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Unspoken wedding vows, grandchildren never met and a war that stumbled to an end: How to measure the 20 years since 9/11

What can happen in the span of 20 years?

Your loved one can leave in the morning never to return — and you can go on to new jobs, homes and companions — and still they thread through your life, though in absence rather than presence.

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You can deploy to a war that had widespread support, until it didn’t, and now watch from home as it ends in bitterness, bloodshed and the once-defeated enemy retaking the country.

And you can go from living in an America that in the face of global terrorism willingly took off its shoes to board airplanes, but now, in the midst of an even deadlier threat, can’t agree on wearing masks or getting vaccination shots.

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The 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks arrives in a country vastly altered in ways that range from the personal to the sweeping, still contending with the fallout from that shattering day even as it struggles amid newer challenges.

“After 9/11, Americans really rallied around the flag,” said William Braniff, a University of Maryland, College Park, researcher on terrorism. “We are, obviously, not there now in our domestic politics.”

Nearly 3,000 people were killed that morning when hijackers commandeered four planes. The attackers plowed the airline jets into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon outside Washington and, after passengers and crew revolted, a field in Pennsylvania. The attacks triggered a war, fought first in Afghanistan, which harbored the al-Qaida group behind the terrorism, and then in Iraq.

The shock of 9/11 remains vivid.

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A new normal

“It was kind of terrifying,” said Laura Nelson, then an employee of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade. “It changed everybody and everything in some way.”

She was midway through a 37-year career that Nelson, an electrical engineer by training, can only say involved data collection. After hearing that a plane struck the World Trade Center, Nelson ran to the one place where she knew there was a TV — a break room. Nelson said NSA workers didn’t have much access to outside media, in part to protect its internal networks.

As it wasn’t known what else might be targeted, staff were told to evacuate. By the following day, a new normal had already set in: Usually at her desk by 7 a.m., she found extra security and a long line to get in.

The following year, Nelson transferred to an NSA position at the CIA, something she likely wouldn’t have done otherwise, given the 50-mile commute from her Severna Park home. It changed her career trajectory. She left the agency as a senior executive in 2018.

Now president and CEO of the National Cryptologic Foundation, which supports the NSA’s museum and promotes its history and mission through educational programs, she remains proud of the work she and her colleagues did after the attacks, when “all engines were firing and we were all moving in the same direction.

“We had a really hard mission,” Nelson said, “and we did the best we could under those conditions.”

‘On a beautiful day’

Often, when people think back to 9/11, they remember the loveliness of the weather on the East Coast that day — the crisp, early fall air, the brilliantly blue sky. That this backdrop was so violently punctured, by the orange fireballs and dark smoke erupting from the crash sites, added to the incredulity of it all.

“You really knew, literally, on a beautiful day, the most beautiful day, that bad things can happen to good people,” said John Milton Wesley, 72, whose fiancee was a passenger on the plane that struck the Pentagon. “This was one of the best people I ever met in my life.”

Sarah M. Clark, 65, a mother of two grown children, was a teacher at a middle school in Washington. She was accompanying a student selected to attend a National Geographic Society expedition off Santa Barbara, California. Just before the trip, she and Wesley scoped out a reception site for their wedding, planned for Dec. 22, 2001.

John Milton Wesley stands Tuesday behind his keyboard and a photo of Sarah M. Clark at his residence, reflecting on how his fiancee perished in the Sept. 11th attacks 20 years ago.
John Milton Wesley stands Tuesday behind his keyboard and a photo of Sarah M. Clark at his residence, reflecting on how his fiancee perished in the Sept. 11th attacks 20 years ago. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

For the next five years, Wesley couldn’t bear to change anything in the Columbia home he shared with Clark, with whom he sang in a church choir. Wesley returned to composing and performing “for my healing,” as he told an audience at a recent concert at An Die Musik in Baltimore. Playing two keyboards and accompanied by a percussionist, he sang bouncy tunes and wistful, romantic ballads.

Now the spokesman for Baltimore’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights, Wesley has moved to a new home, and has a new companion. But he keeps a photo of Clark and her student going through security at Dulles International Airport on 9/11.

Wesley will attend the annual commemoration at the Pentagon, as he has almost every year, where each of the 184 victims is memorialized with a bench.

‘The time that has passed’

Christine K. Fisher of Montgomery County has taken part each year. She finds comfort in the acknowledgment of her husband and the bond she feels with others who lost loved ones at the Pentagon. After this year’s event, she will host a gathering with family, friends and colleagues of Gerald P. Fisher.

Her 57-year-old husband was a Booz Allen Hamilton consultant. With two co-workers, he was meeting at the Pentagon with Lt. Gen. Timothy J. Maude, an Army deputy chief of staff, and the highest-ranking military official to die in the attack.

Christine Fisher recently realized that she has now been without her husband for about two months longer than with him. His two children from a previous marriage, whom she helped raise, have had five children between them.

“That’s a measure of the time that has passed,” Fisher said, “and what he has missed.”

Christine K. Fisher of Bethesda lost her husband, Gerald P. Fisher, 57, in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. He was a Booz Allen Hamilton consultant who was meeting with two co-workers and Army Lt. Gen. Timothy J. Maude.
Christine K. Fisher of Bethesda lost her husband, Gerald P. Fisher, 57, in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. He was a Booz Allen Hamilton consultant who was meeting with two co-workers and Army Lt. Gen. Timothy J. Maude. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

She had called him that morning from her office at the interior design firm they co-owned to tell him the roses he had sent for her Sept. 10 birthday had finally arrived — and they were beautiful. She got his voicemail, and as news spread of the attacks, she couldn’t reach him.

Still, she kept hope that in so large a building, the odds were that he survived. That evening, her husband’s boss arrived at her house with the news, a moment she remembers as both surreal and utterly clarifying.

“Within a split second, my life changed and it would never be the same,” Fisher said.

She remembers how alone she felt after her father, who had spent five weeks with her, went home. He has since died, as has a partner of 12 years, and she is in a new relationship.

The experience of 9/11 bonded her more deeply to her stepchildren.

“I’m lucky to have them,” said Fisher, who declined to give her age. “We developed a very close relationship because of what happened, and I’m always there for them.”

FBI agents, firefighters, rescue workers and engineers work Sept. 14, 2001, at the Pentagon crash site, where a hijacked American Airlines flight slammed into the building three days earlier.
FBI agents, firefighters, rescue workers and engineers work Sept. 14, 2001, at the Pentagon crash site, where a hijacked American Airlines flight slammed into the building three days earlier. (TECH. SGT. CEDRIC H. RUDISILL / AFP/Getty Images)

Fisher has been active in some of the family groups that have advocated for memorials, for redress, for answers. While the vast majority of families accepted payments from a Victims Compensation Fund created by Congress, Fisher was among those who rejected what she considered a “disappointing” offer that she said undervalued her husband’s life.

She joined a lawsuit that sought to hold the airlines and other companies responsible for the hijackers boarding the flights. The plaintiffs settled for an undisclosed sum that her lawyer, Towson-based Keith S. Franz, described as “multiples” of what the fund would have paid. More than the money, Franz said, the families won accountability and airline security is vastly improved.

Some 9/11 families and survivors are suing Saudi Arabia, as well, and pressed Democratic President Joe Biden to declassify documents that they say could provide information on links between that country and the hijackers. On Friday, Biden issued an executive order that will begin a review process that requires declassified documents to be released over the next six months.

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To Afghanistan and back, again

Even without such efforts to provide a fuller picture of what happened 20 years ago, the fallout from 9/11 is as inescapable as the ongoing news coverage of Afghanistan returning to Taliban control.

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For veterans like Scott Goldman and Nick Culbertson, the events have triggered multiple phone calls among those with whom they served.

“It’s like catching up with someone at a funeral,” Goldman, 39, said.

He was part of the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, which worked with law enforcement and prosecutors to arrest and imprison insurgents. Watching the Taliban releasing prisoners as part of its takeover, Goldman said, “has been “pretty hard.”

Still, he said, “I don’t feel the effort was wasted. Even with brute force you can’t undo everything.”

Scott Goldman stands in a sunflower field in the Broadway East neighborhood that was planted by The 6th Branch, a local group of military vets who use their skills to rebuild broken communities.
Scott Goldman stands in a sunflower field in the Broadway East neighborhood that was planted by The 6th Branch, a local group of military vets who use their skills to rebuild broken communities. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Watching Afghanistan fall makes their current work all the more meaningful, they said.

Goldman is the executive director and Culbertson a board member of The 6th Branch, a Baltimore nonprofit led by Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans using skills learned in the military. With community groups such as the New Broadway East Community Association and volunteers, they undertake projects in East Baltimore, from clearing trash in vacant lots to creating playgrounds and green spaces.

“I can’t fix Afghanistan,” Goldman said, “but we can all be as dedicated as we can to working at home.”

A 10th grader on 9/11, Culbertson enlisted in 2004 to pay for college after his father died. He was able to go to the Johns Hopkins University, then founded a software company, Protenus.

Culbertson, 37, served in the Army’s Green Berets, helping train Afghan commandos. He’s had “feelings all across the spectrum” as he thinks back on his service and how the war has just ended.

“There’s pride in the success we had, but there’s also regret and shame and disappointment in what happened,” he said. “This is such a nuanced situation: What’s to be learned from it? Should we have been there in the first place? What did we do these 20 years?”

Threats to the homeland

Since 9/11, others have asked those questions, too. Some researchers say the mission in Afghanistan lost direction, particularly after the U.S. invaded Iraq, and Americans stopped paying attention.

“We were fighting a limited war in Afghanistan, and the Taliban was fighting a total war,” said Braniff, the University of Maryland professor, who also directs the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START. “We weren’t sacrificing at home. We were not having meatless Mondays. The civilian population hasn’t had to tune in.”

START was founded by another Maryland professor, Gary LaFree, and it maintains a global terrorism database. It contains more than 200,000 events dating back to 1970, a timeline of terror inflicted by various groups and individuals.

At some point — it can take several years after an attack for researchers to gather the data for an entry — LaFree “almost certainly” expects the research team to add the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump who attempted to stop the certification of Biden’s election.

LaFree anticipates blowback, but he said he believes it fits the criteria, which includes the use of violence by nonstate actors for political or other reasons. That some, even officeholders, seek to put a positive spin on Jan. 6 shows how far the U.S. has fallen into toxic partisanship, LaFree said.

“A pretty decent minority of [U.S.] representatives think this was a patriotic event,” he said. “It makes me very concerned about the future of democracy that we can’t agree on facts.”

It is particularly dismaying that political divisions now infect the response to the coronavirus pandemic, he and others say.

Students listen in 2015 to professor Michael Greenberger at the University of Maryland, Baltimore law school.
Students listen in 2015 to professor Michael Greenberger at the University of Maryland, Baltimore law school. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

“The world is a terribly dangerous place these days,” said Michael Greenberger, a law professor who founded the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, after the 9/11 attacks and is its director.

The center assists government agencies in planning for emergencies. It was initially going to focus on homeland security, but added “health” to its mission to include the medical school, Greenberger said. That proved prescient, he said, as threats such as Ebola, anthrax and COVID-19 have emerged.

Changing and remembering

Despite the multiplicity of threats, he said the U.S. is better prepared than it was 20 years ago, having learned how to better coordinate between agencies, on local and federal levels. Whether it’s international or domestic terrorism, cyberattacks or climate change-induced weather emergencies, “over the past 20 years, a lot of effort has been put into planning how to effectively respond,” Greenberger said.

“That was not present on 9/11,” he said.

John Milton Wesley holds some of the crushed glasses of Sarah M. Clark, recovered among her flight tickets, purse and wallet, reflecting on how his fiancee perished in the Sept. 11 attacks.
John Milton Wesley holds some of the crushed glasses of Sarah M. Clark, recovered among her flight tickets, purse and wallet, reflecting on how his fiancee perished in the Sept. 11 attacks. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

As the “important milestone” of the 20th anniversary approaches, Fisher said she is saddened that a country once “galvanized” by the attacks has splintered.

She looks forward to returning to the Pentagon for this anniversary, after the 2020 event was held virtually because of the pandemic. She hopes the commemorations will continue in the years to come.

“One of the phrases you always hear is, ‘We will never forget,’” she said. “And we won’t.”

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