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A September 11 Memoir and How We Need To Take Better Care of Our Veterans- Op-Ed From The Editor

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From the Editor’s Desk: a September 11th memoir

From The Editor's Desk: West Chicago Voice; Digital news for locals by localsWhere were you on 9/11? It is a common question posed by people in my generation (Gen X) in the US, just as older people remember the attacks on Pearl Harbor on that fateful day of December 7, 1941.  I want to share my story and experience and tell you about the day I will never, ever forget. It was around 8:30 in the morning as I padded my way across the linoleum floor into the baby’s room. He had just woken up and was hungry. In my nightgown, I picked him up out of the crib and made my way into the kitchen to grab a quick bite to eat before getting him settled and fed. I sipped my coffee like any other day as the landline phone in our kitchen began to ring. As I grabbed it I heard my Mom in an excited voice talking quickly, I told her to slow down as I couldn’t understand what she was telling me. She was saying that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and they thought it was terrorists. Both of us imagined a small prop plane as the culprit and thought it wasn’t that big of a deal.  I walked up the stairs to our family room where the television was located, flipped it on, and began to nurse the baby. When I saw the destruction and smoke billowing out of the building, I thought this WAS a big deal, this was not some small private plane, and I called my husband with our cordless phone that was upstairs. The baby continued to nurse as I explained to him what was going on. He had just started a new job and he was in a big, tall building in the center of Chicago installing communications cabling. I asked him if he’d be coming home, and he said he didn’t know he’d talk to his boss. I returned to the couch around 9:00 am and it soon after that I saw the second plane crash into the buildings and goosebumps rose up on my arms. Our toddler had come into the room as I sat speechless with my hand over my mouth in disbelief. She pulled on my nightgown sleeve and asked me why I was crying. I hadn’t even realized I was crying until she said that. At the same time, the tears were streaming down my face I was still holding the baby in my arms who had fallen angelically asleep. I looked into the sweet and innocent face of the toddler, and then I looked down at the little one sleeping so peacefully in my arms and I thought, what kind of world am I bringing these little children into?

At that moment, the world absolutely changed. We realized that we, as a country WERE under attack. Fear built in my heart, and racing thoughts came into my mind, What do we do? Are there more attacks coming? I was a naive 31-year-old at that time. I was just getting inducted into politics and understanding the broader world in which we lived. Yes, I grew up with two war veterans in my life, My Grandfather, a World War II Army Combat Veteran who saw 3 theaters of World War II and received a Purple Heart, and my father, a Vietnam Army Combat Veteran who has received a Bronze Star for bravery and two Purple Hearts; but they both transmitted non-verbally, “war is not good” to me growing up in many ways and honestly,  I became very scared.

America, other than Pearl Harbor at the onset of World War II had never been seriously attacked. We had always felt safe like we were protected and nothing could harm us. We hadn’t faced terrorists to a large degree, other than a few attacks here and there, but nothing like overseas countries had faced. We thought domestic terrorists like Timothy McVey who did the Oklahoma bombing were the real threat. I don’t think we really ever thought about outside terrorists. But, everything changed that day. Nothing would ever return 100% to the way it had been before that day either.

Later that day as the little ones napped, I felt a need to go outside and hang up our American flag. While putting it in its holster, I looked down the block and saw EVERY SINGLE HOUSE with a flag hanging somewhere. Everyone had the same thought as me. My neighbor met on the front sidewalk with her flag in hand, as she had seen me outside and decided to hang hers as well; and we talked for a few minutes about how horribly the day had been. It was then that I noticed the utter silence in the skies. We are on a flight path of O’Hare airport and regularly hear jets overhead, we also have the DuPage County Airport nearby and hear small planes and helicopters overhead on the regular but that day… eerie silence. Nothing.   Planes had been grounded across the nation. Then I realized the silence actually reverberated across the land too. No ambient noise. No sounds of children playing across the backyards. The birds seemed to know because I didn’t even notice any of them. Even traffic on our normally busy street was virtually nonexistent. It seemed like a ghost town. By then, my husband had arrived home early from work. Security had shut down work in the tall building he was at ..just in case. We tried to maintain a normal life for our kids for the rest of that day so they wouldn’t pick up on the “big people’s problems”. As soon as the kids were in bed though, we parked ourselves directly in front of the TV for the rest of the night until we fell asleep in the wee hours,  soaking in as much information as we could absorb.

Over the next few days, we’d learn the true devastation of what the Pentagon and World Trade Center planes had caused in addition to the jet crash at Shanksville, PA -United Flight 93. We’d watch our president, George W. Bush assemble with the chaplain of the NYFD at the ruins of the buildings in New York, we’d watch him broadcast a message to Americans from the Oval Office. We thankfully watched Republicans and Democrats come together and sing “God Bless America” together on Capitol Hill. It became a time of unification. We came together as a country and everyone it seemed had bumper stickers of “United We Stand” and “These colors don’t run”. People instinctively donned FDNY hats and t-shirts, and fire trucks across the nation began sporting the American Flag in honor of those who lost their lives that day. Things that affected life as we knew it in America from there on out would change radically, some good, some not so good.

22 years later, we are still fighting the War on Terror. We are still facing homeland security impositions that try to make us safer as citizens.

“After the 9/11 attacks, the combination of fear and a recognition of various intelligence failures led to a range of policy changes that included restrictions on immigration, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and the expansion of the ‘no fly list’ from a very small number of people to thousands”- History.com

Since 9/11 I’ve personally known many military people who have been either killed or wounded and suffer PTSD from their experiences in OIF, OEF, and the war on terror in general. I am forever grateful for their service, and the fact that they have kept America safe since 9/11. My family owes a gratitude of debt to every single person who chooses to serve in the military post 9/11. Looking back on that day, I think there are heroes among us who don’t often get the applause they deserve, and in my opinion, anyone who chooses to serve post 9/11 knowing the risks and likelihood of deployment is truly heroes in my book.

The attacks claimed nearly 3,000 lives and impacted many more globally. On September 20, US President George W Bush declared a ‘War on Terror’ and stated that defeating terrorism was now the world’s fight. The US had experienced terrorist attacks previously, but none had been on the same scale or significance.- IWM.org UK

I think a memoir about 9/11 wouldn’t be complete without talking about our military. Since social media has become a thing and it’s helped spread awareness in society of many things even I was oblivious to before.

Unfortunately, I’ve become aware that 22 military veterans across all branches in the United States take their lives every. single. day. and my heart breaks for all of them and their families. We send our young people off to war and they come back different. We train them to kill and expect them to assimilate into society when they return. It’s a very unfortunate thing and our nation’s military is a necessary thing, but we need to remember, those people who choose to serve are human and not robots. They get affected by things they see and experience. PTSD sucks, it’s a very real thing and I have personally dealt with its aftermath on a veteran I love as a reality in my life.

In the past decade, I believe we’ve done a better job at taking care of our veterans with many changes to the military healthcare and V.A. system but it’s still not enough. Much more needs to be done in the area of mental health, especially with PTSD. I am glad open dialog has happened via social media and in public discourse about how we take care of our vets. If you’re a veteran in need of services for your PTSD, please learn what the VA has to offer you here.

I am thankful to those who choose to serve in light of these facts and the risk that another terrorist attack or threat will emerge. I’m thinking in particular of a boy who went to school with that young babe in my arms on 9/11, he is now of military age and the son of a friend of mine; and he has chosen to serve in the US Marine Corps that last few years, despite all that we know about the condition of the world in 2023. I personally thank his mom- my friend, a lot for his service and for expressing to him that we’re praying for him and thinking of him constantly. One of my nephews just graduated Army boot camp and another has served as a capitol police officer and now is a U.S. Marshall. I can never express my gratitude to each of them for their service to our country. I am also happy to see the new Main Street lofts in West Chicago will also be open to veterans who need a hand-up. This is evidence to me that we, as a society and community have realized we need to take better care of our veterans.

Recently my Dad, John M. Gray, a combat vet of Vietnam received a Quilt of Honor to recognize him for his service and to officially welcome him home. In that presentation at the Bureau County Fairgrounds, we were honored to hear from a female Navy veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq during her military service since 9/11 and it seems our veterans are still facing the same challenges our Vietnam Veterans faced. She spoke of how difficult it was to be away from her children and family during her deployments and of the camaraderie amongst military personnel. During that night’s ceremony and presentation of the quilts, I saw each of the 12 veterans that night look at each other with a knowing look in their eyes. A common respect was had amongst each of them even if they served in different branches. It was a quiet knowing, understanding, and respect amongst them. Now, It’s up to them to continue on a personal healing journey and I hope they will all find peace and healing over the coming years, as I wish that for each of our veterans who have served post 9/11.

It’s definitely a different world. A world in which we’ve been at war for over two decades. If it doesn’t affect you personally, with a family member or loved one away and deployed, we often go about our lives as if nothing is going on. We act like we are in a bubble and we forget about having military members actively deployed in the War on Terror that continues. I have not personally traveled to the 9/11 memorial but several family members have, that is on my bucket list for sure, and hope to get there soon to honor the victims that lost their lives. I leave you with the phrase, “Never Forget” although it may seem empty. Please never forget what happened that day, it changed our world and society, and we should never let our guard down so that it doesn’t ever happen again.

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