Starting Again at Zero

Editor Sean Davis, Editor's Choice, September 18th, 2015

"the headline of all the papers announced the fourteen-year anniversary of 9/11."

sean davis ground zero essay 9/11 anniversary
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Last week, on September 11th, 2015 I went to where al Qaida terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center killing 2,606 citizens of New York. I went there expecting to find something.

Even though I didn’t know anyone personally affected back then, I reenlisted into the army infantry the day after the Towers fell, a decision that would end up sending me to lead men in combat during the Iraq War. Four months into my tour, men with the caricature of a US soldier burned into their minds by propaganda, overcome by desperation and hate, killed one of my brothers in arms and critically injured another friend of mine during violent ambush that involved a vehicle borne improvised explosive device, three AK-47s, and a mortar attack. The ambush left me soul-broke and hobbled. The violence and chaos of this day has been a difficult part of my life to put behind me.

I have my own anniversary: June 13th. Every year now, for weeks before the day I was blown up, all the injuries I sustained that day hurt again; I walk with a limp and my right arm numbs, I see my friend’s dead body in my nightmares without being able to do anything to help him, and I feel lost and alone in the world. This time of overwhelming depression and even hopelessness is a very common occurrence not only for combat veterans, but for any of us who have had to live through horrible trauma. I know because I spend a lot of time doing what little I can to help the men and women physically, emotionally, and spiritual wounded by the war. I volunteer at assisted living centers, I’m on the board of directors for The Returning Veterans Project, and I’m also the post commander for the American Legion in my neighborhood.

This statistic gets thrown around a lot, but the truth remains: we lose, on average, 22 combat veterans every day to suicide. And these are numbers from a study in 2012; I’m positive it is more today. We’ve lost so many more of our veterans to self-inflicted wounds rather than in the wars with Iraq or Afghanistan (wars started because of what happened right there in New York City).

I took the train from my in-laws house in Rockland County to Ground Zero, in an attempt to touch, or be touched by, some physical part of the history of that day. I don’t want to say I went there in order to “never forget” because I don’t believe anyone who was alive on that day could forget where they were or how they found out. No, I didn’t go there to avoid forgetting, but truthfully, I’m not entirely sure why I did go. On the surface I was looking for something visceral to write about, but on a deeper level I believe I was trying to find a way to cope with my trauma.

The train snaked its way along the Hudson River from Tarrytown and the headline of all the papers being held up and read announced the fourteen-year anniversary of 9/11. First stop was Harlem with most of its billboards empty except for a street tags, with high-rise apartments made of brick and too many barred windows, too close together, and with old warehouses boarded up and covered in graffiti. I didn’t expect the people to be walking around openly weeping but I hoped (too strong a word?) to see some sort of cathartic moment in the people around me.

My wife, daughter, and I jumped off the train at Grand Central Station and the world zipped by at NYC speed. We walked around the block until we found the hub of the station with it’s beautiful painted ceiling. The people darted, rushed, and hurried in all directions, but I couldn’t find my moment, anywhere.

We took a yellow taxi to the Upper East Side and still it was business as usual. When we arrived at my sister-in-law’s apartment she was starting her normal routine of going for a run, showering, and picking up her son Zephan. She wasn’t too excited about the notion of us going down to Ground Zero. What you have to understand about my sister-in-law is that 9/11 is an enormous part of her life. She had produced documentaries on fallen firefighters even before that day, she married a firefighter who barely survived, and she’s good friends with all of the heroes who worked to save lives that day, and she wasn’t going down there.

Still, no moment.

The site itself was shut down to everyone except the family members and service officers. No one else could get in, so we walked around and took photos of the people taking photos of the people taking photos of the Freedom Tower. News crews searched the on-lookers of the sidewalks to find the right sound bites to put on the news. Even the people in designer clothes coming out of the expensive hotels snapped shots before getting into the cars hired to take them to wherever else.

Later that night we went out to meet some of our friends at the White Horse Tavern, the same bar that Dylan Thomas, Jack Keroac, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan used to drink at, among others. We had an amazing time and the place buzzed, it was, after all, Friday night. After racking up quite the bill we headed out to walk, had another drink somewhere else, listened to street folk sing under a replica of the Arch de Triumph at Washington Square, and finally ended up at Original Ray’s Pizza for a slice of fried eggplant and mozzarella and a bottle of Magic Hat Pale Ale brewed in Brooklyn.

My wife, Kell, went to use the restroom so I scrolled through the photos we took of all the wonderful fun we had that day: Trinity church, Fulton Street, South Street Seaport, the West Village, and all the way back to the East Village. It was only then I realized it wasn’t the city looking at the day wrong; I was. New York, and what I believe America is for that matter, isn’t about dwelling on a horrific event, isn’t about searching for a cathartic moment of healing years later, it isn’t about letting the anniversary of the terror attacks dictate how we lead our lives. No one is forgetting. People are living and by simply living they’ve won.

I believe if more of us who were injured by these traumatic moments can do the same we’d be able to put the horrors of our lives behind us and live. If I can stop trying to have some sort of healing moment on the anniversary of the ambush that took my friend’s life, then maybe I won’t need that healing moment I’ve looked for every year for the past eleven years. If I can learn start my life again from this trip to Ground Zero I can win too.

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Sean Davis

Sean has fought in a revolution, a war, and helped save lives in New Orleans during Katrina. He’s a wildland firefighter during the summers. He’s been a police officer, a bartender, a incident responder, a supernumerary in an opera, and currently teaches writing at Mt. Hood Community College and Clackamas Community College. He volunteers as the post commander at American Legion Post 134 in the heart of the Alberta Arts District in NE Portland where he paints and writes plays, articles, and books.