VCU holds 9/11 commemoration, community reflects on 20th anniversary impact

SVA President Shae Gavit and VFW Post Commander Mike Purcell lay a wreath in front of Grace E. Harris Hall. Photo by Alessandro Latour

Jiana Smith, Contributing Writer

There were no clouds in the sky as students, faculty and guests dressed in military and first responder uniforms gathered in the Ram courtyard outside the University Student Commons on Friday, Sept. 10 — one day to the 20-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. 

“It was a beautiful morning, much like this,” VCU Military Student Services Director Stephen Ross said in his opening statements at the commemoration. “And most people my age certainly remember exactly where we were and what we did and what was going on.” 

The MSS and the Student Veterans Association hosted the commemoration to honor the nearly 3,000 people killed in the attacks. They also honored the military troops and contractors killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. 

The MSS and SVA were joined by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6364 and Richmond Fire Department Engine Company No. 6. 

SVA President Shae Gavit and VFW Post Commander Mike Purcell laid a wreath in front of the American flag at Grace E. Harris Hall. The VCUarts Commonwealth Singers also performed the national anthem. 

“It means a great deal because we’re honoring not only the people who lost their lives on that day, but people over the last 20 years that have not only lost their lives, but served and have lost friends over there,” Ross said. “It’s a way for us as civilians and supporters of the military to show that we care and to recognize their sacrifice.”  

On 9/11, 2,977 civilians and first responders were killed, according to CNN. The attack killed 2,753 people at the World Trade Center, 184 at the Pentagon and 40 near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. 

The subsequent “war on terrorism” led to the additional deaths of 7,052 service members and 8,189 contractors, according to research data from Brown University; an estimated 30,177 others have died due to military-related suicides. Ross highlighted those lost in combat and to suicide in his opening statements.  

Ross lost his son Capt. Andrew Patrick Ross, an Army Special Forces member, on Nov. 27, 2018. Andrew Ross, 29, died from an improvised explosive device alongside three other service members while serving in Afghanistan.

“We all kind of march for Drew. He’s near and dear to our hearts,” Gavit said in a phone interview.

There was a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m. Afterward, guests were invited to “ruck” walk with military rucksacks around the Ram courtyard in honor of the first responders who entered the twin towers. Pushups were also performed by student veterans, Engine Company No. 6 and other guests to honor the lives that were lost. 

“Both my parents were in the military, and they were serving at the time of 9/11,” Jordan Osborne, a member of the Commonwealth Singers, said at the event. “I’m remembering not just the service they did, but also other service members did, and the firefighters, the police officers — everything they went through.” 

Last year’s commemoration featured similar events, but with far fewer people due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ross said that he hopes having more activity on campus during this year’s commemoration will cause students who pass by to honor the event and the lives lost on and following 9/11. 

“Part of what we do is to raise awareness and to educate people,” Ross said. “So many people were young when this happened, and they don’t have great recollections of it.”

VCU journalism professor Mary Ann Owens vividly remembers the 9/11 attacks at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. The then-international wire editor for USA Today was stuck in traffic when American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon’s west wall, just 100 yards away from her. 

“I’m very lucky to be alive,” Owens said, recalling the incident. “If that plane had been any lower, I would’ve been mulched up in an engine or flattened. It was awful.”  

Owens expressed gratitude for the commemoration but decided not to attend. In the 20 years since the attacks, she said she has developed claustrophobia and has not flown on a plane. 

“I think it’s necessary, I think all these people need to be honored, the day needs to be honored — but I am not going to let myself be moved to tears again,” Owens said. 

As a 9/11 survivor, Owens said she wants to remain strong while still honoring the lives of those who died that day.

“I’m angry and I’m defiant, and I want to stay that way. I remember everything well; I honor these people in my thoughts every day that died,” Owens said. “I don’t want to weaken my resolve publicly. I think that sounds a little arrogant or iron fisted, but that’s where I’m at.”

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