If I had known September 11th was going to happen, I would have been much more reluctant when my boyfriend joined the military.
If I had known he would spend the next 20 years fighting wars, I may never have accepted the military spouse lifestyle.
If I had known our lives were about to change, I would not have gone to class that day.
But of course, I didn’t know. No one knew. We were so blissfully unaware that the world would never be the same.
A military spouse reflects on September 11, 2001
20 years ago today, I was in college, in Washington D.C. It was a Tuesday, so I didn’t have class until 10:30 that morning. I was finishing breakfast when a friend in my dorm sent an IM message (yep, that’s what we used before Facebook was invented): “Hey, a plane just flew into one of the Twin Towers in New York City.” I was confused, and wrote back, “That’s weird, those buildings are huge! How could the pilot not see them?” I pictured a tiny private plane with 1 or 2 people in it, accidentally crashing into the tallest buildings on New York’s skyline. Then my friend wrote back, “No, it was on purpose.”
As I was processing that, I got a frantic call from my boyfriend, who lived a few hours away. He had already signed his military enlistment paperwork, and was scheduled to leave for Boot Camp in a few weeks. “Are you ok?” he asked breathlessly. “A plane just crashed into the Pentagon, and another may be heading for the White House! That’s only a few miles from you! You need to turn on the news right now.”
Feeling dazed and a little scared, I took the cordless phone with me down the hall to the lounge, where several other students had gathered to watch the TV. And that’s when we all watched the 2nd plane fly into the other tower… right in front of us, on live television. We continued to watch, as the towers collapsed and turned thousands of people into clouds of ash and smoke. It was horrible. We all gasped and shook our heads in shock. It was hard to believe and impossible to understand such a horrific act of violence.
But then, not knowing what else to do, we went to class. Obviously, we had no idea yet how much the event would change all of our lives. Half of the kids in my first class hadn’t yet heard the news. I distinctly remember one girl who jumped up in shock when she heard the news. “The World Trade Center?” she shouted. “My dad is supposed to be in those buildings for a meeting today!” She ran out of the room to find a phone. That’s when it started to sink in. I had a friend in New York, too. Everyone knew someone in New York. This was not a distant tragedy. This was an event that would affect many of the students in my class. It turned out that the girl’s father was alive: his meeting had been scheduled for the afternoon. My friend was safe, too. But another boy in my class lost his father in New York that day.
The effects of terrorism: It can divide us or bring us together
Until that time in my life, I’m not sure I had heard anyone use the words “terrorism” or “terrorist.” Sure, they are part of the nightly news now, but September 11 was the first page of this chapter in our history. Later that day, I witnessed the effects of terrorism for the first time. My university cancelled classes, and announced an impromptu prayer/memorial service to be held that evening. It would be at the campus’s largest building, which happened to be the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: the huge church with the blue mosaic dome that is a DC landmark. I planned to attend, but one of my friends was shocked at the idea. “Are you kidding?” she asked me. “That is the largest church in the Western Hemisphere! If Muslims are targeting us, that would be the biggest target around! No way am I going, that is too much of a risk.” Boom. Just like that, I realized the widespread effects of terrorism. Not everyone lost a loved one that day. But everyone lost the ability to trust others. We no longer trust strangers in airports. We no longer trust the government to protect us. We no longer trust anyone we identify as an “other.” Other religions, other races, other nationalities: all these are now viewed as enemies in America. The terrifying effects of one terrorist act still ripples through our country, 20 years later.
I am proud to say that I did attend the campus Memorial Service, along with hundreds of other students. And the church was not bombed or attacked. Together, we comforted our class president, who lost his father, and several other students who lost someone close to them. We lit candles. We prayed. There was no agenda, no real motive to attend. But everyone there will remember that night. Because on that part of September 11, we joined together and realized the strength of our country. We shared positive stories of the 1st responder rescues and the close calls in New York that day. We realized that Americans have a great deal of beautiful strength and honor. No ugly act, no matter how hateful, can take that away from our country and its citizens. Terrorism divided our country in many ways. But it also brought Americans together against a common cause in a way we hadn’t seen since World War II.
Still Fighting the War of Terror
The effects of September 11 hit home a few weeks later, when my boyfriend went off to Boot Camp. I watched my boyfriend prepare for war. I watched our country declare war. I stood by and supported him as a girlfriend, then his wife, while he fought on the front lines of that war. Again. And again, and again. It is a war that we continue to fight today. He recently returned from his 7th deployment. That means that in the last 20 years, he has spent 51 months deployed overseas without me, and countless more months away training for those missions. He spent more time in combat then I spent earning a bachelor’s degree. We have lost many friends in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sacrifices are tremendous, and they continue. No matter how much the news tries to sweep it into the background, we are still at war. For those who continue to fight and die there, the war is not over. These years of war have changed the country.
The recent events during the U.S. withdraw from Afghanistan have been a stab in my heart, and have shaken the strength of many military families. Yes, we are all tired of this war, the long deployments, and the uncertainty that war brings to a military marriage. But none of us wanted to see the mission end like this. After two decades of service and sacrifice, my husband and I both struggle to process the concept of such a sloppy withdraw, an unplanned evacuation, leaving Americans behind, and losing 13 more precious service members. And even though I know his work and our sacrifices were not in vain–they brought stability to a war-torn country for a full generation–if still feels as though all those years of deployments that challenged our lives, our careers, and our marriage, accomplished nothing. He gave up years of being with his family and watching his babies grow. I had a baby alone without him while he was in a tent in Afghanistan. We got through those challenging moments by telling ourselves that we were sacrificing for an important mission. Now it’s difficult to say with certainty whether the U.S. or Afghanistan is really any better off after 20 years of war. This anniversary should be some type of celebration, but this year the sadness is even heavier.
The 20th Anniversary of Patriot Day
Now we have a name to mark this date: Patriot Day. It took a few years before we called it anything besides September 11th. The ‘holiday’ was established quietly. Honestly, if I didn’t have children who bring home a school calendar, I’m not sure I would know it is called Patriot Day. The memories are too fresh to have traditions, and our generation struggles to explain how to ‘celebrate’ such a horrible event. My children were born years after this date, too young to have any experience of it besides what is written in their baby books and history books. But it has affected them too. Because of Patriot Day, their Dad has been gone half their lives. They have grown up in a different country than I did: a country at war. And I have to wonder, after 20 years, how many more anniversaries will we spend at war? Can a war against terrorism ever have an end? Will my children ever get to experience an America at peace?
I hope so, I truly do. But I also hope we will not wait until a time of peace to honor those who have been fighting in this time of war. September 11th changed our lives—the lives of an entire generation, and probably the next generation too. So on this day, let’s take a moment to ponder that, and consider ways we can work for peace.