Call to Action: Remembering the Day After the Day that Changed the World

This photo from Purdue University shows our national solidarity in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This photo from Purdue University shows our national solidarity in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

For our nation, 9/11 was a call to action. I believe our generation will always remember exactly where we were and exactly what we were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. It was a warm, sunny Tuesday morning in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I was at the gym. I saw the second plane hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center on one of the televisions during the live broadcast covering the crash from the first plane. The owner immediately ushered everyone to the exit and closed the facility. It was an emergency. Our nation was under attack.

I spent the drive home listening to Philadelphia sports talk radio, but the hosts weren’t discussing sports. They were sharing their emotions in real time as events unfolded. Like you, I spent the rest of the day consuming information from cable news and talking with family and friends. Like you, my emotions were bouncing between disbelief, fear, and anger. We will never forget how we felt on the day that changed the world.

This year - as we have every year since 2001 - we will reflect on the traumatic events of that day. Beginning at 8:46 Eastern Standard Time, we will recount the play by play that culminated in the worst attack in the history of our nation. By lunchtime, we will forget where we were and what we were doing in 2001 to focus on the urgency of our 2018 problems.

This year, I challenge you to do something different. Rather than focus on 9/11, I would ask that you remember how you felt in the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks. This year, I challenge you to remember the day after the day that changed the world.

On 9/11, we felt fear, but we also felt something deeper . . . we felt a sense of national unity the likes of which our generation has not experienced.

What Happened the Day After?

We recall the emotions from 9/11 with such clarity, but do you remember how you felt the next day, week, or month afterwards? I remember how we responded to this tragedy with remarkable compassion and unity. I remember the candlelit vigils. I remember thanking every first responder I saw. I even called the firefighters and police officers that I knew personally by phone to express my gratitude. Our homes and businesses were adorned with flags and the colors of our nation. All of a sudden, the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem sounded different. We couldn’t get enough of Toby Keith’s battle cry to “put a boot in your ass because it was the American way. From our flip phones and dial-up internet, we had the courage to reach out to estranged friends and family members. We connected our disconnected lives. Like Lee Greenwood said, "We were proud to be Americans.” Our state as a nation was - in a word - united.

I committed to return to my life in the army after 9/11 (I left the military in 2000 and was a "civilian" at the time of the terrorist attacks). Like so many Americans, I felt compelled to answer this important call to service. Those who didn’t serve found innovative ways to show their support for those who did. Even after the closest and most scrutinized presidential election in our history, I still remember the roaring applause President Bush received when he addressed the nation. It felt good when we were all cheering for the same team. We weren’t democrats or republicans. We weren’t liberals or conservatives. We were Americans - united by a cause and intent on fulfilling our duty for this generation and all posterity. We came together. When the wolf came to the door, we stood as one. In the face of the worst tragedy in our history, we were at our best as a nation.

Where Are We Seventeen Years Later?

Here’s something to think about: A person born on September 11, 2001, would be old enough to drive a car. That individual would probably be a junior in high school, and more impactfully, he or she would be a year away from eligibility to serve in the military. A lot has happened across our military and veteran communities over that time. In this period of remembrance, let’s take a moment to reflect on exactly where we are . . .

As of March 2018, nearly 2.77 million military members served on nearly 5.45 million deployments.

We started deploying to Afghanistan before the end of 2001, and although this may surprise many Americans, we’re still there. We suffered our most recent casualty just a few days ago. Personally, I spent almost three years of my life in Afghanistan, and I consider myself lucky. I know of so many others who made a far greater sacrifice.

The motto immediately after 9/11 may have been “Let’s Roll,” but today, fewer Americans are shouldering more of the burden of military service. The percentage of Americans who serve in the military is the smallest it has been in our nation’s history. The size of our veteran population decreased by nearly 25% over the past 17 years, and projections from the VA anticipate that the veteran population will continue to decline another 33% over the next two decades. For all intensive purposes, the veteran population has become an endangered species.

Given the duration of these conflicts, many of the veterans who were in the military back in 2001 have transitioned or retired from the service. Unfortunately, the widening civil-military cultural gap has challenged these men and women as they struggle to enter the civilian workforce. Veteran turnover is a problem with nearly 2 out of every 3 new veteran hires changing jobs in the first two years of employment. Furthermore, 1 out of every 3 veterans are underemployed. Because the unemployment rate for military spouses is nearly four times higher than the national average, military and veteran spouses are having a hard time too. Veterans and their families are leaving the military not knowing where they belong or simply settling for something less.

So what does this say about the military and veteran communities seventeen years removed from that tragic day in 2001? Well, fewer Americans are bearing a greater burden for the security of our nation. Because more Americans are further removed from the inherent challenges of military service, the civil-military cultural gap continues to widen. More and more veterans are disconnected from the very society they committed to defend. We must return the important experience and contribution of veterans into the fabric of our consciousness as Americans.

What Happens Now?

Apparently, we didn’t heed Darryl Worley’s advice, and we “have forgotten” our sense of connectedness and national unity. Our society has become more polarized and contentious than at any time in our history since the American Civil War. We’ve lost the high ground of our common vision. Our fragmented society is starving for leadership. Our nation needs its veterans to step up and take the lead. After everything we have been through, I'm asking a lot, but now is not the time to settle into obscurity. We have to be more than a just an ordinary employee at a job that pays the bills. Now is the time for us to repurpose that wisdom and experience to inspire and unite our society. I’m asking you to take that leap of faith and trust in your greater purpose. Be the inspiration our businesses and communities are so desperately lacking. After all, leadership through adversity is what we do best.

If you are a recruiter or potential employer, I have a challenge for you. Stop abstracting veterans through the lens of ROI. Their value goes beyond the quarterly balance sheet. Look past the short term and recognize the long-term value of these inspirational leaders to transform your workforce. Most of these veterans have embraced a level of responsibility that far exceeds the doldrum of a regular job description. They've demonstrated the capacity to learn what an executive needs to know about business topics like financial accounting, marketing, or human resources. Their experience has made them uniquely qualified to anticipate future opportunities, shape the conditions to create an advantage, and dominate the outcome - no matter how ambiguous or uncertain the environment. Empower them to their fullest potential, and I think you'll find that the bottom line will take care of itself.

Veterans and their families represent a disappearing breed across the American landscape. We are seventeen years removed from the attacks of 9/11, and honestly, we are not where we should be as a nation. Rather than wallow in the trauma and pain from 9/11, let’s remember the strength, pride, and shared purpose we felt in the days and weeks after the day that changed the world.

For my fellow veterans, it’s time to step up. It’s time for you to be the hero in your NEXT story. Our work is not done. Our country needs us. For the employers out there looking to hire veterans, I challenge you to raise the bar of opportunities. Their "practical" experience is that they've never fallen short in the past. Let’s figure out how to repurpose the value our veterans offer to transform our society. Let’s work together and ensure that our impact as veterans is even greater than anything we did in the military. This is our call to action.