As we come to the 11th anniversary of 9/11, a Special Forces operator in Afghanistan on his sixth deployment has a standard signoff to his emails.
“America is not at war. The U.S. military is at war. America is at the mall.”
Last year’s elaborate ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the attacks carried an underlying sense that this was a milestone from which we were moving on. Nobody is talking about President Obama and the first lady coming to the memorial to observe the 11th anniversary.
But now is when we need our leaders to lead, to ensure that we remember and reflect on this date and only because we owe it to the thousands who were murdered at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and aboard the downed plane in Pennsylvania. We also dare not forget because the war continues on, no matter how badly we want to put it behind us.
We still have enemies who spend every waking hour scheming of ways to blow up that mall of imagined peacetime.
'John Avlon, former speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani, leads a tour near Ground Zero.'
“They’re just regrouping,” says another soldier, a Special Forces sergeant who honors me by calling me Uncle Mickey and asks that he not be named for security reasons. “It’s obviously not over for them.”
The war began for this young man in searingly personal terms, with the death of his firefighter father in the south tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. The son's love for his murdered father prompted him to enlist and propelled him through the rigors of Special Forces training. He got a lesson in war and history when he looked inside his new green beret to see a small white tag.
"Made in Vietnam," it read.
He spent the 10th anniversary of 9/11 on his third combat tour in Iraq, but he is back home, knowing that the present war will not end as the Vietnam War did, simply by withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan.
He will be going with 20 other Special Forces operators to the 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan on this 11th anniversary. He will stand in his Made in Vietnam beret by the pool marking where the south tower stood and listen to his father’s name read along with the names of the other first responders and the names of the innocents they died trying to save. He is sure to think of his friend who is in Afghanistan feeling that he is at war while America is at the mall.
“His sixth tour,” the sergeant said. “What more is he supposed to give? He’ll come home and then he’ll do it again.”
At sunset, the sergeant and his comrades will join the FDNY band at the edge of the site as it marks the 11th anniversary with music and song and a toast exactly as it did on the 10th and will on the 12th and all the others to come. He will then resume two weeks of training for the war the enemy hopes we forget so they can hit us even harder.
“We still have to stay deployable,” he says.