When I entered the New York City Police Academy with hundreds of other recruits on a hot summer day in July of 2001, I had no idea what to expect.
I was thrilled to become a cop in the nation’s largest city — but it was nothing like where I grew up more than 100 miles away on the east end of Long Island. I questioned my decision to join several times on the morning of my swearing-in. That same day, an academy instructor entered the auditorium and, with a bit of a smirk that suggested he was speaking from experience, promised everyone in the room that being a New York City cop was akin to having a front row seat to the greatest show on earth.
I had no idea that three months later — and long before my academy graduation — I would discover exactly what he meant. He was right about the front row seat — but the show wasn’t one I was interested in seeing.
I vividly recall Sept. 11 of 15 years ago. As a 22-year-old probationary police officer in the country’s largest police department, I witnessed this city’s greatest tragedy — and this city’s finest hours.
While it was impossible for me to fathom the magnitude of the attacks that Tuesday morning, the aftermath was not a blur. In the days that followed, I witnessed our mayor, Rudy Guiliani, implore New Yorkers to go about their lives for the sake of not letting terrorists defeat us. I saw President George W. Bush stand atop a pile of rubble at Ground Zero and assure Americans that we would confront our enemies head on. And I watched David Letterman return to the air just days after the attacks to provide some needed humor in spite of the tragedy, poignantly telling Americans why he believed New York City is the greatest city in the world.
I also witnessed how admirably members of our community responded to the attacks that day — quickly understanding that we will not bow to terrorists. Americans refuse to cower despite such personal losses.
Author Paul Grattan, one of NYC’s finest for 15 years, wants his kids to know about 9/11.
In the years since, I have rarely reflected on that day. I graduated from the academy and went on to work the evening shift patrolling Brooklyn’s 72nd Precinct, “chasing the radio,” as we say. I was soon assigned as a neighborhood beat cop, pounding the pavement with my partner. Eventually I was promoted to sergeant and transferred to lead a transit patrol squad — and later, to a plainclothes team that combed the subways for pickpockets and perverts.
Lately my duties have me missing the streets at times, as most days I carry out administrative tasks. All the while, I never paid much mind to the events that marked the very start of my career.
That is, until this year. In the 15 years I have been a New York City cop, I have been surrounded by officers who were there on that day or on the days that followed. As the years passed, I began to realize that many have left the force. Cops move on — many retire, some change careers, and sadly, too many have succumbed to illnesses born from their rescue and recovery work. Other young officers have taken their place, following a career of service to others.
And now, a decade-and-a-half later, I realize we have reached a tipping point. NYPD officers who were actively serving during 9/11 are now outnumbered by those who had yet to join the NYPD by nearly two to one. That’s right: Almost two thirds of our uniformed force were not yet with our department in 2001 — and some of our finest women and men were as young as seven years old at the time.
There is no difference between us. Newer cops will witness tragedy and heroism just the same. They will see firsthand the strength of the communities they patrol in times of trouble, and they will unhesitatingly run toward what others run away from. I have, however, grown worried about a loss of perspective in our fight against terrorism and how we will handle the future inevitable attacks.
This is about my children.
The officer in his rookie days. On 9/11, there was “no place I would rather be,” he said, “helping evacuate people safely from lower Manhattan.”
As post-9/11 generations come after us, we must be prepared to move from remembrance to understanding. My kids have will have no recollection of the life-saving rescue operations at the Pentagon, or of regular Americans who heroically attempted to take back a hijacked plane over the grassy fields of Pennsylvania, saving countless lives on the ground in the process. History books will tell part of the tale, but my children deserve to truly understand how and why we refuse to be defeated by our enemies.
This year, I have encouraged my fellow officers to take a moment to read about or listen to someone’s story from that September day 15 years ago — from a first responder, a survivor, a volunteer, or a family member who lost a loved one. As the years go on, I will encourage my children to do the same. I hope that each of our children learn that while our enemies can take away many things from us, they can never take away the reasons why our friends, family, and neighbors rise up to the challenges that confront them. It’s simply what we do.
We will never prevent every attack, nor rid the world of those that despise our freedoms — but if an understanding of the incredible resolve of Americans lives on for future generations, then the goals of terrorism will always fail.
I began my career uncertain if this was the right path for me. Three months later, on a Tuesday morning in September, I knew there was no place I would rather be than on a bridge over the East River helping evacuate people safely from lower Manhattan. I would do it again in a heartbeat. But more significantly, I know the men and women who were not yet on the front lines during 9/11 — and each of my amazing children — would do it in a heartbeat, too.
Paul Grattan Jr. is a sergeant and a 15-year veteran of the New York City Police Department. A graduate of the 254th session of the FBI National Academy, he currently oversees executive communications and social media for the NYPD’s Transit Bureau.
Note: This article was written for and originally published in LifeZette on September 11, 2016.