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NEWS | Sept. 11, 2014

The day America lost its innocence

By Senior Airman Mariah Haddenham 11th Wing Public Affairs

I was nine years old. I looked up into the blue, September sky, and saw a plane flying overhead. I thought about the people inside, who they were, where they were going, and why they weren't about to go to school like me. I often looked at planes; this was not out of the ordinary for a child who had been deemed "easily distracted." In the hours to follow, America's attention would be captured in a most horrific manner, and I would cease to gaze up in childlike wonder.

The events occurring that day would shake the foundation of our country, pulling us together to fight a war that seemed to have no end in sight.

I scampered into the gymnasium, and attended my before-school program, where I would pass time fighting over marbles with my peers. I was waiting for 9 a.m., but at 8:46 a.m. American and world history would be forever changed.

Suddenly, we weren't going to class at all. We were sitting on the steps of the gym, just waiting; something I think all Americans became accustomed to over the next several hours, days, weeks and months.

Finally, we were herded into our classrooms, like any normal day. But something wasn't right. Children have a knack for sensing fear; we are in fact, afraid of most things this age.

My teacher, a tall, poised woman, with olive skin and short, brown hair, looked deflated and withered. Her brown eyes were hollow as she shuffled back and forth, to her computer, then to the hall, then to the class next door. I sat, watching her, while the kid next to me attempted to scratch his brain with his index finger through that convenient passage called a nose.

Suddenly, my teacher stood at the front of the class. Her hands folded in front of her skirt, she addressed the class. "I want you to know, there has been an accident. This may be hard for you to understand, but a plane has flown into a building in New York City."

I was not fazed by this statement. I was nine. I had heard about people being shot, I had heard about fires, and car accidents. Never a plane into a building, but of course it was an accident, right? That is how a child's mind works. We are in one piece, not yet broken from what the world will throw at us in the years to come.

I was, never the less, sad. Our teacher didn't give us details; she left that for our parents to do, as they all would when they retrieved us later that day. I felt bad for the plane, I didn't think about death or tragedy, because it was an accident. This had to be an accident, who would fly a plane into a building because they wanted to?

School ended and our parents collected us. I walked out to my dad's black Thunderbird, that I knew would smell faintly of stale French fries (soon to be called freedom fries), and crawled in the back seat with my very annoying, yet very adorable, little sister.

Unexpectedly, my mom and dad both turned around.

With tears in my mother's pale, blue eyes, and a solemn look on my father's face, my mother recanted the news involving the plane I'd heard about earlier, but not just one airplane now, two.

I found this odd. What were the chances that two planes would have such similar accidents on the same day?

I said that to my father, who still wore his military high and tight haircut.

His response was unwavering and unforgettable. He didn't look into my eyes; he began to drive home and said "I don't think this was an accident, kid."

The next morning, it was as if all the questions and assumptions of an honest mistake had flown out the window. I sat on the floor in front of our box-shaped big screen watching news I didn't understand. I saw planes crashing into buildings, people crying. I saw terror. This was the first time I saw terror, and I had no idea that we would be waging a war on terrorism for the next decade of my life.

Words like Al Quaida, and Iraq, pronounced then like 'I-RACK' not 'ER-ROC', and the visions of deserts and mountains, and politicians became a daily custom. I got up, ate my colorful marshmallow cereal , and I listened. I wasn't old enough to be mad. But a year later, dad had to go. As mom put it, he had a job overseas.

They had never been in love, mom and dad. They got pregnant. They had to raise their kids, these beautiful babies. And if that meant sleeping in separate bedrooms, that was fine. So when we went to the airport and I saw their lips touch for the first time, I was terrified. What did this mean? Is he not coming back?

She cried all the way home and for the next several days.

Then the video calls began. Dad had shaved his head. Why was it nighttime there, and daytime here? Why were there green flashes of light outside dad's window? What was that sound? None of these questions got answered, he asked instead if I was in trouble, and the usual and dreaded answer was, yes.

I understood when we picked him up from the airport several months later. He was in a camouflage uniform, a uniform that caused people to stare, not just at him but at us. This uniform, it brought tears to people's eyes. It caused strangers to approach him and shake his hand.

We were fighting for something. People had died, a lot of them. They didn't even know when they went to work that day that they wouldn't come back. People were trapped; they jumped to their death from burning buildings.

I understood pride for the first time. The flags, everywhere, on every car, since that terrifying day; they symbolized our fight. We were fighting for the right to live freely, to walk to work safely. We were fighting for rights people felt so strongly for, that they gave their lives.

When I was nine, I didn't know that I would be a military member. I did not realize that every detail of that day would be etched into my memory. Years have passed, man hunts have ended, and troops have come and gone. And I feel that some have let the memory of that September day diminish, yet each passing year I silently weep for those who have fallen.

I cannot forget how our great country pulled together, how we wept and grieved with and for one another. I will never forget my compassion for those who have returned, scarred, broken, damaged but still beautiful.

Our virtue, our security, was taken that day, but we remain free. I smile, because I am of the land of the free, the home of the brave. No one can ever take that from us. That is why it's called America, the beautiful. Years have passed, but I will never forget that.