Somber reflection and heartfelt gratitude mixed with celebration as a community gathered Wednesday on the 18th anniversary of a tragedy that continues to reveal the determined resiliency of a proud people.

For the 14th year, representatives from police and fire departments across Bell County joined Fort Hood soldiers, veterans, Gold Star family members and Killeen ISD leaders at Killeen High School and Leo Buckley Stadium to walk in unity.

It seemed especially appropriate that the annual freedom walk was set at a school as students not yet born in 2001 took a leadership role in honoring America and its heroes.

“It means a lot to me to be a part of this,” said Harker Heights High School junior James Jones, IV, the master of ceremonies for the event. “I have family in the military. My grandfather played a big role in my life. It’s important to me to serve my country.”

Another student, Killeen High School senior Kylie Corrigan, introduced the event speaker, state Rep. Brad Buckley, a local veterinarian and Ellison High School graduate who was a KISD Board of Trustees member in 2001 when planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers.

It was a clear, cool day as Buckley made his way to a scheduled school board committee meeting when news of disaster in New York City interrupted a radio sports program, he recalled.

The former school board member’s comments mirrored those of former KISD Superintendent Charles Patterson, recalling the events on video. Both said that as the scope of the intentional attack against America set in, they realized life would change profoundly.

“We began to have discussion and the phones began to ring and the KISD family went into action,” Buckley said addressing the audience assembled at the KHS auditorium.

The emotional trauma of the human tragedy unfolding first in the heart of New York City and then at the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania is a moment for a generation “burned into my memory,” said Buckley, who remembered that everyone that day seemed to want most of all to gather their family members to themselves.

Across the Fort Hood area, military, civic, school and religious leaders leaned into the task of supporting families that would grieve with the rest of the country while neighbors headed off to battle, leaving children and other family behind.

While some think that those too young to remember the smoke and ash billowing from Manhattan towers are not emotionally connected to 9/11, Buckley thinks otherwise.

“Central Texas is a unique community,” he said. “Young folks here have come to realize they are emotionally attached. They have experienced its aftermath.”

Following the formal ceremony in the school auditorium, a police color guard, Ellison High School drumline and representatives of KISD’s four comprehensive high schools led the way to Buckley Stadium for a walk around the track.

Following 11 bell tolls, Gold Star family member soldier escorts dispersed plumes of purple and gold smoke in memory of the fallen.

The KHS senior who introduced Buckley said her dad was an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2001 and that living a life of service after 9/11 “has been the normal.”

“Even though I wasn’t born, I’ve heard my mom talk about it,” said Genesis Seibel, a Harker Heights High School junior whose mother is a soldier. “It means a lot to be able to honor people who serve our country.”

“I’m honored to be a part of this,” said Shoemaker High School senior Cherith Hicks. “All my friends are connected to the military and it’s an honor to hold up their parents’ legacy.”

In response to Buckley’s comments about this generation’s emotional connection to the events of 18 years ago, Jones said, “We do have a connection. We can change the world through speaking out and through helping our community.”

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