It’s September 12, 2021. Yesterday was a day. There was so much going on from moment to moment, but I felt a current underneath it all. Of what? That’s a great question. I’ve spent my entire adult life in the US military. Everything I’ve done has been in that context, and with the recent ending of the US military operations in Afghanistan, there’s even more complication.
I listened to the speeches yesterday, remembered the friends I’ve lost since then, and paid my respects. If you know me, you know how much I think stories are essential and yesterday was full of stories. I heard a story on the radio about a firefighter who flagged down a city bus with his fire crew since they weren’t on duty and their engine was already gone. I heard a story about a woman whose husband was a fish and game warden and likely at the front of United Flight 93 as they fought the hijackers. All of these stories hit me deeply, the love and sacrifice they showed. And so, while I wanted to tell my story yesterday, I didn’t think it was right. I wasn’t at ground zero for anything. Yesterday wasn’t about me. But today, I wanted to share my story and what I went through and have gone through since, hoping that it might help someone out there.
The squeak of Chucks on the white linoleum was loud. Someone had spilled water from the fountain before the senior mixing area. I had started tracking it along the cobbled floor only for it to announce its unwelcome presence as soon as I hit the smooth waxed hallways. I was late for Neid’s class. Mr. Neidhold was a football coach, gruff, with a severe crewcut and a quick laugh. He terrorized the offensive line from his golf cart, swinging his cane to emphasize instruction. We’d really be in for it once he recovered from his knee surgery. And he taught English Literature, of all things. For which I was now late.
I was nearly there, just one more turn when something caught my eye. I was passing the row of eighth-grade classrooms that inhabited one portion of the high school area like a lone Roman outpost in the land of the Visigoths. Through an open door, there was an old cathode ray tube television set on, the picture peeking out from behind the white-painted metal cage that was supposed to protect it from the violence of teenagers. Mr. Woodward had been my science teacher the year before, so I knew his door well and how he preferred to leave it open because of the heat. This was his room, door, and the TV blaring news into the classroom, which had about as much chance of happening as an unannounced ice age. The man hated the television.
But it was on. I stopped there in the hallway to watch it. I could hear the sound pretty clearly because the normal dull roar of a science class was utterly absent. The world trade center, something about an airplane. I stood and watched. Then the second plane hit, and I realized what was happening.
I don’t remember a whole lot else of the day. Or, honestly, much of what happened shortly after that. I remember people were crying in the hallways. Most were least visibly upset. I can’t remember if they sent us home early from school or not. I was worried, but not because of the attack. I was worried because I was surrounded by people who had deep emotional reactions to this event, and I felt nothing.
I understood what had happened. I knew that a lot of people had died. But I was fifteen and had no context for any of that. I’d never had a close relative die, never been to a funeral, never seen a body. A boy in my high school class killed himself, and two girls drowned in the river. I’d known of them, all three of them, but hadn’t been close. When my classmates had died, I’d felt sad for them, their families, and their friends. I guess I didn’t know how to process what I was feeling, so I ignored it. But the September 11 attacks were different. I felt nothing.
I made all the right noises to my friends and parents and teachers and did the best I could to honor those who had died at our school memorial. But life went on for me and everyone else, and again, I just ignored the lack of reaction.
Life continued to happen. Graduated high school. Joined the Air Force. College, or the unique version of college that was the Academy. Then pilot training, my first assignment. Every year there was a memorial or remembrance for September 11. Every year I participated and did the best I could. But I never felt it. Never felt the emotions that my friends expressed. There was no rage, no anger, no sadness. Whatever my actions were, my feelings just weren’t there.
Four of my friends died when their aircraft hit the ground on a combat mission on my first assignment. These were men I flew with, trained with, lived with, and trusted with my life. They trusted me with theirs. I felt that one, without question. I traveled to Justin’s funeral, listened to his parents talk about him. His friend told the story of them going on a run in the woods and Justin throwing wildflower seeds along the path. I cried. I felt. And processed what grief I could, but the rest is still there and probably always will be.
Three of my friends died when their aircraft hit the ground on a training mission on my second assignment. I made it to two of the funerals. Andy’s family came to the squadron. We burned a piano in a parking lot and drank toasts to him and the others we served with. I felt. I cried. I processed what I could, and the rest joined the grief I’ll always carry with me.
And this year, listening to the stories of those who lost family and loved ones on September 11, 2001, every one of them hit me. I felt my grief, and I imagined the suffering of all those people. It was hard. And when I thought back to that fifteen-year-old kid watching the TV in his science teacher’s class, I realized that there wasn’t anything wrong with him. There’s nothing wrong with not having context, not knowing enough about the world and loss and suffering, not knowing enough to feel grief. But life happens to all of us, we grow our own experiences and context, and eventually, we have enough under our belts to understand, to empathize.
It’s been twenty years since I saw the towers fall. Twenty years of hopes and dreams, choices and regret, loss and grief. I can’t feel what anyone felt who lost loved ones on that day, but I can feel a little slice of it with you. We all can feel a little piece of it. We can all come together to remember, grieve, and support those who remained, who survived, in whatever way they did. The promise of this nation is brotherhood and its sisterhood. It’s every person standing side by side every other to lift us all up. We are the United States of America.