Twelve years. It’s strange to think about a day that lives so vividly in my mind as history, but that’s what it is. There are kids in high school now whose only real knowledge of the day will come from studying it in a US History class. If it’s even mentioned. I know that they will not understand the day, the change that came over the whole nation all at once, the raw emotion of it. I suppose at best, they will feel about 9/11 the way I feel about Pearl Harbor. Sad that it happened, angry that it could have been prevented, solemn at its anniversary. And I will look at them when they ask the way World War II vets look at me, and try to explain it.
I was at work, slinging tires and oil for Wal-Mart for eight bucks an hour. Somebody mentioned that there had been an accident in New York. A plane had crashed into one of the twin towers, and it was burning. A few of us paused in our work to crowd around the tiny TV in the waiting area. I stood, transfixed at the live feeds from the ground in New York, while the others shook their heads and went back to work. I saw the second plane hit live, and knew instantly it was terrorism. I’d been watching airplanes fly for my whole life, and that second jet was completely in control when it hit.
I suddenly wasn’t so interested in being at work any more. I was already on my way home when the plane hit the Pentagon. Even in Ohio, it was pandemonium. Traffic was sparse but moving quickly. There were jets going supersonic overhead to escort Air Force One, confused reports of possible other attacks on the radio, and reporters on TV trying to make sense of it all. We saw people jumping from the towers to escape the fire. Nobody could look away as these images burned themselves indelibly into our memories. Then the towers fell, and New York became a war zone.
Dinner that night was tense and quiet, and we sat, glued to the nonstop coverage on the TV, as analysts and experts tried to come up with some sort of plausible explanation. I remember the way my Mom looked at my Dad, as if hoping to find in his face some reassurance that her husband and two sons would be safe through whatever was to come.
I had already enlisted in April of that year, when I was a 17 year old high school senior with a clear and certain plan for my life. That plan was torn to pieces on a cool, humid September morning, although I didn’t yet understand that. Our nation was enraged and on the offensive, finally willing to wield our considerable might, and that of numerous allies, against anyone who opposed us. Instead of going to college that fall, I went to tech school, and then to war the following summer. I followed my brother into Kuwait, then went back for more the next spring. I became a different person than I had planned on being, through the experience of the next several years. Not better or worse, but different.
On dark nights with a glass of Scotch, I have sometimes regretted my place in history. I have listened to the stories of guys who served before me, the trips to Hawaii and Panama and the Philippines. The easy way of life that was present in the military in that sweet spot between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror.
But that was not my lot, and I have served in the twelve years hence in varying capacities, but always tied to the fight. I have watched the unity of our nation become again fractured, our resolve waver, and our infighting become worse than ever. We have pounded our enemies into pieces, killed their leaders and toppled their governments, but yet they remain. The common wisdom today is that there is no way to win a war against fanaticism, and so we will be perpetually fighting, and surely we can’t do that.
But I can. I remember that day in full color. I lived it, and went on living it since. I can go on as long as is necessary, and will do whatever I am able, to prevent it from ever happening again, insofar as I am allowed. I only hope that we are able to express the meaning of this day to future generations in terms sufficient to inspire similar resolve. So help us God.