Ten years ago, an entire generation was marked by the horrific events that took place on a Tuesday morning. Three thousand fifty-one children lost a parent. High-school students gathered around televisions in classrooms, before leaving school for the day, stunned and afraid. At my college, an hour and a half from New York, we held a candle-light vigil in the evening — grieving the nation’s losses, and asking ourselves what was next.
As a class, we’d experienced two decades of peace and prosperity. The ’80s were already part of our nostalgic pop culture, the ’90s a seeming “holiday from history,” as Charles Krauthammer put it. We’d spent the week before September 11 debating what classes we should take — “Women, Food, and Culture,” or “Movie Physics,” or “Science in Novels”? After the attacks, many of my classmates asked themselves, perhaps for the first time, whether a career in government service — the State Department, the military, the CIA — might be for them.
Three years later, when my class graduated, the memory of September 11 had already started to fade. A few of my classmates, though they’d been gung-ho in the weeks following that traumatic day, had returned to career paths in investment banking and consulting, the most popular choices after our commencement speaker (who gave a clichéd anti-Bush tirade) finished up. (Plenty of students nodded their heads to the easy jabs at the president, yet conveniently ignored the part of the speech where he trashed a culture that worshipped only the gods of “commerce and money.”) We were a nation at war in two countries, yet the most visible signs of the War on Terror had become long lines and annoying security measures at airports. Collectively, it seemed, we all wanted history to take another vacation.
There are those, though, who didn’t choose to take a break. They are the men and woman who decided to serve in government. Over 2 million veterans — as well as the contractors and diplomats, who are often overlooked — who have spent the past ten years at war.
The ten-year anniversary got me thinking about the best ways to show our appreciation for them — beyond thanking them for their service in an airport. Because in a 2010 Veterans Affairs study of veterans who had been deployed to these war zones, over half of respondents reported “some” to “extreme” difficulty reintegrating into civilian life. The study estimated 41 percent suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Post-deployment, a third reported increased substance abuse and anger, divorce, and dangerous driving as problems.
Hundreds of charities have sprung up to help the veterans and those who lost loved ones on September 11. One of the most innovative organizations is Team Red, White, and Blue. The non-profit is a veteran-support group building one-on-one relationships between wounded veterans and their supporters. A Team RWB mantra: “We do not view success in terms of dollars raised, but by relationships maintained.”
It’s a lesson, perhaps, that time is sometimes worth more than dollars. As combat operations wind down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Team RWB founder Mike Erwin, an Army major who served in multiple deployments in both theaters, believes your time is the best way to say thank you.
Transitions “are especially difficult for wounded veterans who depart the military after physical and especially psychological wounds. Veterans lose that sense of team and community that they grew accustomed to,” Erwin told me. His idea is to run a lean, volunteer-driven organization where funds go directly to community events fostering one-on-one relationships with wounded vets to ease their return home.
Team RWB has a team athletic component, with members and supporters running events from 5Ks to 100-mile distance competitions. (Check out this great video highlighting wounded warrior Mark Holbert, who lost both legs in Afghanistan, biking in Gettysburg for a race.) Erwin and a team of nine other vets will run 55 miles from West Point and arrive at Liberty State Park in the New York City Harbor at 8 a.m. on the anniversary.
It’s literally a moving tribute to the men and women who died on September 11, and to the men and women who have sacrificed over the last ten years. Team RWB has recruited a network of supporters around the world — including deployed troops in Afghanistan and Iraq — to participate in a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m., when the North Twin Tower was hit.
This September 11, think about your own “moving tribute” — a run, bike, walk, or hike in memorial — of deeds, not words, when talking about the legacy of 9/11.
—Elise Jordan is a New York–based writer and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008–09 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.