The tragic events of September 11th, 2001 brought about the deaths of thousands of innocent Americans, who had their lives cut short by the cowardly acts of a small group of terrorists. It’s difficult to try to look back on such a series of events without being reminded of that sense of loss, of pain, we felt as a nation on that fateful day, but if one has their sights set on finding a silver lining around the dust clouds of 9/11, you’d need to look no further than the bravery, honor, and sense of purpose demonstrated by men and women in uniform, serving their nation at home and abroad, that followed immediately thereafter.
Being the punk kid that I was, I woke up late on September 11th, 2001 – I planned to skip the first few hours of school and then come in before lunch so I wouldn’t be barred from participating in football practice. While academics would eventually become an important part of my life, they certainly weren’t then. I was far more interested in catching a few more hours of sleep, and getting a phone number from that Courtney chick in my math class.
When I dragged myself out of bed, I turned on the radio in my bathroom, and distinctly recall one of my favorite songs of all time, “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters, playing as I stepped into the shower. When the song was over, the familiar voice of the morning DJ interjected to offer the songs info, and a brief news update.
“And a commercial airliner collided tragically with one of the twin towers in New York, but details are sparse…” he said quickly, and without any real change in the tone of his voice. I remember being dismissive of the tragic accident, shrugging away the loss of life as some kind of equipment failure or horrible mistake… until I got out of the shower and walked into the living room in time to see the second plane hit… then I got scared.
Well, maybe scared isn’t exactly the right description of how I felt, but it was certainly a part of the cocktail of emotions that flooded my body. The mixture of anxiety, confusion, anger, and fear felt similar to the sense of foreboding you might have just before getting into a fist fight you’re not sure you’re going to win… when you know things are about to get bad, but some sense of pride, or duty, or even rage prevents you from avoiding the fight. I knew war had come to America, and that our enemies had just delivered a decisive blow… I just didn’t know who the enemies were, or what a junior in high school could do to help strike back.
Technically speaking, being born in ’85 places me on the elder end of the millennial scale, meaning I’ve been included in the demographic targeted by all those memes about millennium entitlement, selfishness, and social irresponsibility that have permeated throughout the country since that morning, when I first felt the anger that would forever be inextricably tied to the sadness and sorrow I felt as I watched those towers fall. The thing is, for all the anecdotal evidence out there to support the idea that my generation is worthless, I’ve spent my entire adult life surrounded by men and women that prove those clichés, memes, and hack jokes wrong. I’ve been fortunate enough to live a fair portion of my life in the company of heroes, many of whom found their true calling in the aftermath of that horrible tragedy.
While millennials in major cities voiced their grievances about office culture in viral think-pieces, a different breed of young Americans were there with me, digging holes in the mud, learning how to accurately fire our weapons, running until the soles literally began to come off of our boots. While millennials were demanding safe-spaces on college campuses, that different breed was preparing to head back to Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever else in the world they were told that we could take the fight to our nation’s enemies, to ensure they never have the chance to take it to our home again. While Americans piled on the “worthless millennial” stereotype, thousands of them, of us, were dying for the flag they had sewn on their shoulders, hanging in front of their homes, and often, tattooed on their bodies.
The media might like to joke about how little millennials have done for our country, and there may even be some truth to it back here at home, with long scraggly hair and skateboards under their arms… but the millennials I’ve known, the men and women who saw what happened that awful morning and felt that same sense of purpose settle upon them as the dust settled on the streets of New York City and Washington D.C., that stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth.
My friends fought and died for their country. Some others survived, only to come home and take their own lives as a result. This generation of Americans likely won’t be remembered with an honored moniker like “the greatest generation,” like my grandfather’s was, but on an individual basis, some of the men and women I had the honor of walking alongside over the past sixteen years of the Global War on Terror were, in my opinion, great. They didn’t look for a handout from the government, they weren’t too busy taking selfies, or posting on Facebook, or playing with fidget spinners, to answer their nation’s call for help. They, like so many heroes before them, saw that their country was in need, and volunteered to answer that call.
For that reason, on September 11th, I not only mourn those we lost during the cowardly attacks that took place as the onset of this long war – I think of all those we’ve lost since, in service to our nation and way of life. Men and women, some who were already in the military, some who wouldn’t be old enough to join for years to come, saw those planes crash that morning, and it set about a chain reaction that would change the way the rest of their lives would play out. Some, unfortunately, wouldn’t live to see the country they fought for ever again.
So you’ll have to excuse me if I’m reluctant to jump on the millennial hating bandwagon. I know too many millennials that lost limbs, or their lives, committing selfless acts of heroism. I’ve handed flags to the parents of too many millennials to lead me to believe that they don’t understand the value in sacrifice.
My generation may not be the “greatest,” but in the wake of one of the largest tragedies to befall our nation, what I saw in my fellow countrymen, millennials included, has been nothing short of great, and I’m both proud and honored to be counted among them.
September 11th, 2001, may have been a dark day in our nation’s history – but as long as men and women are willing to fight for what’s right, and on behalf of their fellow Americans, dark days will always be followed by brighter ones. Our country, flawed, bickering, and imperfect, is still the greatest nation in the world because of that sense of duty to selves, country, and one another so many of us, of all ages and generations, carry deep within us.
And because of that, sixteen years after I spent my morning with my mouth agape, trying to manage that strange combination of adrenaline and emotions, that one more sensation has come to overshadow much of the negativity of the day: pride. I’m proud to have served my country. I’m proud to have known the men and women I’ve worked alongside. And I’m damn proud to be an American.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Army