I cannot believe that it has been 15 years.
September 11th 2001 was a day that changed my world in many ways that I will never forget.
And my memories of this particular day highlight many of the personal changes that my life has gone through since.
My oldest son, N, was my only child.
While N had always been an insatiably curious kid, what I remember most about the few months before the September 11th attack was the frequent conversations that we had that seemed centered upon his newfound life goal to become a soldier, and later, a police officer.
It had become obvious that he had a deep, intuitive respect for those who helped others, as well as those who were willing to put their lives on the line to defend what was ‘right’ and ‘good’ and ‘just.’ For N, it wasn’t just the idea of being a hero, it was the concept that there was a profound meaning to be found in service to others. He admired people in his world who felt that it was important to stand up for others, and he wanted to be one of those people. He saw the future of accomplishing this ideal by joining the military, and he had a deep respect and admiration for those serving – or who had served – in the military.
So, as you may imagine, the highlight of his summer in 2001 was attending our local Memorial Day parade.
I remember him begging me to allow him to stand as close as he could get to the front of the crowd so that he would be able to see those who marched in our local post contingents from the American Legion and the VFW. He spent the next forty-five minutes waving and saluting all the soldiers, sailors and airmen. I watched him sit with quiet, rapt attention during all of the speeches, prayers, and moments of silence that followed those parades. But he had been the most eager and honored to shake the hands of so many local veterans and politicians that day, he’d been barely able to contain himself.
It was a day full of bright spots despite the atmosphere of respect and remembrance.
I remember most of all, the elderly WWII veteran who stood at the podium and spoke of the ultimate and extraordinary sacrifice that his brethren had made in service to their country, and how we as a society must honor them, and we must never forget them. While I can heartily agree with that sentiment, I found myself taken aback by his next point, and his next action, wherein this veteran suddenly pounded the podium, as if in anger or frustration, that ‘young people these days do not understand the price of freedom. People today do not know the meaning of honor or sacrifice, and perhaps we need a war to remind them. Damn your innocence!’
I was shocked and dismayed by the blunt thoughtlessness of this veteran’s comment that day, and even today, I am haunted by that sentiment – as if the only way that society can progress towards understanding honor and sacrifice is through experiencing grief at the loss of human lives, and the damning of youth and innocence.
I do not know what happened to that angry WWII veteran, but I do know the focus of the conversations that I had with my son revolved around that man’s words that evening. My son asked me if America should feel badly that we are not at war. My son asked me if I knew what going to war felt like, if I knew how war changes things. And I was honest with him, and I told him that we had been lucky thusfar, that America was not at war, and it seemed a foolish thing for a soldier – present or former – to wish that a war would occur. I told him that that veteran was likely just upset because he had likely seen and experienced a lot of terrible things during the war in which he served.
How hauntingly ironic that 106 days later, the world changed.
My son was 7 ½ years old.
And in the intervening years, my son has gotten to see what America looks like when it goes to war. He has listened to the debates and he has known several soldiers (older relatives and family friends) who have gone to fight, defend, and protect others in the Middle East.
He has seen how his world, and the world outside of us, has changed in innumerable ways.
My son did not become a soldier. He had developed other personal life-goals in the meantime between then and now.
But today, I cannot help but think – likely somewhat melodramatically – have our young people learned enough about the price of freedom?
Do we as a people know the meaning of honor and sacrifice yet?