1. Two decades after Sept. 11, our commitment continues in a changed world

    September 11, 2021

    It was early in the morning when I learned about what had happened in New York City, just a few miles from Brooklyn, where I had grown up.

    I was living in Northern California and working at the University of California–Berkeley at the time. I was driving to campus early that morning and listening to NPR news talk about the first plane crashing into the North Tower.

    It wasn’t clear at that time whether this was a horrific navigational error, a reckless or suicidal pilot or something else.

    I was just arriving on campus when the second plane collided with the South Tower, and it was immediately obvious that this was not an accident, but rather an attack on our nation.

    Everyone in my lab spent the day transfixed by the evolving reports of what had happened, including the subsequent collapse of both towers and two other weaponized jetliner crashes at the Pentagon and in a rural area of Pennsylvania.

    The world changed for all of us that day.

    In a Newsweek magazine article published two months later about how University of Michigan students were coping with what the author described as this generation’s defining moment, one undergraduate student noted, presciently, that, “September 11 has changed us more than we realize. This just isn’t going to go away.”

    Last week, David Turnley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and professor in our Residential College and Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, released a photodocumentary of new images from before and after the attack in New York City.

    As we honor the twentieth anniversary of that tragic day, we now know the costs to our country and our world would be immense.

    According to a report released earlier this month by the Costs of War project at Brown University, two decades of post-9/11 wars have led to the deaths of more than 900,000 people across the globe. More than 7,000 members of the U.S. military factor into that number, including the 13 service members killed last month during the U.S. evacuation from Kabul. It also includes nearly 15,000 other allied troops, about 700 journalists, nearly 900 humanitarian and NGO workers, and an estimated 364,000 to 387,000 civilians.

    And those figures, while staggering on their own, don’t capture the true toll on our nation. They don’t include the men and women who have returned from duty with life-altering injuries, both physical and psychological. Or the two decades of strain placed on the family members of military personnel. Or our nation’s estimated $8 trillion in direct costs of waging war for the past 20 years.

    Perhaps none in our campus community understand this more than those who have served in the armed forces. The Ann Arbor campus currently has 422 students – along with more than 700 faculty and staff – who have served or are serving in the military. U-M also has more than 600 students who have family members with military ties.

    The university is committed to supporting this critical group of students, faculty and staff. One way is through our Veterans and Military Services Program, which assists military-connected students in their transition to and success at the university.

    Created in 2008, the program provides a variety of advocacy and assistance services, including helping students apply to U-M and access their educational benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs, identifying institutional practices and policies that negatively affect student success and advocating for students who are deployed.

    The program also supports the university’s chapter of Student Veterans of America, an organization co-founded in 2007 by U-M undergraduate Derek Blumke. The organization has since grown into a national network with more than 1,500 on-campus chapters.  SVA played a key role in advising Congress on the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2008.

    Peer Advising for Veteran Education, or PAVE, operates on campus as a peer support program matching current student veterans with incoming student veterans. Advisors are trained to provide guidance and support across a wide range of issues.

    With the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the anniversary of Sept. 11 at the forefront, the Veterans and Military Services Program will host a Wellness Week at its office in the Student Activities Building from Sept. 13 to 17 with coffee and doughnuts, information on campus and VA mental health and wellness resources and free T-shirts.

    The university’s annual Veterans Week programming later this fall will include several discussions on Afghanistan, including one featuring service members from the Vietnam War talking with Afghanistan veterans about the two conflicts, the withdrawals and the emotional impacts of each.

    Like many in our country, veterans and military service members have complex and diverse thoughts and viewpoints about the Sept. 11 attacks and the War on Terror that followed. Many have lost friends, family and colleagues; many have been injured; and for many, the events of that day had a profound impact on their life’s trajectory, even if they were not born yet or too young to remember the day firsthand.

    These men and women bring unique experiences and perspectives to the university. I’m thinking about them today with appreciation for their service to our country and the vital role they play in our diverse community.