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.