Years ago, during a turbulent time in my life, an insightful man once told me, “Remember one thing — no one is ever defined by a single moment.”

He was right. Nothing calms the convulsions of crisis, be it personal or national, like the passage of time.

Still, today goes far beyond yet another anniversary of yet another historic event.

In ways both obvious and obscure, what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 — first in lower Manhattan, then at the Pentagon and finally in an open field in western Pennsylvania — continues to reverberate throughout Maine, the nation, in truth the whole planet.

As an American citizen, I can’t begin to imagine a world without what long has been distilled down to the simple moniker “9/11.”

As a journalist, I unbolt the past decade and find myself suddenly awash in memories — from Maine to Mosul, from lower Manhattan to a mountainous ridge overlooking Pakistan — all rooted in that horrible morning the airplanes turned into bombs and the entire country, however fleetingly, stood united in its grief and resolve … 

It’s Sept. 23, 2001. I’m sitting in the press box at Yankee Stadium, the last stop in a weeklong visit to the aftermath of the attack on New York City.

The past several days, I’ve swallowed hard as people in Union Square lit candles, wept openly and sat on the sidewalks staring in stunned silence at photographs of lost friends and relatives.

I’ve listened to George and Lillian Lopes of Portland, both Red Cross volunteers, talk about how everywhere they go, New Yorkers treat them like royalty.

I’ve listened in awe to a street artist named Steve Stoller, who stayed put and frantically painted real-life scenes of mass panic and flight even as the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed a mere 15 blocks away. Days later, in the shadow of the still smoldering rubble at Ground Zero, Stoller was still at it.

“These ones aren’t for sale,” he told me.

And now here I sit in the House that Ruth Built, listening to Bette Midler singing “Wind Beneath My Wings” during a national memorial service aptly named “A Prayer for America.”

Looking down into the stands just below me, I notice three young children sprawled across an ample African-American woman facing skyward with her eyes closed.

As Midler wails, “Did you ever know you were my hero …,” the oldest son raises a framed portrait of his father in a dress-blue New York City police uniform. Sobbing uncontrollably, the boy buries his face in his mother’s bosom.

It’s June 2002. President George W. Bush’s color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System has been stuck at “yellow” (significant risk) since its unveiling amid much fanfare in March.

I and my family, including my two aging parents, are passing through Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on our way home from my son’s college graduation.

Out of the blue, a security officer pulls my 75-year-old mother from the passenger line for a random search by the newly formed Transportation Security Administration.

One inspector searches Mom’s handbag. Another politely asks her to remove her tennis shoes and gives them the once-over. Mom, sitting there in her ankle socks, looks bewildered.

A man nearby, also waiting for his traveling companion, nods toward my mother and says with a smile, “Hmmm, she looks pretty dangerous to me.”

It’s July 2002. My phone rings — my distraught daughter calling from her workplace in Boston, where she and a co-worker came across an envelope covered with a powdery substance (later deemed harmless).

A supervisor calls 911 and within minutes, my daughter undergoes mandatory “decontamination” on the sidewalk by a livid Boston firefighter.

“Why did you touch it?” he hollers at her. “Do you realize you could be dead right now?”

Right around then, the news crews arrive.

My daughter breaks down in tears.

It’s March 19, 2003. One day before the United States invades Iraq, an anti-war protest in Portland’s Monument Square is about to spawn a fistfight.

One man, an Army veteran named Mark Reilly, is irate at the sight of protesters drawing chalk slogans all over the Our Lady of Victory statue in the middle of the square.

“Have some respect for your country!” shouts Reilly as he advances on the group, a disposable camera in his hand.

Another man appears — a Navy veteran named Bill Cataldo who lost his father to a torpedo in World War II.

“Respect?” hollers Cataldo. “My father gave his life to this country! Don’t talk to me about respect!”

The two veterans advance on each other.

“Go ahead, throw a punch,” challenges Reilly. “There’s cops all over the place.”

Cooler heads finally prevail. And in separate interviews the next day, both men admit their tempers got the best of them.

Reilly, insisting he has nothing against people exercising their right to oppose the looming war, says he simply felt defacing the statue was an insult to those “who sacrificed to protect that freedom.”

Counters Cataldo, whose own father made just such a sacrifice, “I’m very happy to be an American … I’m just so sick of the hypocrisy.”

It’s August 2004. Ten months after he was hit by a roadside bomb and then shot in the leg outside Ramadi, Iraq, Army Reserve Sgt. Curtis Mills of Shapleigh fights back tears as he sits in the physical therapy annex at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Why, Mills wonders aloud, can’t the Army get its act together enough to let him go home to Maine?

Stuck in a bureaucratic limbo with dozens of other seriously wounded soldiers, Mills, a postal carrier in his civilian life, has spent the last 10 months living in a cramped room at the hospital with his wife and young son.

He’s caught in a modern-day catch-22: He needs more surgery, but can’t get it until he is “medical boarded” out of the service. But for reasons no one can explain, he’s been unable all these months to get someone, anyone, to move his paperwork along.

“You know, I love the military. I love my country. And I support my president,” Mills says. “But this is not the military I know.”

It’s Dec. 21, 2004. I’ve just arrived in Mosul, Iraq, for my second visit in eight months with the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion.

Many of the soldiers’ barracks are decorated for Christmas. Suddenly, as I prepare to go grab lunch, a massive explosion blows a hole through the roof of the nearby DFAC, or dining facility.

The blast, set off by a suicide bomber who infiltrated sprawling Forward Operating Base Marez disguised as an Iraqi soldier, kills 22 people (including two Maine soldiers) and injures 72 others. It’s the worst single-day loss of American life since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003.

That evening, I find myself sitting across from Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of Task Force Olympia in northern Iraq. I ask if this is his worst day since taking over that February.

Ham, his voice breaking, replies, “This is the worst day of my life.”

Two nights later, a firefight breaks out between an Army patrol and insurgents near a military airport adjacent to the base.

Maine soldiers, some of them barely out of high school, pour from their barracks as tracer bullets streak across the tarmac, followed a second or two later by the thud-thud-thud of the patrol’s 50-caliber machine guns.

With each burst of fire, the Maine soldiers cheer — and at the same time loudly curse the invisible enemy.

Finally, there’s a lull in the fighting. After a few moments, a young guardsman somewhere in the crowd of camouflage breaks the silence.

“I want to kill someone tonight,” he says.

It’s April 2007. Throughout yet another trip to Iraq, I’m struck by a noticeable change since my earlier visits: As the war enters its fifth year, reminders of 9/11 — once here, there and everywhere on U.S. military installations — have all but vanished.

I finally notice a “Remember 9/11” banner hanging from the ceiling of a chow hall on a forward operating base outside Tikrit, birthplace of the now deceased Saddam Hussein. Standing in a food line, I ask a solider behind me about the banner.

“That?” he says with a shrug. “That’s been up there … forever.”

Two weeks later, I see the same “Remember 9/11” exhortation scrawled on a wall inside a latrine at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait. Just beneath it, in bold, black letters, someone else has written, “That was Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, you dummy. Not Iraq.”

It’s June of 2010. I’m standing behind a sand-bag barricade at Observation Post 13, a mountaintop lookout on the eastern edge of Afghanistan manned by the Maine Guard’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry.

As dusk falls, the Maine soldiers methodically prepare for an expected attack by Taliban insurgents who regularly come in through the valley below from their safe havens in nearby Pakistan.

It’s going on nine years since President Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom less than a month after the 9/11 attacks. But even now, the Americans admit they are spread too thin to control even half of their assigned “battle space” in these cragged, unforgiving mountains.

Thankfully, the Taliban attack never materializes. As a call to prayers wafts up from the Pesho Ghar valley below, I find myself deep in conversation with a young Afghan translator who goes by the name “Johnny Pockets.”

He explains how he took this job (and thus risks his life) not just for the money, which his family back in Kabul badly needs. He’s also doing it, he says, out of love for his war-torn homeland.

“My country, it needs peace,” Johnny says, burrowing into his sleeping bag. “Someday, it is my hope and prayer, Afghanistan will know peace.”

It’s September 2010. I’m standing on Main Street in Freeport with Elaine Greene, Carmen Footer and JoAnne Miller, better known as the Freeport Flag Ladies.

All beyond retirement age, they have come here without fail every Tuesday since Sept. 11, 2001, to wave their U.S. flags in memory of the victims that day and in support of all the troops who have served since.

Now, as the flag ladies reflect on the approaching ninth anniversary of 9/11, it’s hard to hear them over the tooting horns and the constant calls of encouragement from passing motorists.

“Remember what happens every time one of those horns beeps,” Greene tells me. “In that moment, this country is a little better.”

A week later, I’m inside the Portland Expo, where Muslims from all over Maine have converged by the hundreds to celebrate Eid al Fitr — the annual prayer gathering that marks the end of the Ramadan fast.

Nine years earlier, few in this crowd dared answer a knock on their door — much less show their faces in public. And even now, the national news is dominated by a wild-eyed Pastor Terry Jones and his on-again, off-again plan to burn copies of the Quran outside his church in Florida.

But throughout the Expo on this morning, there’s nothing but joy.

“We belong here. We are here,” says Abdullahi Ahmed, president of the Islamic Society of Portland. “American Muslims are part of the community.”

It’s May 2011. Osama bin Laden, at long last, is dead.

And yet here I am at the Marine Corps Reserve Training Center in Topsham, watching Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 25th Marines embark on the first leg of a 10-month deployment to Afghanistan.

I spot a familiar face from past travels: Cpl. Curt Fegan of Yarmouth has deployed to Iraq twice since 2006. Now he’s stepping away from his job as a Falmouth police officer for a third trip to a war zone.

“Why this time?” I ask him. “Haven’t you already done your share?”

“It’s a very young company,” explains Fegan, all of 27. “A lot of them, this is their first deployment.”

The youngest of the young is 18-year-old Lance Cpl. Tim Carter of Machias.

Surrounded by his extended family, all of whom awoke before dawn to drive down from Washington County and see him off, Carter recalls telling friends in recent days that even with bin Laden gone, “the mission in Afghanistan remains the same.”

He’s right, I think to myself: These days, the war in Afghanistan has far more to do with the Taliban than what’s left of bin Laden’s al-Qaida.

Still, as the cable news sizzles with the emerging details of the raid by Navy SEALs on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, it’s hard not to look at this young, eager Marine and wonder exactly how we got here from there.

I think about Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, who awoke inside a South Portland hotel the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and hurried to catch a Boston-bound flight at the Portland International Jetport.

I think about how the shock waves from that day can still be felt here in this all-too-familiar ritual of farewell tinged with fear.

“Do you even remember 9/11?” I ask Carter, only half joking.

“Yes I do, sir,” he replies as his proud but anxious family looks on. “I was 8.”

And now it’s September 2011.

One war is all but over. The other, not so much.

Some say we’ve gained the upper hand in the so-called war on terror. Others warn the threat has simply gone deeper underground.

We’re all still Americans. Yet we’re back to bickering like never before.

And as I flip through my clips and reflect on this tumultuous decade, I can’t help but wonder:

What if the warning signs, so clear to so many in the months leading up to the 9/11 attacks, had been heeded?

What if the war in Afghanistan had not been eclipsed for so long by the one in Iraq?

What if, on that sunny Tuesday morning, Mohamed Atta had missed his flight to Boston?

What if my mother, God rest her soul, had refused to take off her sneakers?

History, by definition, defies such “what ifs.” It fuses us without mercy, sometimes in the flash of a single moment, to what was.

Yet my old friend’s advice still holds: Sept. 11, 2001, the day 19 madmen shook the civilized world to its very core, did not define us.

As we struggle to this day to regain our balance, caught between what we love and what we hate, we define ourselves.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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