Twenty years later, we remember and we look forward.
We began the 9:57 Project so that future generations would learn about September 11th, 2001, from the stories of post-9/11 combat veterans. When students hear the memories and eyewitness accounts of combat events, they understand a powerful perspective on the purity of effort, global goodwill, and sense of community that flowed after 9/11. Students discover that there was a time when our nation stood as one, united in response to tragedy and inspired by the action of heroes like the passengers and crew of Flight 93.  
The Flight 93 National Memorial is centered on a literal scar in the earth, the crash site where the heroic 40 passengers and crew found their final resting place. Yet, through the incredible efforts of the National Park Service, the families of the heroes, and countless others, this scar has experienced great healing.  The memorial draws visitors in through a landscape immersed in the natural beauty of pristine walking trails winding among wildflowers, native grasses, and groves of hemlock trees. It has become a truly “living memorial” in every sense of the phrase. The bucolic Laurel Highlands region of Pennsylvania in which the memorial resides, seemingly created for peaceful contemplation, plays the role of a perfect host.  It hosts a beautiful memorial of healing, and at the center of the memorial resides a story that promises to provide healing for all who hear of it. The efforts of those brave souls provide a glimmer of hope on a terrible day.  If it weren’t for their efforts, a successful attack by the Flight 93 terrorists would have “eviscerated” our democracy via the destruction of the U.S. Capitol building, according to a recent article in American Heritage by James Reston, Jr. and Richard Whittle.
Today, there are other 9/11 “scars” that require healing. It’s up to each one of us, both individually and collectively, to evaluate the events of the last twenty years and how they relate to the future and the past. For those of us who served in the Afghanistan War, a direct result of the events of 9/11, the dramatic withdrawal of U.S. forces has the potential to form new wounds. I acknowledge that to many veterans, the nature of the end of the war in Afghanistan has been heartbreaking.  Still, I firmly believe that the efforts of those who served have not been in vain. We engaged in a war that gave the nation strategic maneuver space to deny terrorists safe harbor to prevent another 9/11 and brought the architect of the day to justice. As General David Petraeus recently said, we should be “quietly proud” about all that we did. We performed with honor.  
But I humbly submit our work is not done. Those of us who are still alive owe more to the brothers and sisters we’ve lost in war and to the over 2,000 fellow Americans that we lost on 9/11.
Veterans have a responsibility to bear witness to our fellow citizens about what we’ve seen and learned. We have honor, duty, discipline, faith in ourselves, faith in our ideas, faith in each other, faith in our flag, and faith in the impact of sacrifice. These attributes of leadership are invaluable right now, and may very well be our most precious national resource at this moment. Indeed, bearing witness may not only help us heal but may help our nation heal as well.
In May 1953, U.S. Navy Captain Edward Beach, Jr. wrote these words, describing President Dwight Eisenhower’s encounter with veterans of the Korean War. They are just as applicable to veterans today as they were then:
“The Soldiers crowded in around him. They were young men whose bodies had been ravaged by war in some way; some lacked an arm or a leg, some hobbled on crutches, others had heartbreaking disfigurements….They gathered as close to the President as they could get, and I heard him talking to them….This was an Eisenhower that the public never saw. He talked to the soldiers of love of country, and of sacrifice. He said their country would never let them down, but no matter how much it did for them, it was nothing compared to what they had done for it. And then he said that even with all they had already given, they must be prepared to give more, for they were symbols of devotion and sacrifice and they could never escape that role and its responsibilities.” (From The Age of Eisenhower by Wiliam L. Hitchcock)

For Eisenhower, the physical wounds that his soldiers experienced would be redeemed only through the continuation of their service as “symbols of devotion and sacrifice.” And so it is for those of us who fought in America’s longest war. We still have responsibilities.

What that looks like is different for each veteran. Maybe it means simply being a good dad or mom, a good friend, a good employee, or a good neighbor. Maybe it means forming a nonprofit and talking to kids about 9/11. Or maybe it means continuing to work for the people of Afghanistan by helping the many nonprofits, churches, and other charitable organizations assisting those left behind or who are now arriving in the U.S. as refugees.  Maybe it means running for the city council or volunteering at the local assisted living facility. But whatever it is, we must be positive, helpful, and constructive. For veterans reading this, I would ask, how often in your time in service did your NCOIC or commander say, “Don’t just bring me a problem, bring me a solution”? We must continue to be the leaders and positive role models that people look up to, not by what we know or have done and are apt to express about it, but by what we are willing to continue to do. Our solutions lie in the unique spirit found in each service member: the firm commitment and dedication to the cause of human freedom and our nation, which manifests itself on the battlefield as care for each other.
For veterans and nonveterans alike, I hope an informed citizenry can discuss the events of the last two weeks and of the last twenty years in a civil manner. Everyone should feel free to advocate their viewpoint because that helps our representatives govern in a manner that is mature, responsible, and leads to a robust appreciation of the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. I also hope we begin to speak as much of our responsibilities as much as our rights, for to whom much is given, much is expected. Somehow, someway, after all the chaos and dissension we have seen in recent years, we must reclaim the unity and love of country that we saw in the days after 9/11. That will take work and responsibility.
And lastly, we must always remember the fallen of 9/11, this war, and their families; from the thousands who died on 9/11, to those thirteen young service members we lost recently during the evacuation of Afghanistan. These words, spoken years ago by President Reagan at a memorial service are helpful. Hundreds of peacekeepers had died in a plane crash on their way home just before Christmas. They were with the same outfit I deployed with in the months after 9/11, my beloved 101st Airborne Division:

“You do not grieve alone. We grieve as a nation, together, as together we say goodbye to those who died in the service of their country. In life they were our heroes, in death our loved ones, our darlings. They were happy and singing, and they were right: They were going home. And so, we pray: Receive, O Lord, into your heavenly kingdom the men and women of the 101st Airborne, the men and women of the great and fabled Screaming Eagles. They must be singing now, in their joy, flying higher than mere man can fly and as flights of angels take them to their rest. I know that there are no words that can make your pain less or make your sorrow less painful. How I wish there were. But of one thing we can be sure — as a poet said of other young soldiers in another war: They will never grow old; they will always be young. And we know one thing with every bit of our thinking: They are now in the arms of God.”

John Hamilton

(Cover image:  Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry render honors as firefighters and rescue workers unfurl an American flag at the Pentagon. Photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Pendergrass, accessed via the National Archives)