While most of the community was still asleep today, students with Navarre High School NJROTC quietly set up for their annual 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony.
Guided by lights from smart phones, the cadets placed 2,977 American flags around the front of the school Friday morning — representing the number of people killed in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvaina, on Sept. 11, 2001.
“The idea is before anybody gets here, before there’s a lot of traffic and as the sun comes up, it’s just here,” said Ret. Capt. Michael Fisher, senior naval science instructor at NHS. “It happened — quietly, solemnly.”
Daniel Fury, a parent, watches from the bus ramp. Seeing the students — who are all wearing masks — quietly tapping the flags into the soft ground is moving, he said.
“I’m from New York, I knew people that were involved,” said Fury. “So, I hang out and watch the kids because it means something.”
This year marks the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. It’s a seminal moment in U.S. history, like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, or Pearl Harbor, said Fury.
But high schoolers now weren’t alive when the attack happened. Which is why Fisher makes a point to give a sense of what that day was like.
“I tell them to imagine it’s 2001 you’re getting ready to go to school or work and you’re watching a morning TV show,” he explained. “And what I’ll do is put on (clips) from ‘Good Morning America’ or ‘Today’ and suddenly they say ‘We have to break away’… and just watch the expression on their faces.”
Whether you were too young to remember, or not even born, life is different now because of the attacks.
“That changed everything; not just in the United States but in the world,” said Fischer. “It changed everything from how we travel to security.”
Cadet Kaley Fletcher, a senior at Navarre High School, wasn’t born when the attacks occurred, but they still affect her.
“It’s terrible that we have to do this,” she said with tears welling up in her eyes. “I feel very honored to be a part of this (ceremony).”
Fisher’s father-in-law was a pilot for American Airlines and was supposed to pilot Flight 77 from Washington Dulles International. It was one of the high-jacked planes.
“He was supposed to take the flight, but he had a head cold and called his best friend to take the flight,” Fisher said.
Charles Burlingame, a former fighter pilot, took the fated flight. Fischer said it’s hard not to be emotional remembering him as the students arrange the flags. One of them represents his family friend.
The 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony is unique to NHS NJROTC and completely organized by cadets. Ret. Master Chief Jimmy Etheridge was the naval science instructor who helped come up with the annual tradition in 2002 along with Capt. Mark Eubanks. Even after Etheridge retired in 2018, the tradition continues.
“The students were supportive of the idea and used fundraising money to buy 4,000 flags,” said Etheridge. “It makes my heart feel good to see it continue.”
Gunnery Sargent Kapolczynski is a new instructor at NHS, starting two weeks ago. His goal with NJROTC is not just to teach marching drills, but to teach cadets how to be good Americans when they leave high school. This ceremony is a testament to that, he said.
“It says a lot about them and a lot about the Navarre community,” he said.
Throughout the school day, from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., cadets take turns reading names of victims outside on the school’s front lawn. Mid-morning, they hold a wreath-laying ceremony and invite local first responders and veteran’s groups. There’s a lot of time and coordination to pull it off, but it’s worth it said Cadet Ethan Gifford.
“We’re a nation built on sacrifice,” he said. “While none of it (attacks) is necessary at all, and it’s tragic, we need to wake up and learn from this event.”
It’s not lost on Fisher that this anniversary is happening while Americans are divided sharply. While paying respects to the victims of 9/11, he also hopes people gain a sense of unity, too.
“It’s time to put aside petty political arguments and come together as a nation — realize we are all Americans,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what political party, what matters is we’re in this together. I hope we never forget.”