On 9/11, Remember the Veterans Who Stood to Defend America | Opinion

Nineteen years ago today, the world was shocked by terrorist attacks that left nearly 3,000 people dead in New York, at the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania.

Thousands of people had their lives upended when the family members they kissed goodbye that morning never returned home. Those who perished that day came from 78 countries, which means more than a third of the nations on Earth mourned along with us for their own lost citizens.

September 11, 2001, was a day that left millions of Americans terrified, confused and angry. But it also served as another test of this great nation's resolve and its commitment to freedom and liberty.

It should have surprised no one that America would pass this test. Our DNA is best expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the most important and radically innovative set of instructions for building a nation ever devised. It talks about equality and God, and on behalf of mankind it makes the most beautiful demand that has ever been written into a nation's founding document: the right of people to seek out happiness on this earth.

The Declaration of Independence draws its significance from the seminal promise of our nation—that all people are created equal and have a responsibility to rise up and defend themselves when they are attacked.

September 11 Memorial
The National September 11 Memorial in New York City Getty

Its words came true when Americans fought for them. Fortunately, America's enduring strength is that it has no shortage of citizens willing to stand when called upon to defend these ideas and turn them into reality.

We stood during the Revolution, and in doing so put the world on notice that we had pledged to one another "our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

We stood during World War II when a tyrannical power threatened freedom around the globe.

We stood to preserve liberty in Korea and Vietnam.

And when we suffered the worst-ever terrorist attack on our home soil in 2001, we stood again and recalled Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's warning that one should "beware the fury of an aroused democracy."

Since 9/11, millions of young men and women have joined our Armed Forces because they learned in a single, horrible day that our unique vision of civilization does not defend itself.

By serving, they joined that special group of 41 million Americans who raised their hand, put on the uniform and fought for the right of men and women to live and worship as they wish.

It is that group of Americans that we serve every day at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Our mission was inspired by President Abraham Lincoln, who called on America to "care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan." Today, of course, that includes the great women of our armed forces and their ever-increasing numbers in our military.

As Lincoln knew well, American soldiers have delivered us freedom time and time again. That is why, on this somber anniversary, we should remember those we lost on 9/11, but also those who fought to ensure we lost no more.

We should remember those soldiers who eliminated overseas threats to America, and thank President Donald Trump for ensuring our military forces are a strong deterrent to future threats. It's our privilege at VA to serve the newest generation of American soldiers who are carrying the torch that was lit on the revolutionary fields so long ago.

We should remember the first responders, who on 9/11 faced the closest thing we've seen to war on American soil since Lincoln's day.

And we should remember that these are the efforts that keep us free, bring our beautiful founding documents to life, and even today make us a beacon of hope for the entire world.

Robert Wilkie (@SecWilkie) is the 10th Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.