By Betty Rhoades, Executive Director, HillVets Foundation

On September 11, 2001, I was a senior in college. I was preparing for the next chapter – law school, though at the time I didn’t know where or what I would be studying. I didn’t have any real connection to the military. I was working as a resident assistant in a freshman dormitory for women. It was a Tuesday, which meant my classes started a bit later, so I could have a leisurely start to my day. I wasn’t normally a morning TV watcher, but for some reason I tuned to the Today Show, just as background noise while I got dressed and ready.

Or so I thought.

It was a little bit before 9 AM, and I immediately saw the smoke billowing out of the North tower of the World Trade Center. In the initial moments after the 8:46 AM impact, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer learned on air that a plane crashed into the building. Lauer called it an accident, which was certainly what I assumed. A terrible accident. I was, of course, only right about the terrible part.

At 9:03 AM, we watched live as the second plane hit the South tower. It became all too clear that this was no accident.

I’m from New York originally – on 9/11, most of my family was safe on Long Island, but there were a few who lived and worked in Manhattan. I tried to call and find out if everyone was okay, but the phone lines were already so jammed that it was impossible to get through. I started hearing my residents gathering nervously in the hall, wondering what was going on. I knew I had to tend to them first. They were just kids – scared 18-year-olds who never dreamed they’d watch their country being attacked, live on television.

I walked into campus for my 11 AM class, stopping at the student union on my way. Every TV in the building had a throng of students and faculty staring at it, transfixed by the horror unfolding. We learned that the Pentagon had been hit. We learned that U.S. air space had been shut down. At 9:59 AM, we saw the South tower collapse. The North tower followed at 10:28 AM. I went to my class, because I didn’t know what else to do. It was very clear that neither my classmates nor our professor had seen the news. I filled them in. We were dismissed, walking out of the building in somber silence, not quite sure what should come next.

In the days that followed, we learned more about the attacks. The attackers. The victims. The families. The first responders. On September 12 and beyond, there were examples of unity and national pride. There were also examples of fear, bigotry, and racism. The events of 9/11 catapulted our country into twenty years of heightened security, increased surveillance, and, of course, war. They catapulted millions of men and women into lives and careers of service and sacrifice, including my now husband, Jason, who joined the Air Force.

I’ll be honest – while I was certainly deeply affected by the deadliest foreign assault ever on U.S. soil, it didn’t really change my trajectory. I still graduated and went on to law school. I still had very little interaction with the military community. When I came to DC in 2005 and was offered a position with the Department of Veterans Affairs, I accepted the job not due to some personal connection or sense of patriotic duty, but because I simply wanted to help people.

Little did I know that one decision would completely change my life.

In the 20 years since 9/11, millions of Americans have answered the call and served our country in uniform. They joined the millions more who served prior. Since 2005, I have been privileged to serve many of those individuals and their families. In my experience, they represent some of the best of America – dedicated, determined, and generous, with a commitment to serving others that doesn’t stop when they take off their uniforms.

To my fellow civilians – those who, like younger me, don’t think about the military or veterans more than occasionally, in passing – as you remember and reflect on this monumental anniversary, think about those who stood up in the wake of tragedy and said, “I’m ready to serve.” But I challenge you to think about them not just as they were when they deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Think about them not just in their uniforms, with their weapons. Think about them not as a monolith, and not as whatever cliché comes most quickly to mind. Think about them as complex, unique, whole human beings, with a myriad of hopes and dreams and goals – just like you.

Part of why I take my role at HillVets so seriously is because these incredible people, who put their lives on the line for their fellow Americans, deserve a seat at the table. Policy professionals and elected officials have made countless decisions in the two decades since 9/11, and while we can each choose to agree or disagree with those decisions, I think we can all understand that we want the people making them to truly represent the diversity – in every sense of the word – of the American people. That has to include military-connected individuals.

In my career, I have seen time and time again the incredible good that can come from servicemembers, veterans, and their family members banding together to impact change. We need that now more than ever.

If you are inspired to get involved and help us increase the representation and impact of military-connected individuals working in public policy, I hope you’ll reach out – there is still much work to be done.

We at HillVets wish you peace as you commemorate this anniversary in whatever way is most meaningful to you. Thank you to our wonderful community – we appreciate all you do.