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Commentary: Remembering 9/11, 21 years later

  • Published
  • By Col. Jeffrey Holland
  • 75th Air Base Wing commander

This year, we stand 21 years removed from the fateful day of Sept. 11, 2001.

Do you remember when you awoke on Sept. 11? Do you remember going about your normal business?

More than 17,000 people went to work in the World Trade Center buildings that morning. Nearly 20,000 people filled the Pentagon’s halls. Hundreds of people boarded planes, assuming uneventful journeys lay ahead. The biggest news of the day was Michael Jordan’s return to basketball after a stint attempting a baseball career. In New York City and Washington, D.C., police, fire and medical personnel did what they always did serving and saving their communities. It was, in every way, a normal day.
Do you remember the moment the world changed, as that first aircraft barreled into a World Trade Center Tower? Do you remember emergency personnel’s immediate response? They began flowing towards the danger, not knowing how severe it was, only knowing it was their duty, their calling to help. Even off-duty first responders, having heard of the attacks on radios or seeing them on TV turned to help. And help they did – 87% of the towers’ occupants and 99% of those below the impact floors, evacuated to safety.

Do you remember when the earth shook and the sound of an avalanche echoed through Manhattan’s concrete canyons as the first, and then the second tower fell? Do you remember the people who lived and worked on Manhattan, desperately searching for safety?

Do you remember the hundreds of watercraft that answered the Coast Guard’s call and completed the largest maritime evacuation in history, taking more than a half-million people from the island? Do you remember how the recovery effort continued, day and night, until May 30, 2002, when the last column of the fallen towers draped in an American Flag, was carried away from the site?

Do you remember when our fellow Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, defense civilians and contractors, working in the halls of the Pentagon found themselves on the front lines? Do you remember the reports of Flight 93? The calls being made from the aircraft to loved ones? The passengers’ collective decision to intervene?

Do you remember how, over the course of a single morning, the nation changed? We found meaning and inspiration in service to others. We refocused on what we felt was most important, often investing more in relationships with family and friends. Do you remember how life felt different?

For much of the last two decades, those memories were alive because we kept them so. Those memories motivated our actions and, because so many of us shared those memories and a commitment to them, they shaped our lives. If we want to keep the memory of 9/11 alive, to truly remember it, we must do more than merely observe its passing. We remember 9/11 when we, like the 412 first responders who lost their lives that day and the hundreds more who continue to deal with long-term effects, seek first to help others.

When we see and celebrate the greatness in those around us, we remember. When we show compassion to those among us struggling, personally or professionally, we remember. When we lift the downtrodden, the depressed, and mistreated, we remember. Let us keep the memories of the fallen alive, focused not on the tragedy of the attack, but on the beauty of our response and the opportunity we still have to use our memories to propel us to a better future.