The events of Sept. 11, 2001, drew a line through human history. Time is now defined as either pre-9/11 or post-9/11. I will leave it to social scientists to study and interpret the differences between the two eras. I can only say what 9/11 meant to me, as a member of The American Legion, and how the attacks stand to influence the work of our organization going forward.
First of all, Kimlau Post 1291 in Chinatown was The American Legion's closest presence to Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks. I was adjutant of that post on 9/11. Another post, housed in the Downtown Athletic Club in lower Manhattan, was destroyed in the attacks; it has since reconstituted itself onboard the USS Intrepid, as 9-11 Memorial Post 2001.
Like much of the city, Chinatown was caked in ash and dust for weeks after the Twin Towers fell. Many days after the attacks, you could look into the sky and occasionally see burning paper floating on the wind overhead. The air was smoky and harsh as the fires at Ground Zero burned deep into the fall and bodies were recovered one by one.
The economy of Chinatown was basically shut down in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. The Kimlau post and the entire Chinatown business district urgently switched gears and transformed into a clearing house of relief and support for first responders, recovery workers and families of those who lost loved ones in the attacks. Legionnaires from across the United States responded quickly with shipments of food, water, supplies, money and prayers.
The outpourings of support occasionally took unusual turns. When a little girl in Canada heard about all the children who lost parents in the attacks, she launched a campaign to buy teddy bears and stuffed animals to comfort them in their grief. A radio station reported on her effort, and a few weeks later, a big truck full of stuffed animals arrived in Manhattan. Until we could distribute them to the children, these animals lived in the basement of my post.
Throughout New York, and across America, we saw U.S. flags like never before. If ever a case were made for the power of that symbol, it was following the 9/11 attacks. American flags appeared above overpasses and were suspended from bridges. They were displayed in windows and mounted on the backs of motorcycles. They were raised up from the ruins of the fallen towers. Our nation drew comfort, confidence and fortitude from our nation's banner while our enemies on the other side of the world were burning it and dancing in the streets of their terror-infested cities. Anyone who thinks the U.S. flag is just a piece of cloth need only reflect on its meaning after 9/11.
When our nation went to war, Legionnaires across the land urgently mobilized in support of our military leaders, the troops and their families. The Legion revived the tradition of hanging Blue Star Banners in the windows of homes with deployed loved ones. The Legion's Family Support Network and Temporary Financial Assistance programs went into overdrive, providing money and volunteer hours for military families in local communities. The TFA program distributed no less than $4.9 million in grants to military and veteran families between Sept. 11, 2001, and Sept. 11, 2011. The American Legion's Legacy Scholarship Fund was established within weeks of the attacks to provide college funds for the children of military personnel killed on duty on or after 9/11. The fund has now grown by hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, bolstered greatly by the annual Legacy Run to national convention, and dozens of young people are now going to college with help from the Legion.
The American Legion distinguished itself early in the war by pronouncing its support of the troops and their mission. Resolution 169, passed by the National Convention in Hawaii in 2005 and reaffirmed in three later conventions, was crafted around the understanding many of us who served in Vietnam have about homefront support; it is disingenuous - if not impossible - to support the troops without supporting what they are fighting for. A decade since the beginning of this "new and different war," our troops have proven themselves from the caves of Tora Bora to the battered streets of Fallujah. Osama bin Laden is dead. Saddam Hussein is dead. Moreover, hope for a future of freedom has replaced the despair of tyranny in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The war has produced heroes, more than 6,000 of whom have made the ultimate sacrifice in combat. They join a sacred band of brothers and sisters whose memories we will honor forever and whose sacrifices will be canonized by generations not yet born.
The war has also delivered to a grateful nation a massive wave of veterans with service-related physical and mental conditions requiring nothing less than our deepest compassion, care, support and advocacy. The American Legion, doing what it does best, has fought for improved treatments for post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, and the Legion's Heroes to Hometowns program connects local Legionnaires with wounded warriors and disabled veterans in local communities around the country.
Compounding these challenges is the economic condition of our nation today. Ten years of war and three years of recession have been difficult on us, but we need only look at our history books to see how returning veterans can fuel an economic recovery.
The American Legion will continue to promote and conduct job fairs, business workshops and education symposiums - as it has throughout this period of war - to help today's generation of veterans lead the recovery. We will push industry to understand how the loyalty, discipline, teamwork and expertise of military experience can be put to work in the economy. We will push government to improve its performance in awarding federal contracts to service-disabled veterans, as required by law. We will continue to demand that the Veterans Preference Hiring Act is followed and that good government jobs for veterans are not so ensnared in red tape that no one can get through the application process.
The Legion, instrumental in drafting the Post 9/11 GI Bill to better serve the 21st century veteran, will continue to fight for expansion of veterans education benefits. We know, in the decades since drafting the original GI Bill and regularly improving on it, how important that could be to the nation's economic recovery.
It is true that a new era is upon us. As a New Yorker, I can tell you that the compassion of our nation - particularly The American Legion - mattered greatly after 9/11. We will never forget that. As a Legionnaire, I am proud that our organization stood by the troops, their families and their cause, in their efforts to bring down terrorists and tyrants. Today, we welcome them home with every ounce of support we can muster and offer our continued support to those still in harm's way.
We have indeed learned much since 9/11. Patriotism is far from extinction. We can fight a war on two fronts and protect our homeland from terrorist attacks at the same time. And we showed to the world - and continue to do so every day - how relevant The American Legion can be, in good times and bad.