By Cait Kemp
20 years later.
20 years full of memorials, church services, parades, moments of silence.
Two decades of raw photos burned into memories, and the audio of voices crying to loved ones telling them to stay strong without them, that they love them so dearly.
Social media posts flood the internet throughout the day with photos of the New York City skyline, and the common refrain: “Never Forget.”
20 years later, the United States is still numb – still tender to the topic. It hurts, and the hurt has no sign of stopping.
Sept. 11, 2001, has become a date that American children learn from a young age each year when it creeps up in early fall. In preschool and kindergarten, they may learn the bare minimum, but as they grow, they see the videos and photos, watch the news broadcasts, read articles, and begin to learn how devastatingly significant the event was.
Everyone who was old enough when it happened remembers 9/11, from the clothes they were wearing that day, where they were in the moment they first heard of the attacks, and – quite commonly stated – that the sky was noticeably blue that day, with not a cloud to be seen.
Logan Large, graduate associate for Veterans and Military Services at Springfield College, remembers being 9 years old and in the third grade when he found out about the terrorist attacks during his English class. His step-dad was soon at the school to pick him up, as his mother worked in downtown Washington, D.C., just a couple blocks away from the Pentagon.
Although young and naive to what was really going on, he remembers being so worried about his mom, and just wanted to know she was okay.
“We were going back to the house to get ready in case we had to go to Mount Weather, Mount Weather is a government facility… it’s a facility where high profile government officials go when there’s some type of crisis,” Large said. “We figured that going anywhere close to there would be the safest place to be.”
Large was lucky enough to not have to evacuate to the government facility, and his mom came home safe that night. The intensity of that day shows, though, even remembered by someone that was so young at the time, barely understanding what was happening.
Robert Hopkins, former Assistant Professor of Emergency Medical Services for Springfield, was thrown directly into the destruction when his Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) was called to ground zero to assist in helping victims.
“I, like the rest of America, sat there dumbfounded watching this surreal event that looked like ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, or some other horror movie,” said Hopkins. “My boss says to me, ‘you better pack your stuff, I’m sure you’re going to go.’”
Five DMAT teams from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York were the only ones available to assist. With the airports shut down, help was limited to only those who were able to drive to New York City, so duty called Hopkins to the scene.
They were assigned to set up treatment areas around ‘the pit,’ which is what Ground Zero was nicknamed.
“We had a mission because there was nobody to treat [initially]. Normally we would go and remove people from areas and treat them and send them on their way,” he recalled.
“There was nobody alive to treat.”
Once emergency services began to enter and attempt rescue missions, though, there were plenty of people for Hopkins and his team to help. They treated hundreds of people, including firemen, policemen, and other emergency workers with dust-filled lungs. The immense amounts of dust that these people were inhaling ended up being the cause of death for many of them, succumbing to “9/11 cancer,” as Hopkins called it.
Ryan McCormick, an Emergency Service Management major at Springfield College during the time Hopkins was teaching, was a student that joined Hopkins on this mission to assist victims at Ground Zero. He was one that lost his life several years later to the Hodgkins cancer that was caused by the dust inhalation from being on scene. He died a hero, and should be remembered as that forever.
“Truly just a regular, sparky Springfield College student, and he gave his life for this country, a little undersung hero,” Hopkins said.
After experiencing first-hand arguably one of the most tragic days in American history, Hopkins is still able to recognize the national pride that was exhibited in the wake of tragedy.
“One of my bosses said, ‘I hated 9/11 but I loved 9/12.’ The day after, there was total unity between political disagreements. If you’re republican or democrat, left wing, right wing, Arab, Jew, Christian, atheist, agnostic, it didn’t matter. Everybody was united in their feelings for this country,” Hopkins said.
The political climate has changed drastically since that day in 2001, juxtaposing the sense of unity that was shown while the country was experiencing trauma. Yet the memory of the destruction continues to bring Americans together to honor the red, white and blue, despite the differences that tear the country apart any other day.
As the U.S. and the world reflect on this tragic event 20 years later, the United States has just pulled the military out of Afghanistan, seeming to create an eerie full circle of events.
Large is a U.S. Army veteran, who served four years as an infantryman before medically retiring due to an injury he suffered while in Afghanistan. After serving in the Middle East for that period of time and being just one of thousands of U.S. veterans who fought for two decades overseas, it’s difficult to comprehend the recent pull from Afghanistan of U.S. troops.
“Now that we’ve pulled out of Afghanistan, we’re no longer there, there’s a lot of mixed feelings even for myself as a veteran… When I went into the military it was all about doing the job, doing what I had to do and there was very little questioning my belief in the matter and now, I would say this is very common for most veterans who served, now you’re asking yourself, ‘why?’ and ‘what was the past 20 years for?’,” Large reflected.
He added, “I think up until now there’s been a lot of support for veterans in regards to the conflict and now I feel like it’s veterans not really knowing what to support. It’s just kind of weird to think about it.”
Sept. 11, 2001 is and will continue to be a date Americans will remember and honor. As years pass, there are more and more generations who were not alive for 9/11. It is as important as ever to commemorate the lives lost, recognize the unity brought by it, and strive to be an America that loves and respects each other as much as we did in the wake of that tragedy.
20 years have gone by, but the memory remains fresh. This just might be a wound that never heals.