On September 11, 2001, I was sitting in the band practice room in my high school. It was senior career day and all of us who ever thought about earning our livings while jamming out on guitars and oboes listened to various professional and semi-professional musicians making it seem as if musician were actually a viable career option. Those were more idealistic and innocent days (Of course, as I write this, I am brimming over with the idealistic notion that I can make it as a professional or semi-professional writer). Prior to beginning the presentation, the teacher moderating the session told us, “No, we will not be turning CNN on.” I didn’t know what she was referring to.
After the musicians were done presenting, we turned on CNN just in time to watch the first tower fall.
Three months prior to the day, I had enlisted in the Marine Corps and was scheduled to ship off to boot camp five days after graduation, another ten months away. Once the shock wore off and we remembered we had other people around us with whom to speak, I turned to my friend Nick and said, “We’re going to war.” Nick had enlisted in the Navy around the same time I had signed up for the Marines.
That was fifteen years and five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan ago. I later found out that Nick, who had been an aviation ordnance guy, had loaded a 500 pound bomb onto a Navy F-16 that had been dropped onto a position from which the insurgents had ambushed my platoon.
On September 11, 2003, I was nineteen-years-old. 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment was the last Marine infantry unit still in Iraq after the invasion This picture is from that day:
Less than a year later, we were back in Iraq. Less than a year after returning from that deployment, we were out the door for our third.
There’s a lot going on in Iraq and Afghanistan these days and, as usually happens when there’s a lot going on, a lot of people have a lot of dumb opinions. 9/11 was the catalyst for two wars. I’ve been asked many times if I think the wars were (or I suppose “are” is more appropriate) “worth it” or if “we should be there.” I suppose some people just want closure for the almost 7,000 lives given in battle. I’d be a fool for thinking that was the motive for everyone. Some people want validation that we should just glass the whole Middle East (having never been taught that Afghanistan is part of Central Asia, not the Middle East). Others want validated the idea shoved down their throats every election year since 2003: President Bush lied to us about all types of things to feed the corporate warmachine. These are the same people who want to blame one politician or the other for “creating ISIS,” instead of reading a book on the complicated and fractured politics, ethnic rivalries, and religious bigotry that is a part of daily life in Iraq.
To answer the question of whether or not all the war and death has been “worth it,” I think only God can answer that one. I’ve been on countless combat patrols and been to far too many memorial services. I have ringing in my ears from too much gunfire and too many explosions. My back and knees are always in some degree of pain. I’ve searched many a bottle hoping to find peace and answers at their bottoms. Despite all this, I have no regrets, and would do it all again if need be.
I suppose I got a bit off track there. Enough about me and enough about wars and politics. This May, I was in NYC for ThrillerFest. Our little group skipped out of writing shenanigans the first morning to check out the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. The term “hauntingly beautiful” has never been more appropriate. I don’t personally know anyone who lost a family member or loved one that day, so my opinion is just that of another NYC tourist making their pilgrimage to relive the most infamous day in their memory, but I believe it is a beautiful tribute to the lives lost that day and since. Below is the highlight reel of the photos I took. Photography was off limits inside the main exhibit, and unfortunately I do not possess the ability to describe in words the feeling of walking through the events of that day in heart-wrenching detail. From the bravery of the first-responders and citizens inside the towers to the terror so many felt that they chose to leap to their deaths than endure the heat and smoke, the exhibit did a phenomenal job in reminding you of how tiny each of us is as a single person, but how great we are when brought together in the service of mankind.
Nothing says “Fuck you, terrorist assholes!” quite like building the world’s tallest middle-finger.
One memory from inside the exhibit that sticks out occurred while watching the footage of the towers falling. As all the adults watched in silence, a girl, maybe eight or nine, piped up. “They just fell?” she asked her father, very confused and a little bit horrified. Most college-aged adults right now have no memory of 9/11. Those of us who do remember, will never be able to forget. I’ll never forget the feelings of pure, unadulterated rage I felt the evening of September 11, 2001, as I paced in front of the television. I watched the scenes of planes striking the towers, the buildings collapsing, the debris, and the carnage, unaware that because of the events that day, I would be spending my entire adult life in and out of war zones. I remember another feeling as well. I remember showing up to school on the morning of September 12th. No one had a mean or spiteful word to say. For at least one day, high school dramatics and teenage flippancy did not exist. We, like rest of the nation and much of the world with us, were of one mind and one purpose. If for only one day, we were united. If we have only one thing to pass onto the next generation because of this day, I pray it is that feeling we felt, when we all, deep in our hearts and the pits of our stomach, knew what it meant to be a part of the United States of America.