Patriot Day: 21 Years Later

September 11—Patriot Day—is a day to pause, reflect and remember all victims of the 2001 attacks. To commemorate Patriot Day in 2022, we revisited stories of grief shared by members in the 2002 issue of The Arrow titled “We Heal.” This year, one of those members revisits her own story. In words of reflection and remembrance, Virginia Eta Nicole Felini Litkowski shares how her life has changed over the last 21 years through the journey of healing. Read more on her experiences below.  



I joined the United States Air Force in 1994 as an intelligence officer. After six wonderful and exciting years, I decided to pursue a civilian career and become a consultant in Washington D.C. My new career involved numerous trips to various federal buildings including the Pentagon. On September 11, I was scheduled to work in the Pentagon, but due to a last-minute change, I was working in another facility. As I heard the news of the attacks, my first concern was finding my friends who were in the Pentagon and ensuring they were safe. I was also very concerned about the safety of my family. Several members of my family are in the military, and I wanted to confirm their locations and whether they were being deployed because of the attacks.  
Fortunately the phones worked intermittently, and I was able to confirm the safety of my friends in the Pentagon within a few hours. A call home also confirmed my family was safe. My sister and brother-in-law are both in training to be pilots in the Navy, so they were safe from deployment. However, I learned my brother, an F-14 pilot, was recalled and had deployed with his carrier to defend the eastern approaches to the United States. He has since returned from that deployment but is preparing to deploy for another six-month cruise starting next month.  
Later that day, I received a phone call informing me that I potentially would be recalled into the Air Force. The orders finally arrived, and effective November 25, I was officially activated back into the Air Force. I am now stationed at the Pentagon providing intelligence support to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in support of the War on Terrorism and Homeland security.  
My return to the military has been difficult at times. I have to admit that occasionally I have become mired down by the long, exhausting hours and the financial concerns caused by the pay cut I have taken with this recall. These selfish feelings are quickly taken over by guilt when I remind myself of the incredible tragedy of September 11, and the importance of our response to these attacks. I do not know how long my recall into the Air Force will last, but I take great pride in the fact that I have been asked to aid in this effort. 



The fear of what had just happened, fear of the unknown and the uncertainty of the way forward were ever present after 9/11. I recognize those uncertainties when I reread my story. Even today, memories of 9/11 elicit a myriad of emotions. My son recently brought a book home from school about 9/11. As I read the story with him, I caught myself crying at the end. The tragedy of that day and the incredible sacrifices so many have made since still brings tears to my eyes. While those memories still carry sadness, I now also reflect on the incredible patriotism and solidarity we experienced as a country during that time. I distinctly remember driving around the Washington, D.C. area and seeing flags hanging from every overpass. At that moment, we were truly united as a country. In that unity there was strength and hope.  

My life has changed incredibly since that day. I married an amazing man who recently retired from the United States Navy, and we have four beautiful children. Our oldest is serving in the foreign service with the United States Department of State. I still work in the defense industry as a contractor. 

If I could go back and rewrite my story, I wish I would have focused more on hope. In the darkness of 9/11, it was hard to see the beauty of the incredible patriotism and unity we experienced as a country and the hope for a better tomorrow. I am very proud and thankful to all those who served—first responders, military and many others. So many have sacrificed so much in the years since, and I am truly grateful for them and their families. 

Published September 11, 2023