One clear September morning ten years ago, I woke up, kissed Jason, and headed to work. He was still on leave from a vacation we had just taken for our uncle’s wedding. We had flown home to Colorado from Pennsylvania the day before, and I had forgotten a meeting downtown, so I headed North to my office. Listening to the radio, I was confused at reports coming out of New York City. A plane had struck a tower? At first I thought it was pilot error. Now, I only wish it had been.
My sister and I worked only a few feet away from each other at Stewart Title, and we grabbed breakfast together and tried to figure out what was going on. It’s funny how being with Kate has always made me feel like we could face anything. Once the second plane struck, it was all too clear. The twin towers were hit. We had been attacked.
I am not from New York City. I did not personally know a single person who died in the terrorist attacks that day, and I cannot imagine the sheer terror of those who lost their lives. That beautiful, clear September day, those hours, changed my life, and countless other lives, forever.
The towers fell, and the tears rolled.
Smoke and ash. Running. Screaming. Terror. Across the nation, we were helpless, watching our fellow Americans live through an never-known before tragedy. The news kept playing the scene of the planes striking the towers. Of those who had jumped from the buildings. It was the kind of day where tears slipped down cheeks unnoticed. There were just too many to count.
Watching the devastation on television, almost two thousand miles away, I felt my reality shift.
Jason called. The entire unit had been called in. I still remember the feeling of my heart hitting the floor. In that moment, that’s when I knew: we would be at war. Never again would a tour in Korea or a trip to NTC be the worst we would imagine. There were lines that lasted four hours just to get on post. There were nights that Jason stayed with a friend on base because he could have only gotten a couple hours of sleep had he come home. There were rumors like a wildfire. When were they going? Where were they going? How much notice would they get? None of my friends had ever lived through a war. None of us had ever sent a husband to one. America was in its darkest day, but I never imagined it would be a decade of our darkest nights.
I keep hearing on the news that this is a time for healing. These beautiful memorials that are designed to help bring peace to those who are still grieving. Heal, yes. Forget, never. No, America has not forgotten. We, the military families cannot forget. How can we, when we are still living it every day?
Jason will spend the 10 year anniversary of September 11 fighting in Afghanistan. While America is healing, watching the water flow on those amazing memorials, the military families are still stagnant, still fighting the same war, unable to move forward. While those names of the victims are permanent and carved into the walls of the voids where the twin towers stood, we military families are watching our friends’ names carved into new memorials in an ongoing process. We wives are constantly on our knees praying that we will not see our husbands’ names etched permanently into granite. Our list has not ended, instead it keeps growing. We cannot heal, because we’re too busy trying to survive. Our memorials cannot provide us closure because they have room left at the bottom to add names. Our nightmare from that terrible day in September is ongoing.
In ten years, we have not had a moment of true peace.
Our family has lived this decade in fear. Sure, you can watch army families stand strong, but it takes a great deal of courage to take a deeper look and watch who is breaking, to acknowledge that this decade of war is wearing us down. Jason brought home PTSD from OIF 1. After he was wounded, he could not be in a crowded room, couldn’t hear the pistons firing on a garbage truck without cringing. I watched him reach for a weapon that wasn’t there too many times to count. It took him weeks to stop driving in the middle of the street to avoid IED’s. And we got off easy. There are men who have fallen apart. There are 19 year-old boys who are fighting their own battle even after they return home. These are casualties, yet there is no place to carve their names because they still walk. There are marriages that simply cannot withstand the pace at which the army has been driving us, and we have spent the last decade watching our friends’ marriages fall apart. How many times can you tear two people apart, have them live separate lives, and then stick them back together when the jagged edges don’t fit perfectly anymore? We are tired, exhausted from deployments, separations and from having spent the last decade watching the names of those we love carved into those memorials. We are still watching.
What has a decade at war done to us?
We cannot know peace. We may glimpse it in a sunny afternoon, watching our kids play in the back yard, grilling with friends. We may hold tight to it on a Christmas morning, alive with love in one another’s eyes. But each moment of that joy is easily lessened by the knowledge that it could be our last. We are just watching our days pass by, either waiting for Jason to come home again, or waiting for him to leave again. Always waiting. Even now, with Jason returning so soon from his third year-long deployment, we’re just waiting to flip the hourglass when he comes home for when he leaves again. Even when Jason is home, chances are that my brother is deployed. This year they were deployed at the same time. Twice the worry. No, there is no peace here. How can you heal, when you just keep ripping the scab off over and over? Each cut is deeper, wider, until there is nothing left of the perfection of what once was. So many of us are covered in battle scars. My husband wears them on his face, his neck, his arms, his torso, his legs. I, like so many other wives, carry them in my heart, my eyes, the choked back tears. My boys have lost any hope of a “normal” childhood. When Jason came home for mid-tour, Captain America rushed him, only to back off. To everyone else it looked like he was giving his little brothers a chance to see Daddy. Once Jason was gone, I asked him why he didn’t jump in there, why he was so distant. “What’s the point? He’s only home for vacation.” His response choked me. My God. One day, one clear September day has done this to us.
My children have only known war.
They have never known a certainty that their dad would come home. They have never held on to him and known that he would never leave them again. That must kill Jason, to know that he can’t promise them that this time he’ll stay. Captain America and The Hulk have both learned about the September 11 attacks. They both understand that’s why Jason is gone from them now, why he always seems to be gone. My boys, they are the ones who are paying the price. They pay the price every single day. You see, I knew what Jason did when I met him. I’m not an idiot. Though I never really thought he would actually fight a war, I always knew it was a possibility. But my little guys? They never had a say in this.
Jason and I went to Ground Zero over five years ago. I needed to see it first hand—needed to see the scarred buildings that had survived—needed to understand the depth of what had happened. I needed to be able to tell my children years later that while soldiers kept dying in Afghanistan, I liked to think that they were escorted to heaven by the souls of those who had died in the towers. I needed to justify it to them, to myself, that daddy was gone fighting a war half a world away so that it would never again happen here. So that it wouldn’t happen to them.
Nearly three thousand people were killed in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It is an utterly devastating number. Three thousand grieving families. It’s almost incomprehensible. Now add half of that again. 1756 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan in this decade-long war. It was 1755 when I started writing this yesterday. 1756 grieving military families to add to the roll call of those consumed by these attacks. If you add Iraq, add 4,474 to that list. Our memorials seem to be living things, growing, consuming more names. More lives.
It has been ten years since the towers fell, the pentagon was attacked, the flights were hijacked. Ten years that have shaped our lives. Ten years has brought me a marriage as strong as I could ever have hoped for, and beautiful children who have brought me immeasurable joy. It has also brought me fear, grief, worry. It has brought Jason shrapnel, pain, and the knowledge that he has missed years of his children’s lives. But we stand. We fight. We fight for our marriage, our children, and our lives. I am so proud of the rebuilding going on at ground zero. We are cracked and scarred but not broken. It would do no justice to those victims and those lost soldiers if we were to break.
To the families who lost their loved ones on that day, or the years that have followed, my heart aches for you. To those who are rebuilding, bravo. You are what makes this nation strong, and I admire you more than you will ever know. And to my love, my darling husband: One day you will walk in the door of this house, you will hold your children in your arms and you will be able to say that you won’t leave again. Until that day, we are here, waiting. Always.