I was at Ground Zero ten years ago and remember it well. Too well, really. I remember the blue sky. I remember a gigantic plane engine sitting calmly on a street corner like a piece of modern art. I remember the rubble. I remember the bucket brigades. I remember the lifeless faces and bodies. I know I’ll Never Forget and I’m not the only one.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the phrase “Never Forget” became popular in all corners of America. It was more than just a catchphrase. It came to represent a unified nation’s grief and resolve. Grief about what had happened and for those who died, and resolve to move past the tragedy. That resolve proved especially needed in the decade that followed, from a global financial crisis to political gridlock in DC to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that still haven’t ended. And whatever one thinks of those wars, no one has better represented the resolve of “Never Forget” than the service members that have fought in our name. They remember their fallen brothers and sisters in arms, and honor them by moving forward – something we as a nation are in the process of doing ourselves.
Despite the fact that less than one percent of Americans have served in the Armed Forces since 9/11, ten years of conflict means a lot of combat veterans have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last month, that count crossed the 2.3 million people threshold. Some of these vets have stayed in the service, deploying back to war three, four, even five times. Others have returned back home and found other ways to continue to serve their country. This 9/11 Generation has started to change our country for the better from the ground-up. Organizations like Purple Heart Homes and individuals like education activist Wes Moore have applied the hard-earned lessons learned under fire back home, for the betterment of their communities. And those are just two examples of many, many more vets on the forefront of service and progress.
9/11 changed the world for many Americans, military and civilians alike. I was at my studio apartment in Manhattan when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Like many of my fellow New Yorkers, I rushed down to Ground Zero, eager to help where I could. I experienced something there that would later serve me well in combat - in the heat of the moment, there’s no time for second-guessing or emotion. There’s only time for action. The reflecting comes later.
A lot of things stay with me from that day. Like when a group of us dug out the body of an older woman in a black dress. She was still clutching her purse. She was somebody’s mother. Somebody’s wife. Her bones were gone. All of them. Dust.
Less than two years later, I found myself in a different kind of dust and sand, patrolling the streets of Baghdad as an infantry platoon leader with the New York National Guard. On this anniversary, it’s important our entire country reflects on the sacrifices and service of those inspired by the events of 9/11. Former U.S. Army Captain Joseph Kearns Goodwin summed it up smartly last week on Meet the Press while discussing why he decided to serve. “It was not so much anger … or a sense of vengeance,” he said. “I’d been granted almost every advantage a free and prosperous society can give you … I felt it incumbent to give something back to this great country that had given me so much.”
Part of Never Forget is Moving Forward. We honor the fallen that way, whether they fell in the towers, at the Pentagon, Shanksville, or on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. And if you’re not sure how, or not sure you’re ready, find a veteran on the forefront and ask him or her to help. They know how, because they’ve had to do it before.
Ten years ago, a New Greatest Generation answered the call to serve in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Pledge now to continue serving and honoring with us. Help us reach our goal of 10,000 service pledges to honor this 10th Anniversary of 9/11. Add your name.