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Remembering September 11


War Horse writers remember September 11 and the ripple effects it's had during our annual series of reflections.

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Remembering September 11


War Horse writers remember September 11 and the ripple effects it's had during our annual series of reflections.

Time Stood Still That Morning on Parris Island

Joy Craig walked into the base's coffee shop that morning to find three Drill Instructors and a barista crowded around the TV. Then the second plane hit, and Joy's career training future Marines took on a whole new meaning.

Read Joy's story.


She Couldn't Imagine The Fear. She Could Imagine Walking Barefoot, Carrying Her Heels

Annie Erling felt like an interloper when she worked at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, and again, when she visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. When she found a pair of yellow bloodied heels on display at Ground Zero, Annie began to step into history.

Read Annie's story.


She Awoke to a Different World

Love of country filled Jenny Pacanowski on September 11, 2001. When she enlisted in 2003, she believed the United States was the best country in the world. Going to war complicated that love, and left her asking, Isn't there a better way?

Read Jenny's story.


Talking With a 9/11 Witness Helped Him Connect With History

A chance encounter with a witness to the September 11 attacks in New York City gave David Chrisinger license to ask questions, and to think about history differently. 

Read David's story.

 

On September 11, 2016, The War Horse published 15 reflections by 15 writers, including a Medal of Honor recipient, veterans, a military spouse, and civilians.

 
The view from an American transport helicopter as the author departs Afghanistan.jpg

Letters to My Country That She Will Never Read (Part 1)


Drew Pham remembers his father’s smile, his mother’s tears, the end of his childhood and beginning of his war.

Letters to My Country That She Will Never Read (Part 1)


Drew Pham remembers his father’s smile, his mother’s tears, the end of his childhood and beginning of his war.

By Drew Pham

This is the first story in a four-part series, published the week of Sept. 11, 2018, by Drew Pham.

We are told we must never forget that day in September. I’ve added it to that prescribed list of American things to remember, like the names of all 50 states and the Pledge of Allegiance and the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” There’s more to that list—rules for migrants and their children: to speak clean, unaccented English. The neighborhoods and parishes and cities in which I am and am not welcome. That my citizenship, my very Americanness is, and always will be, conditional, hyphenated—Vietnamese-American. They’re impossible to forget, like that clear blue September day, which now demarcates time—how it built a wall between then and now, who I thought I was and who I’ve become, what was true and that which has slipped into mythology. The beginning of a war. The end of my childhood. The end of my time as the enemy and the vilification of another migrant people. The power of those screens playing and replaying the moment of tragedy is so strong, the images so monolithic. I remain in its shadow, and I fear that with time, those towers and all their mnemonic force will one day blot out every voice and memory but the prescribed, the enshrined, the fetishized. But so often, I forget how blue the sky was, how the hint of a chill mingled with the warmth of a dying summer.

 One Freedom Tower as seen from Greenwich Village. Courtesy of Drew Pham

One Freedom Tower as seen from Greenwich Village. Courtesy of Drew Pham

I was 13. I’d always loved autumn most of all the seasons. The slow onset of color in the trees, the cool air. It calmed my mother, too. It reminded her of home, how a cool wind would break over the green mountains standing guard over the Red River basin. She’d passed that fondness on to me. I’d gone to my high school in Alexandria, Virginia, that day thinking about falling in love, hands held and first kisses and slow dances at homecoming. I was thinking about freshman year, the incandescent future that I’d been sure would follow. I had wanted to be an artist, like my mother never got to be. She became a teacher, then an engineer. Practical disciplines. She’d encouraged me to draw, paint, sew, to make beautiful things. My family had always been teachers, or, in times of war, soldiers. I was in the drama classroom when my teacher turned on the TV. I watched the smoldering buildings, the darts of steel and bodies and fuel collide into them, and knew I would not be a teacher or engineer or artist. I stumbled into the hallway, to the lunchroom, huddled students vibrating, disarrayed.

 

Everything from that day is scattered and disconnected, yet each moment, each image stands out and draws me back into it. People were saying it’d be okay, people saying it was the Russians, the Chinese, that it was an accident—a horrible accident. They said the Pentagon had been hit. So many of my classmates’ parents worked there. My mother would sometimes go there for meetings. The phones were down. The Pentagon was hit. The smell of stale spaghetti residue on the floor, how it stuck to my palms when I’d fallen, crying for I don’t know what. Maybe the future I’d somehow already known was lost. Maybe for my mother—what was she doing today? I didn’t know. The phones were down. The Pentagon was hit. Maybe for my lab partner across the way, a quiet-mannered girl who’d surprise you and flash her wit like a hidden knife. That day there was nothing quiet or witty about the way she cried. She couldn’t reach her mother, an Air Force colonel at the Pentagon. Lunch ended. I went to my next class, eyes red and stinging. After that, they let us out early.

 The Horse Soldier Statue at Ground Zero. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The Horse Soldier Statue at Ground Zero. Courtesy of Drew Pham

On the bus ride home, we passed a Hindu temple that already had been defaced with what looked like red paint, or pig’s blood; I never got close enough to tell. I remember what it felt like to be the enemy, an anonymous yellow extra to be raped and slaughtered in America’s war movies, the squawking villian who puts the revolver on the table, who electrocutes the hero on a steel bed frame. And then suddenly, what it felt like not to be the enemy anymore. I thought I wouldn’t suffer slurs like “chink” and “zipperhead” and “slope” and “gook” any longer. Relief, I felt relief. And shame for that relief. I remember coming home to my father as he watched it unfold on the news. But memory is a tricky thing: Sometimes I remember the hint of a smile on his face, sometimes I remember him saying that America was like the rest of the world now, though I can’t be sure.

I don’t like remembering my father’s grim satisfaction as he watched the towers burn. It runs counter to what the rest of the country remembers; that smile reminds me that Vietnamese were—perhaps, deep down, still are—the enemy. The story goes that this nation came together that September day, and in many ways that’s true. In other ways, it’s woefully false. I remember my history teacher skipping the scheduled lesson, either the day of or the one after. How easily we lose such details. He told us that angry men and talking heads on the news and the man in the White House were going to tell us we should go out there and get those A-rabs, that they’d try to rile us up into supporting a war he knew was coming. He wanted us to think for ourselves, to consider one another’s humanity. I wish there’d been more people like my history teacher. Common people. Powerful people. I wish they’d been there when I was growing up and bullied on the playground, and I wish they’d been there in ’47 before my parents’ country was labeled the enemy, or in ’56 to respect a peace treaty that would’ve reunited a broken nation, in ’64 and ’68 and ’72 and all those years that might have prevented all that hurt, even if it meant I would never have been born. But people like my history teacher are not so common, not so powerful. If I must continue to live the consequences of war, I’d like to remember this one decent man who on that day in September, or maybe the day after, told us to remember a little humanity, a little kindness.

 Soldiers of the Fourth Brigade Combat Team, Tenth Mountain Division, passing in review. Courtesy of Molly Pearl

Soldiers of the Fourth Brigade Combat Team, Tenth Mountain Division, passing in review. Courtesy of Molly Pearl

I watched as we invaded Afghanistan, Iraq. I watched the reverence my countrymen paid to soldiers with standing ovations at ball games and yellow ribbon bumper stickers and even from anti-war protestors who supported the troops, even if they didn’t support the invasion of Iraq. It was as if everyone thought our country had moved past the specter of Viet Nam—the myth of the spat-upon veteran. As if that was the most important part, as if millions of dead Vietnamese—no different than my father or mother—counted less than my adoptive country’s ego. We were still extras in America’s war movie. I went on remembering—all through high school and college and the Army—that Hindu temple, the movies with Vietnamese villains. I went on watching my country turn on another group whose Americanness was—still is, always will be—conditional, hyphenated. I watched it all thinking that if there were ever a way to erase the role of enemy from my heart, if not my skin, then it would be by joining the military. And as wild a fantasy as it had been, I thought maybe, just maybe, I could be better than the generation before, that I could, in some small way, be a more compassionate soldier, fight a more humane war. I swore my oath of enlistment at 17.

I’m 30 now. Once a scared boy trying to make sense of a catastrophe. Once a soldier. These memories of mine—between the day the war started and all the days that followed—tumble and break against one another; fragments and shards lie side by side in a jumbled mess. I see the face of the man I killed, how peaceful he looked, and he bleeds into the clear blue morning when the war started. A fever in the cancer ward radiates from the searing barrel of my rifle in a firefight. The hard-packed Afghan trails and paths confuse themselves for the cracked glass, refuse, and fallen leaves strewn over the sidewalks along the tree-lined block outside my apartment. My mother takes the place in my mind of a woman who’d lost her son to an American bomb. My father’s face etches itself on the faces of angry villagers in a bazaar. Memory is a strange thing.

Read the second piece in Drew Pham's four-part series.

•••

Drew Pham is a Brooklyn-based writer. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 with the 10th Mountain Division.

An Afghan civilian watches a passing American patrol.jpg

Letters to My Country That She Will Never Read (Part 2)


Drew Pham remembers his father’s smile, his mother’s tears, the end of his childhood and beginning of his war.

Letters to My Country That She Will Never Read (Part 2)


Drew Pham remembers his father’s smile, his mother’s tears, the end of his childhood and beginning of his war.

By Drew Pham

This is the second story in Drew Pham’s four-part series “Letters to My Country That She Will Never Read,” published the week of September 11, 2018.

I write this, in part, as an apology to my parents for inflicting on others what America had inflicted on them. My mother arrived home late that night in September after the authorities had finally reopened the roads and she’d made it through the traffic. We cried together. I hadn’t known if I’d ever see her again; the phones had been down. I cried because nothing so immense had ever happened to me. I cried because she cried. At the time, I didn’t yet comprehend the depth of her emotion. It would be easy to say she’d cried out of compassion for the dead; it’s difficult not to have empathy. But looking back, I think a wound had reopened.

 The author’s mother. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The author’s mother. Courtesy of Drew Pham

She told me this story once, from when she was a young girl in North Viet Nam during the war: She had walked out into the streets after an American bombing raid. There was nothing unusual about that. Air raids were as normal to her as breakfast or the ride to school—though she often went without food and always walked. The bombers would come, flying so high they were invisible, and drop what they carried in their bellies. But life had to go on. The communist government had dug ersatz shelters along the streets, large enough for two or three. Everyone wore dubious-looking helmets made of layers of straw mats instead of steel, which was in short supply. Not even the soldiers headed south got steel helmets. This time, a bomb had struck a factory down the road, and the wounded and dying spilled out onto the road in a procession. Just ordinary people, working men and women. An arm missing here. A seeping wound there. They bled from their ears and lacerations. They didn’t scream. What was the point? The Americans would come again, drop their bombs again. Again and again until my mother was an adult and the war had ended. There’s no moral to the story, no arc or epiphany. But like shrapnel, it lodged in her memory deep enough for her to tell me, and now I can’t help but trace a line between two acts of inhumanity.

I want my mother to know that I saw her in Afghanistan, 10 years after the first day of my war. I saw her in the girls who took their lives into their hands every day they went to the school just outside my outpost. I saw her in a young girl doing her washing by a stream in the valley I patrolled each day. In a mother who grieved for a son torn in half by an American bomb. When the Taliban attacked the outpost, we shot out the windows of the girls’ school. We drowned that valley in bullets. We gave no apology to that mother. Her boy, no more than 10 years old, had been counted as an enemy combatant. I look back on this and I want to tell my mother I’m sorry—it has come to feel as if every epithet or bomb or bullet I’d loosed had been aimed at her. And these women, like my mother, would carry their memories of everything I’d done to them long after this war ends.

 An Afghan girl does her washing by a stream in the Jalrez Valley, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

An Afghan girl does her washing by a stream in the Jalrez Valley, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

Memory can be cruel. It can come uninvited as it has always come to my mother, sending her into weeklong bouts of silence and depression. Memory can drive a man to cruelty, as it did my father. He was also a refugee, but from the south. Once, he told me he hated nothing more than a lie. The year he was born, the CIA had circulated a fiction that the communists had planned to slaughter the Catholics, so my father’s family fled Hanoi, across the line that split his country in two. Hostilities mounted. The ensuing war robbed him of what should’ve been carefree years. His country burned and fell. He fled again—alone this time, leaving his family behind. His father—my grandfather, a colonel in the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam—died in a reeducation camp after the war ended. My father told me how he’d watched his home shrinking into the horizon as he stood on the bay of a landing craft on the day that Saigon fell. He was 16. I don’t think he ever let go of that memory. And it all started with a lie.

My parents met in the States, while they were students. Some might say their marriage was a sort of reconciliation between the republican South and communist North. But the union between a lonely young man and woman who happened to share the same language, who found a little familiarity, a little comfort in each other, didn’t lighten the burden of the past. He wasn’t around much when I was a kid; he returned to Viet Nam to start a business, start a life there. There was a rumor that he’d started a new family there, too, though it’s hard to say. I remember watching him drag my mother up the stairs by her hair. Her breaking a dustpan over his head, from which his hearing never truly recovered. Him beating her with a closed fist. Her brandishing a knife. I sometimes wonder if the final years of my parents’ marriage were the parting shots of their long civil war, which for them had never really ended. Eventually he left for good, but not before that day in September.

My father had smiled that evening when 2,996 people died; he’d said America had become no different than the countries they’d bombed. I sometimes wish I could hate him for that, but it was a simple statement of fact. His entire childhood was full of days like this, years like this. My classmates and I worried about the fates of our parents for one day. Every day during the war, my father didn’t know if his father—an Army doctor—would come home. I’d heard a story about my grandfather, how he’d had to perform surgery on someone who’d been hit by a 40mm grenade that didn’t detonate. My grandfather had operated on this person behind a wall of sandbags. I’d been told it was a common occurrence. I try to imagine what it would’ve been like to live in Alexandria, Virginia, knowing that people were dying by the thousands just a few miles away, that my parents might be killed at any time. It’s too strange, the stuff of apocalyptic fiction, but for my father, it was reality. Like our adoptive country, he had never really gotten over the Viet Nam War. But there’s a line between humiliation and loss. America had been defeated, humiliated, and I felt the sting of that defeat in slurs hurled against me on the playground and in the cowed rhetoric of politicians on the news and the piles of corpses the heroes made in all those movies about my parents’ war. But where a country loses its pride in defeat, a refugee loses everything. My father had lost his home, his family, his country. I wonder if he was thinking of what he’d lost when smiled, said what he’d said. I won’t excuse the hatred in his heart, but I can understand that smile, that pronouncement that America was now no different than the countries they’d bombed. After all, he abided by that imperative to always remember, to never forget.

 An Afghan National Policeman atop his Humvee. Courtesy of Drew Pham

An Afghan National Policeman atop his Humvee. Courtesy of Drew Pham

He left later that year. I haven’t forgiven him exactly, but I like to think I can empathize with him. I thought of him on the day I left Afghanistan. I felt free, as I boarded the first aircraft of many that would fly me home. Free from all the fear and grit and death and shit. Free from my duty to that forsaken country. But not from guilt. There’s a chain of abandonment here. America abandoned my father’s country; my father abandoned me; I abandoned another country, another people whom I’d promised to protect and defend. I look back on the day I stepped onto the ramp of that helicopter as the day I walked out on my friends—the Afghan soldiers and interpreters and schoolteachers and bureaucrats. I wish I knew if they’re still alive, but I don’t. This year, I watched bombings in Kabul and thought of Saigon burning, and I wondered if my father was thinking of the Vietnamese coastline shrinking into the horizon when he finally abandoned us.

Abandonment makes this apology difficult. Forgiveness isn’t something I’m ready to give—not yet. Perhaps I never will. So I’ll apologize to the civilians caught in the middle, the children—their futures amputated, the refugees who’d fled to strange new countries, to the dead, to my friends. I’ll count my father somewhere among them, lose him in their masses.

Read the third piece in Drew Pham’s four-part series.

•••

Drew Pham is a Brooklyn-based writer. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 with the 10th Mountain Division.

A CH-47 Chinook of the Tenth Mountain Division_s Combat Aviation Brigade.jpg

Letters to My Country That She Will Never Read (Part 3)


Drew Pham remembers his father’s smile, his mother’s tears, the end of his childhood and beginning of his war.

Letters to My Country That She Will Never Read (Part 3)


Drew Pham remembers his father’s smile, his mother’s tears, the end of his childhood and beginning of his war.

By Drew Pham

This is the third story in Drew Pham’s four-part series “Letters to My Country That She Will Never Read,” published the week of September 11, 2018.

I write this for you, my countrymen. There are places your collective memory cannot reach. We remember the towers, the Pentagon, flight 93, but what followed is, for most Americans, shrouded. How little you know of us, your warrior caste.

I spoke to a woman at a party not long ago. A friend of a friend. We talked about writing, the function of stories, if those stories could ever save us. We talked about the war, and I told her about a schoolteacher we’d accidentally killed, the enemies whom we’d shot and evaporated with artillery and airstrikes, and the refugees I met when I came home. Our conversation turned toward an award-winning book that opens with the line, “We shot dogs.” Writers love this line, how strident and spare the language is, how immediately it hooks a reader. I love this line too, as I love this book. But the story that follows leaves something out. The protagonist pivots from the brutality of the sentence—he’s a dog lover. Anyway, the first dog they’d shot had been lapping up human blood; that’s why the characters shot it. I’d seen myself in that opening line, the animal I’d been when I was over there. But not in the justification. We—I shot dogs because I’d wanted to.

 American soldiers dismantle a crashed helicopter. Courtesy of Drew Pham

American soldiers dismantle a crashed helicopter. Courtesy of Drew Pham

I told this friend of a friend a story about an American helicopter that’d been shot out of the sky by a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade, how I’d found pieces of the victims in the trees, how the perfume of burnt machinery and corpses had lingered. I told her how no one had cared about the Afghans who’d been on the helicopter, how American officers ordered the Afghan soldiers on hand to do the work of beasts of burden, hauling pieces of the shattered aircraft out of the valley bit by bit. We spent a week there, guarding engineers and bomb techs as they dismembered the downed bird with blowtorches and lumps of C4. The helicopter was of no use, but command didn’t want the humiliation of seeing the enemy posing with the wreckage. On the last night, a pair of dogs wandered into our perimeter. One of my men shot one, killing it. He shot the other in the lung, and it trotted off into the shell of a half-built school. Another man and I followed it, and not wanting to waste ammo, we took stones from the rubble and crushed her head. That award-winning book neglected to mention that special kind of insanity that comes with being perpetually close to death, being far from home, being nearly always powerless to retaliate against an enemy shrouded in the trees and mountaintops and among innocent civilians, the kind of madness that makes you an animal like it made me. It neglected to say that we killed dogs because we wanted to, because our country had made us into killers without considering the consequences. I killed dogs because I could not imagine spending my whole life at war, and by some perverse, twisted logic, killing seemed an act of mercy. We came back, and some cooks and mechanics glared at us, and my whole troop laughed at their faint hearts. We laughed because we were so glad to be alive at least for one more day, even though we all lived in a world of shit. Looking back, those were the laughs of madmen—at least the cooks and mechanics had held onto their humanity. I told this story to that friend of a friend, the party still buzzing around us, and she picked up her dog, a small brown thing, held it close. She’d forgotten all about the bodies and the wreckage and the far-off country and its people.

 A Tenth Mountain Division soldier on patrol in Wardak Province, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

A Tenth Mountain Division soldier on patrol in Wardak Province, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

I can’t tell you why we fought. I’m no general, I’ve never sat in on a policy meeting or drafted a white paper at a think tank, or sat on the board of a profitable company that commissioned said white paper. I can give you only my memories. Like the paint or blood splashed on that Hindu temple. Or how I’d joined the same Army that’d waged war on my parents’ soil in hopes of cementing my Americanness, of striking the word enemy from my name, striking the hyphen in my identity, toppling the wall that dash represented between them and us. How one of my men had been wounded because of a decision I’d made. Or the Afghan policeman who’d been killed because of me. How when we got home, my platoon sergeant had told my wife that he was worried; I was acting much like he had after his first deployment. There’s the time my interpreter called me from Afghanistan, pleading to get him out. When he called, I’d already left the Army. I was sick with cancer, wasting away in an isolation ward. If I died, I’d thought, I deserved it. We come to define ourselves by these experiences, our recollections of them. I tell you about my mother and father and my war because I hope that in listening, you might come to know me, even empathize with me.


 A blue star hangs in the window of a Brooklyn, New York apartment. Courtesy of Molly Pearl

A blue star hangs in the window of a Brooklyn, New York apartment. Courtesy of Molly Pearl

I remember the day the sheikh who’d started the war died. I was 23. We’d spent the day on a hilltop exposed to enemy fire in a village in eastern Afghanistan. I had thought I was going to die. When the firefight ended, we got word the sheikh was dead. No one believed it. We thought it was a rumor. We returned to our outpost days later and watched the news broadcast. Young men and women gathered outside the White House chanting, USA, USA, USA! They cheered as though it were over. As though we’d won. I cannot help but juxtapose my father with that mass murderer, not for their individual vindictiveness, but for the way they each clutched their memories, the way memory twisted them. The sheikh said he could not forget the burning high-rise apartments in Beirut during the first Lebanon War, said he’d wished to inflict the same on us. My father, who could not forget fleeing the country of his birth, smiled as the sheikh’s plan unfolded on TV. I cannot forgive either man, but neither can I forgive those young men and women who celebrated a person’s death the same way we might celebrate a championship game. They waved flags for which they’d never bleed, sang an anthem whose meaning had eroded, these centuries past. They were my age. My men’s age. The only difference being that they were at home celebrating, and we were still—are still—in the desert, fighting. I wondered, with our vengeance gotten, when we’d be ordered home. But the war went on, long enough for my little brother to deploy. Twice. It goes on still.

I write this to you, because I fear these unpleasant memories will be lost, that people like my brother and father and those kids’ perverse joy in a man’s death will all be written out of history, just as my parents’ humanity, their countrymen’s humanity, my humanity had been written out of the last long war. Another memory, one I must preserve: On a mission in the middle of the fighting season, we accidentally killed a schoolteacher, a spingir—an elder. I remember finding his son—a middle-aged man—clawing at the dirt, blinded with grief. The wailing villagers. A boy named Omid, who translated for us because we lacked an interpreter that day, the way he cried when he saw the body, all that life spilled out of it. I reported to command that it was an accidental killing, but no one listened. The elder became a number in the kill count. I was as guilty as the officers who’d overruled me, men who hadn’t been there to see how wrong they were. As guilty as the man who pulled the trigger. As guilty as you, my countrymen, for leaving us out there in the desert to continue our bloody work. Guilty because I cheered when I got word over the radio to confirm the kill. We hardly saw the enemy, those men who’d concealed themselves amidst the mountains and treelines and innocent civilians so well, those men who’d wreaked havoc on our nerves and bodies and, in the end, our morals. I, too, celebrated a man’s death, but that was before I’d seen the error we’d made, before I heard his mourning kith and kin. And if the victims of the planes flown into our edifices of commerce and war could hear those Afghan villagers’ cries, would they think screams of anguish were a fitting tribute to their deaths?

Read the fourth and final story in Drew Pham’s four-part series.

•••

Drew Pham is a Brooklyn-based writer. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 with the 10th Mountain Division.

A platoon of Afghan Army soldiers withdraws as American aircraft bomb the Alasang Ghar Mountains.jpg

Letters to My Country That She Will Never Read (Part 4)


Drew Pham remembers his father’s smile, his mother’s tears, the end of his childhood and beginning of his war.

Letters to My Country That She Will Never Read (Part 4)


Drew Pham remembers his father’s smile, his mother’s tears, the end of his childhood and beginning of his war.

By Drew Pham

This is the fourth and final essay in Drew Pham’s four-part series “Letters to My Country That She Will Never Read,” published the week of September 11, 2018.

 The author receiving chemotherapy. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The author receiving chemotherapy. Courtesy of Drew Pham

I write this for the children I want, but cannot have. Cancer was the consequence of toxins sown into the air by burn pits and jet fuel and air-dropped munitions. A case of friendly fire that took years to inflict its wound. To save my life, I’d been subjected to more poisons—radiation and chemotherapy—adding any future children to the war’s kill count. I imagine them to life, their hair jet black, but wavy like their mother’s. Their adolescence, all thin limbs and scrabbling to feel infinite. Their adulthood, when I see that they’ve stolen the best qualities my wife and I have to give. But I can only imagine them. Their names won’t ever be etched into stone after the war ends and the country erects a monument. That space is reserved for the memories our country chooses to make sacred. I fear there will be no monument that remembers those whom we’d prefer to forget. The civilians. The suicides. The loved ones at home beaten and killed in fits of rage. Troops raped by their comrades, locals raped by their occupiers. The homeless, tempest-tost refugees. Our enemies. Children counted among those enemies for no reason other than the color of their skin, the difference of their culture. I fear these names will be forgotten, their memory relegated to footnotes.

I write this as a memorial to my mother, my father, the people I hurt, the people I helped, and the children I lost. I write this as a memorial to their “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice,” as Faulkner once said, those human truths so easily forgotten when memory mutates into mythology. I want to inscribe my father’s name on this monument, a man who took me and my siblings to museums every weekend because he thought we deserved a little beauty in our lives, the same man who wore a vengeful smile when he watched thousands die on TV, the same man who left us because, like the aches of a phantom limb, his homeland called for him. Let my mother’s name be there too, a woman who raised three children alone, who withdrew from us when memory coiled around her body, threatening to suffocate her, a woman whose passion compelled her to march south after her homeland had been reunited to teach, whose passion I inherited.

 The author’s wife sleeps on his hospital bed in a cancer ward. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The author’s wife sleeps on his hospital bed in a cancer ward. Courtesy of Drew Pham

When we mourn September’s dead, I will count those we’ve chosen to forget among them. I’ll remember the schoolteacher my unit killed in error, his grieving son, the villagers deprived of an elder. I’ll remember the man I shot in a fallow field, a man who fought to expel foreign invaders. I’ll remember a school full of smiling Afghan girls and the cast-off interpreters seeking refuge in the country that had used them and the men I fought beside, their rage and hatred, their love and compassion, their bodies and hearts tattooed with all the ailments and wounds and consequences of America’s longest war. I’ll remember my friends, those brave Afghan men and women, who I wish I knew were still alive. I’ll choose to remember a little beauty: my wife sleeping beside me in my hospital bed as my hair fell out. The way the sun broke itself over the Alasang Ghar Mountains. One of my men opening his palm to caress the heads of wheat as we moved through a field.

I build this monument for the children I’ll one day have, daughters and sons who won’t share my blood, but to whom my heart will open. I build it so they will not have to watch me shrink into silence like my mother or revel in atrocity like my father. I build it so that they will not be warped by the memories this nation chooses to make sacrosanct, so that when the time comes, they can imagine the forgotten dead to life—their kindness, their wrath, their yearning. The poet Guante says, “Don’t write a poem about war. Write a poem about what it’s like to stand in your brother’s empty bedroom.” So let them—let all of us see ourselves in the other, all the empty bedrooms of our lives. Let this be a monument to those details: the awns of wheat grazing your fingertips. A spatter of crimson paint or blood on a place of worship; feeling as if that paint or blood had been sprayed on you. The peal of a mother’s voice. A patch of skin, dotted with bits of stubble, fused to a tree in the Tangi Valley. What home looks like as it disappears into the horizon. What sorrow sounds like in the call to prayer. How blue the sky was, one day in September, how the hint of a chill mingled with the warmth of a dying summer. I build this for you, my countrymen. For my parents. For my children, in hopes that they will never feel they are the enemy, that they will never feel the need to prove that they too are Americans. And when cowardly men tell them to lay their bodies down at the altar of the sacred, silent dead, my children can say no.

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Drew Pham is a Brooklyn-based writer. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 with the 10th Mountain Division.

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Getting in the Game


Ross Cohen was trekking across Asia when the Twin Towers were attacked. When the call for war began, he cut short his planned year-long trip to sign up.

Getting in the Game


Ross Cohen was trekking across Asia when the Twin Towers were attacked. When the call for war began, he cut short his planned year-long trip to sign up.

By Ross Cohen

I logged online from a computer in the grand lobby of the Seman Hotel in Kashgar, China, to read about the whipping my football team, the Washington Redskins, had been dealt two nights prior during its season opener on Sept. 9, 2001.

The week before, I’d linked up with a high school friend, Paul, who’d been in China since June. After months of traveling solo, he and I were spending a few weeks in the same location, enjoying each other’s company over long chess games and endless glasses of sweet tea. Located in China’s far west, nearer to Baghdad than Beijing, Kashgar has stood for 2,000 years and once served as an important stop along the Silk Road. I was about four months into what I’d planned as a year-long, post-college-graduation trek through Asia when I went online that night to read about my team’s shellacking.  

I scrolled through ESPN.com and checked my email. The first words of a friend’s note read: “We’re under attack.” The subject line of another email echoed the same idea. I went to The New York Times website, and after an impatient minute waiting for the dial-up connection to load the page, an image of both towers in flames appeared.  

 Courtesy of Ross Cohen

Courtesy of Ross Cohen

Over the next few days, Paul and I wandered through Kashgar, dazed. Save for an anti-American German and her American boyfriend, who blamed the U.S. for the attacks, our fellow backpackers treated us gingerly. A group of Israelis, fresh from military service, bought us several rounds of drinks. A Kashgari woman whom Paul had befriended invited us to her parents’ home for a traditional meal of nuts, naan bread, and goat. Only his friend spoke English and Uighur, the language of the region, so conversation didn’t stray much beyond where we’d each traveled, what we thought of Kashgar, and what we thought of the food. (“It’s very good!” we assured them repeatedly.) I’m a Jew. Paul’s Christian. So along with our Muslim hosts, our group represented a diversity of the Abrahamic faiths and gave me a little hope that everything would be OK.

I spent hours online every day. On the 16th, I read that Paul Wolfowitz, the hawkish deputy defense secretary, had told PBS NewsHour that this new war would “take, as the president has said and Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld has said, a broad and sustained campaign against the terrorist networks and the states that support those terrorist networks.” Wolfowitz chose his language carefully. “A broad and sustained campaign against states,” plural, meant more than just a quick war in Afghanistan requiring only a few thousand troops and a few clandestine operations targeting al Qaeda cells in their rat holes throughout the globe. Wolfowitz, I knew, meant Iraq, which for neoconservative hawks, as I was then, was the whole ballgame. Toppling Saddam and installing a friendly, democratic, Western-facing regime would bring peace and freedom to the Middle East, I was sure. I imagined the happy faces of Iraq’s oppressed people as American forces liberated city after city from tyranny.  

On the evening of Sept. 18, my mind raced and I couldn’t sleep. Around 2 a.m., I tiptoed out of bed, picked up my Walkman, and left the small hostel room I was sharing with Paul and a stranger, both of whom were sleeping. Pacing up and down the hallway of the hostel, one thought kept repeating itself: I have to get in the game. Listening to the Tokens’ “A Lion Sleeps Tonight”—a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh—inspiration struck: I’m going to join up.  

 Courtesy of Ross Cohen

Courtesy of Ross Cohen

Over the following days, I browsed Army and Marine recruiting websites for hours, finally deciding to serve on active duty, rather than with a reserve component. My knowledge of the military, though, was based almost exclusively on World War II and Vietnam War movies. Should I follow Tom Hanks and the Saving Private Ryan crew into the Army, or the recruits from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket into the Marine Corps?

My Chinese visa was set to expire on Sept. 24, so on the 23rd, I crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan via the Torugart Pass, 85 miles north of Kashgar. I’d intended to wander through the ’Stans of Central Asia for the next few months, but spent only a few days in the region, cutting the trip short to fly home to Paris on Sept. 27. I had big news, I’d told my mom and dad, but that I wanted to tell them in person.

They picked me up from Charles de Gaulle Airport and drove us to an elegant, dimly lit restaurant. Seeking maximum dramatic impact, I kept quiet about my decision until we had sat down and I’d launched into the basket of warm bread. My parents looked expectantly at me. “I’m going to join the military.” I was 22. About to turn 23. My mom’s face, tense before I had spoken, relaxed. Her sense of humor took over: “Oh, thank God. I was worried you’d met a girl in China and wanted to marry her and stay there.”

They left town for a couple of days in early October, leaving me their condo, which was a short walk from the Eiffel Tower. With their permission, I hosted a “Party in Defense of Western Decadence” for my friends from International Herald Tribune, where I’d worked for two summers. Lingerie and furs were preferred. If I was going to fight for freedom, I wanted first to enjoy freedom’s benefits.

 Courtesy of Ross Cohen

Courtesy of Ross Cohen

On Oct. 20, I watched the Army Rangers jump into Afghanistan and seize a desert landing strip near Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual capital. These were the first American boots on the ground in the global war on terror, as far as the world knew. Army it was. 

I connected by phone with Sergeant First Class Joseph Esgro, an Army recruiter in Kaiserslautern, Germany, the depot nearest to Paris. I told him I wanted to do what the Rangers had done and asked if I shouldn’t consider going officer, a route that felt more appropriate for someone of my socioeconomic standing. I tried to camouflage my elitism by emphasizing that I had a college degree, lacking an understanding of how different the lives of enlisted soldiers are from their officers. But I wanted to be in the thick of the action, and when Esgro pushed the Ranger route, I deferred to his expertise.  

A few weeks later, my parents drove me and our cocker spaniels, Pattycakes and Zooey, the five hours to Kaiserslautern, where, over two mid-November days, I underwent a barrage of academic and physical tests.  

I told my recruiter I was colorblind and had been exposed to tuberculosis; he encouraged me to keep those facts to myself. An enlisted medic at Ramstein Air Base administered the colorblindness test. The recruiter stood behind him in the small testing room, holding up his fingers so that I could correctly identify the number found within the patterns of colored dots. “Four.” Got it. On our way out, the medic asked my recruiter, “You sure you want this guy jumping out of airplanes?”

On Nov. 14, 2001, I signed a Ranger contract, committing me to active-duty service for a term of three years, and hoped I had the right stuff to make the cut. Then I flew back to the U.S. for one last domestic trip, a two-month blue-city tour of America, including Boston, New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area. My mostly liberal friends thought I was crazy for enlisting but supported the decision; patriotism was in.

In the earliest hours of Jan. 11, 2002, I arrived in Fort Benning, Georgia, and jumped off the bus. Adorned by their iconic round brown hats, a group of drill sergeants stood beneath a banner that read, “Welcome to the Army.” As we hustled off the bus, they screamed at me to “Move! Move!

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In 2002, Ross enlisted into the U.S. Army, deploying to Afghanistan. He has served on multiple political campaigns and led vet employment programs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and at JPMorgan Chase.

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Time Stood Still That Morning on Parris Island


Joy Craig walked into the base's coffee shop and found people huddled around the TV. Then the second plane hit.

Time Stood Still That Morning on Parris Island


Joy Craig walked into the base's coffee shop and found people huddled around the TV. Then the second plane hit.

By Joy Craig

I was nowhere near Manhattan, Pennsylvania, or our nation’s capital on September 11, 2001. I was serving as a Marine Corps Drill Instructor, cycling a platoon of recruits through boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. New York City seemed to be a world away, but in a flash, what we were doing there, making Marines, took on an entirely new importance.

Of the four Marines on my Drill Instructor team, I was the first to learn about what was going on north of us. Our recruits were undergoing training in a remote part of Parris Island, and while they were learning how to use Crew Served Weapons, my Senior Drill Instructor sent me on a routine coffee run for the DIs.

I entered the base’s tiny coffee shop to find the barista and three Drill Instructors staring at the tiny black and white TV in the corner. I heard Matt Lauer’s voice, more cautious than normal, and I asked, “What’s going on?”

“Some jerk flew a plane into one of the Twin Towers,” a DI explained. Like many people I assumed it must have been a Cessna, but seconds after I looked at the screen the second plane hit the South Tower and took with it all the oxygen from our nation. It became instantly clear what was happening. Matt Lauer was silent. No one said a word as we scrambled to leave, to get back to our appointed place of duty, to spread the word and await orders. Surely there would be some sort of military reaction, and Marines are always at the tip of that spear.

We were no longer at peace and the conflict free years during which I’d served my country were finished; as much of the country knew, this act of war would bring swift change to the Defense Department. For most of my ten enlisted years we’d been quietly training for war, but the Marines we were making at Parris Island were the ones who would go out into the world and strike back. I spent the remainder of my 23-year military career preparing Marines as best as I could to do just that.

Earlier in 2017 I joined a group of military veterans and family members representing The War Horse on a guided tour of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in lower Manhattan. With the rigorous pace that Drill Instructors keep, I had done little to process my emotions back in 2001. Visiting Ground Zero, even years later, surfaced the grief, fear, sense of duty, and national pride I’d felt years before.

As I traveled through the museum, my emotions took their own journey, moving between anguish and pride. In the private alcove dedicated to those who jumped from the towers rather than suffer a fate they knew was coming, I broke down. I huddled in the corner wiping my tears as I imagined their last minutes and their deliberate decision to leave the world on their own terms. I began to weep and though I wasn’t embarrassed, I hoped my fellow veterans wouldn’t see me. I allowed the feelings I’d suppressed 16 years earlier to come to the surface and breathe. Catharsis at last.

I will never fully “recover” from the pain I still harbor from the events of September 11th, 2001, but visiting the memorial has helped me turn a page in my healing. I also understand that I’m fortunate to have the ability to heal. It isn’t as easy for those who survived the tragedy or lost loved ones that day, whether in the sky, at the Pentagon, or at Ground Zero. But for those directly affected I say, we are still with you. The people I know and the Marines I served with will never forget what you gave and lost. We still have your back.

•••

Joy Craig is an emerging writer and activist focused on veterans and women’s issues. Joy retired from the United States Marine Corps after 23 years of service as an Aviation Ordnance Officer and Drill Instructor. During her service she was awarded the Navy Commendation and Meritorious Service Medals. She’s spent the past two years penning the forthcoming memoir focusing on her experiences in the Marine Corps. Joy is a native Californian residing in the South Carolina Lowcountry with her two daughters. She donates her time coaching for Dragonboat Beaufort, a cancer survivor/supporter charity, and is an alumni of the Leadership Beaufort program.

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Header image by Anna Hiatt

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She Couldn't Imagine The Fear. She Could Imagine Walking Barefoot, Carrying Her Heels


Annie Erling felt like an interloper when she worked at the Holocaust Museum and again at the 9/11 Museum. Then she came upon a pair of bloodied heels.

She Couldn't Imagine The Fear. She Could Imagine Walking Barefoot, Carrying Her Heels


Annie Erling felt like an interloper when she worked at the Holocaust Museum and again at the 9/11 Museum. Then she came upon a pair of bloodied heels.

By Annie Erling

I used to think a lot about death at work. Most days working at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, I read about death in archival documents, but once every couple of weeks I’d sit down with a Holocaust survivor for three to five hours and ask them questions about the worst years of their life.

I’d start my interviews with softball questions: “Where were you born?” or “How did you celebrate Hanukkah as a child?” These questions darkened as the interview progressed: “What do you remember about the night your father was arrested?” or “When was the last time you saw your sister alive?” I had dreaded the hours I spent prying into their lives.

Recording these stories has been a race against time, and many of the survivors I interviewed in 2010 had waited 65 years to share their experiences. They were children during the Holocaust. Many had spent the war in hiding or with foster families in England, and they often dismissed their experiences. After telling me how they’d escaped Germany or seen their neighbors deported, they’d qualify the experience by adding, “But others had it worse.”

It wasn’t only that I didn’t possess the stomach necessary for this line of work, but I also felt glaringly out of place. I am not Jewish, I have no direct connection to this history; I was an interloper. I dug into survivors’ painful histories, asking them to relive nightmarish years, and it felt obvious that I had no right to be there.  

In April of this year, I joined a group of military veterans and spouses on a tour of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. The museum’s interior is a sharp contrast to the streets that surround Ground Zero. Approximately 70 feet overhead, chaotic Manhattan kept moving, but the Museum was quiet and calm during our tour.

We circled the Memorial Exhibition together, gazing at photographs of the 2,983 victims. At the center of a exhibit in a dark chamber, the names of victims were projected on the wall. Some names were accompanied by recorded stories about the person’s personality: their thirst for knowledge, famously bright smile, unwavering kindness.

Walking through the Museum with veterans—and one who had lost family on Sept. 11—reminded me of each time I had sat down on a survivor’s couch immediately before I asked, “Full name and date and place of birth.” I felt dread and shame; I didn’t belong there. Yes, I am an Army wife, but my short—and undeniably sweet—time as a military spouse is easily dwarfed by the experience and sacrifice of those in my tour group that day. Growing up in North Dakota, my life was decades removed from the Holocaust and thousands of miles from the ongoing Post-9/11 conflicts. I ended our museum tour in tears—overwhelmed by the devastation of Sept. 11 and embarrassed that I had somehow found myself an interloper, again.

What I didn’t fully understand at either the Holocaust Museum or at the end of my 9/11 Museum tour was that being an outsider never excluded me from the story. Despite the fact that I have no direct connection to either, the Holocaust or Sept. 11, I can still be an empathetic learner, an ally, and a teacher.  

When my contract ended with the Holocaust Museum, I stuck around as a volunteer tour guide. Twice a month, I’d lead local high school students through the museum’s dimly lit halls. They’d ask me questions that they would have struggled to ask a survivor, questions that I had struggled to ask survivors. The hours I had spent interviewing Holocaust survivors equipped me to teach an intimate history lesson. I was able to share a first-person account of Kristallnacht, describe how a Jewish teenager experienced Nazi propaganda, and add personal experiences to a history that can sometimes overwhelm learners with statistics and dates.  

At the Holocaust Museum, there is an entire room filled with shoes. The scope and smell of the collection is jarring: Shoes—all the same shade of gray—are piled six or seven deep and smell of decades-old leather softener. The room was always silent.

While touring the 9/11 Museum, I was struck by a bloodied pair of high heels on display. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Linda Raisch-Lopez kicked off her heels as she evacuated her office on the 97th floor of the South Tower. She exited the tower barefoot and walked several blocks uptown before realizing she was still shoeless.

The yellow heels held my attention for longer than any other artifact in the museum. Traces of Linda’s dried blood are visible above the heels of the shoes—this both shocked and captivated me. It is difficult for me to imagine the chaos and fear Linda must have experienced walking away from Ground Zero, but I can imagine what it must have been like to walk more than three miles barefoot or in heels.

Stories—even the smallest ones, like the story of those shoes—are important. My interviews with survivors were filled with small stories: birthday parties, first kisses, family meals. These stories add faces and names to some of the 11 million killed during the Holocaust, and have helped us—those who did not experience the Holocaust firsthand—relate to and empathize with survivors and victims.

Since April, I’ve tried to understand why I felt so out of place on my tour of the museum. I still struggle to understand these feelings; I want to understand them. And I think the answer might begin with those shoes.

•••

Annie Erling Gofus is a writer living in Washington, D.C. with her husband and dog. She is also a 2017 War Horse Writing Fellow. Annie earned a bachelor's in history from North Dakota State University and spent the first two and a half years of her career working with oral histories and archives at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Annie is proud to be the wife of a U.S. Army Captain.

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Header image by Anna Hiatt

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She Awoke to a Different World


Jenny Pacanowski burst with love of country when the planes hit, and that day awoke in her a new era of her life filled with compassion and rage.

She Awoke to a Different World


Jenny Pacanowski burst with love of country when the planes hit, and that day awoke in her a new era of her life filled with compassion and rage.

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.

 Flowers placed in the names of people who died on September 11, 2001. Photograph by Anna Hiatt/The War Horse

Flowers placed in the names of people who died on September 11, 2001. Photograph by Anna Hiatt/The War Horse

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. 

 

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Header image by Anna Hiatt

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Talking With a 9/11 Witness Helped Him Connect With History


David Chrisinger wondered if he was intruding on sacred ground when he visited the museum at Ground Zero. A conversation with a witness changed that.

Talking With a 9/11 Witness Helped Him Connect With History


David Chrisinger wondered if he was intruding on sacred ground when he visited the museum at Ground Zero. A conversation with a witness changed that.

By David Chrisinger

Sixteen years after the planes struck, I found myself standing in the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, staring at twisted stalks of metal, what was left of the front half of Ladder 3’s truck. And I felt something I hadn’t since I was 12 years old during a family summer road trip. We stopped in Montana to tour the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Lt. Gen. George A. Custer made his infamous last stand against an overpowering band of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors in 1876. Arriving at the museum, we were surprised to see the parking lot filled with cars and dozens of people standing around and chatting in small circles. Then my mother saw the sign.

It was June 25th, the anniversary of the battle, and this was a celebration to commemorate it. A devastating loss for the U.S. Army. A remarkable victory for the Sioux and Cheyenne. My father ordered our family back into the car. The memorial, he said, wasn’t for us, and it was better if we left it for people who had a stronger connection to it.

I thought about his words earlier this year at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum as my tour group approached the main exhibit space. We could see the rest of the collection on our own, at our own pace, our guide told us. If we didn’t feel comfortable touring the rest on our own, we could go to the end of the exhibit and meet up with our group near the exit. I started to move in that direction, feeling much like that 12-year-old boy in the back of my family’s tan Buick; something stopped me. There were people in our group who had been there, or who had known someone who had been killed.

And then something extraordinary happened: As I walked into the main exhibit space in bedrock, one of the people in our tour group started to talk to me about that day and what he remembered. What had it been like, I wondered; he didn’t seem to mind me asking questions. I was worried I was going to feel like I had stumbled into a stranger’s house and couldn’t find the door, but the person I tagged along with made me feel like an invited and honored guest. He seemed to want me to be there. He told me about the confusion of the early morning, the adrenaline rush of fleeing for safety, and the weight of the grief that hung over the city for years.

I look back now on that sunny day in June at the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn, and I wonder what might have happened if my family had made an effort to connect with the people commemorating the Battle of Little Bighorn’s anniversary. I wonder now if we would have met someone there like the person I met in New York City, someone who could have told us about their ancestors and what they did and how they were affected. Perhaps my family could have walked away feeling as humbled and gracious as I did when I left the museum at Ground Zero.

•••

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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Header image by Anna Hiatt