By Jenny Pacanowski
I awoke violently when my boyfriend and his friend burst into my room and began bouncing up and down on my full size mattress, screaming and laughing, “Buildings are falling, planes crashing into the buildings.”
Across the room, Miss Al, my tarantula, watched from her protected cove as I screamed at them to get the fuck out of my room. It was my only day off from both full-time college and my full-time job at the local gun shop in the clothing department.
Only after they’d left the room did I realize what they’d said. Buildings falling, planes crashing, wtf…. I slid out of bed. Compassion overflowing. What buildings?
I had no TV and lived in a small two-bedroom apartment on the third floor above a Chinese restaurant, across the street from one of the most popular college bars in Stroudsburg, Penn., on Main Street, about two hours from New York City. In the kitchen I sat in shock as I listened to the radio broadcast. The second tower hadn’t been struck when my tears began to fall.
The rest of the day was a blur of driving and listening to news in the car. And finally, when we arrived at my boyfriend’s mother’s house, I saw on TV what everyone had been describing—the destruction of my favorite city in the world—and I was overcome not just with grief, but with relief; because the images my imagination had conjured were sci-fi horrific.
I don’t remember being angry at the time. There was no room in my life for rage; my young heart was filled with hope, idealism, and resolution. Yes, we were attacked, and yes, we would take care of it like Americans do and start a war.
I had been saying the pledge of allegiance since before I knew what all the words meant or could even pronounce them. At every professional, semi-pro, high school game, we stood and sang the national anthem. I could not have been more proud to be an American. I had favorite amendments: freedom of speech, the right to bear arms—I’d been shooting since I was 12—and, of course, the freedom to protest, because I had learned other countries weren’t allowed to do that. That one made American especially special. As I saw it in 2003, I lived in the best country in the world.
I joined the Army on April 23, 2003, just a couple weeks shy of George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech. My parents were relieved; they’d believed two things. First: Women didn’t go to war. The recruiter had told them, “She will be in a hospital or clinic.” Second: Bush had said the war was over. Hindsight being 20/20, I wonder why we believed him.
In basic training, right before graduation, we had sat in a large auditorium as they played videos of bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the final piece of indoctrination, set to the music of Toby Keith.
I visited the National September 11 Memorial and Museum for the first time in 2017. I stood on the plaza near the Survivor Tree that survived the towers falling and reflected on the destruction we’d brought to Iraq and its civilians, about children growing up in a war-torn country occupied by strange soldiers and Marines, and about American children growing up believing the answer to fear is always violence.
We listened to the first of many people recounting that day, and I was filled with sorrow and then, quickly, with rage as I watched the pretzel chompers, and as the tourist vibe overrode the Survivor Tree’s solemn story. One tree, surrounded by tritons of steel, the largest man-made waterfall, and all the names of the dead encapsulated in metal lit up with backlighting, had survived and proved a symbol of resilience. “The world changed forever” rang in my ears as I descended to bedrock, and I was overcome: Americans had experienced fear like we’d inflicted for decades.
A child cried, a toddler hung on the railing surrounded by the reason his future revolves around war. These children have never experienced a day of peace, except through the pure oblivion of childhood. It’s an oblivion so many people in this country have the luxury of never losing, having never experienced warfare first hand.
My rage started to subside as we reached bedrock and approached the retaining wall that had held back the groundwater, which would have wrecked even greater destruction had the wall broken, and as we heard the story of the 343 firefighters and first responders who had held up a city in tears. My venomous thoughts fell away as the list of the dead firefighters, first responders, and good Samaritans were read and displayed, as stories of their lives and how they lived played. Finally the numbers were lives, and the value of those lives felt dignified: “Lives they lived, not deaths they died.”
The generational impact of war hit me in the gut, ascending to an uppercut as I read about a man who died on September 11, whose brother had died in Hiroshima during World War II. I listened closely to the bios read by loved ones; pictures surrounded me on all sides. Is more violence the answer? When will it be time to say, there is another way. War taught me all that violence creates is more violence. People may say I sound like some kind of hippie. I have seen and felt the cost of war and violence, and I have come home to work with fellow veterans who are haunted by violence, or who have been dehumanized by their training. Fear ignites war, makes us feel justified in laying aside our basic principles; it reassured me and gave me confidence that what I was doing was right and just. Standing in the 9/11 museum, listening to the names, the question throbbed in my head: Isn’t there another way?
Jenny Pacanowski is a poet, combat veteran, and public speaker. While deployed to Iraq with the Army, Jenny was a medic and provided medical support for convoys with the Marines, Air Force and the Army. She also did shifts in the Navy medical hospital. In Germany, she was part of a medical evacuation company. Jenny is a 2017 War Horse Writing Fellow.
Header image by Anna Hiatt