Peter Daou has an excellent piece up on how the story of 9/11 is really about how we, as humans, confront our own deaths, and thereby our own humanity. From my perspective, Daou is pretty much spot on. I know for me, my entire adult existence is defined by 9/11 and the way it has forced me to deal with mortality.
I was a junior in high school on September 11, 2001. On the precipice of what society considers adulthood, however flawed that norm may be. I was at my first class, held in our library, when a biology teacher entered and told us we should turn on the TV. The two towers loomed over the Gotham skyline, smoke billowing from one.
We didn’t realize our entire world had changed forever. As we stood primed to exit our adolescence, the rest of our adult lives (up to this point, at least) would be defined by what unfolded the rest of that morning, and more so how our country and the world responded to it. When another plane struck the second building that would begin to become clearer.
I grew up in a rural town in Northwest Florida that more closely resembles Alabama, where my family is from. I didn’t know anyone in New York, Washington or Pennsylvania, nor did I know anyone who knew anyone in any of those places. As a community, we didn’t witness the direct impact of those events. But we shared in the mourning as Americans. As a country, we spent weeks in an existential haze as we contemplated what was lost: a generation that saw our homeland as impervious to threat—that never had to confront the realities of conflict beyond small contingents of uniformed personal sent to abstract places to fight short engagements. Then it became different. We had to consider not only our own mortality, but also the mortality of a nation.
Less than two years later, I found myself training to become a soldier at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. We had been at war in Afghanistan since October 2001. For reasons still unclear, we involved ourselves in Iraq six months before I was issued my first pair of leather boots. War was still abstract, even to the Army it seemed. Combat patches were rare, and those that had them usually earned them over a decade earlier. War was conceptual. It was something we were training for, but something not many had experienced as reality. I spent the following two years in Korea, and most there had never deployed either. Towards the middle of that tour, things started to change. Anyone who arrived that wasn’t straight from boot camp was straight from Iraq. And there was often a social segregation. Those who had earned their combat stripes gravitated towards one another, leaving those of us who had not on the outside wondering what it had been like. They spoke of places with strange names, like Basra and Mosul. Places that we would all know soon as the locales that dominated our media cycles.
By the time I got to Fort Bragg in 2006, combat experience was no longer an anomaly. I was the anomaly—a noncommissioned officer without a patch on my right sleeve. Having at least one, usually multiple, deployments notched in your belt was the norm. And as expected, I did as the Romans did. I went to Afghanistan in February of 2007, five and a half years after we first confronted our national mortality.
I don’t know how others experienced combat, but I remember when it became real. The exact moment. I was working in our battalion tactical operation center (TOC). A member of our scout platoon had been wounded in action. A vital artery was penetrated in his neck and he had to be evacuated to Germany for treatment. He survived. But they brought the gear that had been removed from his person to the TOC. I looked at it. It was filthy. Our guys had only been outside the wire for a few days. “How did he get that muddy in just a couple days?” I thought. I continued to examine the kit from across the room. Then I realized: it wasn’t mud on his body armor. It was blood. Lots of blood that had stained in an obvious stream from the neck wound down the length of his torso. That was his life. His mortality had poured from his neck while his buddies fought against a wound and a clock to keep it in his body. This was what war was. I was in a war. People were going to die.
And people did die. I was in a support role in an infantry battalion. I had a few close calls, few enough to count on one hand. My life wasn’t in daily danger like the guys on the line. But it was as if someone decided, and I wouldn’t dare to argue against it, that because of my relative safety, it was an imperative that I be as close to death’s aftermath as possible. In exchange for my own life, I was to carry the burden, so much lighter it makes me nearly noxious to even discuss it, of understanding what these KIAs meant in however real a matter I could. I helped carry one onto a C-17 in a flag-draped transfer case to go back home to his family. I was tasked with inventorying their personal effect, down to the last unwashed sock, the last photograph of their children, the last letter from home, the last letter home unsent. These were all randomly assigned tasks. Somehow, my number kept getting called for them. It seems absurd to call it coincidence that I was tasked to any death related detail.
My deployment finished and I came home. I spent a couple months at Fort Bragg and then left to go start a new chapter. It was time to go to school and become a professional. Time to leave the world where death stalks incessantly. School was to be a safe place of knowledge, where threats weren’t waiting for you everywhere. Where you didn’t have to worry about people being killed in close proximity to you.
That changed on February 12, 2010. As I sat in a conference room for a club meeting in Morton Hall, a biology faculty meeting took place a few buildings over. Part way through the meeting, a faculty member who had been recently denied tenure drew a 9mm pistol and began shooting her colleagues. Three were killed, three others were injured. Coincidentally, that teacher pled guilty to capital murder this morning.
That shooting impacted me in a way similar to how I faced 9/11. I didn’t know any of the victims, although one of my previous teachers was in the room and escaped unharmed. But I was affected profoundly. School was not the bastion of safety and knowledge I had taken for granted. That ideal concept was shattered irreparably in that faculty meeting. If death waited even in an institution of knowledge, it waited everywhere.
I don’t mean to argue that a college campus in North Alabama is as dangerous as Afghanistan. However, the randomness of life and mortality await us everywhere. And the experiences of 9/11, a deployment to Afghanistan, and a school shooting have made that profoundly clear to me.
That may sound grim and depressing, but I see it as the opposite. As Daou wrote in his piece, “we are not fully alive until we have pondered the mystery of death, until we try to face life and death with courage and dignity. The encouraging and inspiring lesson from September 11, 2001 is that it is possible to do so.” Having encountered death many times in my short adult life, I without a doubt feel more alive each moment of everyday than I did sitting in a high school library at sixteen.
Richard Allen Smith is a Web Communications Specialist for the Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Richard served on active duty in the United States Army from 2003-2008 and deployed to Afghanistan with 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division in 2007.