20 Years Since 9/11: A Soldier Reflects On His Service, Asking “Was It Worth It?"

By Joe Reagan, Wreaths Across America, Director Of Military And Veteran Outreach

September 2, 2021

“As we reflect as a nation, on the current situation in Afghanistan and on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I think it is more important than ever, to remind ourselves of the unity, that existed immediately following, the 9/11 attacks.” Joe Reagan

Over the past few days, I have had an opportunity, to chat with several fellow Veterans, Service Members, Military Family Members and Gold Star Families. It is beyond the obvious, in saying, that the past few days, have been extraordinarily difficult, for those with a personal connection, to our mission in Afghanistan. My wife Tiffany and I, are no different.

Earlier this week, a CNN Reporter Broadcast from a base in Andar, Afghanistan – this was a base that my soldiers and I built, it’s the base, where I was wounded, in 2006. Seeing it on the screen, brought back a lot of memories – good and bad. When we first secured Andar, we were using an open space, adjacent to the district center compound, where I lived with the local Governor, to land helicopters. Unbeknownst to us – that open space, was a Cemetery.

One day, the elder approaches me and says, you’re landing helicopters, in our cemetery and this is, deeply disrespectful. We talked for hours and right as the villagers and the elders were satisfied, that we intended no harm and that we had agreed on a new place to land helicopters, I heard the distinct sound, of a far-off, Chinook Helicopter. Despite my best efforts to wave them off, two giant Chinook’s, landed right in front of us, in the cemetery, sandblasting the entire group of gathered elders in the process and effectively, undoing all the goodwill, I had just spent hours, building. Of the 847 days, that I spent serving in Afghanistan, every single one, was like that day. A few steps forward, a few steps back.

In my conversations with fellow Veterans, their memories are about the same. The question that keeps coming up is: Was this worth it?

Unfortunately, most are having a hard time, with answering that question. There’s a term for that, Moral Injury. Moral Injury, is the mind’s response to actions or memories, that are in violation of a person’s values and beliefs – some might say, it’s an injury to your soul. For 20 years, the full weight of The War On Terror, fell on the shoulders, of less than 1% of us. 2.7 million Americans, voluntarily answered the call to serve, .7% of the U.S. population, to be precise. 7,057 never came home, another 30,177 came home, only to take their own lives.

Since 9/11/01, my generation of Veterans, have been fortunate, to have a grateful nation behind us – I attribute this, to our Vietnam and Korean War Veterans, who, after 9/11, were adamant, that my generation received a proper welcome home and proper access to care, something, many of them, never received. Believe me when I say, ALL of us, appreciate that gratitude – but over the past few days, the resounding impression I get from talking to my fellow Veterans is, that “thank you for your service,” has lost its meaning. Many Veterans have begun to see this, as a hollow or superficial gesture, people say it because, that’s what, you’re supposed to say.

Like most Veterans, on my right wrist, I wear a silver bracelet, I have a collection of them, but, they all look the same. Most people assume, it’s a medical alert bracelet, but if you look closely, each bracelet, is inscribed with the name of a friend or colleague I’ve lost, either to our enemies abroad, or the demons, within. I wear the bracelet, so that I can read their name, when I shake hands, when I render a salute, when I play with my kids, while I type these words, their names, are always with me. Almost every Veteran I know, does this. We do this, because it inspires us, they inspire us. They sacrificed their tomorrow, so that we could have, our today – and that is not something, to be taken lightly. We have an obligation, to live up to their legacy, we have an obligation, to make those sacrifices matter and what we’re seeing today, should only strengthen, our resolve, to do so.

As we reflect as a nation, on the current situation in Afghanistan and on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I think it is more important than ever, to remind ourselves, of the unity, that existed immediately, following the 9/11 attacks. On 9/12, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind, that we would prevail, there was no doubt, that we were stronger together. Now, 20 years later, we should focus our efforts, on those elements that unify us, those elements of our history that make us stronger, those elements, that define American exceptionalism.

Pearl Harbor, September 11th, whatever the crisis, American’s, have always stood up and found a way, to overcome, any obstacle. Despite the fear, the heartbreak, the anger we’re all experiencing, we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our fallen, to be good stewards of our democracy, we must live up to their legacy and be good stewards, of our communities. As we approach the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, all of us must find a way to serve, we must ensure that the sacrifices made, by the .7%, were not in vain.

After Pearl Harbor, our entire nation mobilized, in support of the war efforts. Everyone made sacrifices, in support of our common goal. When the war was over, we quickly made up for lost time. The greatest generation, not only secured victory in World War II, but they returned home to oversee, the largest period of economic growth this country has ever seen and some of the greatest, technological advances, the world has ever seen. For the greatest generation, there was no obstacle that couldn’t be overcome and today, we have the opportunity, to harness, that same spirit.

To the brave men and women who volunteered, to your families, to the families of the fallen. The sacrifices you made and your families made, were not in vain. What we are witnessing today, is not our failure, this is not our burden, to bear. Having had the privilege of serving alongside so many amazing Americans (and allied Service Members as well), quite frankly, I’m tremendously proud, of what you were able to accomplish and I hope you are too. The fact is, you carried more than your fair share and you are stronger, because of it.

It’s OK, to not be OK, right now. Take some time to reconnect with old friends, remind ourselves about that time we were handed a mission, given no resources to execute the mission and somehow, we figured out, how to make it work. Let's take that problem solving mindset, into our next mission. There's a lot of work to be done, your country and your communities, need strong leaders like you, to tackle tough problems and solving tough problems, is what we do, best.

Adlai Stevenson II said, “Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst, of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication, of a lifetime.” I can think of no better way, to demonstrate our gratitude, for the sacrifices of our Service Members, Veterans, their families than by reaffirming our commitment to service, to each other, to our communities, to our nation.

Joseph Reagan is The Director Of Military And Veterans Outreach For Wreaths, Across America. He has over 10 year's experience, working with leaders within Government, non-profit, Fortune 500 companies to develop sustainable strategies, supporting National Security and Veterans Health. He served 8 years on active duty, as an officer in the U.S. Army, including two tours to Afghanistan, with the 10th Mountain Division. He is a graduate of Norwich University, the oldest private military college in the country.

Wreaths Across America, is a non-political, non-profit organization, best known for placing wreaths on Veteran’s headstones, at Arlington National Cemetery. However, in 2020, the organization placed more than, 1.7 million sponsored Veteran's wreaths at 2,557 participating locations, nationwide. Throughout the calendar year, you can tune in to Wreaths Across America Internet Radio, 24/7, to learn more about the mission and those who support it, across the country, as well as the hundreds of local, charitable efforts nationwide, that are funded, through wreath sponsorships.

You can sponsor a Veteran’s wreath anytime, for $15 at: www.wreathacrossamerica.org. Each sponsorship, goes toward a live, balsam wreath, that will be placed on the headstone of an American Hero, as we endeavor to honor all Veterans, laid to rest, as part of National Wreaths Across America Day, on Saturday, December 18th, 2021 at 12:00 p.m., noon.

To find a local, participating cemetery near you to support, go to and type in your town and/or state at: https://wreathsacrossamerica.org/pages/search?searchType=location

About Wreaths Across America
Wreaths Across America is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, founded to continue and expand, the annual wreath-laying ceremony, at Arlington National Cemetery, begun by Maine businessman, Morrill Worcester, in 1992. The organization’s mission – Remember, Honor, Teach – is carried out in part, each year by coordinating wreath-laying ceremonies, in December at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as, thousands of Veteran's cemeteries at other locations, in all 50 states and beyond.

For more information, or to sponsor a wreath, please visit: www.wreathsacrossamerica.org