On behalf of my co-founder, educator Peter Findler, and all the friends that enable The 9:57 Project to do our mission, let me wish you a happy and healthy Veterans Day Weekend 2023.

To my fellow Veterans and their families, who have kept chaos at bay fighting our wars and keeping the peace since 1775, you have my eternal gratitude and admiration for securing our freedom and way of life. Among your ranks are Rayford Hamilton (my Dad), Audie Murphy, George Washington, Kevin Keaton, Jimmy Morrow, John Kennedy, Robin Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower, Greg Calvert, Kenny Wright, Bob Harrel, Mac Harris, Alvin York, Coach Mike Smith, Stephen Decatur, William Cashman, Jason Smith, Jimmy Stewart, Pat Lacks, Leroy Homer, Luther Hamilton (my Grandfather), and millions and millions more.

Some of these names are known to us all, others are known only to family and friends.
We thank them all for their service, but there is more we should consider. There is great power in remembering, honoring, and celebrating these Veterans by choosing to live each day as a gift, a blessing, by seeking to do all we have with what we have, and as my high school cross country coach (“Semper Fi” Coach Ronnie Knox, USMC) taught our team - “by relishing our victories.” There is immense strength in gratitude. The spirit of freedom present in the blood, sweat, and tears of our Veterans and their families are an ever present gift to all of us, a gift that’s also an “ask,” - an ask that we stay on the lookout for how we can contribute to what they did, even if in the form of small kindnesses to our fellow countrymen.

As we’ve been reminded recently, the blessings of liberty are not a foregone conclusion in this day. Peace and stability take work. Freedom, a heavenly idea, often takes painful effort to nurture in this very un-heavenly world. As nations around the globe engage in what seems to be a renewed energy for conflict and fear, in this free nation, let us uphold our liberties by remembering those who strived so valiantly for it, and fulfill our obligations to honor our freedom. Obligations that are not so onerous - more gratitude for what we have, and a watchfulness for what we can do in our little corner of the world, our school, our neighborhood, our places of work, not only for our Veterans but for our fellow citizens. Such notions are not just happy thoughts, they are critical to the survival of this country.

In the Spring of 2013, I was still on Active Duty in the Army when my co-founder Pete asked me to come give a talk to one of his high school classes. The day just so happened to coincide with his lesson about 9/11. This student/veteran interaction, facilitated by a gifted and innovative educator, planted the seeds for what would become “The 9:57 Project.” As Pete and I discussed how to move forward with what was a particularly unique and inspirational moment, we determined to engage all of his classes on the next Veterans Day, so I asked a fellow Soldier to join me.

Earlier that year, Sergeant Tim Huggins and I found ourselves talking in the SCIF, where classified information is shared, but we weren’t talking business. Tim shared with me some of the hard things he had dealt with as a combat infantryman in Fallujah. I felt so honored that he would talk about these sacred things with me. I shared with him some of the hard things that occurred in my life after deployment, and Sergeant Huggins offered some wise NCO-borne encouragement and insight on those matters. Tim is a gifted communicator and was also our unit resiliency trainer, so he was a natural battle buddy for me to ask to participate in this emerging mission set, what would become “The 9:57 Project.”

Ten years ago today, I sat in a US History classroom in Washington, DC next to Tim, and he went there…In an appropriate and kid-friendly manner, he shared with the students the same sort of things he had shared with me in the SCIF. I looked over at him, and I saw something I had only read about - the “thousand yard stare.” I thought, “What in the world is happening here?”

And the kids, they listened, and they cared, and they asked incredible questions. And Tim shared more, and I made my small contribution, but mostly I just experienced, and watched, and was so - well, grateful, for the questions of young people who had not been so exposed to a world yet to be too cynical, or unauthentic, or harsh. They were smart, and idealistic, and hopeful, and very very interested in what Tim had to say. And they saw Tim was an authentic Soldier and person, from their very neighborhood. And it was fun. One girl asked, “Do you like Ben’s Chili Bowl?” And I’m thinking, “Where did that come from?” And there were more questions about war, and peace, and sacrifice, and life, and other fun things like chili bowls, but more important than anything there, in that classroom, was a spirit of joy, and energy, and…freedom.

And when Tim walked out, there was no more thousand yard stare, just smiles all around. Tim had endeavored to spend his day off, a holiday set aside for him and those like him, not to just “get his free meal,” as he said, but to continue to pay it forward, not just garnering well deserved recognition and honor, but to help teach, and lead, and share. We had discovered another way for Veterans to continue to serve. And we had found a way to impart strength, resiliency, and understanding to young people.

In the last ten years, we have been fortunate to replicate moments like that day with so many others. You may have noticed (I hope!) that it’s been a couple months since we’ve published a newsletter. That’s because we’ve been busy, having encountered many new friends in collaborations with organizations who have found a way to do more in their corner of this country to burnish and preserve this legacy of freedom. They have chosen to help us on our small effort too. This has led to a flurry of new events and activities that we are SO thankful for. We’ll be telling you more about these events in the upcoming months.

Recently I’ve been asked what The 9:57 Project has done for me as a veteran. The thing that comes to my mind mostly lately, is the amount of good that so many people and organizations are up to, things you may not hear about every day. Things I wouldn’t know about or experience if not for volunteering with 9:57. Sure, we all hear about some of these great things from time to time, but the steady drumbeat of gloom and dread on our cable news, and yes - some truly dark tragedies, can at times seem unbearable. But that’s not the whole story. The brightest light can dominate the darkest room in an instant. That thousand yard stare, when exposed to the face of a caring countryman, can transform to a smile in a quick, compassionate second. Despair, more often than not, gives way to hope if we let it.

So Happy Veterans Day to these new collaborators - the Grateful Americans at the Gary Sinise Foundation, the Willing Warriors at Bull Run, and the Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial. As of late, they have helped us increase the scope and scale of our missions. It's Veterans Day every day in these organizations. Thank you to the Flight 93 Families for the sacrifices of your very unique and special citizen-minutemen of the nation’s first counter attack in the War on Terror. I personally consider them warriors by necessity and Veterans in a unique category unlike any other in American history.

And again, to my fellow Veterans who raised their right hand to undertake a life of service, you have my immense admiration for what you have done for us all. And - a special thank you to Tim Huggins and all my other friends and Veterans who have continued to serve their country by volunteering with The 9:57 Project. But you and I know a secret - it is better to give than receive, the gift that cannot rust has been given to ourselves!