Remembering September 11

Matthew Wilken

It was a Tuesday morning around 7:55 a.m. Amanda Kroeze walked down the hallway before classes begun at Clarksville High School and started telling us about something she saw on the news. It was my sophomore year, and even though teenagers think they know everything, I know now that I didn’t really know a thing back then. Amanda said she had just watched a plane hit a building on TV. Most of us who were there to receive that news were quite dismissive of her claim. I remember thinking that she had probably just been watching a movie or something. She seemed to be quite adamant that this event on the news actually occurred, so we turned on the TV in the economics classroom. As we did so, the news commentators were discussing how another plane had just crashed into the second tower. The twin towers of the World Trade Center were struck at 7:46 a.m. (CT) and 8:03 a.m., and we were just starting our day as oblivious, blissful, and mostly ignorant high school kids.

As we gossiped about what had happened, we received a message over the “loud speaker” that we were all to meet outside next to the flag pole. The principal at the time, Bob Saathoff, had us all assembled and delivered the news that it was a terrorist attack. I remember everybody taking a moment of silence for all of the victims and families involved, and then we recited the pledge of allegiance together. TV’s were on throughout the day during school hours as we gathered around them in an attempt to understand what was happening. Nobody knew who Al-Qaeda was, few could point to Afghanistan on a map, and we really had no clue as to why somebody would do that?

I joined the Army two years out of high school and met people in basic training who had been from New York City, and had witnessed the events in person. It was sobering to hear some of their accounts as they described in detail the smoke, screaming people, and chaos. Everybody had a story of where they were and what they were doing, and for most, it was the primary purpose for them having joined the military. Most stories were like mine; we watched it on TV somewhere or heard it through friends or family. The guys who actually witnessed it, they didn’t include where they were and what they were doing, because they were there and doing nothing else but reacting to what was happening in front of them. It’s hard to fathom how those individuals were feeling at the time as they may have had family that worked near those buildings. Maybe they knew somebody who had a morning jog route that went right past the towers. Maybe they knew somebody who was a first responder there. Their experience is vastly different than most. What about those who were passengers on the planes? Can you imagine the feeling of having no control of where this plane is going while you sit in your seat, scared for your life? And can you picture the passengers on Flight 93, who fought back against the Al-Qaeda members to regain control of the plane? Talk about bravery…my goodness. It’s easy, as I just did, to recount your own experience and what you remember from that day. I think we should do that, but also take time to think about all of the people who were there and lived through it.

There was a man named John O’neill, who was a counterterrorism expert and worked for the FBI. He spent most of the 1990’s studying, investigating, and tracking terrorists associated with Al-Qaeda (years before we ever heard of the group). He may have known more about Al-Qaeda than anybody in the U.S. at the time, and it is well documented that he anticipated the threat was coming to America. He retired from the FBI in 2001, as he met resistance with his approach toward terrorism, among other things. He found another job that paid much more, and he started this position on August, 23, 2001. Roughly two and one half weeks later, he was killed on the job…as the Head of Security for the World Trade Center in New York City. As tragic and ironic his story is, it should also be a warning. O’neill’s experience and the developments in Afghanistan today remind me of a quote from Plato, who died in 348 B.C. “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” 

Twenty years have now passed, and I still think about those conversations I had with people in basic training. I think about the training I received in the JFK Special Warfare Center and School from guys who were the first boots on the ground as part of ODA 555 (Triple Nickel). I think about the many years of studying and researching terrorism and how it has changed throughout the years. And I wonder how what we currently did in pulling out of Afghanistan, will affect us in the future. My hope is that it isn’t another John O’neill experience. The parallel being that he got out of the FBI and away from terrorists, as we pulled out of Afghanistan to distance ourselves from the conflict. In O’neill’s case, that conflict found him and reared its evil head right on his front door. I hope this doesn’t replay on a larger scale.

Again, it’s easy to look back and reflect on our own experiences. It’s much more difficult to think about how others experienced events. And if we don’t try to learn something while looking back, we might find history repeating itself. We have already had so many people die in vain on September 11, 2001. I pray we don’t have more. We should remember those victims, and all of those who have lost their lives fighting in their defense. But we should also try to reflect and understand what happened on a deeper level, so that we can move forward in a prudent manner. God bless. 


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