In the year following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, then-President George W. Bush declared the day to be Patriot Day, calling on “the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities, including remembrance services and candlelight vigils,” according to the proclamation. Americans continue to listen.
Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Ryan Cain, a chief culinary specialist, is one such individual. He hails from Long Island, New York, where his mom was a volunteer firefighter and his dad often worked in the World Trade Center.
In his youth, Cain spent time in firehouses. He formed important relationships with members of the fire department and other junior firefighters in high school. And he knows one first responder who died on 9/11 along with many more who have been affected by that day.
Aside from having a strong personal connection to the event, Cain recognizes the significant impact it had on military service and life as he knows it.
“[9/11] changed everything about everything,” he said. “For me, it’s why we wear a uniform.”
In his role as chief of barracks for Officer Candidate School at the Coast Guard Academy, Cain asks students to reflect on the events of 9/11. With each class of students, Cain shows a documentary about the day and facilitates a discussion. It’s important to him to address the day not only because of its value for service members but also because, for many people, 9/11 seems abstract.
“A lot of it you saw on TV but you really never knew the magnitude of what happened because it was just on TV. And if it’s on TV and not personal to you, you can kind of forget it,” he said.
In 2017, Cain brought a class of officers to participate in the Tunnel to Towers 5k race in New York City to honor a firefighter who died helping others. After the event, the group laid a wreath at the survivor tree at ground zero.
For Cain, it isn’t possible to overemphasize the significance of that day in 2001.
“I don’t know how they teach it in schools nowadays but I know it’s more of, now it’s just another blurb in history books. … To me, it’s just important to keep educating people and reminding people about it,” he said.
Education about 9/11 is a significant concern of Air Force spouse Amanda Trimillos.
Trimillos was teaching seventh grade English in northern Virginia at the time of the attacks. She remembers being at school, in a lockdown and undergoing an intentional information blackout.
“I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know the twin towers had collapsed. I didn’t know a plane went into the Pentagon; I just knew something had happened,” she explained.
As an educator, Trimillos regularly observes Patriot Day by inviting her husband into the classroom to share his experience of being at the Pentagon when the plane hit. In addition, she offers the school use of an American flag that was flown over the area on 9/11 for a special ceremony of observance and remembrance.
Trimillos says it is difficult to help students connect with events that happened years ago.
“A lot of the kids now weren’t born, especially the younger kids. … To them it’s just another history story,” she added.
Army spouse and educator Jennifer Woodard has noticed changes in the ways schools approach Patriot Day, seemingly devoting less time and attention to it every year since the start of her career. Woodard is concerned that, without consistent and reliable information from school, students are getting misinformation from other sources.
“We need to do a better job addressing it [9/11] as a country … so that people do remember it, they do know that it’s real, not just on Facebook with a post once a year,” Woodard said.
Founder and president of the 9/11 Promise Run, Jennifer DePoto, hopes to give people a chance not only to recognize the sacrifice and loss of that day, but also to experience a sense of healing through a three-day, 240-mile relay run from Washington to New York City.
DePoto had the idea for a run from the Pentagon to ground zero while she was training for a half Ironman in 2016.
“It was the 15th anniversary of 9/11 and it just kind of hit me. I think I’m being called to do something … something that’s bigger than myself for the greater good,” she explained.
That has taken on a form that combines her will to do good, while creating a connection to first responders and military. She also holds a belief that “athletics can be really healing for people … and very unifying for communities.”
During the first year of the run, in 2016, DePoto and six others completed the course. This year, 65 athletes have already signed up to participate in the event, and a two-day bike event has also been added. DePoto explained that the money raised will “provide scholarships to kids of fallen or injured first responders, military, just to make sure for the future, kids stay educated so we hopefully will never see another 9/11.”
Eighteen years ago, America experienced an unprecedented day of national tragedy, terror and loss. It also highlighted the best of humanity and unity. There are many ways to honor those who lost their lives and those who willingly died to serve others on Patriot Day. May we never forget or take those sacrifices for granted.