Seventeen years ago, today, I was driving back from the base medical office to my shop after receiving some vaccines. It was a beautiful morning in North Carolina. Slightly on the muggy side, but the sun was shining and the temperature was perfect.
As was common at the time, I tuned to Howard Stern on the radio, and after a few minutes, he mentioned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. It was all he was talking about. I thought that it was a bit. He was doing tasteless schtick as he had always done.
I arrived at my shop, and walked into the rest of my platoon huddled around a small black and white, portable television, with mouths agape. Not 30 seconds after my arrival, I watched live, as a second plane crashed into the other tower. The news was quite on the sensationalist side with estimates of upwards of 10,000 people trapped in the upper floors of the burning buildings.
We stared at the news footage, listening to speculation about terrorist attacks, navigational failures, other possibly hijacked planes, and all of the other “guesses” that the news was making. We were interrupted by our commanding officer, telling us to fall into formation immediately, as the roar of F-18s and Harriers taxiing on our air station became more noticeable.
We were briefed about the two crashes in New York. Another crash into the Pentagon was confirmed. Yet ANOTHER plane was missing, last seen heading east towards DC. We were to be put into a state of full-readiness, returning to our barracks, packing our gear, and awaiting orders.
I was 20 years old. Most of my platoon ranged from 18 - 22 years old. We were confused, anxious, and scared.
We were not patriots.
We were kids. Kids that had volunteered to serve in the military during peacetime. Of course, we always knew there was a chance of something flaring up in the world, but it was simply calculated risk.
We were also safe. We were away from the high-profile targets. We knew we weren’t jumping on a plane that day to go to New York or Washington, so we returned to our barracks and turned the news on, watching the first tower collapse as it happened. We watched the second tower collapse. We witnessed the damage to the Pentagon, and anxiously awaited updates from our superiors. Some of us called our parents. Most of us stared at TV screens with our doors wide open in order to communicate with the rooms next door.
We were not patriots.
Almost 3,000 people lost their lives that day. Some were military, some were firefighters, some were police officers, most were civilians. They went to work that day expecting “another day at the office” that never was.
A lot of widows were created that day.
They weren’t patriots.
The term “Patriot” is generally defined as “a person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors.” I take issue with the fact that September 11th is defined as “Patriot Day”. It cheapens the day, and it detracts from the thousands of civilians who didn’t die “vigorously supporting their country”, but rather simply being a part of it. The police, EMS, and firefighters were not defending their country...they were supporting their fellow humans, risking (and ultimately, giving) their lives to help someone else in need. They should be honored with a less militaristic term. I don’t know what that term may be, but it isn’t “Patriot”.
This should be, quite simply, a day of remembrance. A day to memorialize those that gave their lives seventeen years ago in the act of helping others, comforting victims, or simply taking a flight to LA or making copies in an office. As a veteran who served during September of 2001, I do NOT want to be remembered on this day with a term that doesn’t apply to me.
My story of that day repeats itself all over the US military...there are at least 14,000 Marines that shared that same story on my base alone.
There are also at least 1500 widows and widowers that have different stories. Maybe less, probably more. It is hard to determine, as statistics aren’t reliable or widely available about the number of people that lost someone that morning, spouse, child, parent, friend, or otherwise. We see news articles about 2,997 American flags being placed in front of a school for Patriot Day, while disregarding the fact that over 10% of those killed weren’t United States citizens. Retail stores have “Patriot Day” SALES. Are you kidding me? Do the widows of the British, Dominican, Indian, or South Korean citizen get to save money on a new recliner and coffee maker if they don’t still live in the US?
Look, I know I’m on a soap-box here. I know that it is not and will never be “my place” to tell someone how to remember this day. I know that there will be disagreements on what constitutes a Patriot, so I can only give my own opinion, and you, dear reader, may take from it what you will.
I also know that I walked into work this morning, very much alive, not because I am a patriot, but because I was not on that day. Sure enough, there are printed signs on our bulletin board for today with sayings such as “Support our troops”, and it makes my skin crawl. Yes, the US (and many other nations’) military “fought back” after the fact, but on September 11th, 2001, the real heroes were the emergency services and others in the thick of it. The people to “never forget” are those that didn’t come home from work, and those that never saw that person return.
Support the widows.