For every year of my adult life, September has opened on a somber note. As a journalist that works in the National Security and Defense sphere, I’ve come to embrace the sadness this month brings with it, often channeling the lump in my throat for the sake of content — writing pieces each year that I hoped would shed a light on how 9/11 became more than a call to action for many men and women of my generation, it was very literally a defining moment. As I’ve discussed in the past, the entire course of my life changed as I watched the second plane collide with the World Trade Center in New York City — as can be said for so many of us that found ourselves on the cusp of adulthood just as our nation came under attack.
As we approach September 11 each year, it can be tough not to think back to where we were, or maybe who we were back before that tragic morning… The lot of us going about our lives with a naive levity we’d never be able to recognize or appreciate until it was ripped from our grasp. I was born in 1985, so war — as far as I could tell — was something America was pretty much the undisputed champion of. I was aware of armed conflict during my childhood in far flung places like Iraq, but these conflicts seemed almost trivial to me as a kid.
To most Americans then (and again today) war seemed like a far-off concept that was only a concern for others. Sure, my dad had fought in a war — but that was in Vietnam and about communism. As far as I knew, both of those things weren’t on America’s threat radar anymore. The Soviet Union fell while I played with Transformers. The Persian Gulf War was such a clinic in American dominance that my family crowded around the TV at night to watch it like a video we’d just rented from Blockbuster. There, in our small New England home, war was a concept I came to understand without its most important ingredient: fear.
Then came that fateful morning. I was skipping school but had every intention of getting to class before 11am (the cutoff to still be able to go to football practice). As I casually got dressed in my empty living room, watching the news updates about the first airplane crashing into the Twin Towers and assuming, as most of us did, that it was nothing more than a tragic accident, the second plane hit. In that moment, I found war’s missing ingredient. In that moment, I was afraid. I knew that this was the start of something big… I just prayed it was something America would make it out of.
Years later, after getting out of the Marine Corps and enrolling in college, I found myself in a mass communications class taught by a professor that had graduated high school a year after me (that happens a lot as an older vet in school). As we started class on September 11 of that year, he asked our small group to share our experiences with the terror attacks of 9/11, to tell one another where we were and how we felt. To my surprise (in an otherwise highly engaged class) no one raised their hands. Finally, he turned to me and asked if I’d discuss my experiences.
I quickly recounted my morning, and the way my stomach felt as though it was full of rocks for days after. He nodded in commiseration before posing the question to the class again. Finally, one young woman raised her hand with a simple answer: “I think most of us were just too young to remember it.”
Much like the fear I didn’t know to expect when war finally reached my home, the surprise I felt when she said she couldn’t remember 9/11 didn’t make any logical sense. Of course, she was too young. The whole class was. But it was a date that had so fundamentally changed the world as I knew it, it came as a shocking realization to learn that we’re now living among adults that don’t know what the world was like before the Global War on Terror. There are men and women, living, working, voting today that have never lived a day without the looming specter of war.
I grew up in a world where war was an abstract concept until a group of terrorists brought it to my home. Today’s generation of young adults grew up in a world where war was so constant, we distanced ourselves from it. The Middle East is such a complicated quagmire of wars that most choose to ignore them and go about their day. We are a nation at war, but our sons and daughters often don’t even notice.
For all the bad that does, I’m grateful. I wish the country cared more about our brothers and sisters in harm’s way, and I wish our lawmakers cared more about the future of the nation than they did about the future of their careers, but nonetheless, I’m grateful. I wish these wars we’ve been waging had a clear-cut end point and that we could say we were approaching it… but despite that, I’m grateful. I wish I could know that the service of my generation of veterans helped secure a safer world for my daughter to grow up in, but even without that certainty, today, I’m grateful.
I’m grateful to this nation for building a life around these wars that my daughter can enjoy without that fear I first felt in the pit of my gut on 9/11. I’m grateful that things here at home can be so mundane that some Americans choose to ignore that we’re at war. I’m grateful that America remains a beacon of discourse, debate, and passionate efforts to improve despite decades of conflict. I’m grateful that war is as distant from my daughter as it was for me at her age — despite there being so much more of it today.
For all the ways I wish the last 19 years of war could have gone differently, today, I say thank you to every man and woman that volunteered to put on a uniform and take the fight to wherever Uncle Sam told you to take it. I say thank you to the law enforcement professionals that work tirelessly every day to stop another 9/11 from happening.
I may wish the general public cared a little deeper about my friends in harm’s way. I may wish the American people could remember how unified we felt when we realized that all of us Americans were under attack as one nation. Hell, I wish a lot of things were different…
But I’m grateful that these are the challenges of my generation, not the hardships of my daughter’s. Today, for all the violence, the strife, and the tensions, my daughter feels safe in her room, in her home, and in her country. That’s something many of us lost years ago. That’s the gift a generation of war fighters have given her.
And that’s something worth being grateful for.