A Salute to 9-11 Americans Who Served


LTC Burkhead holding his son, Gavin, immediately before departure for his deployment in Afghanistan in 2012. Photo courtesy of Joseph Burkhead.

By Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Burkhead, USAF

That tragic morning 20 years ago changed our lives. We checked in on loved ones, reflected on the fragility of life, and we wondered if we would ever live in peace again after such murderous, evil attacks on innocent life. Firefighters, police, military members, first responders, and ordinary hometown heroes charged into the inferno of burning towers to rescue victims. Some didn’t make it out. Others like one of my colleagues was inflicted with lifelong medical ailments.

In response thousands of Americans signed up to serve in military, intelligence, law enforcement, first responder, diplomatic, and/or humanitarian service capacities. President Bush, speaking through a bullhorn atop a pile of World Trade Center rubble declared to first responders surrounding him, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” So off we went…both military and civilian. Or off you saw your loved ones go. All served voluntarily of their own free will without a draft. When it came time to board my plane on my own deployment to Afghanistan, letting go of my firstborn baby son in my arms was one of the hardest moments of my life. I just didn’t want to let go, and I wasn’t sure I would make it back.

Thousands didn’t.

After two decades in Afghanistan of blood, valor, devastating losses of life, a mingling of courageous successes and depressing failures, climaxed by a horrendous withdrawal debacle and the brutal Taliban regime’s return to governance, we may justifiably ask, “Was any of it worth it?” No words or consolation can bring back anyone you lost in this conflict.

I can’t restore lost limbs. No easy resolutions exist for those suffering the mental and emotional trauma of war. But what I can do is ask, “Was it worth it to be the kind of person who rose to the moment when the world needed you rather than someone who shrank from that duty?” 

As General Douglas MacArthur famously put it: “‘Duty, Honor, Country’ – those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be.”

Fellow Americans who served in response to 9-11: No matter what your role in Afghanistan or elsewhere was, military or civilian, overseas or homeland, you can look back and say that you did your duty, you served honorably, and you gave your very best to our country.

Thomas Jefferson observed:“From time to time, the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots.”

Your willingness to selflessly serve in such a violent conflict and to courageously stand up to such terrorizing savages speaks volumes about your character. You were willing to put your own life in danger for the sake of your comrades, your country, your family, your posterity, and your fellow man. For that you are a hero.

Imagine a world where there was no response to Al Qaeda’s heinous attacks. A world where the global web of terrorism proliferated without our relentless disruption. A world where not a single Afghan girl attended school over the last two decades. A world where the Osama bin Ladens and Abu Musab al-Zarqawis of the world delivered on their violent schemes for global massacre unobstructed. Imagine the moral failure, tragic calamity, and extinguished hope of a world that didn’t respond to 9-11. Thankfully, for humanity’s sake, we live in a world that responded.

Yet it really wasn’t the whole world that responded…far from it. It was you: those who responded to 9-11. You did it. You did your duty. You will always be able to look back knowing you took that mantle. Most people continued on after 9-11 without significant sacrifice, but you, at the tip of the spear, were the response. You combatted the darkness head on so others didn’t have to and so your families, communities, and countless people across the world could live in greater peace.

Many faith groups honor those who willingly endanger themselves to save their fellow man. For example in The Quran a Muslim would learn “if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind” (Surah Al-Maidah 5:32), and in The Bible a Christian would learn “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

There was perhaps no more dramatic evidence of the protection and hope you brought the world over the last two decades than when we saw Afghans desperately rushing and clinging to our nation’s Air Force transporters during the recent evacuation.

Take no thought what politicians or others may have done to betray so much of your toil and sacrifice. That is something on their heads, not yours. When your time came you did your part. You were there when the nation needed you. You, my fellow American, are a hero. Not just in my eyes, not just in the eyes of countless Americans, Afghans, and allies across the world who benefitted from your service and bravery, but as the above canon suggests: Even in the eyes of God you are a hero. Don't you ever forget that.

To every American I also say: Don’t you forget that that either. Let us honor the lives of those who were tragically lost on 9-11, the heroes of 9-11, the sacrifices of those who served in response to 9-11, and the hallowed devotion of those who paid the ultimate price.

We can honor them by never forgetting them, respectfully honoring the American flag that stands as a symbol of their sacrifices, and by resolutely fulfilling our own duty as American citizens, as President John F. Kennedy invited us, to ask not what our country can do for us,but what we can do for our country. Such remembrance, honor, and devotion is a calling for each of us who inherits the 9-11 generation’s legacy.

May God bless America on this solemn day of remembrance.

Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Burkhead, USAF is a Chelsea resident, Afghanistan veteran, and serves in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. His 17+ years of military service includes deployments supporting Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM, a UN mission, and Attaché duty in China. He commanded three Civil Air Patrol squadrons and is a member of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

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