Fifteen years ago, nearly 3,000 Americans, most of them ordinary people going about their daily lives, were killed in the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. In the time that’s passed, we as a country have changed drastically, as have the threats we face. But the need to remain vigilant and true to the values that unite us is as strong as ever.
Each of us remembers what that terrible day was like. At the time, I was 10 months into a year-long deployment to Saudi Arabia. Like most Americans, I first learned of the attacks from watching the news as real-time images of planes striking the twin towers streamed across TVs in the Air Operations Center. Initially, there was a lot of confusion and disbelief. Very quickly, though, it became clear – we were under attack.
For me and those around me in uniform, we were outraged that our cowardly enemies would choose to attack innocent civilians instead of bringing the fight to us, those who signed up to serve. But our feelings of anger swiftly gave way to a hardened resolve to bring to justice those responsible and win this war of terror, militarily and ideologically.
It wasn’t long before orders came in that we would be taking military action in Afghanistan, and our role was to plan, execute, and provide oversight of the air campaign. The next few months were some of the most stressful and sleepless days and nights of my life as we went after Al Qaeda and the Taliban government that gave them refuge.
Since that time, the War on Terror has cost the lives of nearly 7,000 American troops. So many more have come home with wounds, visible and invisible, they will carry for the rest of their lives.
Today, the name of our enemy has changed, but their hateful ideology has not. ISIS still promotes the same intolerant, violent, extremist ideology that Al Qaeda did previously. And in many ways, the threat to our homeland has grown more dangerous and complicated than it was fifteen years ago.
To date, more than 42,000 fighters, including nearly 8,000 from Western countries, have reportedly traveled to Syria, Iraq, and Libya to join the fight. ISIS has affiliates in over two dozen countries and controls vast amounts of territory. And the rise of social media allows it to recruit, train, direct, and inspire home-grown terrorists all over the world.
In the face of these evolving and dangerous threats, we must remain vigilant. We also must remember it is the ideals at the core of our nation that will ultimately win out over radical Islamic extremism. These pillars of freedom, opportunity, and equal treatment for all first gave birth to our great nation, fueled our growth, and carried us through some of our darkest times.
Part of honoring those we lost fifteen years ago, and those killed since, is remembering the renewed sense of unity and determination we experienced as a nation. Despite sincerely held differences, what unites us will always be greater than what divides us. And by holding true to our core American values, we can ensure a more safe and prosperous future for our country.