In summer 2005, I visited the Smithsonian’s American History museum in Washington DC with a couple of Marine friends. All of us were stationed in DC at the time. We were nursing wounds from our experiences in the Global War on Terror, and wandered around the museum admiring various pieces collected from our nation’s history.
I pushed one of my friends in a wheelchair because an improvised explosive device had shattered his leg; the same IED killed three of his friends. It had not yet dawned on me that a 9-11 exhibit might already be on display since it had only been four years, but we rounded a corner and there before us hung a massive American flag.
The room was crowded with visitors, many of them high school students. People were posing, laughing, and making funny faces as they took pictures. I was stunned. My friends were enraged. They turned to look at me. There we stood staring at the American flag that had hung on the side of the Pentagon days after 184 people were murdered on-site in this nation’s largest terrorist attack in history. We all thought: Is nothing sacred? Is four years long enough to forget? Is joking around appropriate in the face of such suffering and evil?
To be fair, these kids were young when 9/11 happened. They were probably 10 or 11 on that fateful day, and irreverence is often a part of youth, but they should have known better. Nearly 3,000 people perished that day, and countless more have died since at the hands of terrorists.
What We Saw that Day
My memories of that flag will forever be different from the majority of Americans and the rest of the world. While most remember it blowing in the breeze in news reports or when they visited the American History museum, I was there in person to see it. I saw it for the first time when, after volunteering at the Army base where I was stationed north of DC, I helped 400 grieving family members visit the Pentagon crash site shortly after the attack. I still see in my mind’s eye the gaping hole, floors collapsed in on one another, smoke rising from the smoldering ashes, the tormented faces of loved ones.
The intensity of seeing the site was amplified a thousand-fold by standing alongside agonized grieving family members; many of whom collapsed at my feet from the sheer weight of their pain. When those families visited for the first time after terrorists flew a plane into that iconic building, I struggled to keep military bearing while standing by in my dress whites, but it became impossible as tears streamed down my cheeks.