On September 11, 2001, the extremist group al Qaeda hijacked four airplanes and carried out attacks against the United States. Two of the planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, a third plane hit the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., and the fourth plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Almost 3,000 people were killed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which triggered what we now call “The War on Terror” and changed us all.
There is one question that binds us all “Where were you on 9/11?”
It doesn’t matter if you were young, old, rich, poor, man, woman, political, or not, the question applies to us all. For me, I was in a high school class called “Current Music”. Nothing about that class was memorable, until it was unforgettable. I wasn’t directly affected that day, and for the most part went on in my “normal life” for the next decade, until my world met up with the community of brave men and women who stood up to defend our country.
In 2010, I stumbled upon a small group on Facebook that was looking for volunteers for an upcoming fundraising event in Washington, D.C.- that group that was called Luke’s Wings. I sent a Facebook message to the admin of the group expressing interest in volunteering. I had no family in the military and no true reason to reach out and volunteer, but it just felt like something I wanted to be part of. The Facebook message I sent is now framed in my home office because that simple outreach changed my life. The Facebook admin was the founder of Luke’s Wings, who would later become my husband, and ten years later define a career path in fundraising and a passion for the military community that I never envisioned.
9/11 isn’t about me, my career path, or the story of “us”, but what I will say is that my husband was equally moved by the events of 9/11 – so much so that he started Luke’s Wings to support those who were returning from combat a different person. He felt that he could support them in their recovery with the vital gift of support from friends and family through complimentary airfare. Today, Luke’s Wings has proudly provided over 12,000 one-way tickets to reunite injured service members and military families around the world.
Along the way and over the years, I have learned so much about what is means to be a veteran and yet, at the same time, I know I could never imagine the half of it. I do know that men and women, better people than myself, made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our country and what is stands for. And because I didn’t have that bravery, I chose a different path. Through my ten years of fundraising endeavors to support our wounded warriors, I have spoken to tens of thousands of people and I am constantly struck by two major themes that are always present.
First, you don’t have to love the war to love the warrior.
There are countless opinions about why the war started, when it is ending, should it have ended already, what is the end goal, and on and on and on. I have met both former First Ladies Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, I have appeared on both conservative and liberal media outlets, and met with companies that range from cyber security, to gun manufacturing, to health bars, to donut companies. With each conversation, the constant theme is always “YES!” we should support our troops without any hesitation or question. It is a universal cause and commands, without much ask, the utmost respect for the men and women who voluntarily serve for our freedoms. Through my work with Luke’s Wings, I have seen military families destroyed by injuries, depression, suicide, financial hardships, and stress. But time and time again, these same families are the most humble and resilient people who always say, no matter the sacrifices, they would do it all again. Many of the most injured, the most changed, the ones who lost the most, are the ones, like me, who were sitting in a silly high school classes like Current Music when this all started. They joined the fight for our country when they were still practically children – and no matter our opinion on the outcomes or reasons – the warrior remains beloved. And thank God for that.
Second, there is a pride across generations in treating returning warriors better than past wars.
Over the years, I have tried to learn and understand the complexities of the United States’ combat history. The reasonings behind wars, the reasonings behind why people join, or are forced to join, the reasonings of governments and countries, and the reasonings for how we move forward “after”. What stood out from the very beginning of my work with Luke’s Wings was how the older generations – veteran or not- proudly supported the younger generation of returning veterans. They hold this close to their hearts because it did NOT happen for them. Vietnam era warriors returning home were treated disgracefully, left to struggle, and often still are. Whenever I start to explain the mission of Luke’s Wings, I can see a certain trigger in the eyes of Vietnam era adults – whether sadness at how they may have acted, remembrance of what happened to them, or gratitude that it is not happening again. Whatever the feeling- I believe I once heard it described as “collective guilt” – it is there. This is important to me because we can be certain that there will be future conflicts in which the United States of America will rely on a new generation of warriors to fight. How we treat our current returning service members will dictate who decides to serve. If these future generations see companies, non-profits, VA’s, governments, Presidents, everyday people like you and me, supporting our returning troops, it will have a tremendous impact on our next generation of warriors’ decisions. We cannot change history, but we can change the future.
If 9/11 has taught us anything, it is that a war is easier to start than it is to end. And so while we all wait for that end, let my experiences from naïve to entrenched serve as a reminder that, if all you can do is support our troops and the families that serve beside them, know that is enough. Many of us have turned our attention to the loudest crisis at hand in COVID19, but let us not forget those who are still injured, still serving, still fighting. God bless them, God bless you, and God Bless America.