Reflecting on the 20th Anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks
I asked my wife, Shelley, what she thought about 9/11 during this 20th anniversary year of the attacks.
“I think about how it changed the trajectory of our lives,” she said. “Good things happened after the bad.”
Shelley and I were in the U.S. Air Force back in the 1990s. I was an F-16 pilot. I deployed three times to the Middle East to enforce the no-fly zone over Iraq. Those trips brought us to a turning point: We wanted to start a family. I thought it would be easier to do that if I were a civilian who was home more often. We decided to leave military service. We lived in South Ogden, Utah, at the time. We planned to move to Colorado where I could work in Denver for the commercial airlines and Shelley could go to culinary school. I left the Air Force in 1998. Shelley was still in uniform at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
We tried to make it happen. United Airlines hired me in January 2000. I learned to fly the Boeing 737 based in San Francisco while we still lived in Utah. In October 2000, we had our son. In May 2001, Shelley left the Air Force. There we were, Mr. and Mrs. Chandler, civilians with our toddler son. All that was left was to move to a new home in Colorado. We schemed for four whole months before 9/11 hit.
After the initial shock that we all felt, I learned I was going to get laid off from my job, along with thousands of others in the airline industry. In a panic, I called my friends around the country in the Air National Guard. Maybe there was a job opening somewhere for an out-of-work fighter pilot. My good friend, Reed Bowman, threw me a lifeline from Duluth. We moved here in the heart of a dark, cold January in 2002. After three years out of the military, I went up to the attic and found the uniforms I kept as souvenirs. I put those flight suits back on and flew F-16s with the Bulldogs of the 148th Fighter Wing.
After 9/11, I was laid off twice by my company and didn’t fly as an airline pilot again for the next 12 years.
My daughter arrived in 2003. Then, I deployed to Iraq three times for Operation Iraqi Freedom. On the third trip, in 2008, I took the unit there as the squadron commander. It was the great honor of my professional life to lead a fighter unit in combat. It feels like an Olympic gold medal to me. I handed off the squadron to the next commander after three years. In 2012, we deployed to Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom, just a year before I retired.
Because I repeatedly deployed and returned home, maybe I got multiple doses of the alienation that Sebastian Junger describes this way in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging:
… There are still enormous numbers of people who had utterly ordinary wartime experiences and yet feel dangerously alienated back home. Clinically speaking, such alienation is not the same as PTSD—and maybe deserves its own diagnostic term—but both result from military service abroad, so it’s understandable that vets and clinicians alike are prone to conflating them. Either way, it makes one wonder exactly what it is about modern society that is so mortally dispiriting to come home to.
I’m a different person now than I was 20 years ago. It’s hard for me to tell if that’s just because I’m getting older or because of four post-9/11 deployments. I have many conversations with the guy in the shaving mirror about my combat time. He and I agree that part of me is used up and missing now. For example, I used to laugh through happy tears while watching videos of soldiers reuniting with their families. Now, decades later, I can’t watch those videos.
Before 9/11, Shelley and I wanted to live in a nice place, raise a family, make good food, and cross-country ski. And darned if we haven’t. The only thing that changed was the location: Duluth instead of Colorado. Good things still happened after the bad. More accurately, good things happened simultaneously with the bad.
Shelley said one other thing when I asked her about the attacks: “I think about how the country was united. At least for a while.” That made me think about the president in the rubble of the towers with a bullhorn, surrounded by firefighters. I thought about my 2002 Grandma’s Marathon finisher T-shirt that had an American flag on the back underlined by the words “United We Stand.”
I remembered how I felt useful when my unit flew air defense caps (combat air patrols) around the clock over New York and Washington on the first anniversary of the attacks. I looked down at the Pentagon from my F-16 on Sept. 11, 2002, while the president spoke. The next day, while the president spoke at the United Nations, I looked down from my cockpit at the wound in Manhattan where the towers used to be. I was proud to fly in defense of my country during those moments when, just a year earlier, I had been a civilian in my bathrobe watching horrible events unfold on TV.
Now, that upwelling of national unity seems more like a blip in a preexisting condition. During the presidential election in 2000, I remember hearing “red states” and “blue states” for the first time. Twenty years later, this oversimplification infests everything from what fast food joint you like to what running shoes you buy. Nothing exists without a red or blue label. In other words, there’s absolutely nothing that we can agree on. We can’t even agree on public health initiatives without picking teams.
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I repeatedly think about another passage in Junger’s book:
… The ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone. That way, America’s ugliest partisan tendencies could emerge unimpeded by the unifying effects of war. The ultimate betrayal of tribe isn’t acting competitively—that should be encouraged—but predicating your power on the excommunication of others from the group. That is exactly what politicians of both parties try to do when they spew venomous rhetoric about their rivals. That is exactly what media figures do when they go beyond criticism of their fellow citizens and openly revile them. Reviling people you share a combat outpost with is an incredibly stupid thing to do, and public figures who imagine their nation isn’t, potentially, one huge combat outpost are deluding themselves.
During this 20th anniversary year, the class of 2024 at the U.S. Air Force Academy chose LeRoy W. Homer Jr. as their class exemplar. Since 2000, each class picks a person they want to emulate. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1987. He was the first officer on United Airlines Flight 93.
“He, along with 39 other Americans, revolted against the hijackers and in the struggle, the flight crashed into a field in Pennsylvania,” states the academy’s Association of Graduates website.
My wife is one of Homer’s academy classmates. Proof that we’re all more connected than we realize. However, division seems more evident when I compare 2001 to 2021.
In 2001, I saw Americans die while fighting airplane hijackers to save the lives of their fellow citizens. In 2021, I saw Americans scream at grocery store employees and refuse to change their behavior at all to save the lives of their fellow citizens.
In 2001, I watched Americans leap from burning buildings because our country was under attack. In 2021, I watched Americans leap over U.S. Capitol Police barricades to attack our country.
In 2001, I saw American flags everywhere. In 2021, I saw a bearded man beating a U.S. Capitol Police officer with a pole bearing an American flag.
One of the possible targets for United Airlines Flight 93 was the U.S. Capitol Building. Embedded in the oath I swore, the “foreign and domestic” clause serves as a sickening scoreboard. In 2001, foreign enemies failed to attack the U.S. Capitol Building. In 2021, domestic enemies succeeded—a nauseating validation of Junger’s “ultimate terrorist strategy.”
I thought I would get to rest once I retired. I spent my entire military life worrying about “foreign enemies.” The “domestic enemies” in my oath seemed like some boilerplate that they included as an afterthought. But here I am, eight years after leaving uniform and 20 years after 9/11, and I worry almost exclusively about what my country is doing to itself.
Shelley’s two answers to my question about 9/11 were somewhat similar. She talked about the good and the bad in our personal life, followed by the good in our nation that eventually petered out to bad. It was tiring to be whipsawed between the joy and pain in my family’s life while I was deploying. And now it’s exhausting to watch my fellow citizens at each other’s throats. The good in my personal life lives right next to the bad in society. The stark contrast hurts.
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The end result is that I think of these past 20 years as a heartbreak in slow motion. I even looked for a funny German word for this feeling. There isn’t one, but, if I want to be clever, the words translate as “Herzschmerz in Zeitlupe.” Maybe this could serve as the diagnostic term that Junger was looking for. Maybe we can cure my condition by uniting for more than just a while.