Eight years later, a tragedy remembered

In this "Remember 9-11" illustration, the "11" is designed to resemble the twin towers of the World Trade Center, while the five-sided border represents the Pentagon. Both of these landmarks were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and nearly 3,000 people were killed. (image by David Paranteau)

In this "Remember 9-11" illustration, the "11" is designed to resemble the twin towers of the World Trade Center, while the five-sided border represents the Pentagon. Both of these landmarks were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and nearly 3,000 people were killed. (image by David Paranteau)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- It's been eight years exactly since the fateful day when 19 men with hearts full of hatred flew airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pa., eight years since our nation lost its innocence. 

Eight years later, I have a hard time finding words adequate to express the nation's emotions on that day and the days after. I was far away from the attacks, stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base-Gunter Annex, Ala. The attacks didn't touch me directly. 

It's a different story for some of my friends. A close friend of mine lived only a few blocks from the World Trade Center in 2001. About a dozen of her friends worked in the twin towers. She watched in horror that day as the towers burned, then collapsed. 

When her friends died, a part of her died with them. She stopped eating. She started suffering from the effects of the concrete and ash that got into her lungs: coughing fits so bad that she coughed up blood. The grief might have killed her if my wife hadn't flown to New York and dragged her to Colorado, but she survived. Today, she's happily married and has two children who have never known a different New York skyline. 

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, draw a line across our lives as surely as the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, must have done for the generation who fought World War II. I remember America before the attacks. Going to the gate at an airport to greet a loved one was commonplace, security forces Airmen stood sharply at the gates to our Air Force bases, waving through people whose vehicles had base decals. 

We, as a nation, believed that the tragedies that happened half a world away -- whether in Lebanon, at Khobar Towers or in the Port of Yemen -- couldn't happen here. The men and women of our armed forces have always accepted that we would be in harm's way and that we might be called to fight, to kill or to die for our country; that we risk our lives abroad so that our families might never have to witness the horrors of war firsthand. 

Al-Qaida destroyed that illusion the same time it destroyed the lives of thousands of Americans. Just before 9 a.m. Eastern Time, the first of four hijacked airliners -- American Airlines Flight 11 -- slammed into the World Trade Center's north tower. Twenty minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south tower. American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon 40 minutes after that. On United Flight 93, passengers who had heard about the World Trade Center attacks gave their lives to make sure it didn't hit its target -- presumably the White House. 

We have not fully recovered in eight years what 19 deranged apostates took away from us in 60 minutes. We may never fully reclaim the sense of relative tranquility we enjoyed before Sept. 11. What we can do -- what we must do -- is make the world a safer place for our posterity. 

We must lift up the people of Afghanistan so that they can live their lives free of fear. Yes, our nation's mission in Afghanistan places the lives of our servicemembers at risk, but we ignore the suffering and despair of a people halfway across the world at our own peril -- as Sept. 11 so painfully demonstrated. 

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently wrote an article for Joint Forces Quarterly magazine titled "Strategic Communication: Getting Back to Basics." In it, he writes: 

"... Most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all. They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don't follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are." 

The 9/11 Commission wrote a lengthy report on the events that led up to the attacks and how we might prevent them from happening again. Smarter persons than I have written books on the lessons we have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan. But if we learned nothing else from the tragedy of that day, let's remember this: We are all Americans. We're all in this together, and we all have to take care of one another.