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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.

 
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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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