LTC Derrick Sorweide, DO, FACOFP, reflects on how the United States—and the world—changed following the attacks on September 11, 2001, and encourages his fellow Americans to continue moving forward and to rekindle their patriotism, even amid current and future crises.
By LTC Derrick Sorweide, DO, FACOFP; United States Army Reserve, Medical Readiness and Training Command; ACOFP Governor
On September 11, 2001, 3,000 Americans lost their lives and 6,000 more were injured as four commercial jets were used as weapons against our ideals and our way of life. Many of us who watched those scenes unfold remember it as the single most influential moment in our time.
In the months to follow, the horrors of that day brought our country together in a way that we had not seen since the 1980s. We knew that the world had forever changed, though it was not always clear how. It changed world politics and economics, travel, immigration to our country, and endless other parts of our lives. But—at least for a while—we were united in a pride for our country. In a desire to act. For many, that meant they joined our nation’s military. They wanted to be part of the solution. To help make our country and our world a safer place.
The United States Armed Forces are the most effective fighting units ever assembled. We did the job that we were given. We entered Afghanistan in 2001 and had control of its capital, Kabul, in only 63 days. We entered Iraq in 2003 and had control of its capital, Baghdad, in three months. Saddam Hussein was captured in 2006, and Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011. These were the clearly defined, hard target tasks that we were given.
I’d like to make it very clear that we were at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we were never at war with the populations of those countries. Our goal was not to occupy and rule but rather to decrease or eliminate the ability of known terrorist groups to function and then to help those populations establish less authoritarian and destructive types of self-government. For the first role, we were effective. There have been no major acts of terrorism targeting Americans or their allies in these last 21 years. There has also been a significantly decreased ability for aggressor nations to use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons against us or against their own people. Terrorist leadership and infrastructure has been severely depleted. But that came with a cost.
To date, 2,455 American service people have died in Afghanistan and 4,431 in Iraq. My heart went out to the victims and families of 9/11, but I never actually knew any of them. I sent American men and women home from Iraq with life-changing injuries and in caskets draped in our flag. Those names, faces and places are not just in the news or on a monument for me. They will be forever part of who I am.
With military might, comes a defined need for political and economic adaptations as well. When we fight, we need clear goals and a way to define if and how those goals are achieved. No war should last forever. The thought of that is appalling. The goal should always be to find peace for all parties involved. This part of the task is the tough one. Other countries have the right to choose their paths, even when we do not agree with them. And it is hard to even know our own path when we are so divided politically these days.
In the 21 years since 9/11, we have seen natural disasters, economic recessions, a pandemic, social unrest and political divisiveness. We also have new and evolving world conflicts in places like Ukraine, Taiwan, Syria and Yemen. Change is a constant, and times of good and bad are inevitable. As our country learns, attempts, fails or succeeds, and acknowledges its wins and losses we grow. But there are clearly growing pains.
As I read political, economic and social papers about the aftereffects of 9/11, I am left feeling pretty empty inside. Many others have voiced this as well. I have a friend who was not directly involved with the plane crashes but saw them on TV like many of us, and she says she still cringes when the shadow of a plane passes over. All of us are scarred in some fashion. Many of our youth who do not remember that day in 2001 have been left disillusioned by those effects. Many of those who rushed to enlist in the military after 2001 are now taking their retirement, and they have earned that right. It’s been 21 years. Although we cannot and should not forget that day or the people we lost, I do think that we need to stop blaming that tragedy for our current situation. We need to let go of that pain and anger, of that fear. We need to move forward.
Our military is here to protect us from outside threats. It saddens me to think that it took a tragedy to bring us together 21 years ago, and although many have died making the world a safer place, our current biggest threat is from within. Every one of us has the ability to either make our country stronger or to tear it further apart.
As I said, we have had our growing pains. But, I believe, and I hope others do too, that the premises on which our country was created are still rock solid. The idea that all people are created equal. We have made clear mistakes with that one, but it doesn’t make it untrue. Let’s all work to get it figured out. The rights to free speech and freedom of religion. That means it is OK to disagree at times. I, and many like me, have sworn an oath to protect these rights. What is not included in this foundation is the right to then point fingers, belittle or name call, or become violent or destructive.
Let’s work to remember what it means to be neighborly, charitable, polite, helpful, brave, philanthropic and diplomatic. To learn to listen to all voices, even those opposed to our ideas, with the goal being understanding and conflict resolution, not escalation and certainly not for political one-upmanship.
Let’s figure out that being outraged is not a virtue; it is the breakdown of reason. Let’s work toward a country where your path is determined—good or bad—by the choices you make, no matter who you are, and not by your genetics or the situation of your birth. Let’s get back to flying our flags out of pride in what we and our elders have done, and not as a challenge or provocation.
Let’s be that America. The one so many have died for. The one that holds to its noble ideals. Most of all, no matter how tough it can be, let’s all learn to smile more and be thankful for what we have.