I first learned about terrorist attacks when I was 15, when five Americans were killed in simultaneous terrorist attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports. President Reagan ordered sanctions and moved military forces into action, and my dad – then a full-time Air National Guardsmember – talked with us kids about what we saw on the television.
Seeing how rattled we were, he talked to us about “situational awareness.” He spoke simply and plainly, letting his love for his country and his kids overshadow any grief or anger he might have felt. There was no need to be afraid, he said, as long as were aware of what was going on around us. He told us that the freedoms we enjoy in America are special, and that there are others who seek to destroy those freedoms. And that if we’re afraid, we’re not really free.
After that, nearly every single time I went anywhere as a teenager, my dad would send me off with a hug, look me in the eyes, and say “situational awareness.” We sometimes laughed about it, but between me and my dad, it became code for “I love you, please be safe.”
A few months later, following Operation El Dorado Canyon in the spring of 1986, I watched when President Reagan went on national television. “When our citizens are abused or attacked anywhere in the world,” he said, “we will respond in self-defense. Today we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again.”
Fast forward 26 years, past the Oklahoma City bombing, past the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, to the evening of September 11, 2001. President George W. Bush delivered an address after spending the day aboard Air Force One: “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”
Like many people that day, I called my parents. My foundation had been shaken, and I found myself needing to talk to my loved ones with more urgency than I had felt in a while. I worked very near a state capitol building at the time, and told my dad of my feelings of unease about going to work the next day. He reassured me that I would be alright, and he reminded me of the security and comfort that comes from having a plan and from being aware of what’s going on around me.
Nothing I could ever write today will deliver justice to the fallen, or ease the grief of the widowed, or comfort the child who lost a parent that day. But on this day, the anniversary of a day when our collective awareness of the world changed, I want to try to honor the words that my father spoke, and with them, honor the courage that he and another million-plus veterans have demonstrated with their sacrifices. Today, I am reminded to be aware of the blessing of my freedom and of what tremendous sacrifices have been made to gain it.
Today I want to honor those who died on that horrific day, and those whose hearts were broken. I want to thank those men and women who volunteered to help search for survivors, recover the fallen, and attend to the thousands of injured and suffering. I want to thank those who sacrificed their lives in Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom nearly every day since October of 2001. I will continue to be aware and thankful for my freedom, because so many courageous people have paid dearly for it.