I remember where I was when I heard the news. It was Sept. 11, 2001. I was serving as the aide-de-camp to the commander of all American-based U.S. Army forces. We were having a welcoming ceremony.

At the time, I didn’t realize how much that day would change my own life. Now as I look back, I realize how much Sept. 11 changed it and our country forever.

As the aide to the new deputy commander, I had to interrupt the general and whisper that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center.

We knew immediately we were at war.

As all of the U.S.-based Army division and corps commanders were present, we had to figure out how to get them back to their commands on a day when more than 4,000 flights and all U.S. ground control had been grounded.

We had not seen an attack of such scale on American soil since Pearl Harbor.

December 2001 rolled around and I was deploying on Operation Enduring Freedom, planning operational combat in the Afghan area. Two months later, I was planning and executing how to train a non-existent Afghan National Army working with British paratroopers and U.S. Special Forces in Kabul.

Before Sept. 11, I was just a soldier from Oklahoma. After it, I was an American united in defending our republic along with my non-military countrymen.

Sept. 11 changed our nation’s trajectory forever. And it also made it clear the America we know, love and hold so dear was under attack by hateful radicals. 9/11 made it clear we had let our guard down and weakened our defenses. It made it clear we must always defend America ― and we rose to the occasion.

Our missions in Central Asia, the Middle East and worldwide were largely successful. The lead tyrants and terrorists who wished destruction on our nation are gone now. Murderers like Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were tracked down and eliminated. Al-Qaida was defeated in Iraq. ISIS is destroyed. For 17 years, we have prevented a major attack on our homeland ― a major credit to our military, law enforcement and intelligence community.

In Congress, for our part, we have continued the mission against terrorism. We have zero tolerance for terrorism and have ensured we are doing everything we can to make sure our warriors are able to protect the American people from another Sept. 11.

This year, we made monumental strides through the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which expands our regional counterterrorism programs. With this legislation, we will continue the battle against terrorist organizations responsible for the deadly attacks which rocked our nation 17 years ago.

The NDAA also increased the size of our military and provides our troops with a substantial budget to execute their missions successfully.

We were attacked on 9/11 because we were vulnerable. We cannot make that mistake again. Disaster is always more costly than preparation.

In Oklahoma, we know how important our military is. Our soldiers are at the front lines of our nation’s military readiness and 23,000 service members and their families live and work in the area I represent. These brave men and women are critical players in protecting us from this type of harm. So are the tens of thousands more who sustain and support them and the commanders such as ours that embrace them.

Though we’ve seen success in fighting terrorism, it doesn’t mean we should give up the fight to defend our way of life. Our war against the enemies of our republic carries on.

Never again can our nation be so vulnerable. We owe it to those who paid the ultimate price.

This Sept. 11, we pray for the families and friends of civilians, law enforcement officers and first responders who lost loved ones that morning. We also pray for the families of America’s selfless servants who ran towards danger on our behalf.

The best thing we can do to honor their lives now is make good on our freedom and safety. We must come together, not as Republicans or as Democrats, but as Americans who love our country and who will never give up the fight for freedom.

Take the time to love each other today. Take a moment to be kinder today.

Say a prayer of thanks for the great nation we’ve been privileged to live in, where we can still speak, worship, prosper and create. Let us have the resolve to preserve it.

Congressman Steve Russell served 21 years in the United States Army and is a veteran of Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq. He is also author of “We Got Him! A Memoir of the Hunt and Capture of Saddam Hussein.” He represents Oklahoma’s Fifth District in Congress.

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