On 9/11 anniversary, I think about serving in Iraq and now Congress

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Like most Americans, I will never forget where I was on Sept. 11, 2001. Having been promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, I worked for the commander of 12th Air Force overseeing our combat air forces west of the Mississippi River. 

As I was preparing to depart for work that day, the morning news reported that one of the Twin Towers was hit by an aircraft and was engulfed in flames. Within minutes, the second tower was struck, and it was clear the world had changed forever. We were now at war, and I knew that before sundown we’d be putting units on alert to join the coming fight. 

That horrific day changed the course of history. Our nation had been ruthlessly attacked by those who wished to change our way of life and instill fear. Like so many others, my heart was filled with resolve and a burning desire to serve. 

The annual Tribute in Light appears over lower Manhattan in New York City on Sept. 11, 2017 as seen from Jersey City, New Jersey.
(Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

After 9/11, there was a national wave of patriotism and a call to service. Recruits started pouring in. Young Americans, enraged by the barbaric attack on our country, answered the call to put on the uniform, lace up their boots, and raise their right hand to fight our common enemy. 

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Recalling those days, our nation had never felt so united and committed to a single purpose.  We were eager to fight to deliver justice to those who had murdered thousands of our citizens in cold blood. Ready to do all that our nation asked of us, no sacrifice was too small to destroy al Qaeda and make sure that America’s enemies could never again threaten our homeland.

The years of the Global War on Terrorism were long and filled with heartache. Thousands of our nation’s precious sons and daughters served, fought, bled and died in America’s longest period of sustained combat. 

U.S. Army soldiers from 1st Cavalry Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas, load their baggage as they begin their journey home after a deployment in Iraq, at Camp Virginia, Kuwait, Dec. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

U.S. Army soldiers from 1st Cavalry Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas, load their baggage as they begin their journey home after a deployment in Iraq, at Camp Virginia, Kuwait, Dec. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

From 2002 to 2003, I had the privilege to command an EC-130H electronic combat squadron responsible for patrolling the skies over Iraq, protecting our forces from improvised explosive devices and other threats. Later, from 2007 to 2008, I served with Gen. David Petraeus on his staff in Baghdad. 

As the war took its toll, on more than one occasion, I had the solemn honor of sharing bitter tears with the parents and spouses of fallen airmen to explain how their loved one had given their young life for their country. I’ll never forget them or the intensity of their grief.

As the years rolled by, the deployments kept coming, the long hours grew, and the losses mounted. Yet, despite the pain, we never lost hope or abandoned the conviction that we were fighting for something much bigger than ourselves. There was truly no other place I wanted to be, and no other job I would rather have than serving the United States in uniform.

Paratroopers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, and others, prepare to board a C-17 cargo plane at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 30, 2021.

Paratroopers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, and others, prepare to board a C-17 cargo plane at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 30, 2021.
(Master Sgt. Alexander Burnett/U.S. Army via AP)

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After nearly 30 years on active duty, I retired from the military and in 2017 was given the opportunity to continue my service in Congress. However, the war still raged, and the sacrifices continued. For me and other veterans in Congress, this only deepened our resolve to serve, and in the timeless words of Abraham Lincoln, “to care for him who shall have born the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” 

The attack on 9/11 changed our nation forever and we will long carry the scars, both visible and invisible. Our chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year may have officially ended America’s longest conflict, but for many, particularly the women in Afghanistan and the interpreters that served by our side, the war goes on. For me, there is no greater honor – or responsibility – than to advocate for those who served, those who sacrificed, and for the families they left behind. 

An Afghan woman leaves an underground school, in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 30, 2022.

An Afghan woman leaves an underground school, in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 30, 2022.
(AP Photo/Ebrahim Norooz)

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As a member of the House Armed Services Committee and co-chair of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force and For Country Caucus of veterans in Congress, I am grateful for the opportunity to work closely with my colleagues across the political spectrum to craft policies to provide for the common defense, protect those who protect us, and honor the fallen and their families. As we reckon with the legacy of the 9/11 attacks, there is much work to do and no time to waste. The mission continues.

As we mark the 21st anniversary of this fateful day, may we all live in gratitude for those who stand watch in the night so we may sleep peacefully, and for those who will follow.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE BY REP. DON BACON

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