National Park’s 9/11 Tribute Spans 20 Years with 2,990 American Flags

by Wes Blankenship
'Field of Flags' tribute event at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park

Thousands of American flags at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park’s 9/11 tribute instantly dust off my thoughts and feelings from that 20-year-old September Tuesday.

Each flag in the field represents a life lost on September 11th. There are 2,977 to remember them by. The Marietta, Ga, Kiwanis Club meticulously mapped them out with GPS coordinates and placed them in the ground for the event that takes place every five years.

“This represents those people’s lives, and we don’t want to forget them and the horrible thing that happened to them,” Field of Flags co-chair Jamie Vann said.

The Marietta Kiwanis Club put nearly 3,000 American flags on rebar between June and September, culminating in a procession of supporters bringing flags to the park on September 4th. The red, white and blue 9/11 tribute now blankets Kennesaw Mountain’s historic Civil War battlefield.

Drivers on Marietta’s bustling US-41 slow down and admire the display in one long, reflective caravan as their day’s respective routes take them past the park.

In addition to the 2,977 flags in this year’s 9/11 tribute, 13 flags head up the front of the display at half-staff to honor the Marines who lost their lives in last month’s Kabul Airport attack.

“They’re guarding this 2,977,” Vann said. “This (group of 2,977 flags) is the beginning of the Afghan experience. Those 13 represent the end of the Afghan experience, I hope.”

This Community’s Work Weighs Heavy on Me

as I stand in the middle of all those stars and all those stripes and all of the lives they represent.

The irony is not lost on me that the blood of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers once stained this National Park. The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain was a tactical defeat for Major General William T. Sherman’s Union forces, which sustained nearly 3,000 casualties in his most aggressive attack on the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate resistance sustained about 1,000 casualties in the battle, but were ultimately unable to knock Sherman off of his course toward Atlanta. He burned it down less than five months later.

All of these flags flutter and flap in the wind on the same geographic spot where two sides of our country’s darkest war once ripped each other apart from the inside. As I stand among them, I remember what it felt like when the darkest day in my American lifetime arrived from someplace else.

I was 11 Years Old

in Ms. Waggoner’s sixth-grade class.

My new middle school was in a different school district than the one where I went to elementary school. I knew a few of my new classmates from rec league ball. Some of them had wandered in and out of my elementary school.

But by and large, I was in a brand new world, trying to figure out how to make brand new friends, with a brand new awareness that maybe I cared what girls thought about me. All of this, in one of the largest middle schools, in one of the largest counties, in the country.

I know for a fact I got my first bead of pubescent armpit sweat in that sixth-grade class.

It’s also where I found out on the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, that a plane hit the World Trade Center.

Incidentally, I had just read a couple of weeks earlier about how a B-25 accidentally crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945 when a pilot couldn’t see in thick fog.

I didn’t know what the weather was like in New York that day in 2001. Maybe there was fog.

Later in the day, I heard that a second plane hit the second tower. Months before, I learned all about Pearl Harbor in the fifth grade. I didn’t have to be an expert on weather or World War II to know that this wasn’t an accident.

This was on purpose.

Many of my Classmates’ Parents Pulled Them Out of School

Who knew where the next attack might be? The destruction continued at the Pentagon. Another plane fell in a Pennsylvania field, heading for The Capitol. 

That’s a lot for anyone – let alone a 6th grader – to take in. Middle school is tough for everyone. But I made new friends. I got used to my brand new world after that morning. Things eventually felt normal again.

But if you were alive long enough to remember what life was like before September 11th, you know that in a lot of ways, it hasn’t been normal.

Not for the world. And definitely not for 2,977 families (2,605 American citizens, and 372 non-U.S. citizens).

So before you scroll through on a social media timeline that distracts us, divides us, and makes it so easy to forget, I hope that we can remember how to remember all the names on these flags. None of them would be a part of this tribute if they didn’t happen to live in, or be in, a nation that our enemies want to destroy.

We remembered them and honored them with flags 20 years ago because they died representing their stars and stripes (whether they knew it or not), and saving us.

We honored them with flags on our front porches, cars, and football helmets. Then we went to war. Back home, we used politicians’ decisions on this issue as one of many reasons to silo and saddle up on either side of that partisan line that gets broader by the Tweet, and more insurmountable by the Facebook comment.

Somewhere in all of that, many of us forgot that feeling from 2001. Many of us forgot how to reach across that line and collectively remember the ones we lost.

We Don’t Honor the Names on Those Flags When we do That

We honor them with a desire to treat each other as fellow humans, let alone fellow Americans. Back in 2001, we forgot who and what we voted for and remembered where we all came from. It isn’t the feeling I remember first, but it’s the feeling I remember the longest when I see these flags.

Time doesn’t erase that feeling if you were around for it. Not even on a battlefield where we fought for the right to be as divided as we’ve ever been. And I don’t only feel it.

I see it in 149,500 stars on 2,990 poles.

Then I hear it in the early autumn breeze caught by 38,870 red and white stripes.

I don’t blame you if the state of the country we live in makes it difficult for you to look for it, listen for it, and feel it, too.

I just hope we don’t forget how it felt to do all of those things together. And I pray that we don’t stop trying to realize how it feels again.

We owe the names on these flags more than that.

The park will host a ceremony as part of its 9/11 tribute on Saturday, September 11th at 7:55 AM to honor the fallen. The Field of Flags 9/11 Tribute will be open to the public until September 18th.

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