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Kenneth O. Preston Headshot

For Military Families, 9/11 Has Special Meaning

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Where were you on September 11, 2001?

Almost anyone who remembers that year has an answer to that question -- wherever you happened to be when you turned on the television or saw the smoke or got a frantic phone call -- became a moment imbued with significance. Americans nationwide -- and beyond -- promised they'd "never forget" where they were when they heard the news.

But with the passage of time we do forget: not the victims or the importance of the moment, but the details surrounding the day. The emotional, seemingly vivid memory of where you were when 9/11 happened is eventually placed on a shelf, an annual reflection, not carried on a daily basis.

That is not the case for the men and women in uniform, many of whom enlisted as a result of that fateful day; many of whom had their fate determined as a result.

When we think about September 11, we often think about the brave firefighters and policemen in New York City, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. We think about those who lost their lives in the attacks. We think about their families. We also think about the brave men and women who were sent out to war in the aftermath. However, one group often goes unnoticed: Military families.

The image of the military family is that of sorrowful goodbyes to their loved ones and joyous reunions after a tour. After 9/11, the military family became more prominent. Members were photographed embracing their loved ones coming back from a rough deployment. They were seen tying yellow ribbons around trees to honor those in the armed forces. Military families are the ones who stand by the homefront, the silent and supporting heroes at home. They're also the ones who deal with the aftermath of 9/11, worrying, praying and hoping for the best. They're the ones who keep life going on a daily basis, while their loved ones are away. They're also the ones who put on a brave face in times of despair. These are the wives, husbands, mothers, daughters, sons, fathers, brothers, and sisters of service men and women currently deployed and serving in more than 80 countries around the world.

They're heroes in their own special way. Their service to this great nation should not go unnoticed.

Earlier this year, in Appling, Georgia, I handed over the keys to a new, specially adapted home to Army Sergeant First Class Sean Gittens, who was left paralyzed and unable to speak or communicate as a result of a battle-related traumatic brain injury. By his side was his wife Sharon, whose strength and resolve has been tested each day since Sean sustained his life-altering injury. A tireless advocate on her husband's behalf, Sharon has been transformed from the role of wife and mother of four to that of a full-time caregiver. Certainly not what any woman envisions the day she commits her life to the man she loves. Sean's paralysis has left him unable to tell his wife what he needs, although with each passing day they are learning to communicate in non verbal ways. He no longer hugs her, although there is the occasional extension of his hand in which he can grasp hers, although feebly, he still lets her know that her presence is appreciated, that she matters.

Before moving into their new home, Sean was confined to one single room in the two-story house the family had been renting since he returned home from his deployment. This is not a scenario that is uncommon for our wounded service members, especially those who have come home with the most severe injuries -- loss of limbs, paralysis, severe burns, and traumatic brain injury. As a result, seemingly routine tasks that many take for granted -- cooking dinner, taking a shower -- are no longer the norm; they are luxuries and represent a further burden to the families caring for our injured veterans.

And sadly, Sharon is not alone. She made a choice when she married a military man, the potential of injury or death were certainly present in some manner. For the children of these families especially, the choice was never theirs -- they were born into it and must now endure a legacy handed to them at the hands of an enemy who had no regard for the loss of human life or the collateral damage that occurred as a result.

Eleven years have now passed since that fateful Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001. Memories may have faded or been altered to some extent, but as we continue to be faced with the reality of what resulted from that day, it is clear there has not only been a profound effect on this nation's military, but on the families who continue to serve alongside our veterans. Today, we remember, we will never forget.