My desk is scattered with notes. Scribbled passages that let me peer into my life; the notes show everything—people, places, events—that I consider to have been affected by the events of September 11, 2001. Over the past decade, the events that day put my life on a trajectory; moving me through Iraq, and then stateside, carrying a sense of the attacks with me, determining the majority of my adulthood.

Even at 17 I knew our lives, as Americans, as global citizens, had changed dramatically. As the towers imploded, covering lower Manhattan with ash and rubble, as the Pentagon burned, and as Flight 93 hurtled into a Pennsylvania field—the loss of life was so foreign to me. So many people—they woke up that day, and then they were gone. They were numbers. After it happened, there was despair. Then there was resolve. It was pervasive—there was just this sense of being an “American”—from storefronts to living rooms to classrooms. And walking down the street in my Army uniform didn’t seem so isolating for once. Then, three years later, as we collectively began shelving the pom-poms, I left for Iraq—to a world where warfare had suddenly flourished in the aftermath of 9/11and the sense of community began to fade.

The blood on the floor is what stopped me at the entrance of the emergency room in Balad. It had been smeared across the floor; soles of combat boots trampled through it, leading to two injured soldiers. One was unconscious, the other lay still. A general officer I had been snapping photos of that day shook the hand of the conscious soldier. He told the story of the firefight they had just been medevaced in from. I stared at the other soldier wondering if he was going to make it. I would never find out.

As the years pass, the image of those two soldiers is etched in my mind like the ink on my arms. The drenched floors a reminder of our bloody decade. While many have removed their yellow magnets and equate 9/11 with inconveniences at the airport, Veterans and servicemembers don’t have the luxury of tossing it aside. The scars of that day and the 10 years that have followed are still fresh for those who’ve scanned sectors and heard the whistle of incoming mortars.

This past Sunday I attended a Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball game in Washington, D.C. The players, all post-9/11 Veterans and active duty soldiers who lost limbs while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, took to Nationals Field after the Nats-Mets game. The game was 20 bucks and five went directly to the team; spectators who had tickets for the major league game could stay to see the wounded Vets play at no additional cost. The park even ran a special: five-dollar beers and announcers enticing the crowd to “Stick around and see America’s heroes take on the D.C. Celebrity team.” But the stadium emptied. Spectators decked out in red, white, and blue walked with their kids to the exits.

During the wounded warrior game I couldn’t help but look into the stands. A few sections remained open and were sprinkled with family and friends and a few fans shouting as the wounded warriors racked up points. Three Washington Nationals players eventually made their way to the field. Men with more determination and heart than most I’ve met deserved more than just a smattering of fans, I thought. Their injuries, many the consequences of 9/11, proved anything but unifying this past Sunday.

While the country reflects this weekend on September 11, sharing stories of where they were and who they were with, let’s not forget where it’s brought us. We are a country whose past decade has been shaped by violence. We’re on the heels of two long wars. We’re all battle-fatigued—most figuratively, some of us literally. So I get the lack of reverence and unity on some level. But as a country, we really do owe it to our Veterans not to turn our backs on them.

So I’m taking my own advice: I’m not looking back on September 11, 2001 this year, but I’m not forgetting, either. I’m just choosing to look forward. My notes sprawled across my desk act as the reminder. And I think of the Wounded Warrior Softball team—an inspiration to me, and an example of resolve, of resiliency. If they can do it, we can do it.

VA photo by Robert Turtil

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10 Comments

  1. Pattie Matheson October 15, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    Great work! You’ve got a book in you ya know – my bookcase only has two by female Veterans…..

    I’m so sorry you and America’s Wounded Warriors saw such a disappointing show of support. And, I’m sorry to say that according to a survey I recently read about 75% of Americans have tuned the wars out — if indeed they were ever tuned in.

    So here comes the cynic in me. I believe America won’t come together again until we are threatened on our own ground again. I fear big trouble will come, you can see it building now. And I hope I’m already gone when it comes because people like me won’t stand a chance of survival.

    ~P~

  2. Frank September 13, 2011 at 10:46 am

    My father, a WW2 Veteran is dying of cancer. He applied for benefits for Aid and Attentance back in June. Because of a clerical error, his claim was denied as his medical expenses were not considered.
    I sent the VA a letter about 2 months ago explaining that it was urgent due to him being 86 years old and having cancer…no response.
    More recently, I inquired through an IRIS email, again reiterating that my father is terminally ill. Again, no response.
    Does the VA do this to wait until after the Veteran dies to process his benefit claim? I am understanding what they mean when they say, “deny and delay until I die”.
    I think my father at least deserves his benefits before he dies. He deserves to die with this dignity.
    While it is highly unlikely, If there is anyone at the VA who cares, they can respond to
    frankcancer@mail.com

  3. Danielle September 11, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    Well said, Kate. I wish I’d been able to stay Sunday for the Wounded Warriors game. The pics were fantastic.

  4. Coral Levang September 11, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Oops….
    USN 1977-1989

  5. Coral Levang September 11, 2011 at 9:55 am

    Excellent piece. Excellent comments.

    I am ever-reminded of the link between us–all Veterans–and the profound impact that service has on all of us for whatever reasons we joined.

    Thank you for writing this. Thanks to all who have commented. You each are my heroes and I’m proud to have served “with” you.

    Coral
    USAF 1973-75
    USN-R 1976-77
    USN 1977-79

  6. Keith Simmons September 10, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    I am a U.S. Navy veteran 1976-1996

    On September 11, 2001, I was starting my second day in new employee orientation at a VA hospital as a police officer. Thoughts of TWA flight 800 came back. Original thought of that accident were terroristic until proven otherwise. I was the second administrative officer for that recovery and savage operation. My heart went out to the families and supportive friends as they gathered on Long Island, NY.

    Now it has happened, a terrorist attack on U. S. soil. My job then was the protection of those that protected us, the U. S. veteran seeking care and treatment. Again, even at a distance, my heart went out to the families and supportive friends as they gathered in NY.

    Let’s never forget the catastrophic events and loss of life on September 11, 2001, which propelled many Americans into action for the love of this country, America.

    God bless us all!

  7. Darrell Kocha September 10, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    I left the service last year, having made the decision to separate after ten years in Iraq during the summer of 2007. I disagreed with the war, but still did my duty, and the seething anger and resentment I felt at the time still smolders underneath, although it was largely dormant until the recent barrage of 9/11 coverage.

    That said, I feel a closer bond with fellow veterans who went down range and with whom I disagree on the war politically than I do with civilians who share my political views. Shared experience is stronger than shared philosophy, and spilled blood runs thicker than spilled ink.

    They will never understand. We all only have each other.

    • Darrell Kocha September 10, 2011 at 7:19 pm

      Ten years in the service while in Iraq, I should say. I did not spend ten years in Iraq, obviously.

  8. Anthony Harris September 10, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    I am United States Air Force Veteran 01-07. I was born in the Philippines with an American father. Ever since I was young I have always wanted to follow the footsteps of my father… to be an American Soldier. It was my family’s tradition and is my calling. I was 17 years old when I joined the military. I literally dragged my mom to sign the waiver at the recruiters office. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

    I remembered 9/11 clearly like it was yesterday. The planes, WTC crumbling, people crying, the alarm on base, the F15s frantically taking off side by side…mama crying on the phone… It was a very tragic day. So many lives lost in just minutes… It changed me and so did most of the men I served with.

    To remember those who have passed, I carry a flag with me always and wear my desert boots with my dog tags on them. I wear them everyday and everywhere. I wear them to remind me of the sacrifices of my father, of those who have died serving and are still serving. To remind others that freedom is not free and that there always be people standing guard, making sure we all sleep well at night. God Bless the men and women in uniform and God Bless America. NEVER FORGET

  9. Rob Grant September 10, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    I’m a US Army Veteran served 1967-1970
    I can’t watch the 9/11 news reports.
    I remember standing on the NJ side of the Hudson looking across at the smoke from Ground Zero!
    As a Patriot Guard member I have attended too many funerals of brave American Service Men and Woman.
    Proudest moment was standing in a Newark Airport hangar, awaiting the arrival of a brave American Soldiers remains, looking at my Grandson Tommy standing proud, speaking with a Vietnam Veteran who was soon going to deploy to Iraq.
    A year later, welcoming him home at Mcquire AFB , watching as he hugged his wife.
    Feeling the greatest satisfaction when they reported that Osama bin Laden was dead.
    Knowing that I live in the Greatest County the World has ever known.
    A US Flag will fly proudly from my Window.

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