Sometimes I feel like the internet is full of these kind of blog posts every September 11th. I know on my previous blogs I wrote about my experience on September 11, 2001. But, there’s something about the anniversary of one of the most defining moments in my lifetime that makes me reflect on that moment, my reaction and of course my subsequent thoughts and feelings.
As much as it seems redundant to share, I feel strongly that it’s important to do so. It’s not just ONE moment that has come and gone, we’re still dealing with it’s aftermath 13 years later. There are teenagers that never saw what we saw and felt what we felt. And, that’s why I feel it’s important to share these kind of narratives. Even though I wasn’t a first-responder, a direct victim or citizen of Washington, DC or New York City. It affected and changed me.
At the time of the attacks I was a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints serving in Crystal Lake, Illinois. Crystal Lake is a city located 45 minutes northwest of Chicago, it’s location gives it a quaint small town feel while being well connected to Chicago via the Metra and interstate. It was one of my favorite places to serve on my mission.
My mission companion, Elder Stevens from Price, Utah, and I had been serving together for a little less than two months. We got along great. In fact, our transition was probably the easiest of all my companions. We worked hard. We laughed a lot. We just clicked.
In addition to being my companion, Elder Stevens was also the District Leader in the area. Meaning, that he would keep tabs of the local missionaries, provide leadership to them, interview people for baptism and a number of other administrative things. Not as glamorous as one might think. It’s just more responsibility on top of your regular missionary work.
Tuesdays were our District Meetings in the area. We would have our meeting around 10:30am or so after helping some of the other missionaries with ESL classes at the church. So the day didn’t really start any different than any other Tuesday.
In fact I don’t really remember much leading up to our discovery of the attacks. I do however remember how beautiful that September day was, the leaves were beginning to change and there was a crispiness in the air. There are some things you don’t forget about a Midwestern autumn day.
While waiting for the ESL students to arrive at the chapel my companion and I stood outside with a group of missionaries just having a conversation. The students were late. They were two middle aged ladies, one who spoke Korean and the other Spanish. We were about to give up on them when the Korean lady drove up about 10 minutes late.
In broken English she apologized for being late and started to explain to us that an airplane accidentally flew into the World Trade Center. Our conversation was fairly light about it, because from how she described it, it sounded like a small two-seated airplane that hit the building. Something that you wouldn’t think of being a terrorist attack.
About five minutes later the Spanish lady drove up and added to our conversation. She was at home long enough to see more of the coverage. She saw the second tower get hit and collapse. Her English was much better than the first ladies so she had all of our attention.
We all went into the church and continued the conversation during the ESL class. We talked about our limited knowledge of the situation. We knew about the Trade Center and the collapse of one tower and the rumor of a plane hitting the Pentagon and possibly Washington, DC.
My mind kept racing about who was behind all of this. I wondered if other large cities were targets as well? What about Chicago? Sure we’re 45 minutes away, but what if something happened here? My focus on the ESL was elsewhere and my thoughts went back to home wondering what my family was watching on TV and how they were reacting.
We decided to hold District Meeting despite the fact that we didn’t want to be there. All of us wanted to figure out what was going on. We knew nothing besides a second hand report. Was all of America under attack or just the New England states? It was hard to stay focused until some of my questions were answered.
Once District Meeting was over we all went over to Applebee’s where the restaurant had their TVs on ABC’s coverage with Dan Rather. I remember sitting there in awe of the pictures of the pile of rubble where the World Trade Center once stood. I remember the near speechlessness that Dan Rather was in on air. It was difficult for him to paint the whole picture.
I remember feeling that THIS was MY America under attack! Why was this happening. By now we knew who the suspected group was. But, why? Why? Why? Why? It was very difficult for me to process.
In the following weeks we tried to keep up on the news and developments. Since missionaries don’t have televisions or access to the internet it was hard to know exactly what was going on. Our news mainly came from our Ward Mission Leader and other Ward members or what we could quickly read from a newspaper. I was mesmerized at hearing and listening to all of these first hand accounts. I wanted to know what happened.
The following week after the attacks the mood quickly changed. The shock turned into one of the greatest displays of patriotism I have ever seen. We would be driving around Crystal Lake and it seemed that there were American flags flying everywhere. There were rallies on corners where hundreds of residents stood waving the flag and chanting, USA! USA! USA!
Even now writing about that experience gives me tears and chills.
There was this pervasive feeling of national pride that I had never felt before. And, sadly, ever have felt again. You could feel others’ prayers and hope for our country and those affected by the attacks. The attacks were personal and these rallies were our demonstration that we wouldn’t be afraid or back down.
In the following month, Elder Stevens and I talked often about how this was going to change our country. We talked about how this was yet another sign of the end of times. He even shared with me his personal feeling that he would be involved in the succeeding war. And, a few years later he was.
About 6-7 years after the attacks, I even had a happenstance reunion with Elder Stevens on the campus of the University of Utah. I was there at Ft. Douglas at a leadership retreat and just happened to cross paths with him as he was getting ready to be deployed once again overseas. We met up later that night and talked for a while catching up with life as well as talking about our missions, our goals and future plans … and of course … that September day.
That September day changed many people. All of us in some way. Whether it was enlisting in the war against terror or simply appreciating our freedoms THAT much more, September 11th, 2001 has changed us all. Hopefully for the better.
I know personally that the attacks gave me a stronger resolve to be moved to action when my brothers and sisters need help. You can’t simply turn off the TV when you’ve seen enough. The pain, suffering, confusion and hurt still remains out there. And, if I can relieve any of that great or small, I feel it’s my responsibility to do so.
I have a deeper appreciation for the armed forces. I try to understand their sacrifice as much as I can, but I simply cannot. How can they leave all that they love and cherish and not be guaranteed to return home to see them again? What kind of courage does that take? I can’t understand that sacrifice. But, I am eternally grateful for it.
Additionally, my love for this country is deeper. I took it for granted growing up. I didn’t fully understand the freedoms or liberties I took for granted daily. And, regrettably I probably still take for granted.
Even now as I look back to those events I know the future will undoubtedly include more attacks. Without going into politics, there are still people in this world that hate our country. They want to see the destruction of foundation and will do anything to make that happen..
That’s why it is important for us to stand up and not let that happen. We’ve got to be a people of morality, integrity and civility. We need to be defenders of our liberties and fight against those that try to take them away. We can’t fight that war passively.
My prayers and thoughts go to all those affected by today and still feel that sting of loss. Also to all those that lost their lives fighting for this country after answering the call to action. And, of course to Elder Stevens and all the armed forces who followed their hearts and had the courage to fight.
There are simply too many heroes to acknowledge.
GOD BLESS AMERICA.