The Great American (Un)Common Connection [Commentary]

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Dan Heldridge, a senior Morgan Stanley finance executive, was working on the 62nd floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. At 8:45 a.m., the building shook as the first plane hit the North Tower. He immediately ordered all of his staff to evacuate, and all made it out safely. In the rush to exit, Heldridge left behind his briefcase containing a Motorola cell phone, his very first.

When the tower collapsed, the briefcase landed on the roof of the Deutsche Bank Building, two blocks away. Later, New York City firefighter Tom Frizalone found the briefcase and phone amid the debris. Miraculously, it still worked. He used it to call his wife to let her know he was alive, and days later, he contacted Heldridge and returned the phone.

In 2012, Heldridge, who now lives in California, and Frizalone, who still lives in Brooklyn, finally met in person. Today, the Motorola is on display at the New York State Museum in Albany, N.Y.

This story is remarkable not only for the special connection it forged between two strangers from different walks of life. It also illustrates the spirit of unity and collective purpose that brought our nation together in a profound way—perhaps our greatest coalescence since the “total war” mobilization effort of World War II.

Today, however, it’s hard to recognize the sense of unity that empowered us to pick up the pieces shattered on that sky blue September morning. Whether it’s our economic, political, or rural versus urban divides, or the growing gap between military and non-military families, an undeniable rift has emerged in our national discourse and atmosphere.

Naturally, these divisions have led to significant soul-searching. We’re no less American than we were in 2001, so what’s changed? Of course, there are no easy answers to these difficult questions. But I’m confident there’s reason for hope.

Two hundred and forty-two years ago, our Founding Fathers established our country on a profound, but simple idea. It’s that in America, we will have a government of, by, and for the people; we’re all created equal; and we’ll be judged by the content of our character, not by race, religion, economic status, or any other surface-level characteristic. Our national institutions, including our Army, are imbued with this principle, which has been a steadying force even in the face of adversity and uncertainty.

Simply put, our nation and our institutions have withstood greater periods of turmoil, division, and upheaval before. And we have always converged, emerged intact, and prospered. In his farewell statement, the late Sen. John McCain put it well: “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries … But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement.”

As we remember those lost on 9/11, let’s also remember that American resilience is rooted in our connectivity—not the wrongheaded notion that someone with different beliefs is an enemy. For 242 years, that togetherness has catalyzed our journey toward becoming a more perfect union, and the spirit of unity that brought us together 17 years ago still lives in every one of us.

America’s Army, Your Army!

Frequent Aegis contributor Maj. Gen. Randy Taylor is commanding general, U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command and senior commander at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Editor.

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