OPINION: 9/11 changed America



This year marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In the past week we’ve seen countless television specials and read innumerable columns on that day which saw 2,977 people murdered in the deadliest-ever terror attack, the attack that launched wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that became our nation’s longest, with thousands more casualties.

This 20th anniversary is especially poignant with the end of what became known as the “Forever War” in Afghanistan.

Over the course of the last two decades, more than 800,000 American servicemen and women have served in those combat zones. Thousands were killed and tens of thousands more wounded. The casualties aren’t limited to Americans. Our NATO and non-NATO allies have likewise suffered, with Britain, Canada, Germany, Poland and Spain suffering significant losses.

Few of us over the age of 30 will ever forget what we were doing on that Tuesday morning 20 years ago. That day was a generation defining moment. Just as Nov. 11, 1918, was for my grandparents, Dec. 7, 1941, was for my parents, so 9-11 is for my generation.

A sense of naivete, a sense of invulnerability for Americans ended that day.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s left the United States as the world’s only superpower. China was yet to become the economic and military behemoth that it is today. North Korea had yet to develop nuclear weapons. Iran and Iraq had fought to a bloody stalemate with neither side victors.

The years immediately preceding the attacks of Sept 11, 2001, had seen a drawdown in military forces worldwide and cutbacks in military spending. A friend, who had left a career he loved as an active-duty Marine Corps officer for the reserves, told me he left active duty, “Because peace was breaking out everywhere.”

In the National Guard, while our role as a disaster response force hadn’t changed for floods, hurricanes and forest fires, our military role as a strategic reserve to defend against a European attack by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies had disappeared. We were in search of a mission. That all changed on 9-11. It changed as so many other things did.

The relatively casual security at airports disappeared overnight. The typically raucous and divisive political debates vanished as virtually all Americans forged a bond in the aftermath of the attacks. Flags lined the streets and red, white and blue bunting draped windows. There wasn’t a flag to be purchased (anywhere).

With no military draft and no political will to institute one, tens of thousands of National Guard and reserve troops were mobilized to fill the ranks of the military. Even though public support for the war in Afghanistan waned after nigh on to two decades, support for the military never faltered.

Even though I no longer wear a uniform, I still have people thank me for my service when I happen to wear my veteran’s ball cap or my Army t-shirt or they spot my veteran’s license plate. It never fails to cause me a start.

I smile and say “Thank you. It was my privilege,” and go on about my business. It was my privilege. It was my privilege to serve with the finest soldiers and airmen in the world. They, for little pay and less acclaim, risked life and limb in a far-away war.

I can tell you of the 19 soldiers I lost in combat zones during my five years of command. I can tell you their names. I can tell you their ranks. I can tell you their hometowns. I can (also) tell you of the grief their families endure.

What I can’t tell you are all the ones I’ve lost since they’ve come home.

Oh, I know some. I know one who ended his struggle with a 45 caliber pistol. I know one who ended his struggle with an empty whiskey bottle. I know one who ended his struggle with a 2 a.m., 100-mile an hour motorcycle ride. I know there are others. Others who’ve slipped through the cracks. I know there are 22 veterans a day who end their lives.

Let us work to honor the memory of those lost on 9-11 and those lost since then by tirelessly working to end the loss of 22 veterans a day to suicide.

(William Enyart is a former U.S. congressman for Illinois’ 12th District and retired two-star general with 35 years in the military serving in the U.S. Air Force, ultimately serving as Adjutant General of Illinois, commanding both the Illinois Army and Air National Guard. He started his working life as a member of UAW Local 145, Montgomery, Ill, where he and his father both worked for Caterpillar Tractor Co. The Enyarts live in Belleville, Ill. You can listen to his blog posts at https://www.buzzsprout.com/1089968).


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