A Speech Born on September 11, 2001 — and Still Being Written

By Captain Eric Etter ‘03, U.S. Army as presented on Veterans Day 2016 at a Town Hall in Longmeadow, MA. Etter is in his tenth year of active duty and is currently assigned as an assistant professor of Military Science at the University of Massachusetts for the ROTC Program.

In many ways the story of my service is still being written. Written by the everyday classes I teach, the time I take to train the next generation of soldiers and leaders, and in the sharing of my experiences with them. When I think of my service over the years, I think simply of my uniform.

My service officially began ten years ago, but perhaps I was always meant to be in the military. I have worn a uniform my entire life: grade school, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, private high school, and College ROTC. I’m pretty sure my first day out of the service, I won’t know how to dress myself. I grew up in a Midwestern town in Ohio, my dad a police officer and my mom a nurse. One grandfather at Pearl Harbor and the Battle for the Pacific and the other at Normandy and Bastogne. I had never thought to enter the service, but it seems fate intervened on the first day of my adult life when I attended freshmen orientation in college — because you see events started at 0830, 11 September 2001.

No less than 25 minutes into what I thought would be just another event in my life, school was canceled for the day and I returned to my room in time to see the second plane hit and the towers fall. Whether it was naiveté or youth, my mind didn’t fully comprehend what was happening at the time. Only that a landmark I had visited on a family vacation less than four years prior had gone and a lot of people had died. I didn’t know that two of my three roommates were already enrolled in ROTC, we never got to the icebreakers.

Over the next two years, I watched as shock and fear turned to sadness and anger, and sadness and anger turn into national fervor and steely resolve. To this day, I don’t know if I was compelled to the service or bored with my engineering classes, but I spent the summer of 2004 with eight drill sergeants and 200 of my closest friends, in Fort Knox, Kentucky.

There is a difference in putting on this uniform and all of the others that I have worn throughout my life. It feels like I become something more. Not more of what I am, but rather more than myself. We veterans here today are a testament to this, as we few represent the countless that have served or are serving; known not by our deeds, but rather by the single article of clothing put on every morning.

I put my uniform on every day. And I smile at my family as I leave, on the rare occasion they are up by then, because I know that the time I sacrifice being without them is for them. In Iraq, I put my armor on every day. And I laughed with my brothers and sisters because I knew that every step into danger I took was one they wouldn’t have to take for me. I put my uniform on this morning so that every word I speak, though just one man’s story, my story, can somehow share part of the collective narrative that is service.

But not everybody can serve, for one reason or another. Perhaps, not everybody should serve. Again, for various reasons. If everybody served, for whom would we be serving? I serve for those who cannot as well as those who will not.

I appreciate that there are those out there that will never fully understand the fullness and depth of what we do. Just as I could not possibly fully appreciate the many aspects that enrich their lives. It is a small hope that they will never come face to face with the horror that man can cause, just as it is a prayer that man one day comes face to face with the wonders life has to offer.

It is somewhat unfortunate today, as is evident by the generations represented speaking alongside myself, that war and armed conflict continue. They have given their service. It is a shroud, or maybe a veil of safety they provided, that allows innocence to last, just a little longer. So, “I must study war so that my sons may study philosophy.” (-John Adams). So, we put on our uniforms and render our service.

For a list of CJ military veterans, click here


--This story was published on November 11, 2020.