By Wesley Hunt
Sept. 11, 2001, began as a quiet and pedestrian morning. As I prepared for my first class of the day at West Point, roughly 50 miles north of New York City, I sat in my room in the Eisenhower Barracks catching up on the news on my desktop computer.
I had no way of knowing the next few moments would forever alter the trajectory of our lives or that I was about to witness my generation’s Pearl Harbor.
American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and the horrific scenes kept replaying before my eyes. In that moment, speculation dominated my thoughts. Was it an accident? Was pilot error to blame? Certainly it couldn’t be the conditions; the morning sky was clear and blue.
Then, at exactly 9:03 a.m., I watched in horror as United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower proving that the events unfolding in Lower Manhattan were no accident. America was under attack. At that moment, I realized that we were at war.
As New York turned into a cloud of ash, hijackers targeted the nucleus of our nation’s defense by crashing American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. A fourth flight, United Airlines 93, was crashed into a field in Somerset County, Pa., by passengers on board who refused to let the hijackers fly the plane where they had intended.
Looking back, I am glad to recall my classmates at West Point were tested, too, as a result of 9/11 and we came through with bravery and resolve.
At West Point, cadets are not locked into military service until the first day of their junior year. You can quit anytime before then and not owe the government a nickel.
As a result, members of my sophomore class had the opportunity to leave West Point, attend a normal college and graduate to a civilian life. That meant we had the opportunity to avoid spending years deployed thousands of miles from home, not knowing each day if I’d ever see my friends or family again. It would have been a simple decision of signing a few papers, booking a flight home and packing my stuff. But my classmates and I chose to stay at West Point.
When I entered West Point in the year 2000, America was at peace. We knew that a life as an Army officer would be potentially dangerous. However, not a single one of us imaged that by 2005, America would have tens of thousands of troops deployed to Iraq. Cadets who enrolled after 2001 understood the situation, but those of us who enrolled in a time of peace certainly didn’t expect a world-altering event like the Sept. 11 attacks.
It was our duty. Despite our fears, we chose to serve a cause greater than ourselves — we chose to defend the United States of America, no matter the cost.
Years later, while I was flying Apache helicopter missions in war-torn Iraq, I remembered watching those towers fall. Knowing that I would be supporting troops on the ground, brave men and women who were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice, drove me to fly the next mission.
Like generations of patriots before us, the West Point Class of 2004, volunteered for combat knowing that we might be asked to give, as President Abraham Lincoln called it; our last full measure of devotion. We chose this course because we believe in the values of America.
We believe America is a special nation, an exceptional place rooted in bravery and rigorous spirit. We chose to serve not as Republicans, Democrats or Independents, but as brothers and sisters united by love of country and the urgency to defend it.
Today on this solemn anniversary, I ask that each of us reflect on the Americans we lost on 9/11 and all the heroes, including 14 of my classmates, who gave the ultimate sacrifice in America’s War on Terror. These souls remind us that despite the divisive nature of our current political culture, we are all Americans first. Our nation and its people, when united in a common bond, are the greatest force for good the world has ever known.