September 11, 2001. I was teaching in exactly the same classroom I am teaching today. Ten years ago, September 11th started out a normal day; but it turned out to be anything but normal. Instead of our regular schoolwork, we watched the footage of planes crashing into the Twin Towers. We thought: How can this be happening? How can what we’re seeing on TV be real? Are more attacks coming? Some of the girls cried as the towers collapsed. They envisioned the lives lost with each new cloud of dust. The boys got angry. They expressed fury that anyone would dare to attack us on our own soil. Several decided right then and there to join the army. They described in detail the pleasure they would take in blowing away terrorists with a variety of weaponry.These boys—-ages 16 and 17—-their brains were not yet fully formed. Most of them had never traveled more than an hour from their homes. Now they were talking about traveling to the other side of the world to prove their American-ness; to prove their love for their country; to shoot people deemed to be enemies of the state; to rejoice in the “justice” of war.
I remember looking at them and saying, “It’s not going to be like that you know. It’s not like the movies. You will be changed in ways you can’t even imagine.” My warnings did nothing except make them doubt my commitment to our great nation. They told me I should support them in their fervor, their desire to fight for what is right.I could not rejoice at the thought of anyone going to war.In any U.S. city I’ve visited, I’ve seen the shells of men sitting on street corners. They are weathered–both inside and out. Their souls are shut down and their bodies blindly seek out anything they can find on the streets to numb the pain of remembering. These walking ghosts reek of more than just the stench of homelessness. They reek of war. Many of them fought in Vietnam. War kills men dead, but it also deadens the spirits of men who kill.I do not wish that kind of torture of the soul on anyone–especially not the young people in my classroom. Many of them are already feeling the pain of poverty, neglect, and abuse. They don’t need more memories of horror to haunt them. I felt like Willy Wonka, “Wait…Don’t… Stop.” Don’t touch that chocolate river, that dream of acceptance for acts of heroism performed in battle. Don’t risk your life now. You are just a boy who has no idea what the word sacrificereally means.But the fervor grew. President Bush pointed the finger at Osama bin Laden. Their dreams of glory-killing had a target. They were ready to march off to war, find his terrorist ass, and shoot it dead so that America could be safe again.
When the first boy turned 18 and graduated in May, he followed through with his fervor by joining the National Guard. This group of volunteer soldiers’ usual duties included helping our state in times of emergency. They sandbagged during the great flood of ’93, and assisted with tornado clean-up each spring. Now they were being shipped off to an international conflict. My former student’s job in that conflict did not involve seeking and destroying Osama bin Laden. He was not given the opportunity to achieve his dream of glory. His job was to drive a supply truck in Iraq from point A to point B each day. The opposing forces wanted to stop his supply truck from arriving at its destination. They didn’t want our soldiers to have access to food or ammunition, and they tried everything in their power to stop his truck from making progress. He drove that route twice a day for months.
The miracle of technology allowed him to call me at school, to tell me that he was still alive. He also emailed me a few times and sent me pictures of himself in his truck. Sometimes he sent me videos he’d shot of his life in Iraq; but they were always accompanied by a warning: “This is pretty gruesome. You might not want to watch.” After about three months, the calls stopped. The emails stopped. Instead, I got a handwritten letter. It was just a regular letter, but at the same time it was not. This letter came from a kid who’s academic talent was his ability to condense a five-paragraph essay into two lines, still getting his point across. He could answer any question in five words or less. A written letter from him? Not normal. Not normal at all. That letter was the last glimpse I ever really had of my former student. I realized after reading that it was a good-bye. The spirit of the boy I knew was gone, even though his body was still alive.
He came back from Iraq the shell of a man. He has been unable to hold a steady job for the past decade. He wanders, drifts, steals for a living, and searches for anything he can find to numb the pain of his experience in Iraq. He did not receive a medal for his heroism. What was the reward for his duty? He is eligible college tuition assistance under the GI Bill. After his experiences, though, he can’t handle being around people anymore, and therefore can’t cash in his prize. With no job, and no gas money, he can’t even travel to the VA Hospital for treatment (though even if he could, I don’t think his pride would let him.) Self-medication is less time-consuming and les stigmatizing than treatment for a mental disorder. Like many others, he’d rather be seen as an addict than as someone who is “crazy.”
Fallen Troops Since September 11
Since 2001, more than 2 million troops have been deployed as a direct result of the attacks on 9/11. Those troops come in every size, shape, gender, ethnicity, religion and sexual preference imaginable. Around 6,000 American troops have died since 9/11. Recent news stories state that August produced no casualties in Iraq, yet it was the deadliest month on record in Afghanistan.
Many of the troops who are lucky enough to return alive, come home with mental and/or physical health concerns. Many are struggling to fit back into their old lives with people who know nothing of what they’ve seen, felt, or done in order to protect our American way of life.
I’ve been reading a lot about this ten-year anniversary of 9/11 and the idea that Osama bin Laden’s death, along with the 9/11 Memorial, will help people come to closure. I encourage you to remember that for our troops and our veterans, there is no chance for closure. The effects of 9/11 are still present. Those who fought and continue to serve need us to see them, acknowledge their sacrifice, and help them in any way we can. For ideas on how to help, please visit the website for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (iava.org) and remember that those shells of men on city street corners may have become that way by fighting for you.
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