We all remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when it happened. Whether in the heart of New York City when the ground began to tremble, stranded at an airport when all commercial flights were grounded, or glued to a television set thousands of miles away from the chaos, watching helplessly as the world changed before our eyes, the events of 9/11, and the days and weeks that followed, are emblazoned in each of our minds in painstaking detail.
In 2001, I was a young, single mother who had taken the day off work to spend it with my two-year-old. I was just clearing the breakfast table when the phone, an archaic wall mounted unit with a cord so stretched out it touched the floor, rang. I didn’t know anyone who lived or worked in New York City or Washington, D.C. I didn’t know anyone in the military, and it would be almost a decade before I became a soldier’s wife. I was as removed from what was happening as a person could get, safe in my living room in a small town in Michigan. Still, as my mother explained to me how two planes struck the World Trade Center and a third had crashed into the Pentagon, I felt tears start to sting my eyes. My heart leapt into my throat and I was shaking as I hung up the phone and made my way to the living room to turn off Blue’s Clues and turn on CNN.
I spent the next several hours transfixed by what I was seeing on my very un-flat TV screen. When I finally ventured out into public the next day, the whole world was a different place. Even the air felt different. The heaviness of tragedy enveloped every millimeter of space in our once wide-open country, but in a strange way, it was sort of beautiful. For the first time that I could remember in my twenty one years of life, we really were “One nation, under God.” Everywhere I went, people were courteous and treated each other with kindness. We smiled at each other, held doors for each other, and spoke respectfully to one another. It didn’t matter who you were, where you were from, or what your social status was. We were all Americans. We flew our flags and we lit our candles and we put our political opinions aside and stood behind our President as he committed our troops to the War on Terror, all of us certain that it would be a swift victory. We vowed to always remember, to never forget. And then….we forgot.
As the rubble was cleared piece by piece and the “missing” posters came down one by one and the television stations returned to regular programming, we slowly went back to our “normal lives.” We forgot all about that little bit of good that had come out of something so awful. Compassion. Kindness. Respect. Tolerance. Understanding. We teach it and we preach it, but very few people actually practice it anymore. And those soldiers that we all cheered into battle, that we swore to support and honor while they were off fighting the War on Terror? They continue to fight, continue to sacrifice, and continue to die. But where did all the parades and the news crews and the well-wishing strangers lining the streets to see them off and welcome them home go? They’re certainly not anywhere that I’ve seen.
Truth is, the novelty has worn off. Our troops are deployed overseas so frequently now, it’s become commonplace. Unfortunately, so have reports of service members being killed in action. It’s not news anymore. It’s just the way things are. The War on Terror has become a forgotten war, despite the fact that it’s still being fought. Nobody wants to talk about it, think about it, read about it, or worry about it. I know from experience. I lived it firsthand when my husband was deployed to Iraq last year. After a couple of weeks, even my closest friends got sick of hearing about how I spent every minute, every second, terrified that my husband was going to become one of the thousands of victims of the hateful attacks that took place on U.S. soil over ten years ago. Nearly 3,000 people were killed by terrorists in America on September 11, 2001. Since then, over 6,000 Americans have died on foreign soil at the hands of those same terrorists. That’s not collateral damage. That’s an epidemic.
September 11th has become a day for our nation to remember, to never forget. So go get that dusty American flag out of the garage and fly it. Dig that yellow ribbon magnet out of the junk drawer in the kitchen and slap it on your car’s bumper. Watch that Dateline special with a box of tissues handy. And then maybe, just maybe, take a moment to think about not only those who were lost on that day and the families they left behind, but about all of those who have been lost since. All of the motherless children and husbandless wives and childless parents that have been left to grieve as a result of what happened eleven years ago today. Consider saying a prayer for the thousands of men and women still fighting overseas today, sacrificing their own well-being and time with their families so that you can enjoy yours freely.
Freedom is not free. It comes at a cost too great to put a number on. Remember how you felt that day? How scared? How uncertain? How unsafe? You owe your freedom from that fear to our men and women in uniform. So honor them. Not just by thanking them for their service or donating to the USO, but by making this a country worth fighting for. We, as a nation, have a plethora of horrific memories of the September 11th terrorist attacks. But if you think, really hard, you probably have some pretty amazing ones, too. A friend you hadn’t spoken to in years that called you out of the blue just to say “hi.” Preschoolers lining the streets with cardboard signs spelling out “God Bless The U.S.A.,” waving at the honking cars as they passed. (My personal favorite memory.) A smile from a stranger. A hug from a usually standoffish acquaintance. Today is not just a day to reflect on our nation’s greatest tragedy, it’s also a day to reflect on that brief glimpse we got of what a truly amazing country this can be. Remember that? I’ll never forget.