When the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division arrived in Contingency Operating Base Basra, they found a sparse and austere base. The base is now home to one of the largest post exchanges in Iraq, movie theaters and computers. �We�re always improving our foxhole so we can leave the place better than we found it,� Albrecht said. �We�ve gotten a lot closer to our goal.� (U.S. Army Photo by Pfc. J. Princeville Lawrence)
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 When the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division arrived in Contingency Operating Base Basra, they found a sparse and austere base. The base is now home to one of the largest post exchanges in Iraq, movie theaters and computers. �We�re always improving our foxhole so we can leave the place better than we found it,� Albrecht said. �We�ve gotten a lot closer to our goal.� (U.S. Army Photo by Pfc. J. Princeville Lawrence)

“One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”


― KURT VONNEGUT, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE

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“One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”


― KURT VONNEGUT, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE

BECAUSE THIS MOMENT SIMPLY IS

 Kyle Carpenter, a Marine veteran of Afghanistan and Medal of Honor recipient, reflects on the need for hope, humility, and thankfulness on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.

Read Kyle's Reflection.


SHE SWALLOWED HARD, SHED SOME TEARS

I’ve wondered often what he might think of the last 15 years: Edward Snowden’s NSA leak, Osama bin Laden’s death, any of the myriad domestic terrorism attacks here and internationally; I’ve really wondered then.

Read Anna's Story.


Really — I'm OK

I wish it never happened. America’s response at Ground Zero was beautiful, but we’ve since grown ugly.

Read Thomas' Story.


Like Roses And Mustard Gas

And every clear-cut good/evil line in the sand I previously held onto vanished. Some would even argue that I grew up

Read Gerardo's Story.


Opening the window and making love to the world

Do I wish we were serious about improving ourselves and the world? Of course! Are we? Looking at the evidence: absolutely not.

Read Adrian's Story.


THERE IS LOVE ENOUGH IN THIS WORLD FOR EVERYBODY, IF PEOPLE WILL JUST LOOK.

We didn’t look beyond the border. Now we feel like we’re this swirling mass of humanity—it takes a toll when you know everything—it damages you.

Read Katie's Story.


THINKING BRAINLESSLY WITH THEIR SPINAL CORDS

Tim Patterson was attending the Naval Academy when the 9/11 attacks happened. He deployed on submarines and to Afghanistan. Now he wonders if it was all for naught. 

Read Tim's Story.


Ignore the awful times, and Concentrate On The Good Ones

We had hanged Saddam over Christmas and the war in Iraq had stopped. At least in Ramadi.

Read Michael's Story.


Fate In What I Cannot Fear

"My eyes welled up. Never have my thoughts of 9/11 been so heavy. ...For the first time, perhaps ever in my adult life, I, without effort, feel 9/11."

Read Nate's Story.


All time is all time. It does not change.

"We—regardless of virtually any social, political, or ideological persuasion—can prevent this, or something like it, from happening again. That has to be 9/11’s enduring legacy."

Read Chris' Story.


When Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt

Following 9/11, Matthew Hefti left college to serve in the Air Force. Hefti reflects on his promises to remember and all the things he chooses to forget.

Read Matthew's Story.


Farewell, Hello, Farewell, Hello

David Palacio wanted to defeat the enemy so he joined the Marine Corps after the 9/11 attacks. Six combat deployments later, the endless war continues on.

Read David's Story


Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre

Army PFC J.P. Lawrence deployed to Iraq after the 2006 Sunni Awakening. He shares his stories of the Post-9/11 Iraq invasion and reflects on false narratives of war.

Read J.P.'s Story.


Trapped In The Amber Of This Moment

David Chrisinger felt the urge to serve his country in the Marines during the Iraq War. He reflects on his choices on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. 

Read David's Story.


GOING BACK TO THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE FOR SOUVENIRS OF THE WAR

Peter Lucier missed the fighting days of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. He describes the lack of strategy plaguing this era of war on the anniversary of 9/11.

Read Peter's Story.


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Because This Moment Simply Is


Kyle Carpenter, a Marine veteran of Afghanistan and Medal of Honor recipient, reflects on the need for hope, humility, and thankfulness on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. 

Because This Moment Simply Is


Kyle Carpenter, a Marine veteran of Afghanistan and Medal of Honor recipient, reflects on the need for hope, humility, and thankfulness on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. 

  On November 21, 2010 I lay disoriented on top of a hot dusty rooftop of a mud compound in the rural farmlands of Marjah, Afghanistan. The front lines of the battlefield of the Global War on Terror. I felt the sensation of warm water being poured over me, quickly realizing that blood had begun to flow out of my torn apart body. All I had were my thoughts: My vision was distorted, like I was looking at a TV with no cable — just white and grey static. My ears were ringing so loudly I could only faintly hear my buddies voices telling me I was going to make it, as I continued to ask them if I was going to die. I was realistic though and knew in my heart that I was not going to make it home. I became very sleepy and, in what I knew were my last few moments, I thought of my family and how devastated they were going to be that I hadn't survived Afghanistan and that we would never see each other again. I said a quick prayer for forgiveness and, closing my eyes for what I thought was going to be the last time on this earth, I fell unconscious. I had sustained devastating and life altering injuries, and I had been resuscitated three times. When I arrived at the first hospital I was labeled PEA... patient expired on arrival. Five weeks later I woke up.

  Nine years earlier I was sitting, confused, in Mrs. Stewart’s pre-algebra class watching her tear up as the reality of what we were watching and her look of helpless disbelief set in. American Airlines Flight 11 had just crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, an event that would forever impact and change the course of our nations history. As the fire raged on and thick black smoke filled the sky, I tried to comprehend what was happening, but, unfortunately, as a child I couldn’t. I didn’t know what the World Trade Center was. I didn’t know what “the West” was or that anybody hated our way of life and the freedoms we share. I had never heard of Osama Bin Laden or the terrorist group known as Al-Qaeda that stationed itself in the mountains of Afghanistan.

  Over 15 years later, so much of our country and world has changed and so little has stayed the same. Today I’m a senior in college, and I’m sitting here on my balcony overlooking the skyline of Columbia, S.C. With one eye, two damaged arms, and ringing ears, I’m struggling to put my thoughts about that fateful day and the events that have occurred since September 11, 2001 into perspective. As I watch the cars pass freely and safely, without fear of IEDs, I am overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude and patriotism. In this strong, united, and beautiful country we can fully and truly enjoy the lives with which we’ve been blessed. 

  Really think about this… Because I have, over and over, again and... What if you were born and spent your entire life in the same mud hut and village. Imagine having no idea what an education is; imagine not even having the option to go to school. Imagine yourself or your children walking in 110-degree temperatures, down unpaved and rocky roads, to get dirty water out of a well. Imagine having to worry, while working in the fields all day, if you were going to get home and find your family had been killed or beheaded, just because you and your loved ones believe something different than your neighbor. This is an everyday reality for so many people around the world. But not for us living in the United States.

  Another reality from our nation’s history and the past 15 years is the toll, physically and mentally, that war has brought. I spent three years recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md. There, service members, who had been in the ICU with me, were taken from their rooms and moved to the hospital morgue, because their strong and courageous fight with their injuries had ended. I saw quadruple amputees, with a smile on their face, carrying their children in a wheelchair, on what was left of their legs, to an appointment. I saw service members who weren’t able to read or write or even remember their wives because of the devastating effects of a traumatic brain injury.  I saw a passionate and devoted medical staff that gave selflessly every day — a team that loved and cared for not only wounded warriors, but their families — physically and emotionally.  We live in a country that from the first gunshot of the Revolutionary War to the last gunshot in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been earned by altruistic sacrifice and loss of life and limb by patriotic Americans — a country that was founded on principles and the idea of love and respect for our fellow man and citizens. 

  Afghanistan and my recovery, and the lessons I have learned from them have made for hard and trying times but times for which I’m extremely grateful. I have been fortunate enough to gain more than a lifetime of perspective on living. I truly understand that things really can always be worse. I also understand that hard times can get better and there is always a silver lining. Live a life worth living, full of meaning and purpose. Live a life that will make the fallen soldiers who are looking down on us proud. Appreciate the small and simple things. Be kind to and help others. Let the ones you love always know you love them and when things get hard trust there is a bigger plan and that you will be stronger for the hardship you endure. These are things I’ve learned.

  Stay hopeful. Stay humble. Stay thankful. 

* * *

William "Kyle" Carpenter is a Marine veteran and Purple Heart recipient of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. He was wounded on November 21, 2010 while attempting to shield a fellow Marine from a grenade blast. On May 19, 2014 Kyle became the eighth and youngest living Medal of Honor recipient. He currently attends the University of South Carolina. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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She Swallowed Hard, Shed Some Tears


Anna Hiatt remembers, but not how she once hoped she would. For her the anniversary of 9/11 brings memories of her grandfather, Fight Club, anthrax and when she noticed Washington D.C. — a once open city — shrink.

She Swallowed Hard, Shed Some Tears


Anna Hiatt remembers, but not how she once hoped she would. For her the anniversary of 9/11 brings memories of her grandfather, Fight Club, anthrax and when she noticed Washington D.C. — a once open city — shrink.

I remember wishing that in the years to come I’d be able to remember every moment, and knowing that I would forget most all of it.

My mom and I stood on the front steps of our house on the night in 1997 when news broke that Princess Diana had died. The sun was setting so spectacularly that even inside our house with no view of the horizon we had seen its dreamlike color. Violent pink and lilac exploded in the sky and seemed to be everywhere; the air tasted like magenta and D.C. summer, and whether or not there were cicadas humming I remember their droning sound. Summer was ending, and I was in denial about September beginning and the first day of school. I remember wanting to linger outside, hoping my mom would let my bedtime slide just a bit, believing that somehow that particular sunset would never end. I tried not to breathe, thinking she might forget how long we’d been standing out there, and I gazed hungrily out at the neighborhood. I can’t remember whose house it was on or, to be honest, whether it was even there, but I remember that night seeing an American flag flying on our block, thinking how rare that was, and then looking back at our house and our own flagpole bracket. And the memory fades there.

Adjacent to 9/11 Memorial is a mural honoring the firemen and women who flocked to Ground Zero that day. Photo by Anna Hiatt.

Adjacent to 9/11 Memorial is a mural honoring the firemen and women who flocked to Ground Zero that day. Photo by Anna Hiatt.

I’ve never felt any particular connection to the flag. It was and always has been a symbol of our collective history for me—particularly our history of domestic war: the Revolutionary and Civil ones. What moves me is our commitment as a republic to the principles of representative democracy—although too many times in our brief 240 years we have threatened and undermined them. Our collective history as a nation founded by rebels and intellectuals speaks simultaneously to my latent inner punk and my (conflicting and complementary) abiding belief in the power of collective will and action. The flag to me is a piece of cloth with a great story.

I remember sitting bolt upright and running to my bedroom window and flinging it open as I wondered where I could hide and if I had time to get there. I had never heard such a sound. The first batch of F16s screamed overhead. My marrow vibrated; it echoed in my viscera; nausea took hold. The newscasters had talked that morning about the sound the planes made when they hit the buildings—unlike any other. It was September 11th, 2001, and I was at home alone braced against my window looking toward downtown D.C. where my mother was still at work in her office two blocks from the White House, and then up at the sky, staring hard at that late-summer blue. That day and for days afterward, it seemed, the F16s kept coming.

On the anniversary of September 11th, people place flowers in the grooves created by the names of the victims. Photo by Anna Hiatt.

On the anniversary of September 11th, people place flowers in the grooves created by the names of the victims. Photo by Anna Hiatt.

I remember in the weeks and months after 9/11 being sure that our phones had been tapped. I remember hearing a click-click on the line and believing that they—whoever “they” were—were listening. In what world did it make sense to spy on a 13-year-old. I wondered what about my mere existence was subversive or a threat to the state, and quickly I began to believe that if I was being spied on there had to be a good reason. Whether or not our line was tapped isn’t important. I became my own watcher, suspecting that I was suspicious and adamant with myself that I fall in line, interpreting how to do that differently on different days.

I didn’t worry about the threat I couldn’t see. I worried that my government suspected me of wrongdoing and that I had no defense. I worried about the flood of warnings and relentless fear-mongering: Stock up on water in case of another attack; buy duct tape to seal your house in case of…what? I didn’t know. Even now my heart races when I think about those warnings. Duct tape. As though duct tape would make the difference in a bioterrorism attack. I thought of Fight Club and Tyler Durden’s sick suggestion that oxygen masks are there only to give the illusion of safety. I thought about the ways in which we comfort ourselves when faced with a threat so large that it begins to feel existential and about which we, individually, can do absolutely nothing. I understood the appeal of duct-tape logic, but it wasn’t for my family, and we didn’t go to Home Depot.

As you descend into the bowels of Ground Zero and the National September 11 Memorial Museum, you can see, looking up, the skyscrapers surrounding the plaza. Photo by Anna Hiatt.

As you descend into the bowels of Ground Zero and the National September 11 Memorial Museum, you can see, looking up, the skyscrapers surrounding the plaza. Photo by Anna Hiatt.

I conflated the duct tape with the anthrax scare and wondered how taping up our windows was supposed to keep out the bio-agent, given that the same U.S.P.S. sorting facility the anthrax-laced letters had passed through also served my house. It was just one thing after another: After anthrax came the Patriot Act and barricades started going up around D.C., and the city in which I was growing up, that had always felt so open to me, suddenly closed down.

And then, in March 2002, the Homeland Security Advisory System gave color to my fear. We hovered at yellow alert and would spike to orange occasionally, but god if it didn’t feel to me like we were solidly stationed on red.

I remember in early June of that same year, on one Saturday afternoon, my mother and I drove out to my grandparents’ house in Maryland for our weekly visit. Nine months had passed since the attacks, but it seemed that most houses in D.C. and its suburbs still had mounted American flags. Maybe I was getting a taste, I thought, of what it would be like to live in a small town. My grandfather and grandmother had both grown up in Pennsylvania—him in a small town, her in Pittsburgh. They married before he left for war where he saw Europe in all its devastation. He returned and went to work for the government and in his retirement he became a volunteer docent at the National Archives where, on the Constitution’s bicentennial he and a group of other docents founded the Constitution Study Group. In the years I knew him, and I suspect before, he would head down to the Library of Congress on the subway, taking with him a sandwich for his lunch, and spend the days reading at his carrel.

Flowers dot the memorial surrounding the reflecting pool. Photo by Anna Hiatt.

Flowers dot the memorial surrounding the reflecting pool. Photo by Anna Hiatt.

That afternoon in June 2002, my grandparents, my mother, and I sat on their patio and talked. She’d been reading Gulliver’s Travels for her book club, and he’d decided to take another look at Jonathan Swift’s deft political satire. I listened, mostly. Maybe asked a question or two, still very much a wannabe student of dissension. I remember my grandmother and I peeled off in our own conversation and the warm June breeze felt safer than I had in those nine long months.

I remember that when our conversation was over, but before it had gotten dark, my grandfather and grandmother stood with us in their driveway to say goodbye and he gestured at a few of the other houses in their suburban court and said into the amber light of early-summer afternoons, “I’m not a flag-waver, but I am a true patriot.”

Late that evening, after Saturday Night Live had started but before we’d all turned in for bed, my aunt called. I can hear the phone ring. He’d had a stroke, she said; an ambulance had come; he’d been taken to the hospital. I remember feeling a pulse of adrenaline, but being certain that he’d be awake and as animated as he had been when I saw him earlier that day. How I ended up going with my mother to the hospital I don’t know. We parked up in a waiting room, and at some point she got the chance to see him and then I was alone. I remember the color of the light in that room, a horrible fluorescent color that cast a nauseating pallor on the day. How had it come to be that our endless summer afternoon had ended like this. SNL ended. Buffy the Vampire Slayer came on. I curled up in a god-awful chair and stared out the window at the orange flags used to warn incoming-helicopters of power lines.

Thousands of small American flags memorialize September 11th on the Columbia University campus. Photo by Anna Hiatt.

Thousands of small American flags memorialize September 11th on the Columbia University campus. Photo by Anna Hiatt.

I’ve wondered often what he might think of the last 15 years: Edward Snowden’s NSA leak, Osama bin Laden’s death, any of the myriad domestic terrorism attacks here and internationally; I’ve really wondered then. Occasionally I have to remind myself that he was here for the big one—9/11—and I wish terribly I could remember what he had said, or if he said anything about the attack itself. He must have, he wouldn’t not have. I wish I’d been able to describe to him the pulse of adrenaline I felt when, just after 9 o’clock my eighth grade English teacher turned on the TV. But I didn’t understand it then. That day I believed I was callous for not being able to cry or feel. Only later, nine months later, when I learned he’d had a stroke and I felt once again that disbelieving pulse of adrenaline, did I begin to get it: I had seen that which I will never be able to comprehend.

* * *

Anna Hiatt serves as editor for The War Horse. She is a reporter and editor based in New York City, working with words, audio, and pictures—both moving and still. She's an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she also earned her master's degree. She attended UC Berkeley, graduating with a history degree. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, Reuters, The Village Voice, and on WNYC, among others. 

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Really—I'm OK | Our Stories | The War Horse


Thomas Brennan reflects on what selfless service at Ground Zero and an endless war against ideals has taught him—and how it's come to be that a new generation fights the same war that began 15 years ago.

Really—I'm OK | Our Stories | The War Horse


Thomas Brennan reflects on what selfless service at Ground Zero and an endless war against ideals has taught him—and how it's come to be that a new generation fights the same war that began 15 years ago.

  My high school theology class discussed the Crusades until September 10, 2001. It was the beginning of my junior year and I spent the first evenings of the semester wondering what the 1.7 million dead bodies from Byzantine and Seljuk would have looked like. Strewn about or burned in careless piles of expired lives? Left to rot—abandoned for the earth to consume? It was unimaginable. The morning of 9/11 I drove Shirley to school — my 1973 Mercury Cougar — and Mr. Tarpee—our dean and a Marine veteran of Desert Storm—greeted me the same way he had every morning I drove my muscle car, “Try to keep it down today, Mr. Brennan.” I tapped the gas. The eight cylinders of my 351 Cleveland growled back. “Good morning,” I’d say politely out my window. It was a good morning. I was sixteen. Young. Dumb. You know the rest.

  We were turning our homework into our theology teacher that morning when the intercom system squawked on. I don’t remember what the voice said. I remember the old Tube TV flickering from black to gray then color. Plumes of dark smoke rose above Manhattan. I was in disbelief. I still struggle to comprehend the significance of that morning—the defining moment of my generation playing out in real time. Looking back, it was the beginning of my wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though I didn’t realize it then. It started many of our wars though I could have never known it then. And it’s still the reason many of us are fighting.

Thomas Brennan served in Iraq during Operation Phantom Fury with First Battalion, Eighth Marines as an assaultman. Photo courtesy of Thomas Brennan.

Thomas Brennan served in Iraq during Operation Phantom Fury with First Battalion, Eighth Marines as an assaultman. Photo courtesy of Thomas Brennan.

  I spent the second anniversary of 9/11 on Parris Island in South Carolina becoming a Marine. My third anniversary: Iraq, weeks before fighting in the Second Battle of Fallujah. My ninth anniversary was spent in Afghanistan. The tenth I reenlisted for my second time. On the thirteenth anniversary I was preparing to be medically retired from the Marines—wounded. Broken. Defeated.

  I remember that first 9/11 and the months that followed. Rescue workers. Care packages. Vigils and speeches. Love overcame fear. There wasn’t racial inequality at Ground Zero. There were no politics. No gender. Nobody counted the survivors or victims by religion or sexuality. Nineteen hijackers and 2,996 Americans were killed. More than 6,000 other people were wounded. Accountants. Janitors. Lawyers. Civil servants. All sexualities. All races. Everyday Americans.

  Every September 11th is my reminder of how widows can overcome loss. How resilient children are after losing a parent. The unwavering sense of community and selflessness—not boisterous national pride—that can bind us together. A reminder of how a smoldering pile of jagged metal, crumbled concrete, and the charred remains of sons and daughters shouldn’t be the only reason for us to work toward our common good. I wish it never happened. America’s response at Ground Zero was beautiful, but we’ve since grown ugly.

  For the first few days following September 11th I stopped revving my engine when I pulled into my school’s parking lot. I’d roll past Mr. Tarpee and only wave hello. A few weeks later, as my car idled past him, he tapped on my window and I rolled it down. He said something to the effect of, Let them hear it. We shouldn’t change because of this. I happily obliged. Images from Ground Zero spanned newspapers, magazines, and TV coverage. There was no escaping it. The reality had come and gone, but the weight lingered.

Thomas and his wife Melinda married in Lake Lure, North Carolina shortly after his first deployment to Iraq from 2004 to 2005. Photo courtesy of Thomas Brennan. 

Thomas and his wife Melinda married in Lake Lure, North Carolina shortly after his first deployment to Iraq from 2004 to 2005. Photo courtesy of Thomas Brennan. 

  Just over a year later when I last pulled out of that parking lot I left a trail of rubber that wrapped around the street corner, the roar of my engine echoing through nearby maple trees. Today, more high school students will drive where my tires once left those streaks. A new generation. Some still in diapers the day those towers fell. Soon heading off to the same wars we fought before they could even ride a bike. Without the same emotional connection my generation has to that day and those wars. Anxious to patrol many of the same places already stained with American blood.

  The same forever war. Always playing out in real time.

* * *

Thomas Brennan is the founder of The War Horse. Thomas’ passion is writing about war, trauma, and loss. Prior to studying investigative journalism at Columbia University, he was a sergeant in the Marine Corps and served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the First Battalion, Eighth Marines. He was awarded a Purple Heart and is the recipient of a 2013 Dart Center honorable mention and the 2014 American Legion Fourth Estate Award for his military reporting with The New York Times and The Daily News in Jacksonville, N.C.. Thomas is also co-writing a book, Shooting Ghosts, which will be published through Penguin Random House in 2017.

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Like Roses And Mustard Gas


Gerardo Mena left active duty with the Navy ten years ago. Friends died at war overseas and continue to die at home by suicide. On the 15th anniversary of 9/11 he recalls a eulogy for a friend.

Like Roses And Mustard Gas


Gerardo Mena left active duty with the Navy ten years ago. Friends died at war overseas and continue to die at home by suicide. On the 15th anniversary of 9/11 he recalls a eulogy for a friend.

  I put the cigarette in my mouth and took a long drag, periodically wiping away the tears that kept forming with the back of my uniform sleeve. It was the morning of Dustin’s funeral and I had just given a short eulogy I had written the night before in my pocket notebook. We were only three months into our seven-month deployment and we already had four K.I.A. and four wounded. In the larger scheme maybe that’s not a lot, but for a platoon of 25, it’s a 32 percent chance you won’t finish this deployment with your best friends.

  I ripped out my little speech from my all-weather notebook and crumpled it up and threw it in the garbage can behind me. I was so frustrated with the war and the dying and the unfairness of it that I wanted to get rid of any memory I had of it. Throwing out the speech wasn’t a big gesture, but it was something I could control, and it was the beginning of my preferred method of coping: compartmentalization. I began locking away these events and memories so that I could move on with my life.

Gerardo Mena was honored by the Kansas City Royals as their Walk Off Hero during 2013. Photo courtesy of Gerardo Mena. 

Gerardo Mena was honored by the Kansas City Royals as their Walk Off Hero during 2013. Photo courtesy of Gerardo Mena. 

  I’ve been out 10 years now. And it’s actually hard for me to hate the wars and hate 9/11 like I used to. I hated the initial cowardly attack as I watched the planes crash into the towers from my college dorm room at the University of Missouri-Columbia shortly before I enlisted. Sure, I was fueled with enough patriotic passion to enlist and avenge my country’s black eye. But in retrospect, that terrible act seemed to bring our country together. Enlistment numbers soared then. People from all over were joining the military to do their part and stop the radical jihadists. Things were so pure. So black and white. There was a distinct and clear-cut enemy. The simplicity and naiveté of it all was beautiful.

  Then the lines blurred. I joined Marine Recon and pushed myself past the limits I thought I had. I lived in Okinawa, Japan for several years and was immersed in another culture beyond what I’d known my entire life. I met amazing friends and was chosen for strong Recon platoons that accomplished great things. I deployed to Iraq and there I witnessed the full spectrum of man. I observed terrible things, even from my own friends. I observed great compassion, even from civilian Iraqis whose country and homes we were invading. And every clear-cut good/evil line in the sand I previously held onto vanished. Some would even argue that I grew up (believed by many from my earlier days to be an impossible feat).

Gerardo Mena stands with his Marine Reconnaissance platoon while on active duty. Photo courtesy of Gerardo Mena. 

Gerardo Mena stands with his Marine Reconnaissance platoon while on active duty. Photo courtesy of Gerardo Mena. 

  When I got out of the military I knew I didn’t want to be a writer. I didn’t want to reflect, uncover, and unbury everything I had worked so hard to suppress. I wanted to be a rock star musician in a funk band and flail around onstage gyrating to music that helped me feel happy and helped me ignore my inner problems. But a funny thing happened. A year after I got out of the military, while I was deep in the throes of my undergraduate experience as a slightly older student I received a message over Facebook from a buddy in my old Iraq platoon. He posted my eulogy on Facebook and told me that he had loved it so much that he had fished it out of the trash can and kept it, thinking he’d need or want it someday. Then he told me that I had to write, and that I was the only person in the platoon with the ability to keep our stories alive. That I was the one who could keep the memory of Gary, Jose, Kyle, and Nate alive, along with others who died later—killed on other deployments or by inner demons. It was just the kind of burden and heavy responsibility that I needed.

  When I think about 9/11, it’s no longer a single day or event for me. It was an opening into a completely different life than I envisioned for myself when I was younger, meeting interesting people that I had no idea existed. I recently attended a lake trip in Chicago with some friends from the Iraq days. It may have been the greatest weekend of my recent life. The lake water was warm and inviting. The boat was gassed up and ready. The wakeboard was sturdy and ready to rip. The beer and stories flowed easily and we caught up from our long absence away from each other.

  September 11th and the Global War on Terror may have stripped me of my innocence, but it gave me something I never expected: an extended family. It showed me how to love more than hate. I am blessed to have these people in my life. I am blessed to have discovered what I am, and am not capable of doing. I am blessed to have fought for something greater than myself. I am blessed to have watched this country unite and fight for a greater good. I am blessed. And after teaching several years of high school and watching some of my students enlist in the military for the same reasons I did, I know that my country is, and always will be, fucking awesome.

Remember these men:

Kevin Dempsey, Killed In Action, November 13th, 2004.

Jonathan Simpson, Killed In Action, October 14th, 2006.

Kyle Powell, Killed In Action, November 4th, 2006.

Jose Galvan, Killed In Action, November 4th, 2006.

Nathan Krisoff, Killed In Action, December 9th, 2006.

Gary Johnston, Killed In Action, January 23rd, 2007.

Dustin Lee, Killed In Action, March 21st, 2007.

Luke Milam, Killed In Action, September 25th, 2007.

Michael Ferschke, Killed In Action, August 10, 2008.
 

A Eulogy From The Memorial For Corporal Dustin Lee

  Before I ever knew what poetry was, or took a class or workshop through a university, these were my words. This will forever be my most honest and raw piece of work. These words were borne from the thoughts and minds of the men of Third Reconnaissance Battalion. These words blanket our dead. Rest in peace, brothers.

  How can you know what sharing is, if you’ve never given your last dessert to a friend? How can you know what laughter is, if you’ve never been so miserable, the only thing left to do is laugh? How can you know what failure is, if despite all your training, you still have to hold a brother during his last breaths? How can you know what hate is, if you’ve never cursed God and His will? How can you know what a brother is, if you’ve never had one taken from you?

  This is war. It doesn’t matter if it’s right. It doesn’t matter if we believe in it. It only matters that we’re here.

  Home is a distant memory. Family is the man ducking down next to you. You’re only as good as your last mission and your sole existence is to complete the next one. Those of us that live through this will die in our beds, forgotten.

  Those of us that gave all will be remembered forever.

* * *

Gerardo Mena is a decorated Iraqi Freedom veteran. He spent six years with Recon Marines as a Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman. He was awarded a Navy Achievement for Valor. He has been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writer's Magazine, and elsewhere, and has performed his work alongside Jake Gyllenhaal, Anthony Edwards, John Turturro, and others. His book of war poems, The Shape of Our Faces No Longer Matters, was published in 2014.
Visit his website, gerardomena.com.

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Opening The Window And Making Love To The World


Adrian Bonenberger served as an Army infantry officer in Afghanistan. He draws parallels between his own service in Afghanistan and wars of yesteryear - the Cold War and Operation Desert storm.

Opening The Window And Making Love To The World


Adrian Bonenberger served as an Army infantry officer in Afghanistan. He draws parallels between his own service in Afghanistan and wars of yesteryear - the Cold War and Operation Desert storm.

  Before 9/11, the U.S. had an awful, aimless decade. Our common enemy, the thing that united us beyond personal profit, was gone. There was no existential threat, no evil empire to defeat. We’d lost the thing that had defined us for decades, our reason for living.

  And then we got our purpose back. In the days-long moment that followed 9/11, we discovered that the following things concerned us personally: (1) an actual global conspiracy of religious fanatics led by a wealthy adversary was plotting to destroy America and the West, (2) this adversary had formerly been an ally, making it a doubly dastardly betrayal, (3) somehow, it seemed, Saddam Hussein was involved—Christ, The New York Times said so.

  So yeah, I remember 9/11 like it was yesterday. The panicked announcement on broadcast television. The hurried crowding around a television already blocked with worried viewers. The little dots—people!—falling through air. The towers joining the people in mad descent. I remember the frantic search for culprits. The discovery: bin Laden did it. Afghanistan and the Taliban did it, because they gave bin Laden sanctuary and wouldn’t turn him over to the U.S. after we figured out his villainous scheme. I remember that moment, because like most of us, I’d been waiting for it.

  America in the 1990s was a pretty lame place. Sometimes we forget this, in our haste to mourn the tragic boredom that 9/11 rescued us from. And as everyone knows from movies and television series, no place in America was or is lamer than suburban Connecticut, home of boat shoes, white people prep schools, and silly names like Bruck Thorstminer III, or Chazdar Haistley. America was lame and rich in the 90s, and Connecticut was super lame and super rich, and that’s where I grew up.

  Childhood in the 1980s was not lame. On the contrary, it was an awesome Iron Maiden soundtrack of meaningful conflict and urgent anxiety, thinly buried in every cultural event. Cartoons were astonishingly violent, and characterized by military struggle between a weak but intrepid good and a relentless, overpowered evil. Transformers, Robotech, and GI Joe were a few of the more conspicuous examples of this type of violence-is-justified-to-defeat-evil cartoon, and the comic book versions of these stories were even more so. Console and PC video games experienced a renaissance in the mid- to late-1980s, expanding the way we, as children, related to narrative and plot, granting us godlike power over how a given story unfolded. A synergy developed between playing “war” in real life, video gaming, and the consumption of explicitly aggressive entertainment and mass media. The sum total of this cultural algebra was this: I and my friends expected that one day we’d get a chance to star in a real-world spinoff of “Red Dawn.” War felt inevitable during my childhood, as though it were only a matter of time.

  Then, between 1989 and 1991, that irredeemably violent world fell apart. The Russians had bankrupted the USSR on a massive, unsustainable industrial Ponzi scheme, and every Russian national ally that could bailed out, faster than anyone expected. The West had the infrastructure to defend itself against the USSR and ensure mutual nuclear destruction, but there was no way to accept the wholesale defection of entire peoples. We couldn’t just make Eastern Europe our ally, or even Russia, which, at that time, seemed to want to participate in European style democracy. It was all there for the making—a world without serious antagonism between first world powers.

Adrian was an Army infantry officer who deployed twice to Afghanistan, once with the 173rd Airborne, and once with the 10th Mountain Division. Photo courtesy of Adrian Bonenberger.

Adrian was an Army infantry officer who deployed twice to Afghanistan, once with the 173rd Airborne, and once with the 10th Mountain Division. Photo courtesy of Adrian Bonenberger.

   As if to test this hypothesis, Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, eager to flex its muscles in this new world. The U.S. was ready for a serious brawl, but found itself in an embarrassing blowout instead. Dispatching Iraq took the better part of 72 hours. There would be no more direct contenders for the title of world superpower.

  A generation had been raised to expect that the world would end in an epic conflict of good (us) against evil (them), only to learn that the U.S. was so powerful, it didn’t even need to fight adversaries—but that when it did fight, its might was irresistible. The childish, cartoon-like worry that America or Europe would be outnumbered and overwhelmed by some evil horde bent on destruction was untrue—and it remains untrue.

  The decade following the Cold War’s plodding end was filled with ethical wanderlust and ennui. It sounds sick—it was! It was sick!—but when you’ve been conditioned to look for war, you don’t just put that mentality down and walk away from it. We missed the easy confirmation evil gave that we were not evil ourselves. Reluctant to admit that the world was now a Western hegemony without any substantial external threats we warily tolerated the good times, wondering if that was all there was to life—if, as Fukuyama declared, the fall of the USSR was “the end of history.”

  Of course I remember 9/11. I remember it well. I could feel the rhetoric change in real time, on television, from the “things are pretty good I guess” of the 1990s to the comfortable old “well, lads, guess we’re in it again, to win” of the Cold War. I’d been part of a blessed crew, the first generation to truly “have it easy”: no war, no depression, just boundless opportunity—with me, as a white American male on top of the food chain. Lame—until those towers crumbled. Suddenly, we were back in a world I remembered from the 1980s, the one in which I’d grown up, rife with fear, necessary violence, and dark conspiracy. A world where one did what one had to, and what one had to do was necessary, and what was necessary was a lot of violence to other people, for a good cause. A just cause.

  It’s disingenuous to claim that we didn’t know how 9/11 would change us. We did. I knew, immediately, that it meant we were back in that cartoon version of the world, the Transformers world where fighting might mean losing against the bad guys, but we were good, and fighting is what good people do, against bad people.

During his deployments to Afghanistan, Adrian served as an infantry officer in the Army. Photo courtesy of Adrian Bonenberger.

During his deployments to Afghanistan, Adrian served as an infantry officer in the Army. Photo courtesy of Adrian Bonenberger.

  It also meant—and this is sad—that we never actually got down to the difficult and complex task of creating a sustainably peaceful world. September 11th meant we’d always be fighting—that’s what the Global War on Terror was. The wisdom of the WWII generation, which helped Vietnam play out the way it did in the 1960s and 70s was discarded in favor of a kind of reactionary quasi-fascism. Bon voyage Vonnegut, so long, Sartre! Can it, Camus, we don’t need you any more. Don’t think so? Look at a map of conflicts in the world, in which we’re directly involved to no obvious or necessary end, with no set deadline. Looking at the reactionary way in which we evaluate problems, and posit solutions.

  The 1990s were good and safe, and boring. We realized that the peace we’d fetishized was an almost intolerable ordeal. Coming out of the Cold War, living in beautiful, comfortable suburban Connecticut I learned how dreadful life could be without an external antagonist. Simple prosperity wasn’t enough—enough was a replacement for the USSR, and eventually that replacement showed up.

  The way 9/11 affected me, personally—and I think the way it affected all of us in the West but especially America—is it let me off the hook from having to critically self-examine the way we in the U.S. live. September 11th allowed us to focus our most harsh criticism on other countries and cultures. When we were at our strongest, we went for the weakest play, pointing the finger at others. We (Americans) criticized China and Saudi Arabia and Israel for failing to live up to their human rights obligations while dismantling our domestic welfare state. We ramped up President Reagan’s counterproductive War on Drugs at the same time that doctors were encouraged to prescribe opiates to people with health insurance. We demonized the industrial workers who were increasingly losing their jobs to overseas companies or crude machines. We invested in technology and took out cheap loans for houses it turned out we couldn’t afford. We scammed the global system as hard as we could, because nobody was there to stop us. And we—we did this, nobody else did—we turned the Middle East from a potential war zone to the very active and totally unstable human rights catastrophe we have today. Instead of finding out what America could achieve without any serious enemies, we chose the cartoon version of ourselves, fighting what we called evil in pitched battle after pitched battle we knew we’d win.

  So this 9/11, I look back on the wars we’ve had since 2001, and look forward to the many more we’ll be fighting in the near and distant future. To paraphrase clever military strategists, it is better to fight the enemy abroad than to fight one’s own inclination to shirk responsibility at home. And that—as every combat veteran with whom I’ve spoken when nobody’s listening, often over beers—is ultimately what it comes down to. Do I wish we were serious about improving ourselves and the world? Of course! Are we? Looking at the evidence: absolutely not.

* * *

Adrian Bonenberger was an Army infantry officer who deployed twice to Afghanistan, once with the 173rd Airborne, and once with the 10th Mountain Division. He co-edits The Wrath-Bearing Tree and lives and writes in Ukraine. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Deadspin, Foreign Policy, Forbes and others.

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There Is Love Enough In This World For Everybody, If People Will Just Look.


Human conflict is as old as humanity, so why have these last 15 years felt so particularly dark and divided? Katie Hansen reflects on growing up and beginning a family in a post-9/11 world.

There Is Love Enough In This World For Everybody, If People Will Just Look.


Human conflict is as old as humanity, so why have these last 15 years felt so particularly dark and divided? Katie Hansen reflects on growing up and beginning a family in a post-9/11 world.

  The rare nights my husband and I have spare time to share, we usually spend it sitting in silence in our living room. He’ll be nursing a beer with his nose in a book, usually on some subject that would bore me to tears, like 20th century politics, Civil War battles, or American theological history. This is my guy. I sit parked next to him on the couch doing anything—crafting, writing letters, reading something much more fun, binge-watching Netflix—to keep my fidgety body from getting restless. Lawton served five years in the Marine Corps and currently studies as a seminary student at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. Right now, it’s just the two of us. But we hope, despite what seems like a scary world out there sometimes, to start a family one day. It’s been hard growing up during the 15 years since 9/11.

  As Lawton says, “9/11 is the background of my youth.” He was 14 years old in September 2001 and I was 12. He grew up in Houston and went to a private Christian school. I went to public school outside Dallas.

  My world before 9/11 was small. The day after it had been ripped open, I began learning how to grapple with the country’s place—past, present, and future—on the world stage. I had been taught that America was the best place on earth to live, and I just assumed the rest of the world thought we were, too.

  Similarly, Lawton grew up in a patriotic community that was generally supportive of the George W. Bush administration. Throughout high school, he supported the war in Iraq.

  So it came as a complete shock to him when he started hearing around 2005 and 2006 that the war was going badly and that the national mood was souring. Lawton started reading everything he could get his hands on about the war and foreign policy.

  “It kick-started the reorientation of my whole political worldview,” he says. By the time he graduated college in 2009, President Obama was in office, Lawton was joining the Marine Corps, and his political, religious and worldviews had all changed.

  You might ask, if Lawton’s views had changed why did he join the military? It’s a question he still struggles to answer succinctly. But if you know my husband, you know it’s not a black and white question and there’s no black and white answer. He wanted to do something worthwhile after college, and serving in the military seemed to be a worthwhile pursuit, even if he didn’t completely support the war. Like most things in life, the conflict was complex.

  For my parents, who have lived through the Korean and Vietnam wars and the Cold War, 9/11 was like nothing they’d seen before.

  My dad said he had a terrible feeling of unease, because “you had a vague idea that it was terrorists, but you didn’t know exactly who the terrorists were.”

  My mom said it was an attack on our way of life, this attack on civilian soil. The hijackers had lived in the U.S. among the rest of us and had used our transportation systems to hurt us. This, my mom said, was one of the most unsettling parts.

  My parents believe that since 9/11 the moral fabric of the country has started to unravel. The world is a meaner place than it used to be. Though I can’t see through their eyes what our nation looked like before 9/11, I see it as the day I stopped feeling safe. People are scared and fear begets anger and mistrust, and the vicious cycle drives wedges between people. We know that cycle; we’ve seen it too many times before.

  Human conflict is as old as humanity, so why have these last 15 years felt so particularly dark and divided?

  When I asked my dad his thoughts about 9/11, he told me to imagine a day when I didn’t turn on the TV, check my phone, or turn on a computer. I closed my eyes and imagined the last time Lawton and I went camping and we spent the entire day hiking a mountain. I was so disconnected from the outside world, but so at peace with my surroundings. It was an amazing day.

  Similarly, my dad reminded me, when he was growing up the newspaper and the evening news were their only sources for news.

  “We didn’t feel global back then,” he said. “Our lives were our community, our state, and our country. We didn’t look beyond the border. Now we feel like we’re this swirling mass of humanity—it takes a toll when you know everything—it damages you.”

  It’s difficult not to feel a potent reaction to a video of a beheading when you turn on the news at night, or when you see children being trampled by refugees, or child soldiers holding automatic weapons, or innocent people being pulled from the rubble of hospitals, all in your living room.

  Add to that equation the internet and its anonymity, which somehow always seems to embolden people to be as hateful and unfeeling as possible, further breeding misunderstanding, which only encourages division.

  When I was 14 and my cousin died in car accident, I was terrified. I hadn’t grown  up in a religious household, and I had no idea where she was going now that she’d died. I spent years learning, in formal classes in college and on my own, about worlds religions, trying to find one in which I believed. I’m still searching.

  But this long quest for a sense of spiritual belonging has given me a perspective that I don’t often find among the people I spend time with in Texas and or the people I knew when Lawton and I lived in North Carolina while he was stationed at Camp Lejeune.

  It frustrates me to hear people whom I admire and respect talking disdainfully about people of different races, sexual orientations, and religions. I can’t understand how they can believe that people belong in boxes.

  My mother’s father was a Marine and he fought in the Pacific Theater. He spent the entirety of his adult life hating Japanese people. Though my mother doesn’t feel the same way he did, she tells me she can’t possibly understand what her father experienced and she has to respect the the way he was. Similarly, Lawton hears Marines use pejorative language to describe Middle Easterners. How can I criticize them when I will never understand what those servicemen and women experienced at war.

  Neither Lawton nor my mom does anything to stop that talk, but that doesn’t mean they condone the behavior; it just means that the issue is complex.

  My family may fight over the dinner table about world affairs, and sometimes we do bring each other to tears. We certainly all have differing opinions, but we persist because we know it’s important to talk about. And we have real discussions. And we understand it’s complex.

  Choosing sides isn’t the important part, because no matter how similar you are to a group of people, you will never align on all the thousands of moral quandaries we face in life. What’s important is the process: thinking critically, doing your own research, and listening to all sides of a story. It’s about struggling with issues that test the soul, such as war and justice and revenge and hatred and prejudice and love and forgiveness. It’s about being empathetic.

  My husband is a veteran, and like all veterans he had to grapple with the idea that he might have to take someone’s life in service of our country. How, he wondered, would that affect him? Now in seminary he still grapples with questions of the soul. And often, as he studies, he faces the possibility that faith systems only further divide people on difficult issues rather than helping them to meet people where they are.

  Despite these circles he’s lived in—the military and seminary—where homogeneity often is expected, Lawton chooses every day to explore the complexity of the world around him. Whether he’s drinking his coffee before he heading to class, or winding down before bed, Lawton is always reading the news—from our local paper, online subscriptions to national papers, and various conservative and liberal news sources.

  I see how this Post-9/11 world that favors black and white narratives needs people like my husband. In this world, where people are encouraged to think about the world in the most simplistic way—good versus bad, us versus them—Lawton looks for grays.

  He sees that we can’t boil people down into good or bad, and he works every day to learn more and challenge that way of thinking, because he knows that judging someone based on a stereotype is not worthwhile or fair. We have to meet people where they are in their lives. It’s the only way to stop what seems like the endless cycle of misunderstanding. That passion for doing the right thing drove him to be a Marine and now drives him to study history and theology.

  On days when I worry what it will be like for Lawton and me to bring a child into this world, I can count on my parents to give me sweet words of comfort. My dad says it’s hard to change the world in the ways we dream we will when we’re young. But mom says bringing a good person into the world and raising it right does change the world. And I’m inclined to believe her.

  So today I give thanks. I remember all the people who died 15 years ago and all those who have struggled and loved and lived and died in this world since 9/11. Every day that I see more division and more fear brewing around me, I try to love a little more deeply and push out a little more kindness into the world. It’s really all I can do.

* * *

Katie Hansen lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with her husband Lawton. They got married in 2012 and until 2014 lived outside Camp Lejeune in North Carolina where Lawton spent the majority of his five-year enlistment in the Marine Corps. When Katie isn’t working at Barnes & Noble as a Merchandising Manager and Lawton isn’t studying for his Masters in Theological Studies at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, they like to spend time with their friends and families, binge watch Netflix, read lots of books, drink too much coffee, explore the wide world around them and eat Mexican food. 

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Thinking Brainlessly With Their Spinal Cords


Tim Patterson was attending the Naval Academy when the 9/11 attacks happened. He deployed on submarines and to Afghanistan. Now he wonders if it was all for naught. 

Thinking Brainlessly With Their Spinal Cords


Tim Patterson was attending the Naval Academy when the 9/11 attacks happened. He deployed on submarines and to Afghanistan. Now he wonders if it was all for naught. 

  I was already in the military on September 11th, 2001, and you would think that day would have changed the course of my life. But it didn’t. Like most people, I watched the terror attacks on TV. And for a long time after that, I remained a spectator to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It wasn’t until seven or eight years later that the ripple effects from those events started to creep into my life.

  I’m sure a lot of people joined the military because of 9/11. I wasn’t one of them. Graduating from high school in 1998, I wanted to go to college at Cornell where I could party and meet girls. My parents, however, thought I needed more discipline. That, plus both my grandfathers were military veterans. That summer I reluctantly entered the Naval Academy.

  A few years went by, and on a Tuesday morning in the fall of my senior year, I was in an engineering lab, working on some computer design project that I didn’t care about. I remember reading online about the first plane crashing in New York. Then there was an announcement: My classes were cancelled, and we midshipmen were told to return to our dorms. So we walked back to Bancroft Hall, and we gathered around TVs to watch the towers fall.

  My first thought was, when are we going to bomb Afghanistan? I expected the military to retaliate against Al Qaeda very quickly, within hours or days.

  On September 12th, the sun rose again, I went back to class. And we returned to our routines. It was a sort of mental non sequitur. There was a war going on, but we still had to finish our classes and earn our degrees. Then we would graduate, and we would go through more months (or years) of specialized military training, and by the time we finished that, the war would be over. Or so I thought.

  I followed the news every day. Maybe three weeks after 9/11, I picked up The Washington Post. It said Marines had landed near Kandahar, and the front-page photograph was of an American flag flying in the brown Afghan desert.

By 2009 Tim Patterson was serving in Afghanistan. Eight years earlier he was studying at the U.S. Naval Academy. He had no idea where his military service might take him. Photo courtesy of Tim Patterson. 

By 2009 Tim Patterson was serving in Afghanistan. Eight years earlier he was studying at the U.S. Naval Academy. He had no idea where his military service might take him. Photo courtesy of Tim Patterson. 

  That December, I had to decide where I wanted to serve with the Navy. Briefly, the thought crossed my mind that I could sign up for the Marine Corps. I had never been interested in the Marines before, and in hindsight I’m not sure they would have taken me seriously. But maybe, I thought, with the Corps there was a chance I could do something in the war?

  But I thought it over and said to myself, no, this war’s gonna be over fast. Desert Storm had only lasted four days on the ground after all. This one’s going to be over in a few months, I thought, tops, and a year from now I would still be doing Marine infantry training. How foolish I was. I chose submarines.

  In spring 2003, I remember being pissed off about the invasion of Iraq. At that point, I was stationed in Saratoga Springs, New York, where the Navy operates a nuclear power training facility. One afternoon I was on the phone with my Lebanese friend Maha, and I was pacing in the street in front of my apartment in Saratoga, yelling into the phone about how Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

  Regardless, I had to keep working on the submarine, and the wars continued without me. In November 2006, just before The Surge kicked off in Iraq, the Navy sent me overseas—but to a naval base in Yokosuka, Japan. In my enormous apartment in downtown Yokohama, I would turn on my TV and watch the news from the Middle East, back when Keith Olbermann still hosted the news show Countdown. I read books like Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War. I usually felt like I was in the wrong place.

Throughout his deployment to Afghanistan, Tim Patterson worked as an advisor for the Afghanistan National Police. Photo courtesy of Tim Patterson.

Throughout his deployment to Afghanistan, Tim Patterson worked as an advisor for the Afghanistan National Police. Photo courtesy of Tim Patterson.

  In 2008, my tour in Japan was coming to an end. I had completed the five years of service that I owed the federal government, and I was in a comfortable enough position to leave the military. I had plenty of money saved up. And I hated my job. But I hesitated.

  When I reflected on my service, when I counted the ten plus years that had passed since I entered school at Annapolis, I felt like most of my military service had been meaningless. I counted a grand total of three weeks where I had contributed in a slight way to the war effort during a mission on my submarine. That didn’t sit well with me.

  Spurred by that feeling of disappointment, I volunteered for a yearlong tour in Afghanistan as an “IA,” or Individual Augmentee. At first, the Navy denied my request, and they suggested I try another tour on a submarine. So I submitted my letter of resignation, with a caveat: I would stay in the Navy if they would send me to Afghanistan. A day later, they offered me the job I wanted.

  There were two big reasons why I went to Afghanistan. One was curiosity; the other was to contribute to the war effort. Forget that submarine bullshit. And I wanted to be in Afghanistan; Iraq had been built on lies.

  For most of 2009, I mentored Afghan police in Jalalabad. I helped the police build a gas station. I tried to fix their electricity. And I tried to get them to act less like clueless assholes.

  But my role in the war was unimportant, and if we’re honest about it, I had zero impact on the war’s outcome. Today, you’d have a hard time finding five people who remember I was even there. Still, I satisfied my curiosity, saw parts of Afghanistan, and felt like I’d contributed something. I left the Navy in 2010.

* * *

Tim Patterson is a 2002 graduate of the Naval Academy. He served aboard the nuclear-powered submarine USS Philadelphia, survived a collision at sea in the Persian Gulf, and mentored police in Afghanistan. Then he spent two years riding a motorcycle from Alaska to Argentina. In 2015 Tim earned a masters in journalism from Columbia University and reported for the Naples Daily News. Reach him at@trpatterson33

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Ignore The Awful Times, And Concentrate On The Good Ones


Michael Penney ran through the halls of his high school when 9/11 first happened. On the tenth anniversary he ran through fields and canals in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. 

Ignore The Awful Times, And Concentrate On The Good Ones


Michael Penney ran through the halls of his high school when 9/11 first happened. On the tenth anniversary he ran through fields and canals in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. 

  Peanut butter M&Ms made math class a little less like torture. School was abuzz with activity. Kids bustling thru the halls, high school gossip and girls chirping about cheer practice. Two boys blew past me in the hallway. As I entered the school store, they rushed in through the far door and ran straight up to the counter where a clerk stood. They said something in a panic, but I couldn’t hear it and didn’t really care. The clerk urgently headed straight for the TV.

  “What can I get you?” asked the pretty girl on the other side of the register. She flashed me a smile my 15-year-old brain couldn’t compute.

  “That’s fake bro—Hollywood stuff!” The shouting snapped me out of my daze.

  I couldn’t see what they were looking at on the TV. Everyone was crowding around and shouting, but it just seemed to be the usual kid chaos.

Michael Penney stands beside Russian artillery during his 2011 deployment to Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Michael Penney.

Michael Penney stands beside Russian artillery during his 2011 deployment to Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Michael Penney.

  Grabbing my snacks, I took off out the door and darted around the corner. I zigzagged through “eyeball” alley munching on my first bag of chocolatey goodness. During the winter the cheerleaders practiced in the long stretch of hallway while wrestlers gawked from afar; hence: eyeball alley. I hurried down the hallway into class and took my usual seat just as the bell rang. Sitting in front of me was an angel. A wavy haired blonde angel. She smelled like strawberries. Was it her shampoo? Does she just naturally sweeten every room she enters? I guess there were some things I missed about school during my summer break.

  Mr. K entered classroom, briefcase in hand; he called for attention, “Hey everyone, let’s get out last week’s quiz for review.”

  None of us were interested in studying for the upcoming test that none of us wanted to take, so we were slowly shuffling through our papers when the girl from the school AV department came blazing in with a media cart.

  She plugged in the TV then centered and straightened the black-framed cart at the front of the class. A CNN special report flashed across the screen, and all of our innocence rushed out of the room as we watched, in live horror, the second plane hit the World Trade Center. Gray plumes shot out either side of the building in magnificent display—and we saw it, sitting there in that room.

Michael Penney patrolled alongside his squad of Marines through canals and over mountain ridges on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Photo courtesy of Michael Penney.

Michael Penney patrolled alongside his squad of Marines through canals and over mountain ridges on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Photo courtesy of Michael Penney.

  I got home by 1 p.m. and packed the car with supplies in case of an emergency evacuation. The guns were loaded and we were ready by the time dad got home. He was proud. Mom came rushing in with the same questions we all had.

  What is going on? Why would anyone do this? Who was this?

  Terrorists, on our soil.

  This was an act of aggression. An attack of this magnitude hadn’t occurred on U.S. soil since Japan bombarded Pearl Harbor. But Japan was a sovereign nation. This was an attack from a faceless foe. One that I could and would learn to hunt and kill.

  2005. The Global War on Terrorism was in full froth as our unit, 3rd battalion 7th Marines, was deployed to one of the most dangerous places on earth, Ramadi. September 7th I saw the city for the first time. That sight will stick with me forever. Scarred buildings smoked and smoldered. It was a brutal place. A modern day Stalingrad, Ramadi was under siege. On September 11th I ate lunch with a Lance Corporal from the motor pool. We’d been working on putting a new windshield into a blown-up HMMWV. He shared a story about “Hurricane Point” that I hadn’t heard before. This little base we’d been operating out of used to be Saddam’s son’s twisted getaway-spot.

  We walked back past a marble building near the middle of base. White and tan blocks made up the 12-foot walls that formed a shape resembling a capital letter “I” when viewed from above. Tight corners sharply angled into a central corridor. At either end were barred windows that could view every angle. Embedded in the wall were D-rings used as anchor points for a length of chain to run through.  In the middle was a drain.

  The Lance Corporal told me this was where the most heinous acts took place.

  “Two tigers chained to either end. The victim, more than likely an enemy of the state, was brought in and tossed into the corridor to face the beast without a weapon,” he said.

  “Bullshit!” is the only thing I’ve got for him. “Whatever, Schmeckatelly, that’s some bogus shit.”

  “Believe what you want to. I heard it from a reliable source,” he said, heading back to the motor pool.

  That night my buddy Josh came back from the Hajji Shop with fresh bootlegs in hand spouting off about the craziest story he just heard from the old man—about how his brother had been fed to a snow white tiger in Saddam’s son’s compound.

For seven months Michael Penney patrolled with Third Battalion, Seventh Marine Division in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Michael Penney.

For seven months Michael Penney patrolled with Third Battalion, Seventh Marine Division in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Michael Penney.

  September the following year my battalion embarked on mountain warfare training. The rumor was we would be heading to Afghanistan. I had wanted to make an Afghan deployment in my first enlistment. I had wanted to go and to fight the Taliban.

  In the Sierra Nevada mountains south of Tahoe sits Bridgeport California. The Mountain Warfare Training Center is located along 108 in the Toiyabe National Forest. It’s unbelievably gorgeous up there. At 8,000 feet there’s a parking lot you can make camp and set off from. That’s where we made bivouac during the first phase of training. September 11th, 2006 we held a moment of silence for those who lost their lives during the attacks. It was an autumn training package to prepare us for, what we hoped would be, an Afghan tour this time. That wasn’t the case.

  A year later I was back into Ramadi. Sleeping in the same hooch. Eating in the same chow hall. Walking by the same tiger pit.

  The gym on Hurricane Point was packed the night of September 11th, 2007. We were all getting yoked, pissed off we didn’t have any enemy to kill. Ramadi 2, as we started calling it, was worse than the first tour because nothing was happening. We had hanged Saddam over Christmas and the war in Iraq had stopped. At least in Ramadi. The Iraqis ran a damn marathon in the city. Mattis walked the streets without body armor. We got yoked in the gym and cleaned guns.

Michael Penney deployed to Helmand Province as a Marine in 2011. Photo courtesy of Michael Penney.

Michael Penney deployed to Helmand Province as a Marine in 2011. Photo courtesy of Michael Penney.

  The latter half of 2008, and all of ‘09, was a drunken blur. My ol’ lady from the first marriage left with the kids. Thursday, September 11th, 2008 I spent the day having drunken sex with a 21-year-old volunteer firefighter named Stephanie. She rode horses and did yoga. That woman saved my life. Next year, ‘09, was a Friday that involved too much tequila and a walking-rant thru the Fredericksburg mall. Sloshed, shit-housed, smashed, hammered. Intoxicated and giving the world a piece of my mind. No joke, I went off the deep end. It was the hangover that I remember most.

  Fall 2010 I was in a work up with the police advisor teams. September 11th we were in the field. It was a Saturday. Look it up, check the day, I remember—that sucked.

  My boots were walking thru Afghan soil September 11th, 2011. We had been in-country for five months and were gearing up to leave Kajaki. We’d worked with the police in the area and grown to love some of the guys. My Afghan police counterpart, Abdul Hadi, had a family only six miles north of the station but didn’t dare to travel and see them. That would have guaranteed their deaths. The whole area lay under Taliban rule. He had been working alongside the chief all that time struggling for nearly a decade to regain a foothold in the region. That September 11th he apologized for “all of this.” As if he’d personally rung up G.W. and ordered the invasion himself.

  Each year since the attack I’ve taken a moment to reflect. I’ve been bombarded by the noise lately. Being in the Corps provided some separation from the chaotic onslaught of everyday survival. For the most part, we walked around the hills of SoCal living out of backpacks. We didn’t sit in front of our computers for hours composing stories for our buddy’s online news outlet.

  The world now is full of chaos: everything from conspiracy theories of a new world order to economic hitmen taking out whole economies. September 11th was an utter tragedy: Two planes hit two buildings in New York and 2,606 people died there. Between the other two planes and the Pentagon employees, another 390 people died; 2,996 in total. What a terrible thing to ever forget. So I take the time to mourn it, because I still can’t believe it. That moment when it all came crashing down.

  When I left the Corps after eight years and three combat tours, I took with me two sets of boots. I took the left boot from the one set I’d worn on my deployments to Iraq. The right boot came from the tour to Afghanistan. On either toe I’d written my deployment dates and the theaters I served in. The laces were tied together with square knots and with a large swing I hurled them up into the power lines right outside Camp Pendleton’s Christinitos gate. The other mismatched pair of worn out combat boots will be marked in a similar way and go with me to Ground Zero. A symbol of the service and sacrifice I offer to those I watched die from my school desk that day—sitting there in that room.

* * *

Michael is a Marine and combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He served eight years as an infantryman and weapons instructor before following his passion for entrepreneurship. He currently works as the Program Director for the Raleigh-Durham Chapter of Bunker Labs, a nationwide nonprofit organization built by military veteran entrepreneurs to empower other military veterans as leaders in innovation. He is also the founder of Cigars and Sea Stories, a podcast focused on empowering veterans to share their own experiences during and after military service.

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Fate In What I Cannot Fear


Nate Eckman believed he remembered the events of 9/11 correctly. He was wrong. A teacher from his past helped him realize the flaws in his own memories.

Fate In What I Cannot Fear


Nate Eckman believed he remembered the events of 9/11 correctly. He was wrong. A teacher from his past helped him realize the flaws in his own memories.

  I thought I could remember the first time I watched the Twin Towers fall. I thought I remembered smoke, like I had never seen it before, stretching to each edge of the television, pouring from buildings I did not recognize. I thought there were terror-filled faces of people running from pillars of debris as towers of steel crumpled to the earth; that no one was fast enough. The smoke consuming everyone. Into darkness Manhattanites disappeared. But this can’t be. Because that first time, sitting at my desk on the top floor of Portage Elementary in Barberton, Ohio, my fourth grade teacher remembers turning off the television within a minute of having turned it on. So what is it I witnessed? I don’t know. I remember a behavior chart hanging on the wall to my left. I remember a television hanging from the ceiling in the front right corner of the room blaring images I thought I would never forget. I thought people reappeared from the debris. Damaged, but no longer vanished. Smoke continued to rise. This image a reminder: someone had to pay. But what exactly did I see, that first time I saw the towers on the morning of September 11, 2001?

  I don’t remember the next day. But my fourth grade teacher, David Cassidy, does. He sat us down to talk about the morning prior. He asked us our thoughts. The first couple of kids blamed “the towel heads,” and thought we should “nuke them.” Mr. Cassidy ended the conversation quickly. This was not the stuff for kids.

Nate Eckman celebrates New Year's Eve with his family in 2000. Photo courtesy of Nate Eckman. 

Nate Eckman celebrates New Year's Eve with his family in 2000. Photo courtesy of Nate Eckman. 

  But it was everywhere. And there was no PG version. Regardless of age we would have to—and did—see it. My fourth grade eyes saw the same footage of people jumping from the towers that my parents watched. I saw the same fire consume the floors surrounding each crash site as my grandparents did. I watched them fall to ground just like everyone else. But, I didn’t interpret these events like my elders. I was a child. My imagination was still rich. I saw beyond the metal, behind the building facades, and into the offices. I saw pain I cannot say was real. I imagined victims’ last thoughts. With each passing year, though, I relied less on my imagination and more on the concrete: what I saw, not what I imagined. Now, I can’t tell which memory belongs to which 9/11—this year’s, last year’s, the year before, or the original. Nor do I think it matters. September 11th, more than a tragedy of a single day has become an experience. A fluid, ever-changing experience. And one that has and continues to determine much of who I am.

  The changes were incremental. Slowly 9/11 affected my thinking about the world, and my response to those thoughts led me to four years in the Marine Corps, followed by an academic life devoted to understanding the Middle East. But others have followed this exact path before me—and before 9/11. But that day affected my life in far more subtle ways too.

  It’s how I consume news. The way I witness trauma, and public atrocities through a screen without so much as a shifting in my seat.

Nate Eckman spent a portion of his first deployment in Jordan. Photo courtesy of Nate Eckman. 

Nate Eckman spent a portion of his first deployment in Jordan. Photo courtesy of Nate Eckman. 

  In September 2006 The Pew Research Center published an article titled “How 9-11 Changed the Evening News.” It focused on findings by ADT Research, which examined news coverage four years prior and four years following 9/11. The results found post-9/11 evening news 102 percent more focused on foreign policy; 69 percent more concerned with armed conflict, and 135 percent more likely to report on terrorism. While stories covering drugs, alcohol, and tobacco dropped 66 percent; space, science, and technology fell 50 percent; and crime, penal policy, and law enforcement dropped 47 percent. I had no idea this shift happened. I don’t remember a single news image before 9/11. I came of age in a world where terror and violence dominated the evening news cycle, where images of explosions and firefights were the last images I saw before going to bed. Witnessing violence in adolescence, at a rate so constant, even through a screen, changes—inoculates—you.

  Before the picture of a child washed ashore, face down, dead in the sand surfaced and spread across the internet, I did not care about Syria’s refugee crisis. Before I listened to the actual gunshots and screams from a recording of the Orlando night-club shooting I felt no solidarity with the victims or their families. Sensational news has become news. Show me the horror, NBC, like I saw in my youth. Maybe then I’ll care.

  Statistically, I may be normal. But it doesn’t feel right. A definite diversion from healthy. A sign of a previous bad relationship filled with really bad habits.

Nate is now a student at Columbia University in New York City. Photo courtesy of Nate Eckman.

Nate is now a student at Columbia University in New York City. Photo courtesy of Nate Eckman.

  My relationship with 9/11 is compulsive. And it’s not entirely my fault. I never kept track but I wonder how many times I watched the Twin Towers fall. Hundreds, maybe thousands of times? At what number was the shock dulled, when did the sensational become the same old, same old? A number far gone. What used to stand as evidence for action now barely stimulates an ounce of empathy. As long as it’s through a screen.

  Three days before the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 I was walking on the streets of New York City after sunset. I exited a grocery and looked left, where I saw two pillars of light piercing the clouds. I froze. This was the Twin Towers memorial. My eyes welled up. Never have my thoughts of 9/11 been so heavy. Not even when I saw those towers for the first time, whenever that was. For the first time, perhaps ever in my adult life, I, without effort, feel 9/11.

  I imagine I’ll feel it again Sunday when, exactly one minute after the South Tower fell 15 years prior, my plane will lift off and head to New York City, where I now live.

* * *

Nathan Eckman was an Marine infantryman (0351) with Third Battalion, Second Marine Regiment. During his service he toured on the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and deployed to Southeast Asia. Now Nate is a student of the Middle East and the Persian language at Columbia University. After college he intends on pursuing a career as a journalist covering international affairs. 

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All Time Is All Time. It Does Not Change.


Christopher Thomas never served in the military, but the attacks on 9/11 had a lasting impact. He reflects on the lessons he hopes America has learned over the last 15 years.

 

All Time Is All Time. It Does Not Change.


Christopher Thomas never served in the military, but the attacks on 9/11 had a lasting impact. He reflects on the lessons he hopes America has learned over the last 15 years.

 

  September 11th was the day the 90s ended. That decade was less a time frame, or even a mindset, for those of a certain age. For many of us, it was a sanctuary, a time before adulthood, but more importantly, a time before now. In some ways 90s nostalgia has become a crutch, a distraction from the 21st century’s hellish start. It seems that my generation—so called “millennials”—took the nostalgia express lane, yearning for the 90s before their 20s were over and reflecting almost wistfully on 9/11.

  Like most folks, I’m troublingly eager to share my 9/11 story.

  It was warm, as early September days on the Mid-Atlantic Coast usually are. It was pleasant, blue skies, no threat of rain. Seemed to be that way up and down the east coast, as I’d later see on the news. I was en route to Wolf Trap with my classmates for a rare, early-in-the-year field trip. And then it happened:

  The bus stops. I don’t know why. We turn around. Our teachers tell us what happened in New York City and in Arlington, but only give a rough outline. We go home. I watch the news and make sure our loved ones are okay. We low-key rejoice for having the day off until everything—planes running into towers, people covered in soot stumbling away, and that bewildered look on the President’s face after someone told him what had happened—until all of that sinks in and the next chapter of my life begins.

  September 11th seems to be a day that impacted everyone differently, yet everyone seems to have similar memories, especially if they’re of a certain age. Remember going to the store with your mom to stock up “just in case”? Having dreams about airplanes flying into your house? Learning how to pronounce and then immediately loathe Osama bin Laden’s name? Aye. Me, too.

  I know you’ve heard this story before. I know you’ve heard it from a million 20- and-30-somethings by now. I respect that. But I need to tell you mine. Because it messed me up. It’s been 15 years and I still don’t know how far the rabbit hole goes, personally, societally. I don’t know how much more will be demanded of us—not just the American people, but the global community—all in the name of 9/11. I know what I saw and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. What I remember most is that I didn’t understand what had happened and I made light of it until my sister scolded me and I recanted.

Christopher Thomas worked as a general assignment reporter for The Daily News in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Maria Sestito. 

Christopher Thomas worked as a general assignment reporter for The Daily News in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Maria Sestito. 

  Then I saw the images again and that’s when it set in. It’s hard for me to imagine waking up, reading the headlines, and not seeing items related to our on-going presence in the Middle East. This stopped being the “new normal” years ago.

  In the years following the attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, newspapers published pieces and forgotten history was resurfaced that helped explain the last 60 years of Middle Eastern cultural, political, and religious history. U.S.-backed coups and land grabs had helped to turn the desert into fertile ground for warped, religious fundamentalism whose adherents claimed their interpretation of Islam was the true Islam. And, consequently, the people who masterminded the September 11th attacks had once been backed by western powers in order to fight yesterday’s boogiemen. So warning lights had flashed brightly for years, signaling to us that something aggression or relation was imminent. But those warnings went unheeded.

  The events of that day could have been avoided. The intelligence was there, collected by several agencies that, had they coordinated might have been able to anticipate, if not stop, the attacks. And so I, like the rest of the world, saw those two planes hit the Twin Towers.

  How could I feel any other way than that 9/11 was decades in the making, made possible by a tremendous team effort.

  I hope I and my generation will come to realize that bashing the decisions older generations made or didn’t make does no good. At the same time, as the next generation of leaders, we must study and learn from the past while remembering we’re not still living the past, and in some ways running from it. Fire and fear may be the current norm, but it shouldn’t be the permanent one. It can’t be.

  September 11th—the day itself, the climate of fear it fostered, and the subsequent domestic and foreign conflicts—serve as a hard reminder that a society’s most important priority can’t be preserving the past. A great society’s most important mission is to build a stronger foundation for the future.

  Our obligation to successive American leaders and American generations is clear—to ensure a future brighter than the present—and we have no shortage of tools at our disposal. We have a fighting force greater than any Roman Caesar could have hoped for, the whole of which is dedicated to preserving a republic. We have highly capable diplomats who help navigate geopolitical, scientific, and social labyrinths.

  In the U.S. our have a national ethos demands we favor all angels. It’s written on preserved parchment that “all men are created equal” and it’s written in stone to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”

Christopher Thomas was born a raised near Washington D.C. before attending East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Abbey Mercando.

Christopher Thomas was born a raised near Washington D.C. before attending East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Abbey Mercando.

  The central tenets of American democracy call to all—regardless of any social, political, or economic distinction and demands that everyone living, working, and playing here ought to live by those time-honored ideals of “liberty, brotherhood, and equality.”

  We can open our homes, our churches, our schools, our lives, to those facing war, poverty, and oppression abroad as we have for centuries. We can learn about ourselves, our circumstances, our privilege and our pitfalls, our allies, and even our enemies and work toward improving our nation. We can take the ideals spelled out for us—from Jefferson to Lincoln to King—and put them into practice.

  We have experience. We have context. We have allies. We have empathy. We have bravery.

  We—regardless of virtually any social, political, or ideological persuasion—can prevent this, or something like it, from happening again. That has to be 9/11’s enduring legacy. If we don’t learn that lesson, posterity will rightfully judge us as failures, leaving an unforgettable legacy best left unremembered.

  It feels sometimes like our current legacy is that we cannot and will not learn from our mistakes, that we’re content to leave the mess we’ve created for our children to fix. When I dream of what we could be is a society I think of this Greek proverb: “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

  We can do that by placing altruism at the top of our list of national values and living our lives accordingly. We can do that by electing national leaders—rare as they may be—who value compassion and empathy more than power. And most importantly, we can do that in our daily lives and teach our children to do the same, in ways both big and small. An extra trip to the soup kitchen, speaking up when you see people treating each other cruelly, helping someone who’s fallen and needs a helping hand.

  That’s how you stand up to bullies and terrorist. That’s how you show them they’re beat.

* * *

Christopher Thomas is a reporter and classical music host for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. He previously worked at The Daily News in Jacksonville, North Carolina as a general assignment reporter and has experience waiting tables, delivering pizzas, and amateur theater. He is a graduate of East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina where he studied Communication with a concentration in journalism.

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When Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt


 

Following 9/11, Matthew Hefti left college to serve in the Air Force. Hefti reflects on his promises to remember and all the things he chooses to forget.

 

When Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt


 

Following 9/11, Matthew Hefti left college to serve in the Air Force. Hefti reflects on his promises to remember and all the things he chooses to forget.

 

  We remember. We will never forget. People die, and these are the collective vows we take. The death of 20 million gives birth to Armistice Day. The death of over 600,000 gives birth to Decoration Day and Memorial Day. The deaths of nearly 3,000 gives birth to a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the Victims of the Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001, which gives birth to Patriot Day, which gives birth to a National Day of Service and Remembrance. We promise to remember, but it’s a promise we can’t keep. At least, it’s a promise I can’t keep.

  I walk across the campus of my Wisconsin university on this perfect September day—the green trees getting ready to explode into reds and oranges. My phone vibrates in my pocket with a message from an old friend, whom I once served with in a war. The text reminds me that 15 years ago, I walked across the campus of another Wisconsin university, restless, dreamy, sheltered, and naïve. I remember I was often bored—and worse—I was lonely. I loved trouble, but the world around me loved rules. I remember Mary Oliver’s poetry, how it was love at first read. I remember her generosity, which felt like consolation back then: You do not have to be good.

The Hefti girls help their dad study contract law in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2014. Photo courtesy of Matthew Hefti.

The Hefti girls help their dad study contract law in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2014. Photo courtesy of Matthew Hefti.

  And now, I stuff my phone back in my pocket. I remember that in addition to the books I need to pick up for my final year of law school, there’s also the bus pass that I need from a building across University Drive. My VA appointment went late, so now I’m moving faster than I’d like, and my back is sweating. I don’t have time to text back right now. I need to get home, because my youngest of three daughters has a big day, and she is very excited.

  Driving home, I remember that 15 years ago the attacks of September 11th, 2001 inspired me to drop out of college and put on a uniform, and in that uniform I fought in some wars. I can measure the years by the uniforms. I remember that the BDUs didn’t breathe because they were stiff with starch; the DCUs were the best, comfortable and worn; the ACUs fell apart too easily; the ABUs were too heavy and scratchy regardless of the weather; the ABS-Gs weren’t bad in the winter, but they were far too thick in the summer; and the OCPs were just a churched-up ACU.

  When I get to our apartment, I forget to text my old war buddy back, but I am in time to walk my little girl to her first day of preschool. My wife—my best friend and a veteran herself—has braided her hair, filled her backpack with supplies, and adorned her with a sparkly headband. Out the door we go, and my wife and I each grab one of our sweetheart’s hands. “Okay,” my daughter says. “One, two, three, jump.” It’s a request. Someday it will be the last one, and we won’t even know it. 

  Her mother and I share a look over her head. We don’t have to speak; we can feel how ephemeral this is, and I can feel a mixture of panic and dread because the school is right next to the apartments. We can walk as slowly as we want to, but it won’t stop time. “Okay,” I tell her. “One, two, three, jump.” She jumps and my wife and I hold her hands up and let her swing between us. “Wow, that one was really high,” she says. While the adults try to dawdle, this little girl puts her head down and pulls us. “I’m going to learn how to read,” she tells us. She is so excited.

Nate Anhalt and Matthew Hefti share a cigarette at FOB O’Ryan, Iraq, in the summer of 2005. Photo courtesy of Matthew Hefti.

Nate Anhalt and Matthew Hefti share a cigarette at FOB O’Ryan, Iraq, in the summer of 2005. Photo courtesy of Matthew Hefti.

  I remember that before September 11th, 2001, I thought the world was one way, and after, I thought it was another. If my life were a timeline in a history textbook, it’s a tick mark with a caption, pointed out as a significant event, a seminal moment worth remark if only for how it directed the tick marks that followed.

  We promised we’d never forget, but should I tell the truth? There are plenty of things I want to forget. These days of remembrance—what should I remember? Should I remember the dead I never met? Should I remember the thousands of American dead or the millions of foreign-born dead? Am I to remember my dead friends? Should I recall the good times that we had or the ways that they died? And how should I do either when I can no longer picture their faces? Or having written about war, am I bound to tell of my despair before you tell me of yours?  Am I to remember—as the work piles up and the calendar fills and the world goes on—that there is no end to war, no end to sadness?

Matthew Hefti is welcomed home from Afghanistan by his wife and daughters in Wichita, Kansas, in 2009. Photo courtesy of Matthew Hefti.

Matthew Hefti is welcomed home from Afghanistan by his wife and daughters in Wichita, Kansas, in 2009. Photo courtesy of Matthew Hefti.

  I have too much to remember to remember it all, and too much that I want to hold on to. I can still feel the panic when I think of how my oldest daughter arrived: the emergency surgery, the month in the NICU, and the silent days spent sitting with my wife until we could scrub up and go visit her again. But I can also still feel the marvel that my baby was smaller than my hand. I can picture the summer sky when my middle daughter was born eight years ago and the way the fireworks lit up that July night to announce her arrival. I remember that when my youngest daughter was born, being tired of so much death, we chose a name for her that meant life.

  I remember 9/11 filtered through a television screen and magazine covers. I remember the wars only when they leak out from behind the partitions I’ve built.

  But I remember the wife since my youth on my skin, in my heart, in my bones. A white dress, a black suit, just babies ourselves. With her, I cannot regret any years that followed, though there may be much to regret. Like all the times I said goodbye, betraying my little girls with a kiss at every departure.  The way my little three-year-old buddy woke up at 4:30 one winter morning and stood silently holding my hand as I brushed my teeth and shaved. Like a little sentry keeping watch with me, until I put her back down, kissed her goodbye and stole out into the dark to get on a plane to the desert. Again.

  I would walk on my knees for a hundred, a thousand, a million miles through the desert repenting if I could. Instead, grace will have to do.

  And now my wife and I are stuck in the entryway to the school with all the other parents, not wanting to leave just yet. The teacher has them line up against the wall, decorated with glass mosaic figures and the words Teach, Hope, Dream, Love, and that’s all we can hope to do with these little ones. The mosaic of children line up against the wall like fresh recruits, all kinds of different colors and sizes, and our little one gives us a thumbs up and an enormous smile that lacks any hint of self-consciousness. She turns to follow the teacher, and with all the kids in this new line, she stares down at her feet. Like boots learning to march, they have all forgotten how to walk. 

Matthew Hefti and Evan Knight in Iraq in 2005.  Photo courtesy of Matthew Hefti.

Matthew Hefti and Evan Knight in Iraq in 2005.  Photo courtesy of Matthew Hefti.

  Mere seconds out the door, I put my arm around my wife, and it feels like home. I remember that I spent a dozen years in a uniform, but now I’ve spent longer in her arms. The tears have already begun streaming down her face. Those dozen years haven broken my own eyes, and they’re leaking too. They’re always leaking now. I don’t know why I feel so ambushed by today, but as I walk home to a house without kids, I have a hole in my heart the size of a Boeing 767.

  I sit at my desk in the basement with a pen and a notebook for a while—it’s what I do when I don’t know how or what to feel—but it’s almost too quiet to work. I try to remember, try to keep my promise to never forget. It’s not an easy thing. So much has changed. But some things haven’t; the number of notebooks I’ve filled has grown larger, but Mary Oliver still sits on my shelf and her wild geese still fly in my heart.

  I remember that 15 years ago, when the towers fell, I wrote a poem that remains in a steamer trunk in my basement as evidence, so there’s that. Perhaps I thought, If I can’t remember, this page remembers; this ink remembers. Perhaps I thought, I must bear witness for those that come after me. But I cannot say for sure because my memories are now are more like memories of memories.  

  When I put the pen down, we pick all the girls up. As their mom makes dinner, we run through the parking lot, through the playground, through the woods. The youngest cannot quite keep up, and she’s tired, so she huffs and puffs and holds her arms up. I hug her tight as I carry her home, her face buried in my neck between my t-shirt and my beard. And I whisper a little prayer of thanks because these days aren’t over yet, and I pray that these days right here are the days I remember.  

* * * 

Matthew J. Hefti is the author of the novel A Hard and Heavy Thing. He spent twelve years as an explosive ordnance disposal technician, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan four times. While enlisted, he earned a BA in English and an MFA in Fiction. He is now in his final year at the University of Wisconsin Law School. He has contributed to the anthologies See Me for Who I Am (Hudson Whitman), MFA vs. NYC, Retire the Colors (Hudson Whitman, forthcoming), and The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War (Pegasus, forthcoming). Among others, he has been published in Electric Literature; Vol. 1 Brooklyn; Literary Hub; and War, Literature and the Arts

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Farewell, Hello, Farewell, Hello.


David Palacio wanted to defeat the enemy so he joined the Marine Corps after the 9/11 attacks. Six combat deployments later, the endless war continues on.

Farewell, Hello, Farewell, Hello.


David Palacio wanted to defeat the enemy so he joined the Marine Corps after the 9/11 attacks. Six combat deployments later, the endless war continues on.

  The morning of September 11th, I became a part of the Global War on Terrorism generation. I was in my second sophomore year at Emory University and experiencing the type of morning that landed me a second sophomore year. I woke up, hungover, having already slept through class. I had a paper due that morning and had hoped that if I could slide it under the teacher’s door instead of turning it in the next day, my professor’s reprimand would be minimal.

  I crossed the empty quad during the middle of a scheduled class, not expecting to see anyone as I headed back to bed when suddenly the nearby buildings began slowly to purge students. I felt a small wave of guilt for skipping class as I became visible to all the students who had managed to make it there on time.

  In a nearby patch of grass I spotted a friend and member of my fraternity, Winston, and asked him what was going on. Winston was from Georgia, but he looked like a 1950s California transplant with his shaggy hair, white hats with the brim worn down, and a laid back attitude.

  “Hey man, what’s going on?”

  “I don’t know dude, all the teachers are letting us out,” he replied with a smile, shrugging his shoulders high into the air. “Some plane just flew into a building or something.”

  I watched history being written in a dark dorm room, alone, since my roommate was rarely present. I had flicked on my antique TV and flipped through to the first news channel I could find. The plane Winston had been talking about was American Airlines flight 11 and the building was the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

  I couldn’t pull myself away; every channel was streaming a reality my 20-year-old mind wasn’t ready to handle and certainly didn’t understand. I could feel my Adam’s apple tighten up and tears start to build up in my eyes. I blinked faster to fight them back, which became harder with every successive image of southern Manhattan in chaos that played across the TV.

  As the world was starting to change, my older brother, who was a student at Brown University at the time, called me.

  “David…what’s going on?”

  I love my brother dearly, but we never called each other simply to chitchat.

  “I…I don’t know,” I stuttered slowly, and then despite trying my hardest to be a tough guy, I started to cry as I replied, “I think we’re under attack.”

  In the hours and days that followed, we, as a nation, met our new reality. Sure, we were the “good guys,” we tried to help out the world where we could, but we weren’t just the home of Hollywood and Ford Mustangs, we were the object of hate for a group of people that wanted to see our world burn.

  I didn’t know what to feel, other than fear, so I returned the favor; I felt hate in return. Not against a people or a country, but against whomever had attacked mine.

  It took until later in the day for the name Osama Bin Laden to be associated with the attacks, or at least that’s how I remember it.  It was also the first time I can remember giving care to an obscure country named Afghanistan. There was going to be a war. There had to be a war. I wanted to be a part of it. My previous thoughts of a life in the military—travel, adventure, fun—were being replaced with a new possible reality: war, loss, suffering.

  On September 12th, the day that the whole world was on our side, two days before the president spoke from the smoldering ashes of what seems like it will forever be known as Ground Zero, I decided I wanted to fight. I didn’t know what else I’d do in life, but I could do that later. I was young, I was strong, and I wanted revenge.

  Since I was halfway done with school I decided to try my hand as an officer, which meant I was still years away from earning my title as “Marine.” In those years, the U.S. remained in a state of military action: Our enemy was now in Iraq, and we’d largely taken care of, or contained the fight in Afghanistan, or at least that was the current narrative.

  By the time I made it to Officer Candidate School in fall 2004, the war in Iraq was gearing up to a bloody crescendo. We heard about the Second Battle of Fallujah while we were stretching on a cold Virginia morning and getting ready for the morning’s workout.

  I was only a little over a month into my training, but I was adapting fast. I was wearing my green sweat pants and sweatshirt, Marine Corps logo on my left breast, right arm crossed over my chest to stretch as our instructors circled behind us and released small bits of information. I could see my breath in the cold when I heard Marines were dying. Lots of them. Again, I found myself angry and wanting to fight.

  The men and woman to my left and right in Officer Candidate School were a peculiar breed. Much like myself, they were joining three years after September 11th, but the impact of that day had drawn us out of our respective civilian lives, whatever they had been at the time in the fall of 2004. Some were fresh college graduates, like myself, some had left graduate school to join the Marines. More than a couple left a comfortable life on Wall Street as investment bankers or left other successful careers because they felt compelled to serve and fight, while there was fighting still to be done.

  I had no intention of making a career of the military when I joined the Marine Corps. I found myself, like I believe many of us did, drawn to the story of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. He was a Roman citizen and farmer who, in a moment of crisis thanks to invading forces, was called to become the leader of the young Roman Republic. He resigned shortly after he defeated several rival armies. He simply wanted to serve his republic and to be a good citizen.

  The prevailing sentiment among my fellow Marines was the desire to go into harm’s way, to take the fight to the enemy, to make sure another day didn’t go down in infamy on our watch.

  Looking back now, I think many of us believed we would go to war once, maybe twice, tops, and with that we’d be able to wrap up this whole “terrorism” thing.

  The memory of September 11th still elicits in me a visceral reaction. I was a young man on that day in 2001 with little memory of loss or sacrifice. Now it feels like it was the first memory of a new life: my life as a Marine. As I look around today, I see friends with whom I’ve patrolled the streets and deserts of Iraq and crossed the poppy fields and canals of Helmand Province for over a decade now. For my generation, September 11th plays into our story, in at least some way.

  The younger generation coming into service now? For some, they were only three years old when the attacks took place. Soon, new service members will not have been alive that day. It’ll just be another date in American history for them. It will be another attack on Pearl Harbor, a crossing of the 38th Parallel—just another day and another reason for war, for all it matters to them. They’ll come to know it only from history books, stories from their parents and grandparents, from clips of “a very special anniversary edition” of some TV event.

  In a few months I’ll leave for Iraq on my sixth combat deployment as a Marine.  That’ll round me out with three tours to Iraq and three tours to Afghanistan. As for the war in Afghanistan? The war we entered into days after September 11th? I was on one of the last helicopters to leave Helmand Province as part of the last Marine infantry battalion to rotate through that country. That was October 2014.

  Sometimes, when I think about the fight we entered after the towers fell, I’m reminded of a spoof poster for the classic movie “Endless Summer.” Instead of the three surfers holding their surfboards in the psychedelically colored backdrop, it’s three service members on patrol, same color scheme, with weapons in hand and the words “Endless War” written above them.

* * *

David Palacio graduated from Emory University as a Philosophy/Religion major prior to attending Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in 2004. Upon completion of Officer Candidate School and The Basic School, he was assigned to be an artillery officer and completed two tours to Iraq with 1st Marine Division. He then joined 1st ANGLICO and completed two tours to Afghanistan as a joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) prior to leaving active duty and attending Columbia University Journalism School. After graduating Columbia in 2013, David worked as a public safety reporter on the crime beat at the San Antonio Express-News. While at the Express-News, he was mobilized for a deployment to Afghanistan with his reserve unit and re-entered active duty shortly after. He currently serves with II Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and will be deploying to Iraq as part of an advisor team.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Government, the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.

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Everything Is Supposed To Be Quiet After A Massacre


Army PFC JP Lawrence deployed to Iraq after the 2006 Sunni Awakening. He shares stories of the Post-9/11 Iraq invasion & reflects on false narratives of war.

Everything Is Supposed To Be Quiet After A Massacre


Army PFC JP Lawrence deployed to Iraq after the 2006 Sunni Awakening. He shares stories of the Post-9/11 Iraq invasion & reflects on false narratives of war.

  My story begins near Nasiriyah, Iraq, at a military base not far from where the Tower of Babel is said in the Bible to have stood.

  It was Sept. 11, 2009, and it seemed that I and everyone on Contingency Operating Base Adder had gathered in the chapel for a 9/11 memorial service. The grief in the room hung like a fog around all the soldiers in their body armor, as they reflected on friends lost in Iraq and Afghanistan since that day.

  Some soldiers shared stories of where they’d been when the towers tell. I didn’t tell mine, which was an experience many shared: A school day halted as teachers struggled to explain what was unfolding on television. The stories they told during that day’s memorial service were those of grief channeled into action. Grieving soldiers explained that 9/11 was the reason why everyone needed to be there, in Iraq.

A sand table marks the route of an upcoming mission. Taken at Contingency Operating Base Adder in Iraq in 2009. Photo courtesy of J.P. Lawrence.

A sand table marks the route of an upcoming mission. Taken at Contingency Operating Base Adder in Iraq in 2009. Photo courtesy of J.P. Lawrence.

  Which was, to be frank, bullshit. There was no link between Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. A year in Iraq wasn’t going to bring back the dead or kill the guys who flew the planes into the towers. What it would do and had done was lead to more tragedy. But for many of the soldiers in the room, tying 9/11 to their mission to Iraq gave meaning to their grief. Without a sense of purpose, what had been the point of their sacrifice?

  No grief is scarier than grief without meaning. The philosopher Hayden White once wrote about a patient talking with a therapist about a traumatic event. “It is not that the patient does not know what those events were, does not know the facts,” White wrote. “On the contrary, he knows them all too well. He knows them so well, in fact, that he lives with them constantly.” What the patient is looking for, White writes, is a way of reframing painful experience. A story is a way of structuring the “facts in such a way to change the traumatic meaning and their significance.”

  And that’s what we’ve done both individually and collectively with 9/11: shaped the incomprehensible into stories.

  I was deployed in 2009, after the 2006 Sunni Awakening and the surge a year later that had created a small lull in the violence. In college history classes that I took afterward, I was the smug vet who said that maybe, just maybe, the surge had worked and the U.S. had created a semi-stable democratic-ish ally in the Middle East.

A female soldier attends a 9/11 memorial at Contingency Operating Base Adder in Iraq in 2009. Photo courtesy of J.P. Lawrence.

A female soldier attends a 9/11 memorial at Contingency Operating Base Adder in Iraq in 2009. Photo courtesy of J.P. Lawrence.

  Except, I didn’t dare tell this theory to my roommate. Through the magic of random room draw, my sophomore-year college roommate was an Iraqi refugee. His name was Ammar. He was an incredible athlete, a gifted scientist, and an ardent fan of Philadelphia sports. I could talk with him about the Phillies, but I couldn’t talk with him about Iraq. For the whole year, I would work at my desk, and he would work at his, and the war lingered in the silence between us.

  At the end of the school year, I finally asked him about Iraq. He told me about 2003, when whispers of invasion swirled around him, when he was still too young to make sense of it.

  He told me about watching the statue of Saddam fall down in Firdaus Square, and how that seemed like the beginning of a happy ending for Iraq. But then things got worse, and worse, and worse. He talked about his anger at the armed young men who roamed his city of Baghdad, and his anger at the U.S. soldiers who trashed the city in the process of saving it. He told me that by 2007, the year he left for America, Iraq was worse than it had been before the invasion.

  Hearing Ammar’s story muddled my narrative.

  And then, to further confuse my understanding of my service, the peace I thought had been established because of the Sunni Awakening turned out to be unsustainable. The tensions between the Shiite Iraqi government and Sunni tribesmen remained until ISIS arrived to exploit them. My mistake was believing the story of Iraq had ended at a point convenient to my narrative.

Two soldiers, the one on the right being Pfc. J.p. Lawrence, taken photos as part of their job as public affairs specialists in Iraq. Taken in Contingency Operating Base Basra in 2009. Photo courtesy of J.P. Lawrence.

Two soldiers, the one on the right being Pfc. J.p. Lawrence, taken photos as part of their job as public affairs specialists in Iraq. Taken in Contingency Operating Base Basra in 2009. Photo courtesy of J.P. Lawrence.

  It’s something the writer and World War II veteran Kurt Vonnegut wrote about: “A story, after all, is as artificial as a mechanical bucking bronco in a drinking establishment… And it may be even worse for nations to try to be characters in stories.”

  Were we not as a nation hoping that killing Osama Bin Laden would be the end of the movie? Would we—and Iraq—have fared better if we didn’t think of Saddam Hussein as the final villain? It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that as our wars have become more morally ambiguous, our war movies have redefined victory, where as long as you survive to the end you’re the winner. But history books are filled with stories of soldiers who fought inglorious wars and who have struggled to redefine their experiences.

The wire fence marking the boundary of Contingency Operating Base Basra, taken in 2010. Photo courtesy of J.P. Lawrence.

The wire fence marking the boundary of Contingency Operating Base Basra, taken in 2010. Photo courtesy of J.P. Lawrence.

  There’s something else the philosopher White wrote about. The paradox of history is that the more we know about the past, the messier and more filled with contradictions our understanding of it becomes. There is no tidy end to war narratives, individually or collectively.

  Today, when I think of those who died on 9/11, or the men on my deployment who died from hidden bombs or mortars from nowhere or pistol shots to the temple, I don’t feel the anger that some other soldiers do. I don’t begrudge the way the surviving men and women responded to their grief, but I no longer feel qualified to decide who to hurt in order to feel better. Instead, when I think of that sadness, I am confronted with a powerful sensation, a desire to be silent.

* * *

J.P. Lawrence is a journalist, Army veteran and Filipino immigrant. He works for the San Antonio Express News and recently worked with the Albany Times Union, The New York Times, and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Bard College. He deployed in 2009 to Basra, Iraq with the 34th Infantry Division and currently serves with the New York Army National Guard. 

The views here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Government, the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army.

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Trapped In The Amber Of This Moment


David Chrisinger felt the urge to serve his country in the Marines during the Iraq War. He reflects on his choices on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11.

Trapped In The Amber Of This Moment


David Chrisinger felt the urge to serve his country in the Marines during the Iraq War. He reflects on his choices on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11.

The closest I’ve ever come to being in combat was the day I sat in the Marine recruiter’s office almost three years after the Twin Towers fell. It was late July, and I was itching to do something that felt important. We were at war, and when our country was at war, the men in my family had always done their part.

I was a freshman in high school on September 11, 2001, and I watched United Airlines Flight 175 slam into the south face of the South Tower on what I remember to be live television. I was sitting in Mr. Santy’s homeroom before first period, watching Good Morning America, and I remember Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer announcing that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. We flipped to CNN. They were speculating about what could have caused such an accident. Then it happened. The second plane hit.

We sat there in stunned disbelief. But the bell rang, and life pressed us to move on, so we stumbled into the hallway and made our way to class. The halls buzzed with talk of what had happened. One student in our grade said his dad was in New York on business and was supposed to have had a meeting at the World Trade Center. That turned out to be bullshit. None of us knew anyone in New York City, or D.C. for that matter. We were as insulated in our small town as anyone could have been.

Over the next couple days, we learned that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks. We watched President George W. Bush shout through a megaphone to a mass of first responders that the people who knocked down the Towers would be hearing from us soon. I watched Bruce Springsteen sing about his “city of ruins,” and I bought a wristband with the name of someone who had been killed that day. I wish I still had it. I can’t remember the name.  

Then life went on. I played football and wrote term papers. Basketball season started. Then baseball. As a nation, we were at war, but it didn’t feel like it to me. I didn’t know anyone who was serving, let alone someone who had been deployed overseas. I remember after Christmas hearing that we had won the war in Afghanistan.

Then we started hearing about Iraq. It was in the news for months, but I don’t remember talking about it at school or around the dinner table. The clearest thing I do remember was how confident the President seemed, like he knew something vital he couldn’t tell us. We know now, of course, that his confidence was masking the known unknown. To my teenage brain, the world was black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. The President’s logic appealed to that worldview. But my prefrontal cortex wasn’t fully developed; I couldn’t process consequences. That’s my excuse.

When we eventually invaded, in March 2003, I was in Madison, Wisconsin for the annual high school boys state basketball championship tournament. The university there had a long and infamous past when it came to protesting involvement in ill-advised wars, and the day after the invasion began, a mass of protesters assembled outside the state capitol building, not far from where the basketball tournament was taking place. In between games, my father and I walked down there to watch what was happening. For such a historic moment, it left me wanting. The protesters seemed disorganized. They carried colorful and creatively worded signs, but they had no story to combat the President’s version of things. It was hard to take them seriously. They looked like hippies out of my history textbook and seemed almost deluded by their ideals of peace. Didn’t they know there were people out there who wanted to kill us?

Looking back, my father says he didn’t support the invasion. I don’t dispute that, but I also don’t remember him ever telling me that. The fight of my generation was about to begin, and honestly, it didn’t matter to me if the President was exactly right. Saddam was bad. We were good. Show me where to sign up.

“Why do you want to be a Marine?” the recruiter asked that hot July afternoon. “I want to make a difference,” I told him. “And I want to be the best.” He leaned back in his metal chair behind his gun-metal gray tanker desk. He stared at me. “You think you have what it takes?” he finally asked. He was sizing me up, trying to figure out which sales pitch I would respond to best. A choose-your-own-adventure way of convincing young men and women to serve. I didn’t need any convincing, though. I was already sold.  

Because I wasn’t yet 18 years old, I needed my parents’ permission to enlist. My father had served in the Army at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and he told me once that his life’s greatest regret was not having had a chance to serve in combat. His father, my grandfather, had fought at the Battle of Okinawa. I thought my dad would be proud I wanted to follow in these footsteps.

A week after my visit to the recruiter, I broke the news to my father while we were shooting hoops at the YMCA. I was nervous, so I blurted out that I wanted to join the Marines and that I wanted to go to Iraq.

“Have to talked to your mother,” he asked. “Not yet,” I said. “I was hoping you could help me make the case to her.”

My father looked down at his watch. “Hey, we better get you to work. You’re going to be late,” he said. I could tell he wasn’t ready to hear what I had said. We headed to the locker room and changed in silence. He dropped me off at work and said my mom would pick me up when my shift was over.

A few hours later, my father returned. He looked like he was on a mission—eyes focused on me, arms swinging at his side. He waved his hand as I opened my mouth to ask what he was doing there.

“Just let me say what I need to before you respond,” he said. “First, I get why you’d want to join. I really do. I’ve been there myself. The thing is…” He stopped to collect his thoughts. “The thing is that I just don’t feel good about Iraq.”

My father’s no dove. He believes strongly that if America’s national security interests dictate that we send our troops into harm’s way, we should do so, but with the first-hand knowledge that war has always had a negative effect on the minds and bodies of our troops in countless ways. His father came home from the Pacific a mean and violent drunk, and he knew lots of Vietnam vets who ended up at the bottom of a bottle. He told me that he had worked his ass off at his factory job so that he could afford to send me to college. He wanted me to live a life he never had the chance to live.   

“This war in Iraq is going to get messy; it’s much more complicated than the news lets on, and it doesn’t look like there’s any end in sight,” he continued. “And quite frankly, I don’t want to see you get your ass shot off for people who don’t seem to want our help.”

We cut a deal: My father told me to go to college and then when I graduated, if I still wanted to join up, he would support me going through OCS to become an officer.

While I was in college, I lost the taste for military service. I studied history and followed the news, and I was saddened by how things played out in Iraq and Afghanistan. I met a wonderful woman who eventually became my wife, and who wasn’t interested in being a military spouse. Still, a part of me felt guilty for not serving, as though I wasn’t doing my part. I envied those who had served and felt less than in many ways.

I’ve since made peace with my past. In college I learned skills that have made it possible for me to dedicate my life to advocating for veterans and helping them tell their stories of war and coming home. On this, the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I thank those who have served, and to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. I thank you for suffering for me and my family.

* * *

David Chrisinger is a Communication and Veteran Transition Specialist who believes everyone has a story to tell and that it’s imperative each of these stories is told in a way that leads to connection and understanding. To that end, he teaches a veteran reintegration course at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to help his students tell their stories of war and coming home. He also edited a collection of essays, See Me for Who I Am, that brings together 20 young student veterans working to bridge the cultural gap that divides them from the American people they fought to protect. David is also a writing instructor for Team RWB, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of America's veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.

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Going Back To The Slaughterhouse For Souvenirs Of The War


Pete Lucier missed the fighting days of the Iraq & Afghanistan Wars. He describes the lack of strategy plaguing this era of war on the anniversary of 9/11.

Going Back To The Slaughterhouse For Souvenirs Of The War


Pete Lucier missed the fighting days of the Iraq & Afghanistan Wars. He describes the lack of strategy plaguing this era of war on the anniversary of 9/11.

  It’s hot. Stupid hot. I’m waiting for this formation to be over so I can work out. What the fuck is this sob story anyway? I have to listen to some Staff Sergeant tell me about how it took two DUI’s for him to get his life together? How did he make Staff anyway, with two DUI’s on his record? I’m always hearing about the old days, the wild days, the Iraq days, days when this guy could get promoted to E-6, and be guaranteed 20 years and retirement. Good luck re-enlisting now as a first termer, with a DUI under your belt.

  I’ve spent my time in the Marine Corps seemingly always one step behind the “real thing”—I missed Iraq, missed the big push into Afghanistan while I piddled away in FAST Company, missed the big re-enlistment bonuses, missed it all, it seemed. And now here I am, September 11, 2011, ten years after the big day, the day that split my childhood neatly into before and after, at Enhanced Movaje Viper in luxurious Twentynine Palms, Calif., getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan to fight in a war that began when I was 12 years old. A decade later, the war was still being fought, although in the interim it had twisted itself into something hardly recognizable as a war anymore. Why and how exactly we were fighting was unclear, while the when and where were now tightly regimented and regulated.

  What happened to the kill days? Had I missed them in the years it had taken for me to grow up enough to join the fight? Days earlier during EMV, a long-haired sergeant had come up to me, as we waited our turn to run the range he just finished. Tan from the desert, with a crazy reckless juvenile boyish smile, he laughed and told me: “Just shoot and move, brother. Just shoot and move.” It was like a glimpse back in time, as my adrenaline pumped to sling lead, shoot rockets, pour sweat into the pads in my Kevlar helmet, run until my lungs wheezed out the whiskey nights and morning cigarettes.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pvt. Robert Bliss)

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pvt. Robert Bliss)

  But those moments were few now, and my sergeants and staff sergeants, giants of the glory days, the Iraq days, the free days, seemed tired. The crazy women they had dated and bedded had become wives, and wives had become ex-wives. The other young men my sergeants had joined with, with whom they had partied, and drank, and shot and moved, were out now, living their civilian lives. Others would remain forever young, their names carved into memorials with dates and the names of far off places next to them, enshrined in local newspapers with those silly boot camp photos under the headline “Area Marine Killed in Action.” My sergeants seemed tired now. They all had stories like the one Staff Sergeant was telling now about how boyish warriors became tired old men.

  How I came to be listening to this guy drone on was simple, really: It was the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. We were on our mock Forward Operating Base (FOB), designed to mimic what it’d be like to live in another country. Although in Afghanistan, a FOB meant chow halls and showers and toilets that flushed, and this “FOB” had none of that, just HESCO barriers, Alaska hooches, and a long line of those ubiquitous blue porta-shitters.

  The purpose of the formation that morning was not to celebrate, but remember, maybe; or at least to reflect upon, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The moment wasn’t lost on me, the big perfect symmetry of it all. Our CO gave some perfunctory remarks to open the memorial. The captain was an excellent commander on whom the gravity of the anniversary I’m sure, was not lost, but who seemed much more interested in keeping our minds on training and readiness. After his remarks, he opened the floor for anyone to share their thoughts. To Marines this sort of openness felt forced and awkward.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pvt. Robert Bliss)

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pvt. Robert Bliss)

  I glanced at a sergeant whom I hoped might speak. I knew his 9/11 story, because every anniversary I like to ask whomever I run into how they remember that day. He had been a junior Marine in Washington, D.C. and had seen the smoke rising from the Pentagon from his barracks. He didn’t move though, and seemed as ready to be done with this whole exercise in grief, as did our CO.

  For a moment, it seemed the unity of the formation would hold, like those moments at Battalion formations when the BC asks if there are any questions, and hundreds of Marines will each other desperately to not raise their hands. But as all too often happens with perfectly good silence, someone rushed to fill the space. So here I am, listening to the life story of this washed up SNCO who has nothing to say about 9/11, save a few choice remarks about terrorists, insurgents, or foreign peoples in general, and what he saw as their general lack of good manners, fighting spirit, and love for democracy.

  Staff Sergeant finished his diatribe sans big finish, or even a coherent thesis. He just runs out of steam, his own rage long since exhausted. It was a tired story told to a tired audience. Tired from the heat, from the weeks of sleeping on the ground, and from a decade of war that still had no clear end in sight. I was ready to get that workout in now, and sweat out the fatigue.

  I thought about my sergeant, who hadn’t spoken, and wondered how many deployments he had been on since 9/11. I thought about another of my sergeants, who told us his only job was to bring us home safe; who seemed tired of trying to accomplish the “mission”—or even trying to understand it. I thought of all my NCO’s and how tired they must be. Tired from carrying the weight of the combat mission; the weight of ever more radios, batteries, body armor, testing kits, anti-IED devices, water, and ammunition; and the weight of names. Too many names. Tattooed on biceps, forearms, chests, and backs. Names scratched into simple black bracelets, that, at the time, technically weren’t allowed to be worn in uniform. Everyone wore them anyway.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Rick Hurtado)

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Rick Hurtado)

  And I thought about 9/11 as I remember it, and I’m just old enough to remember. I was in 6th grade. We didn’t turn on the TVs. The school didn’t even tell us it was happening. I went to a small Catholic grade school in Dallas, a major hub for American Airlines, ad a lot of the students’ parents were pilots. My mom taught there. She told me later that the principal was emailing the teachers throughout the day, keeping them updated, but instructing them not to talk about it with students. We knew something was going on though. Kids who filtered in late throughout the day from doctor’s appointments or whatever else had heard the news on the radio. But 12-year-olds aren’t so great at relaying information and rumors spread that the Empire State Building in New York or the Washington Monument in D.C. had been hit.

  I remember the days and weeks after: America mourned and a fierce spirit of patriotism and loss permeated the country. I remember the anger, anger like I had never known growing up. I remember learning for the first time about the Middle East and Islam. I remember the anti-war protests in February 2003 before we invaded Iraq, and the other anti-war demonstrations that followed. I remember Cindy Sheehan and the Dixie Chicks and speeches at the Oscars. I had an aunt who took me to meetings where speakers warned of a possible American intervention in Iran. And then I was in high school and still didn’t really understand, except that I knew people were worked up. I remember falling into liberalism, almost accidently, watching late at night as Jon Stewart late dissected and decimated the bungled war effort. I remember learning who Bob Woodward was, not in a history lesson about Watergate, but from his books about Iraq and his blurb for My War, by Colby Buzzell, the first war novel I read.

  I remember an indescribable energy in the country—and in my own life—during the years after 9/11. A hyperawareness of the world around us, and an… aliveness that today feels almost mystical. The energy seemed born out of sudden awareness of a new and dangerous foe, as though the country was invigorated by a purpose, like one on the make.

  But there was none of that energy here in the baked brown hellscape of Twentynine Palms, the desert California city that Army rumor and lore held was unlivable. That branch had deeded the land to the Marines. And there the energy seemed to die. New wars gave the Marine Corps a new sharp edge, knocked off the rust that had gathered since Grenada and Desert Storm. But that edge seems to have then been dulled by repeat deployments, mounting casualties, and goal posts that kept moving further and further away.  All that remained for me in the energy’s fading days was my own anxiousness to go to war led by NCO’s who, in my eyes, were heroes and giants. But heroes and giants fade too, and ten years on, on that decade anniversary of 9/11, they seemed so incredibly tired. 

* * *

Peter Lucier served as a Marine infantryman from 2008 until 2013, first with an anti-terrorism security team, than as a scout in First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in California at Camp Pendleton. Lucier deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 and is on Foreign Policy Magazine's Council of Former Enlisted. His previous work has appeared on Best Defense at Foreign Policy Magazine, and others. He is currently studying at Montana State University.