — fulfilled its obligation against the president’s wishes to certify a democratic election for a new commander in chief. Outgoing Vice President Mike Pence announced to Congress, and the country, that he had lost reelection. Senior White House officials, including Cabinet secretaries, resigned in protest over the administration’s instigation of the riot.

No blasting bombs or red glaring rockets were needed to see that America was still here.

And by the time my morning coffee had cooled, a cure for a night of anxiously reaching at nothing under my pillow, I’d calmed down and my hands were steady. Still proud to live in the land of the free and home of the brave.