On September 10th, 2001, I volunteered to serve in the Air Force. I was 18, a freshman college student in New York City. The next day the world changed.
I am a post 9/11 veteran, a member of a generation of veterans who joined or reenlisted in an all-volunteer military after America was attacked. We are a generation bookended by the fall of the towers on one hand and a retreat from Afghanistan on the other—a generation whose chapter in history came to a close with no closure; no homecoming parades, no celebrations, no protests—no grand reconciliation between a returning military and its civilian society. It was just over.
More than two decades after September 11th, the legacy of the post 9/11 veteran generation is unresolved. Unlike many other veterans generations, post 9/11 veterans do not share a single war, defined and united by a common experience. Instead, it is a generation in an identity crisis—an identity crisis which, if left unsettled, could threaten the professional all-volunteer military, lead to civil-military disorder, and even ignite domestic unrest. Already, dominant post 9/11 veteran archetypes—the vigilant hero, the violence-loving soldier, even the wounded warrior—create an image of the veteran as different, recognizably separate, uniformed even in their new civilian status—ultimately alienated from civilian society.
But the truth is that the post 9/11 veteran is not separate from society, nor are their differences so contradictory that their legacy is doomed. This is because at its core, the post 9/11 veteran shares something important. They are bound together by a willingness to serve and sacrifice, a calling that translates to a legacy of leadership in service in the civilian communities to which these veterans return.
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This legacy comes from the decisions this generation made to willingly sacrifice as part of an all-volunteer force, knowing that their choice would likely send them to combat. We signed up to do this because we believed, as a part of an all-volunteer force in a nation whose homeland had been attacked, that our service mattered. It was something bigger than ourselves. It wasn’t just a calling to a profession of arms, it was a calling to a profession of arms to defend an ideal about democracy and America’s place as a champion of what could be good in the world.
Our generation’s “end” may have been an ignominious retreat from Afghanistan, but it doesn’t have to define the impact of the post 9/11 veteran generation’s service. And this is because our legacy is not solely what we did in the military, but instead how we let those experiences shape the society to which we return. We are drawn from our society and we return to it, believers in something bigger than ourselves, to make that society better because of—not despite of—our experience serving our country.
I believe this because I see it. Despite the narrative of veterans as different, many of us already sit next to you, our veteran status often invisible to the eye. We are in PTA meetings, classrooms, cubicles, community townhalls, and legislative houses. We fight fires, lead police forces, build affordable housing, and combat sexual trafficking. We serve in government—as mayors, local and federal representatives, cabinet directors, and even governors. We shape our local economies, running businesses, holding patents, leading venture-funds and start-ups.
That’s not to say that our generation was not wounded, that two decades of combat service didn’t disproportionately affect too small a proportion of American society, or that the America this veteran generation returns to is not more complicated, more troubled, perhaps less democratic, than the one we went to fight for starting on September 11th, 2001. Maybe this is what is so complicated about the post 9/11 legacy, that it is tied with what we believe America could be. And this idea of America—which seemed crystal clear in the aftermath of 9/11—is increasingly thorny, making the veteran legacy in some ways too painful to discuss.
We can’t avoid this discussion. We can’t paint over two decades of service with half-measures—veteran discounts, early boarding on planes, a “thank you for your service”—which seem both not enough and a needling reminder of the gaping schism between the post 9/11 veteran and society. But likewise, veterans need to change some of our own narrative, focus on what makes us similar, instead of what makes us different. We can’t hope to build a positive legacy if the internal conversation between veterans is dominated by a competition about whose service was enough—a fight for who the true post 9/11 veteran is.
I am a post 9/11 veteran. I am not the post 9/11 veteran. I—like those who gave so much more than me—volunteered because I believed our generation had a call to serve, that we were defined by a moment that we did not control but that we could control the legacy it had for our future. I thought that legacy was about our service abroad, whether we defeated terrorism or brought democracy, or even made the world somewhat safer. And, honestly, that legacy—whether we were successful doing any of that—is unclear. But what I didn’t realize when I signed up was the legacy that my service could have on the homeland I signed up to defend, how my generation could make our towns, our schools, or communities better in some small way. There we still have a chance and I believe that this will be the true legacy of the post-9/11 veteran.
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