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I recalled the classic question of the baby-boomer generation: "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" I considered what the question would be for mine: "Where were you when the planes hit the towers?" I hated the way I'd have to respond to that. "Well, I was contemplating how my desecration of the Pledge of Allegiance in front of a war hero would affect my math grade." I looked at my hands and considered my dark South Asian skin tone. I wondered about all the new stereotypes I'd be playing in a terrorism-scared world. There was no reason at all for me to suspect that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were behind the attack, nor any reason to suspect that it was motivated by Islamic extremism. Yet in my social cowering feeling like my entire class was judging my morning escapade I instinctively concluded in the depths of my consciousness that whoever performed these attacks probably looked more like me than anyone else in the room. And now I was a target.
The following months of high school were occasionally intimidating. I was not Muslim, I was not Arab, but I looked close enough to the part to serve as the punching bag for a few of my community's less tolerant citizens. The most frustrating name-calling came when other groups who used to be the target of such ethnic scorn (Hispanic and African-American kids) would snarl their turban-teasing remarks as a means of countering any advance I made in the classroom or on the playing field. I needed a community. I needed an identity. So when I received the phone call from an Army recruiter, I asked to meet him for coffee, whereas most Indian kids went back to their math books. He told me to think about West Point.
As I researched the academy, it was not the academics or history or values that caught my attention first it was the respected name. It was the successful hoard of West Point graduates with lucrative careers in Wall Street investment banks and consulting firms. I figured if I could launch myself into the elite class of this country, I'd somehow be exempt from the painful judgments I endured in my youth. And thus I matriculated at the academy. I did it for the wrong reasons.
But it's not why you go to West Point. It's why you stay. And I stayed because of the brotherhood and camaraderie I shared with my brothers and sisters at the academy. I went to West Point with a void of character. My classmates gave me an identity. The bonds forged in training translated quite well to the bonds I forged in the deserts of Afghanistan as a platoon leader of some of America's best young men. It was the Army that gave me the foundation for who I am today. And for better or worse, my life would not have turned around had I not experienced such vain embarrassment as I did on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
It amazes me that it has been only 10 years since that horrific morning. That day changed the trajectory of my life so greatly, I can't imagine where I would be had it not occurred. Ten years later, I'm a West Point graduate, a captain in the U.S. Army and a combat veteran who served 12 months in Kandahar. I wear a Bronze Star and Combat Action Badge proudly on my uniform. And 10 years later, I'm still overcome with guilt. Not for what I did on 9/11, but for who I was. I am guilty that it took the death of 3,000 people for me to change my outlook on the blessings of this country.
Photo courtesy of Rajiv Srinivasan
As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the media are inundated with stories of the pain and suffering of the millions of Americans affected by the terrorist attacks. But even through my guilt, I realize that 9/11 was a day that changed me for the better. It made me humble. It made me gracious, and it made me a servant of something bigger than myself. If we truly want to honor those we lost during the attacks, we must make a valiant effort to be better tomorrow than we are today. Let us shed ourselves of self-obsession and our superficiality. Let us reinvent ourselves as servants of not just our country, but also our countrymen, of not just America, but also Americans. The scars will never go away, and I will also look back on 9/11 with guilt, embarrassment and pain. But on Sept. 12, 2011, I can at least say that I am a better man today than I was 10 years ago. And as one who has seen friends perish in the violence of combat, I know there is no more fulfilling way to honor the ones we miss so dearly.
Srinivasan is a spokesperson for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He served as a Stryker platoon leader in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan from 2009 to '10. He hails from Roanoke, Va.