Defining my generation: remembering 9/11 and how it changed me

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Nicholas Mercurio
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Some generations are defined when tragedy, a moment or series of moments bearing enough weight to forever alter the course of history collide.

My grandfather's generation was witness to tragedy when it was roused from its isolationist slumber by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941 as the world was once again engulfed by war.

My father's generation was no different; he still recalls the tears which silently fell that November day when his fifth grade teacher informed the class that President Kennedy had been shot. Five years later, an assassin's bullet found the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King as he stood on a balcony in Memphis, Tenn.

The events that followed saw the bright-eyed innocence of the American people swept away by the tide of war and civil unrest. In high school I read about the times in which my grandfather and father lived, when the blood of the unsuspecting and the innocent darkened the streets of the land of the free, and I wondered if my generation would be defined by anything of more historical significance than a White House sex scandal and subsequent debate as to the meaning of the word "is."

In September 2001 I was a junior at LaSalle Academy, a private Catholic school boasting more than 130 years of starched collared excellence, tucked neatly into a square bearing its namesake in Providence, R.I.

My life was consumed by hockey, the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, college applications, and the attainment of freedom in the form of a driver's license. Thoughts of things such as Al Qaida, Osama Bin Laden, and Afghanistan were as far removed from my mind as I imagine the Viet Cong, Ho Chi Minh, and Vietnam were from my father's when he was my age.

It had been nearly sixty years since an enemy attack on U.S. soil, and the American people had grown accustomed to the security provided by our two oceans.

My first clear memory of the Sept. 11 is of the panicked expression, which had seized my friend's face as he came running out of a nearby classroom.

"Someone just blew up the World Trade Center," he had said.

When I arrived at my next class I discovered, instead of struggling with physics equations, the whole room was gazing at the television. In one of the most surreal moments of my life, I sank numbly into the closest chair and watched with rapt attention as the whole affair unfolded before my eyes.

Technology meant to reunite loved ones and connect people across the globe was corrupted as hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, indiscriminately shattering glass and our sense of security, and driving a wedge fashioned of fear and hate between the American people and certain radical sects of Islam bent on our destruction.

The frightful power of ideas and the consequences of the abuse of ideology were made abundantly clear when the dust settled on 9/11, leaving thousands dead and thrusting terrorism to the forefront of American military and political thinking.

On that day, rising out of the twisted steel and concrete of ground zero was a new sense of patriotism, perfectly captured in that iconic photograph of fireman raising a flag above the rubble.

Born of this newfound American pride was a country united by a hardened resolve to bring justice to the unjust and to strike fear into those who would use fear as a weapon against the innocent.

Thus the great tragedy of my generation, as it spilled from television screens and newspaper pages, ushered in our greatest challenge: the Global War on Terror.

My list of colleges grew that day by three to include the United States Air Force Academy, the United States Military Academy at West Point and the United States Naval Academy.

Seven years later, I find myself remembering that defining moment as a 2008 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and proud member of the world's greatest air and space force as we continue our fight in the global war on terror.

I am keenly aware of the sense of duty I felt that day residing within me still, and I count myself among the lucky few who know without a doubt that they are exactly where they are supposed to be.