"What the fuck?"
Those were the words uttered out of my slightly sleepy mouth as I watched the second plane hit the second tower, a few moments before I was sleep as my alarm wasn't set to go off for another half hour. The reason I was up was because my phone rang at, what was for me, an ungodly hour. On the line was my mother, who, after I said hello, said, "Sean, are you alright?" Of course I was alright. Hell, I was sound asleep feeling good about being in my bed and kind of annoyed that I was no longer asleep. She asked had I seen the news, which I had not, and she said turn on the TV "IT'S" on every channel. Confused, I turned it on and, well, you know what I said next. It was just after 6 AM when I got that call and I'll never forget it. At the time I was an active duty Air Force SSgt assigned to the 5th Air Support Operations Squadron at Ft Lewis Army Installation in Washington State. After my mother called, my supervisor called and the words were something of this:"The shit has hit the fan. Everyone is to report in immediately. We may be going to war." That is my 9/11 memory.
Those few minutes of two phone calls. The rest I don't remember because, to be frank, I, like the rest of my unit, went into work mode and prepped to do the job we were trained to do... Kill our enemy! Actually, full disclosure, I was a supply guy and the likelihood of me killing anyone was pretty slim but still possible. I never did personally have to kill anyone in combat. My unit, on the other hand, had their fair share of battles and losses. It's the price of war. It's what we signed up to do. It is what those planes that hit those buildings that bloodied the noses of we Americans did in an instant... provoked a nation to war. And we were ready to do it!
You ever look down the bang end of a weapon? The picture you see here is of me in 2011 in Afghanistan with my M4 all kitted out. I had the bullets, the training, the desire and the skills to use this weapon and the one on my hip (9mm) if need be. I even had the skills to use my hands if need be, but this picture was taken just because I thought it was cool. I was lucky that way. My weapons were "break in case of emergency" while many of my brothers and sisters were using them as "last line of defense" while fighting for their lives. It's mind-boggling to see this picture and understand the guy behind the gun is ready to die for what he believes in, or at the very least, so the men and women he is deployed with get to go home. We were ready! We were AMERICANS! We were not going to forget what "THEY" did to us. We were going to show them a thing or two.
In 2001, that is what we said and we thought. We were wronged. We did nothing to deserve this level of cowardice especially on civilian targets. I mean, if you want to fight, bring it to us military folks, we are more than eager to give you an ass whipping. That is what this country was literally built on: fighting. We are eager to fight. We fight anyone and everyone, hell, even ourselves. Then "They" went and attacked civilians, women and children and people all walks of life. And with that we were ready to do the damage and do the deed and kill. kill. KILL. All for the ideals that we preach for a nation. No, not just a nation, but the world. Damn, I'm getting hyped up just thinking about the feeling I had on Sept. 11, 2001. Eager to fight. Eager to defend our country. Eager to prove that I, a black man from South Central Los Angeles, knows that the freedoms of my country is more than the city I lived in, the color of my skin, the orientation of sexual preferences, and my religion. We won't forget. We will make them pay. We will carry on, because, "That's what Americans do!"
And we flew our flags. We raised them high in the sky. We won't forget. We painted them on our vehicles. We won't forget. We hung them from poles in our yards and displayed them year around. We won't forget. We put them on our shirts, hats, pants, and even underwear. We won't forget. We made documentaries of the fallen, the heroes that fought back and brought a plane down, the hero first responders who ran into those devastated buildings trying to save "just one more person," and of the enemy. We won't forget. When our anger starts to wane by June or July of a year, we will run it all back to keep the pace until Sept. 11 would roll around again. We won't forget. We would refuel our hate/anger/resolve with the images, the videos, the sounds and the testimonies of all those affected by this tragedy. We won't forget. We fly that flag proudly and we proclaimed we are UNITED STATES for one and for all. We won't forget. And that is how it goes each and every year for the past 18 years. We won't forget.
I got to admit just writing all that has me ready to sign up again to fight for the freedoms of the world. To defend the weak and destroy tyranny at its core. To make a world where, as Dr. King dreamed of, "all men are created equal." I'm ready because I have not forgotten what it was like that day. I haven't forgotten my mom's voice that morning. I haven't forgotten the image in my eye of a plane crashing into a building with that beautiful bright blue sky behind it with the only color being the black smoke pulsing out into the world like an old smoke signal. I'm ready to don the gear, strap on the weapons, kiss my wife, hug my son, say bye to my friends, and board a plane to fight the good fight against an enemy who would attack innocent women and children. Why? Because, I won't forget.
And that is what we say every year for 18 years. We won't forget. It reminds me of another time when the "evil guys" attacked us and dragged us into a war that we would not forget. Of course, I am talking about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Remember how we weren't going to "forget"? Maybe I should take a step back and take another look at this "not forgetting" thing. I'm brought back to the blog I wrote about Pearl Harbor and Nagasaki, Japan called Lessons of Two Memorials and what both those places taught me about forgetting. Damn it. Now, I am thinking. Now, I am thinking about the eagerness to fight. The willingness to put my life on the line to prove that we Americans will not be "fucked with" at all. But that isn't what I am thinking at all. I'm thinking about two men who died after Sept. 11, 2011. I'm thinking about
Air Force MSgt Auchman (Iraq '04) and Army SPC Poulin (Afghanistan '11) who died on foreign soil because of what we aren't forgetting. I'm thinking of the 6000 plus US military members who have died in war since and a ridiculous number of physically and mentally wounded military members. I'm thinking about Fallen Hero ceremonies in both Iraq and Afghanistan watching flag- draped coffin after flag-draped coffin go slowly into the back of an military aircraft carried by men and women who are fighting back tears to ensure they leave with honor though the military member in the coffin left it all in that country. We won't forget.
We won't forget just like Pearl Harbor. We won't forget just like WWI. We won't forget just like WWII. We won't forget just like the Civil War. WE won't forget just like...That is the thing about anger and hurt: we can use it as great fuel to drive us but we can't use it as great fuel to repair us. This is what we keep forgetting.
As I spoke about in the blog mentioned above, one of the interesting aspects of going to Nagasaki was seeing how the Atomic Bomb Museum depicted history. There was exactly zero mention of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Zero. I do give a little leeway to the fact I might have missed it but three other members from my unit said the same thing. Why is this important? Because, either directly or indirectly (since it took a few years between Pearl Harbor attack and the Nagasaki bombing), the attack on Pearl Harbor was the catalyst or final straw that brought America into the war directly. Yet, in Japan, in the museum, and around Nagasaki, that part has been forgotten just like what happened around the world before 9/11. Now, this blog isn't going to get into the rights and wrongs of war. I am not about to politicize my message with my own form of biased propaganda because I "feel" a certain way. What I will say, as it is pertinent to this blog, that we had a bigger hand in prompting the attacks on our land than we initially let on to believe. But that is war. We can't forget the haymaker that we got hit with because it put us on our ass. We forget all the body blows and jabs from both sides that have been taken. The haymaker was the last line, not the first. So we forgot.
See we remember the events because they roll around like clockwork on our calendars. If we were close to it then it triggers a memory that is uncovered, cleaned up and put back on our display of patriotism and nationalistic pride until the day after it is gone. Then we go back to our day to day lives of, unfortunately, complaining about the life we have to live. Yet here I am on
Sept. 12th thinking about this cemetery I drive by several times a week that is full, on both sides of the road, with men and women who have served this country. I think about how many of them bore the wounds of battle that we told them we would "never forget," and that we would take care of them as they are, and, this is my favorite, "doing something great for the freedom of our great nation!" I wonder how many of them, their families, the brothers- and sisters-in-arms and the like, died thinking that the sacrifices made were for a better America? If you have never sat in a veterans' cemetery I recommend doing so. Just go and sit for 30 minutes without saying a word and feel the heaviness of life spent defending a nation's ideals. You'll be changed because in it is the thing we keep forgetting: war has its price both permanent and long term.
In 2011, I flew back to Afghanistan from my R&R leave with two full aircraft pallets of silver
metal boxes. I actually spent part of my flight leaning against one of them because I was tired of sitting down. Forty-eight coffins being returned to a war zone that I was also heading back to that would eventually return to the states all "dressed up" with the uniformed body of someone's child, spouse, friend or whatever who never made it out.
See, I remember 9/11 for those two sentences and that visualization I saw on the TV just after 6 AM. What I remember more about 9/11 is the cost of it. The cost to my own psyche as I stood in the 5th ASOS training room waiting on my commander to come in and tell us that MSgt Auchman was killed in a bunker in Iraq. The cost of me standing at his (and an Army Major's) ceremony a few weeks later on Fort Lewis with his cleanly shaven twin brother, his wife, his kids and the rest of the unit sitting there knowing that 24 years of service ended in a hole in the ground designed to protect him. The cost of the image of those silver boxes eerily lit by the green light of the C130 and knowing not only if they would return back to the states, but that my body may very well be in one of them. Or, maybe, one would hold one of the people I know like SPC Poulin who died in a rollover accident returning to base on unimportant road in the mountains of the Kunar Province in Afghanistan. I can't forget it. The memories don't allow it. The mind of the first responders, the military, the doctors, the nurses, the civilians and the families don't forget it BUT... The Nation does!
We forget because we don't remember why it all started. We only remember the fight. We only remember the blow that caused the next major thing. We look at Nazi Germany and we remember the Holocaust but we don't remember Adolf Hitler when he started speaking about nationalism and single-minded patriotism for the "greater good of Germany." We forget. We forget about the war Vietnam that so many, like my father-in-law, still carry the sounds, the smells, agony and the pain of to this day. We forget the slaughter of soldier after soldier after soldier after soldier after soldier after soldier on D-Day where, depending on where you read, 4000-10,000 allied military personnel were killed. We weren't going to forget, as we called them, "The Greatest Generation" and yet here we are again not forgetting. I can go on and on but I think the point is made that if we are going to remember these horrific events we need to remember them for what caused them and how we prevent them and how to rebuild a safer world for us all.
I remember September 11, 2001 like I remember my fallen brothers and sisters from all the battles since that day. I remember them with pride that they did a job, even if they didn't fully support the idea, because they promised to do it. I remember them with sorrow because one act from a group of cowards abusing a religious belief decided to attack the innocent and the weak and they, the fallen, died for it. I remember the many heroes that were shown on my TV in the
minutes after the towers were hit that ran into the shit storm to save anyone and everyone they could because that's what true national pride is about. I remember September 12th where we were a nation, for one brief day, not of colors, social standings, sexual orientations, beliefs (in general) or any other thing except a unified country wanting to help one another. I remember seeing the dust covered faces of people whose race was identifiable behind the dirt, the blood, the tears on a that beautifully sunny day. I remember being more understanding of everyone especially the Muslims Americans who undoubtedly knew that their American freedoms had just been stolen by a group of zealots hell bent on spreading hate. I remember that one day when America was just that...America.
I'll leave with this, in order to truly grow and be better as humans we must look to our past and our present and learn. We must learn from the choices so that we aren't repeating once again the same ole same ole. Let us remember the sacrifices so many made that we do not require others to make the same 30 years later. We owe it to the heroes that gave it all to be better than that and... To Remember! If we don't we are destined to repeat the lesson.