Thirteen years ago I stood in a windowless basement cafeteria at the University of Wisconsin, staring transfixed at a flickering television screen. I watched in horror as men and women leapt from the burning heights of the World Trade Center; moments later I cringed as the second tower fell. My heart sank, and I knew we were at war. Fear -- an irrational fear given that I was a thousand miles away in Wisconsin -- crept up my spine. I continued to watch as firefighters, police officers and ordinary citizens rushed not away, but rather toward the danger. Courage, I realized, courage would rule the day.
At football practice that afternoon Coach Alvarez brought us together at the center of the field and had us take a knee. The young men -- boys, really -- from New York and New Jersey could barely stifle their tears. Coach Alvarez said something simple -- the world, and subsequently our lives, had just changed. Coach always talked to us about flinching, or rather not flinching on the football field. In the face of adversity, never show your opponent you're rattled. I can't recall exactly what he said that day, but I vaguely remember him saying something about flinching -- that as a nation we wouldn't back down, and that at that very moment we had men and women in uniform preparing to respond. That weekend we played at Penn State, which was fitting because between our schools' colors the field was awash in red, white and blue. The moment of silence at the beginning of the game was oddly deafening, trumped only by the roar of the crowd at the end of the National Anthem. America showed its resilience that day, and citizens who had given nary a thought to patriotism recommitted to one another and their nation that we would endure. Resilience, I thought, resilience would carry us forward.
Later in that season we went to war with Afghanistan. War itself had become an inevitable consequence of 9/11, the only variables being who, where, when and how. It was eerie, watching a war unfold from my dorm room. Each day I woke up and tuned in to see men and women, most of them just like me, march off to war in a far off land. It wasn't as easy as we thought, and the war dragged on. Osama bin Laden proved to be an elusive foe, and soon more and more men and women just like me came home in body bags. Soon, the patriotism on campus began to fade and the liberalism that put Madison, WI on the map during Vietnam emerged. Debates on the war in Afghanistan turned to demonstrations, and the demonstrations turned to fierce protests when we set our sights on Iraq. Nearly every day, it seemed, I would have to navigate to class through picket lines and marches; and, though I often disagreed with their messages, I was nonetheless proud to see freedom of speech and assembly in practice. These citizens, chanting "books not bombs!" and exercising their right to be heard, demonstrated what makes America great. Citizenship, it seemed, citizenship would keep America on track.
After four years the wars had not abated, and in 2005 they seemed destined only to worsen. My own conversations on campus had led me to challenge my own commitment to my ideals, and when I graduated that spring I chose to enlist in the Marine Corps infantry. I quickly found myself in Iraq's Triangle of Death. We lost our share of men, men lost their share of limbs, and collectively we all lost a small share of ourselves. What we never lost, however, was our commitment to one another. I saw it for the first time when our team had to run through machinegun fire to cross a field. Nobody whimpered, nobody hesitated. Nobody did it because they were brave, but rather, because we were brothers and one of our own was wounded. I witnessed it again in Afghanistan a year later -- an unwavering willingness to sacrifice for the mission and for one another. While on patrol I would think about that commitment and find comfort in it. Commitment, it turns out, would bring us home -- together.
Now, in 2014, I find myself on a new journey at Team Rubicon, still influenced by 9/11. I find myself surrounded by men and women that embrace the notions of courage, resilience, citizenship and commitment. These men and women did not stop serving when they took off the uniform. Rather, they traded in that uniform for another -- the uniform of Team Rubicon. They're joined on their left and their right by thousands of other citizens committed to serving their communities in times of crisis -- deploying as volunteers to communities in the wake of natural disasters. Together they serve as proof that the virtues that make our society -- or any society, for that matter -- great, are alive and well in this country. It is a refreshing reminder of the potential we have to become once again that shining light up on the hill for the rest of the world; to be a beacon of hope in a world full of ISIS and Enron, ebola and Bernie Madoff, superstorm Sandy and the Great Recession.
We often talk at Team Rubicon of setting an example for an entire generation. 9/11 was an unwelcomed forcing function that thrust a mantle of responsibility on the backs of one percent of this nation. The result is a generation ready, willing and able to change the course of our country's history by being citizen-servants. Can we be an example for an entire generation? You bet your ass we can.
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Jake Wood is the Cofounder and CEO of Team Rubicon, a nationwide nonprofit that provides military veterans with the opportunity to continue their service by responding to natural disasters and global crises. As a leading veteran advocate, Jake is also the cofounder of POS REP, the first mobile, proximity-based social network designed exclusively for the veteran community. Prior to Team Rubicon, Jake served as a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, with deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan as a Scout Sniper. In October 2014 Crown Publishing will publish Jake's first book on leadership, titled Take Command.