Air Force Academy cadets still ran in teams of four Tuesday morning to “remember” 9/11.
But 17 years after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., none of the 4,000 cadets actually remember the events that kicked off the wars America still is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. They say it’s a legend for them now, like how their parents venerate Pearl Harbor.
But it’s a cause they’re still willing to fight for.
“We rely on people who have that experience,” said senior cadet Elizabeth Read, an Indiana native who was a toddler when the World Trade Center crumbled and is now just months away from wearing lieutenant’s bars in a military still fighting.
The academy hosted military leaders, police, firefighters and politicians to remember the attacks in a ceremony that ended with cadets setting off on their overnight run.
Cadets decorated their campus with flags for those who fell in New York and sabers for those killed at the Pentagon, 2,977 reminders of the price that day. And in a symbolic handoff of the legacy of the attacks, the lead speakers were squadron commanders at the school who were cadets when al-Qaida operatives hijacked planes for the attacks.
Maj. Chris High, who was an academy sophomore during the attacks, remembers the day clearly and the dawning realization that he would be called to fight. It really hit home when military leaders grounded the nation’s aircraft after the attacks.
“None of it was as surreal as day after day with no airplanes in the sky,” he recalled.
High went on to battle as an F-16 pilot, spending much of his career avenging 9/11.
“You stand where we once stood,” he told the school’s 4,000 cadets who gathered in stiff formation for the ceremony.
Brig. Gen. Kristin Goodwin, the school’s commandant of cadets, said while the new generation may not recall the attacks, they still know they are fighting for freedom and to keep Americans safe at home.
“All of us are united in a common desire,” the general said.
Master Sgt. Jared Flores, who was a new recruit at the time of the attacks, said something is special about this generation of cadets, who showed up to fight years removed from that horrible day.
“Being in the military takes a special person,” he said. Joining during an active conflict “takes a bigger person.”
Cadet Read, 21, said this generation is removed from the emotions carried by those who remember 9/11 as if it were yesterday. It is a different kind of patriotism that pushes young men and women into uniform, she said.
She knows that America in 2018 is a nation that probably faces more threats that it did that day. And the nation needs a new generation to be her protectors.
“That’s what we’re fighting for,” Read said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240