My desk is scattered with notes. Scribbled passages that let me peer into my life; the notes show everything—people, places, events—that I consider to have been affected by the events of September 11, 2001. Over the past decade, the events that day put my life on a trajectory; moving me through Iraq, and then stateside, carrying a sense of the attacks with me, determining the majority of my adulthood.
Even at 17 I knew our lives, as Americans, as global citizens, had changed dramatically. As the towers imploded, covering lower Manhattan with ash and rubble, as the Pentagon burned, and as Flight 93 hurtled into a Pennsylvania field—the loss of life was so foreign to me. So many people—they woke up that day, and then they were gone. They were numbers. After it happened, there was despair. Then there was resolve. It was pervasive—there was just this sense of being an “American”—from storefronts to living rooms to classrooms. And walking down the street in my Army uniform didn’t seem so isolating for once. Then, three years later, as we collectively began shelving the pom-poms, I left for Iraq—to a world where warfare had suddenly flourished in the aftermath of 9/11and the sense of community began to fade.
The blood on the floor is what stopped me at the entrance of the emergency room in Balad. It had been smeared across the floor; soles of combat boots trampled through it, leading to two injured soldiers. One was unconscious, the other lay still. A general officer I had been snapping photos of that day shook the hand of the conscious soldier. He told the story of the firefight they had just been medevaced in from. I stared at the other soldier wondering if he was going to make it. I would never find out.
As the years pass, the image of those two soldiers is etched in my mind like the ink on my arms. The drenched floors a reminder of our bloody decade. While many have removed their yellow magnets and equate 9/11 with inconveniences at the airport, Veterans and servicemembers don’t have the luxury of tossing it aside. The scars of that day and the 10 years that have followed are still fresh for those who’ve scanned sectors and heard the whistle of incoming mortars.
This past Sunday I attended a Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball game in Washington, D.C. The players, all post-9/11 Veterans and active duty soldiers who lost limbs while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, took to Nationals Field after the Nats-Mets game. The game was 20 bucks and five went directly to the team; spectators who had tickets for the major league game could stay to see the wounded Vets play at no additional cost. The park even ran a special: five-dollar beers and announcers enticing the crowd to “Stick around and see America’s heroes take on the D.C. Celebrity team.” But the stadium emptied. Spectators decked out in red, white, and blue walked with their kids to the exits.
During the wounded warrior game I couldn’t help but look into the stands. A few sections remained open and were sprinkled with family and friends and a few fans shouting as the wounded warriors racked up points. Three Washington Nationals players eventually made their way to the field. Men with more determination and heart than most I’ve met deserved more than just a smattering of fans, I thought. Their injuries, many the consequences of 9/11, proved anything but unifying this past Sunday.
While the country reflects this weekend on September 11, sharing stories of where they were and who they were with, let’s not forget where it’s brought us. We are a country whose past decade has been shaped by violence. We’re on the heels of two long wars. We’re all battle-fatigued—most figuratively, some of us literally. So I get the lack of reverence and unity on some level. But as a country, we really do owe it to our Veterans not to turn our backs on them.
So I’m taking my own advice: I’m not looking back on September 11, 2001 this year, but I’m not forgetting, either. I’m just choosing to look forward. My notes sprawled across my desk act as the reminder. And I think of the Wounded Warrior Softball team—an inspiration to me, and an example of resolve, of resiliency. If they can do it, we can do it.
VA photo by Robert Turtil