By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Christopher Christ woke up for school, like always. Ate breakfast, like always. Loaded up into the car for another day in fifth grade, like always.
But something wasn’t the same about that day.
“My mom just rushed me to school, and it was kind of a different day. The teachers were very somber and quiet,” said Christ, who is serving his eighth year in the Army and now is part of the Green to Gold Army Enlisted Commissioning Program, which allows enlisted soldiers to return to college receive their baccalaureate degree and earn a commission as an Army officer. Christ is in his second year at Grand Canyon University.
It was right as he was getting ready to go to class that the news of a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York made its way across campus. It would be the beginning of the terrorist attacks that would change the country forever.
“We watched the events that day and went home early. It was just a rough time,” Christ recalled early Wednesday morning from the lawn of the Quad in front of GCU Arena.
It was where 88 cadets – just about the entire GCU Army ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) program — gathered Wednesday to commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The flag-placing event was to be followed by a contracting ceremony, which is when the ROTC and military journey begins for the cadets as they pledge to serve the United States Armed Forces. Six will be commissioned. Also, a commissioning ceremony was to take place for Cadet Richard Frazier, set to be commissioned as an ordnance officer in the Arizona National Guard.
It is tradition for those serving in the University’s Army ROTC to place thousands of flags on the Quad lawn to remember that day.
Last year, the group arranged about 3,000 hand-held flags to spell out “9/11,” with the 3,000 flags representing the lives of the almost 3,000 who lost their lives that day in attacks not just at the Twin Towers but at the Pentagon and at the United 93 crash site in Shanksville, Pa. The year before, the flags formed “USA.”
“This year, we kind of moved from tradition,” Master Sgt. Avery Cunningham, a senior ROTC instructor, said of the number of flags not matching the number of lives lost that day.
The flags this year spell out “Never Forget.”
Cunningham said an event like this keeps those people who lost their lives in our hearts, though many students starting their college lives at GCU were too young to remember the events of that day. This year’s high school graduating classes – the class of 2021 – were not even born when the tragedy happened.
Cadet Maj. Samantha Innanen, a task force commander with GCU’s Army ROTC, is part of the senior class and at 21 years old doesn’t have the same memories of Sept. 11.
“I was probably in kindergarten or preschool. I don’t remember much about that day at all, and every person under me – juniors, sophomores, freshmen – it gets younger and younger, so most of these people probably don’t remember that event,” she said.
It’s why the ROTC organizes the flag-planting event.
“The connection with this day doesn’t radiate the same way, and that’s why we try to do things like this for everyone,” said Cunningham. “… It gives them the opportunity to take a moment and really understand.”
What happened on 9/11 was life-changing for Cunningham.
“I was actually in math class – in statistics. I couldn’t tell you what I was doing yesterday but could remember that day like it was yesterday. An announcement came over the intercom. When we turned the TV on, we saw the second plane, and we all took a moment of silence and spent the rest of the class talking about what happened,” Cunningham said. “It took a couple of days to sink in. I’m from St. Louis, so it didn’t directly hit home, but seeing the aftermath – our country as we know it changed. That’s why I decided to join and have been doing this for 16 years.”
Christ also was affected greatly by that day.
“When the first plane hit, my aunt was actually on the 11th floor of the North Tower, and my uncle was across the street. They both made it,” said Christ, who served in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014.
His family had just visited New York City in July 2001, and he didn’t know what he did on that trip would memorialize that day profoundly for his family.
“It was kind of funny, because we had the Polaroid camera. We didn’t have cellphones with cameras on them back then. I used up all the film taking pictures when we were on the Empire State Building, and most of the pictures were of the towers.
“My parents were mad I used all the film up, but after that happened, it was a totally different story, and they actually made a photo album out of it.”
Innanen, who hopes to be an Army chaplain after she’s commissioned later this academic year, said although she was too young to remember 9/11, she certainly knows the impact that day had on the country.
“It was a tragic event that changed the whole environment of the Army and preparing for war,” she said and added, “It’s a big thing for us to really recognize this event. Even if we didn’t remember it and weren’t there, or we weren’t alive, we can still honor it.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-639-7901.
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