The Milwaukee County War Memorial Center hosted a ceremony of remembrance for the tragic events of September 11, 2001, with city leaders, local veterans, and community members in attendance during a heavy rainstorm on September 11, 2022.

The special observance was co-organized by the city and county, and featured remarks delivered by Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley.

The September 11 attacks, commonly known as 9/11, were four coordinated suicide terrorist attacks carried out by the militant Islamic extremist network al-Qaeda against the United States. Americans at home and abroad watched in horror as the attacks unfolded, leaving nearly 3,000 people dead in New York City, Washington DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Almost 20 years later in 2021, American military forces would finally withdraw from Afghanistan, bringing a bloody and chaotic conclusion to the generational war that began in 2001. Public reactions at the time showed the enduring power of the September 11 attacks on the national identity. Americans who were old enough to recall that day remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

“I was actually off duty that day. I was at home mowing my lawn, and I had a headset on listening to a local radio talk show. I could tell something crazy had happened when they started cursing on the radio. Then I fully picked up on a plane had hit, so instantly turned on the television. From the images, it was obvious that it was an intentional act. My father and my brother were on the fire department store at the time, and we met at a specific firehouse, just because it was in the middle of everybody. We turned on the television there and watched together. If anybody could have understood those buildings were going to come down, it would have changed the course of action. But of course, nobody knew the buildings were going to come down. We’ve never experienced anything that massive. You just knew so many civilians were trapped above those gaping holes in the towers. Then you begin receiving reports of other airplanes unaccounted for, or then the Pentagon, and we really understood that we were under attack on our home soil here.” – Chief Aaron D. Lipski, Milwaukee Fire Department

The 9/11 attacks inflicted a devastating emotional toll on Americans. It happened during an era when television was still the public’s dominant news source. According to the Pew Research Center, 90% of Americans got most of their news about the attacks from television, compared with just 5% who got news online. The staggered nature of the attacks meant that news footage captured almost everything as it happened, ensuring that millions of Americans saw the events precisely as they unfolded.

“On September 11, 2001, I was a freshman at Bay View High School. I had this pit in my stomach that didn’t allow me to stay in class, so I was allowed to leave. I actually saw what was unfolding from my home with my mom. She had her hand over her mouth in disbelief about what happened in New York. You don’t forget those images. For me, 9/11 was a defining moment in my life. As I watched the bravery of our first responders, it solidified in me that I wanted to go into public service. 9/11 will forever be a call to step up. For all of us, not just me, but for everybody.”
– Cavalier Johnson, Mayor of Milwaukee

In many ways, 9/11 reshaped how Americans thought of war and peace, their own personal safety, and that of their fellow citizens. There have been no terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11 in two decades, but from the public’s perspective the threat has never fully gone away.

I remember that day vividly. I was a sophomore at Bay View High School, and it was during Miss Collier’s class, when we heard about what was going on. They had a TV actually carted into the classroom so we could see what exactly was happening. That’s one of the reasons why I remember the day so vividly, and exactly where I was at that moment.” – David Crowley, Milwaukee County Executive

It was a terrifying, startling, and humbling event for the country. The 9/11 attacks were the deadliest on American soil since the shock attack at Pearl Harbor 60 years before. The sense of outrage was reminiscent of that moment, with a photo of New York firefighters raising the American flag amid the rubble being juxtaposed with the iconic image of U.S. Marines on Iwo Jima.

To this day, there are still many firefighters and first responders who worked at Ground Zero who have died from lung cancer and other diseases. The high proportions of illnesses extend to civilians and others who were exposed to toxic dust at the site. That impact will still be felt for more years to come.

In 2010, a decade after 9/11, retired battalion chief for the Milwaukee Fire Department Mark Fox, and Vietnam Veteran Joe Campbell drove from Milwaukee to New York to bring a beam from the Twin Towers to Milwaukee. It has remained on display at the War Memorial Center since.

At the conclusion of the anniversary ceremony, wreaths were placed in the pool surrounding the eternal flame at the War Memorial. Each represented a group who sacrificed their lives 21 years ago.

Both County Executive Crowley and Mayor Johnson shared messages that focused on the theme of unity, and the need for Americans to come together. They said that the best way to honor the lives lost on 9/11 for future generations was by living lives of service

“While it was a tragic event, it was one that united us together, something that we desperately need to see more of. Not just in this state, but across this country,” said Mayor Johnson. “We grieved, we coped, we learned to move forward, and we learned to never forget.”