After 15 years, American Legion Auxiliary members recall the terrorist attacks that changed our nation but helped us resolve to work harder on our mission to serve veterans, the military, and their families in a post-9/11 world.
15 years later, we remember the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and honor our heroes who continue the fight against terrorism
American Legion Auxiliary member Georgeann Herling was working in a Pennsylvania nursing home on what started out as a normal Tuesday workday when news bulletins flashed across the TV screen. It took her only a few moments to realize that nothing would ever be the same for this generation of Americans.
That day was Sept. 11, 2001. In less than two hours, from 8:46 a.m. to 10:07 a.m., three hijacked planes had crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and The Pentagon in Arlington, Va. A fourth plane crashed into a field in Somerset County, Pa., after passengers overtook the hijackers, thwarting their attempt to hit yet another target.
“As I listened to the news, I watched as the second plane hit the Twin Towers,” said Herling, recalling the terrorist attack in vivid detail as many other Americans continue to do after 15 years. “A short time later, I received a phone call from my son who was stationed in Germany with the Army. He asked me if I knew what this meant. I replied, ‘Yes. It means war.’”
Herling, a nurse, said those events — and the conflicts that followed that day — connected her with other Americans who had experienced the impact of war in previous generations. “It was then that I knew how my grandmother felt during World War II when my mother and uncle served in the Army,” she recalled. “My faith in God and the power of prayer helped my family through this difficult time.”
As the 15th anniversary of 9/11 draws near, Auxiliary magazine recaptured events that have occurred since then. In this article, we pay tribute to the heroic first responders — the firefighters, police officers, and paramedics — who came to the rescue as the Twin Towers collapsed. We honor the servicemembers who, in the years that followed, answered the call to protect the lives of people here and abroad against terrorism.
The terrorist attacks on 9/11 were meant to destroy our country. Yet, it was a day that filled many of us with the resolve to uphold what America stands for. We celebrate the many ALA members who have never forgotten that day, using it as inspiration to continue carrying out our mission to serve our military, veterans, and their families in the spirit of Service Not Self.
Whether it’s on the anniversary of 9/11 or in everyday encounters with service-members or veterans, many Americans take the time to remember the heroes who stepped in to help each other. They include those who sacrificed their lives during rescue attempts, served as part of the Armed Forces in the conflicts that followed, or, as many American Legion Auxiliary members have demonstrated, volunteered to help those who served.
Millions of people from around the nation and world have traveled to Ground Zero in New York City to honor those who lost their lives in the terrorist attack. Within the two years since the National September 11 Memorial & Museum opened its doors to the public in 2014, more than 5.7 million people visited the destination to view more than 10,000 artifacts, 23,000 photographs, 1,900 oral histories and 500 hours of video — all telling the story of what happened during the terrorist attacks.
Artifacts in the 110,000-square-foot building range from steel beams, a mangled elevator motor and a concrete staircase from the World Trade Center to a stuffed Peter Rabbit that belonged to 2½-year-old Christine Lee Hanson, an airplane passenger and the youngest victim of the 9/11 attacks.
When visiting the museum, visitors also take in The Last Column, a 58-ton welded piece of plated steel that served as a memorial during the search and rescue operations at the site; the remnant of a window from one of the hijacked planes; a portion of the North Tower antenna; and the remnants of a damaged New York City fi re truck, ambulance, and police car.
The museum also includes a portrait wall of the 2,983 victims of the 9/11 attacks and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, interactive displays, and recordings of survivors.
Some exhibits tell the story of the first responders who sacrificed their lives to help others through the tragedy, including 343 firefighters, 60 police officers, and eight paramedics who died instantly when the Twin Towers collapsed. They worked for departments in New York or New Jersey.
ALA member Marcia Wheatley of Florida was among those who traveled to New York City to honor the first responders who lost their lives. At the time of 9/11, her brother worked for the New York Fire Department as a firefighter.
“My brother spent months at the site looking for the remains of five of his brothers from his firehouse,” said Wheatley, who keeps the photos he sent of the devastation. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, her ALA unit and Legion post gathered items to donate to his firehouse. “When we visited him a couple of years ago, we went to Ground Zero to pay respects to his lost brothers,” she said.
Sandra J. Schindler of Minnesota said her son, Travis Reed Holcomb, joined the Army National Guard after 9/11 while still in high school. He then went on to serve in the Air Force.
She decided to sign up to become a member of the ALA, and join in the longstanding mission to serve veterans, the military, and their families.
During correspondence between mother and son, Schindler said she was especially moved by the stories he told about the children he encountered during three deployments — Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai.
One child and his mother pleaded for Holcomb to take him home to America with him. The little boy, who was overcome with the kindness Holcomb had shown him the previous day, already had a suitcase packed.
“Our best hope lies in our children, whether they be ours or theirs,” Schindler said in a letter to Auxiliary magazine.
Throughout the nation, Legion Family members hold remembrances in their hometowns to honor those who lost their lives in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In Columbia, Tenn., for example, members hold a ceremony every year to commemorate those who lost their lives. “We walk around the post one lap for 10 years, and one lap for each remaining year,” said ALA member Anita Jo Foster.
Others take it as an opportunity to recognize today’s first responders who regularly make the commitment to sacrifice their lives.
“It affected my family in a big way,” said ALA member Tania Weatherly Craig of 9/11. “My husband is a firefighter in our little town of Toledo, Illinois, and this past year our high school recognized Toledo and Greenup Fire Departments and Toledo Area Ambulance during a football game Sept. 11.
“Both fire departments brought trucks to the field and raised an American flag on the ladder truck,” she said. “We had a moment of silence for those who had fallen. The football players shook the hands of each firefighter and EMS (emergency medical services) personnel.”
Weatherly Craig also said 9/11 impacted them personally because both of her sons enlisted in the military in the wake of the attack. One serves in the U.S. Navy, and the other serves in the Illinois Army National Guard.
Legion Family members from Herling’s post and unit paid tribute to servicemembers, police officers, and firemen on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in 2011. “After 9/11, we had a deeper appreciation for first responders who risk everything for others,” Herling said.
For many other ALA members, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed their perspective on life.
The devastation and loss of life left an unforgettable impression, said Kathy School, whose brother was living in Manhattan during that time. “It took me a while to confirm that he was OK,” said School, noting that her brother happened to be out of town but his roommate was only about eight blocks away from Ground Zero. “It was stressful, and it caused us to remember not to take anything for granted and live every day to its fullest.”
Roxy Ruiz, an ALA member from Arizona, said she waited nearly an entire day until she heard from her fiancé, an Airman on a military base. “I didn’t see him for three days. I don’t think Americans can honestly say we have healed from such a horrific tragedy. Our men have not come back the same since that day and, as an American Legion Auxiliary member, I’m able to serve those who have served so courageously. I’m proud to be an American and support our veterans, military, family, and our children.”
From day one, as retired Marine Corps Gen. James T. Conway put it, the attacks by al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon set the stage for war. As it turned out, it would be a different type of war. Ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq followed, with the United States declaring it “The War on Terror.”
As troops discovered, the war against terrorists included fighting an enemy that did not wear the soldiers’ uniforms of previous wars or practice the more traditional forms of combat. For the first time, U.S. Armed Forces were faced with an enemy that used suicide bombers, beheadings, ambushes, and roadside explosives (Improved Explosive Device or IED) as their primary war tactics.
The toll of this type of war has caused post-9/11 veterans to face some challenges unlike those of servicemembers in previous wars. In addition to the terrorist acts, many of them faced numerous deployments within short periods of time.
As a result, American Legion Family members have consistently advocated on behalf of veterans on Capitol Hill to influence legislation related to the challenges facing post- 9/11 veterans and military, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Studies and surveys, including a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, also reveal significant differences in attitudes among military servicemembers who served their nation before and after 9/11.
Of the 1,853 veterans surveyed, 712 served in the military after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The survey also included responses from 2,003 adults who represented the general population.
An overwhelming 96 percent who served on active duty in the post-9/11 era are proud of their service. About 75 percent saw their military service in a positive light — it helped them get ahead in life, they said.
Difficulty Adjusting to Civilian Life
About 44 percent of post-9/11 veterans said adjusting to civilian life was difficult. That compares to 25 percent of veterans who said they had a hard time readjusting in the wake of previous wars. About half (48 percent) of all post-9/11 veterans say they have experienced strained family relationships since leaving the military.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Nearly 4 out of 10 (or 37 percent) of post-9/11 veterans say they suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They reported receiving a formal diagnosis or fitting all descriptions of the illness. Among veterans who served in post-9/11 combat, the number is higher with 49 percent saying they suffered from PTSD and 52 percent reporting they had emotionally traumatic or distressing experiences while serving. Another 47 percent said they knew and served with someone who was killed while in the military.
Sacrificing Personal Lives
The study also revealed that 83 percent of all adults believe that military servicemembers, as well as their families, have had to make a lot of sacrifices in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
TIMELINE OF 9/11 EVENTS
Here is a timeline of the events that transpired on Sept. 11, 2001, as compiled by History.com:
7:59 a.m. – American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 with 92 people aboard, takes off from Boston’s Logan International Airport en route to Los Angeles.
8:14 a.m. – United Airlines Flight 175, a Boeing 767 with 65 people aboard, takes off from Boston; it is also headed to Los Angeles.
8:19 a.m. – Flight attendants aboard Flight 11 alert ground personnel that the plane has been hijacked; American Airlines notifies the FBI.
8:20 a.m. – American Airlines Flight 77 takes off from Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C. The Boeing 757 is headed to Los Angeles with 64 people aboard.
8:24 a.m. – Hijacker Mohammed Atta makes the first of two accidental transmissions from Flight 11 to ground control (apparently in an attempt to communicate with the plane’s cabin).
8:40 a.m. – The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) alerts North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) about the suspected hijacking of Flight 11. In response, NEADS scrambles two fighter planes located at Cape Cod’s Otis Air National Guard Base to locate and tail Flight 11; they are not yet in the air when Flight 11 crashes into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
8:41 a.m. – United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 with 44 people aboard, takes off from Newark International Airport en route to San Francisco. It had been scheduled to depart at 8 a.m., around the time of the other hijacked flights.
8:46 a.m. – Mohammed Atta and the other hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 11 crash the plane into floors 93-99 of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing everyone on board and hundreds inside the building.
8:47 a.m. – Within seconds, NYPD and FDNY force dispatch units to the World Trade Center, while Port Authority Police Department officers on site begin immediate evacuation of the North Tower.
8:50 a.m. – White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card alerts President George W. Bush that a plane has hit the World Trade Center; the president is visiting an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla., at the time.
9:02 a.m. – After initially instructing tenants of the WTC’s South Tower to remain in the building, Port Authority officials broadcast orders to evacuate both towers via the public address system; an estimated 10,000 to 14,000 people are already in the process of evacuating.
9:03 a.m. – Hijackers crash United Airlines Flight 175 into floors 75-85 of the WTC’s South Tower, killing everyone on board and hundreds inside the building.
9:08 a.m. – The FAA bans all takeoffs of flights going to New York City or through the airspace around the city.
9:21 a.m. – Port Authority closes all bridges and tunnels in the New York City area.
9:24 a.m. – The FAA notifies NEADS of the suspected hijacking of Flight 77 after some passengers and crew aboard are able to alert family members on the ground.
9:31 a.m. – Speaking from Florida, President Bush calls the events in New York City an “apparent terrorist attack on our country.”
9:37 a.m. – Hijackers aboard Flight 77 crash the plane into the western façade of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing 59 aboard the plane and 125 military and civilian personnel inside the building.
9:42 a.m. – For the first time in history, the FAA grounds all flights over or bound for the continental United States. Some 3,300 commercial flights and 1,200 private planes are guided to airports in Canada and the United States over the next two-and-a-half hours.
9:45 a.m. – Amid escalating rumors of other attacks, the White House and U.S. Capitol building are evacuated (along with numerous other high-profile buildings, landmarks, and public spaces).
9:59 a.m. – The South Tower of the World Trade Center collapses.
10:07 a.m. – After passengers and crew members aboard the hijacked Flight 93 contact friends and family and learn about the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., they mount an attempt to retake the plane. In response, hijackers deliberately crash the plane into a fi eld in Somerset County, Pa., killing all 40 passengers and crew aboard.
10:28 a.m. – The World Trade Center’s North Tower collapses, 102 minutes after being struck by Flight 11.
11 a.m. – New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani calls for the evacuation of Lower Manhattan south of Canal Street, including more than 1 million residents, workers and tourists, as efforts continue throughout the afternoon to search for survivors at the WTC site.
1 p.m. – From a U.S. Air Force base in Louisiana, President Bush announces that U.S. military forces are on high alert worldwide.
2:51 p.m. – The U.S. Navy dispatches missile destroyers to New York and Washington, D.C.
5:20 p.m. – The 47-story Seven World Trade Center collapses after burning for hours; the building had been evacuated in the morning, and there are no casualties, though the collapse forces rescue workers to flee for their lives.
6:58 p.m. – President Bush returns to the White House after stops at military bases in Louisiana and Nebraska.
8:30 p.m. – President Bush addresses the nation, calling the attacks “evil, despicable acts of terror” and declaring that America, its friends and allies would “stand together to win the war against terrorism.”