"If I knew then what I know now …"
That thought ran through my mind as I took time Tuesday, on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, to visit history.
I dug in my files to find a column I wrote three weeks after the attack, in which I pretty much compelled everyone to simply snap out of it.
We, collectively, were in a bit of a blue funk at the time. We had suffered greatly as a nation, and it showed. Candlelight vigils were held before the beginning of USD football games. Businesses in just about every community rearranged the lettering of their roadside signs to express blessings to troops and sympathy to those who lost their lives on Sept. 11.
I reasoned that it was time to hold our chins up and press on. At the time, I believed our military operation in Afghanistan would be much like the first Gulf War. Powerful. And brief.
If I had known then what I know now – that today, 11 years later, we'd still be waging war "over there," I wouldn't have been so flippant in my discounting of the negative emotions that seemed so dominant at that time.
Maybe 11 years ago I was simply tired of the constant expressions of sadness. But my attempt to try to get people to look forward instead of back three weeks after the attack really falls flat.
I read what I wrote, and my owns words can't sway me. Not now. Not after what I know today that I didn't know 11 years ago.
I didn't know we'd be there so long.
I didn't know the war would cost over a trillion dollars. And that generations of Americans would be faced with paying that bill.
I didn't know that we'd find ourselves engaged in a second war in Iraq that thankfully now appears to be over.
I didn't know it would hit so close to home. I didn't know that so many families in the Vermillion region and throughout South Dakota would be affected. I didn't think of the spouses and kids who would soon be counting the days until they would again be reunited with husbands, wives, mothers and fathers who were deployed overseas.
It simply didn't sink in at the time. I didn't realize that Sept. 11, 2001 was just the beginning of America's sacrifice of not simply resources, but also something much more precious – the lives of our fellow citizens.
Among the 26 South Dakotans lost in battle in Afghanistan and Iraq are Army Spc. Dennis G. Jensen, 21, of Vermillion; Army Spc. Allen D. Kokesh Jr., 21, and Army Staff Sgt. Daniel M. Cuka, 27, both of Yankton; and Army Sgt. 1st Class Richard L. Schild, 40, of Tabor.
I didn't know South Dakota Army National Guardsman Sgt. Corey Briest, who I watched happily receive his diploma when he graduated from Vermillion High School, would have his life profoundly changed after nearly being killed while participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
I can only conclude that 11 years ago, I didn't know just how painful war can be. Today, I, just like you, am older. And hopefully a bit wiser, thanks to lessons learned the hard way. Stuff happens in the course of day-to-day life, some of it good, some of it horrible.
That stuff teaches you the things you now know that you wish you knew 11 years ago. Of just how painful loss and sacrifice can be. And how it lingers so. Of the incredible debt that we freedom-loving people owe to not just past generations, but also our own and those younger than us, whose long, bright futures were cut short.
And how the only normal response to all of that is a profound sense of gratitude.
Abraham Lincoln, who knew quite a bit about both the necessity and pain of war, penned letters of sympathy to the families of fallen Union troops. In May of 1861, in a letter to the grieving Ephraim D. and Phoebe Ellsworth, he wrote, "In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one's country, and of bright hopes for one's self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall."
So many lives were dashed in a matter of a few short hours in the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Why did I think there wouldn't be much American bloodshed following that?
"If I knew then what I know now …"