Family Matters Blog: Explaining 9/11 to My Daughter

WASHINGTON — With the 10th anniver­sary of 9/11 just a few days away, I asked my 9-year-old daugh­ter last night if she under­stood the sig­nif­i­cance of the day.

I remem­ber hear­ing about that in school,” she told me.

To my daugh­ter, the ter­ror­ist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are just anoth­er chap­ter in a his­to­ry book or a les­son to learn in school. She was born post-9/11, and has grown up know­ing only a nation with a height­ened sense of secu­ri­ty — and a nation at war in dis­tant lands.

But I’m grate­ful her child­hood isn’t punc­tu­at­ed by the hor­rif­ic events of that day; that she doesn’t, like most Amer­i­cans, recall where she was when the news broke of the attacks. And that she didn’t watch the news unfold of the near­ly 3,000 lives lost in the Pen­ta­gon and in New York and Penn­syl­va­nia.

But still, I want her to under­stand the enor­mi­ty of that day and the sac­ri­fices our nation’s ser­vice mem­bers and their fam­i­lies make each day to ensure it doesn’t hap­pen again. And I fig­ured she’d be bet­ter able to under­stand it from the eyes of a child.

So I told her about a col­lege stu­dent I spoke to recent­ly who was 9 years old, my daughter’s age, when the attacks occurred.

Zach Lay­chak, I explained to her, had returned home from school 10 years ago to a house full of fam­i­ly and friends. There had been a fire at the Pen­ta­gon, they told him, but Zach shrugged off con­cerns that any­thing had hap­pened to his strong, ath­let­ic father.

A few days lat­er, two men came to his door with the news: Zach’s father, David Lay­chak, was among the 184 peo­ple killed when Amer­i­can Air­lines Flight 77 struck the Pen­ta­gon. His moth­er sat him and his 7-year-old sis­ter down and told them their father wouldn’t be return­ing home.

I couldn’t under­stand what would make some­one want to do this to my dad,” Zach said. “I was just angry, so mad.”

Zach strug­gled to com­pre­hend the loss of his father and best friend who always made time to coach one of his sports teams or who would rush home after work to toss a ball in the yard.

Over time, I explained to my daugh­ter, Zach’s anger evolved into a deep sense of patri­o­tism — born of resent­ment against those who dared to attack his nation and his fam­i­ly. He felt proud, I explained, that Amer­i­cans had stepped up to defend their nation.

He also shift­ed his focus to help­ing oth­ers. He became heav­i­ly involved with the Tragedy Assis­tance Pro­gram for Sur­vivors , an orga­ni­za­tion for mil­i­tary fam­i­lies of the fall­en, as well as Tuesday’s Chil­dren , an orga­ni­za­tion that pro­vides sup­port for chil­dren of 9/11 and oth­ers impact­ed by glob­al ter­ror­ism.

On the 10th anniver­sary of 9/11, Zach said he’ll remem­ber his father with love and pride. “As ter­ri­ble as this whole sit­u­a­tion was, I know he was a very patri­ot­ic per­son and that he died serv­ing his coun­try,” he said. “That’s a way he would have been proud to go.”

I then told my daugh­ter that I, too, felt a deep sense of patri­o­tism. Although I was sep­a­rat­ed from the Air Force at the time, I quit my job and re-entered the mil­i­tary two days after the attacks.

I fin­ished my speech and gave my daugh­ter a hug. She didn’t say much, but I’m hop­ing some of what I said sunk in. Although 9/11 will always be a chap­ter in a book to her, I hope, like Zach and her Mom, she’ll grow up with a deep appre­ci­a­tion for her nation and its ser­vice mem­bers.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)