Jason Swensen: How a prophet’s assurances in the hours following the 9/11 attack still comfort a military dad

A few days ago, I sat along the edge of Worden Field in Annapolis, Maryland, and watched a formal dress parade presented by the United States Naval Academy Brigade of Midshipmen.

I’ve witnessed several such Naval Academy parades. I always appreciate the precision of 4,000-plus midshipmen executing traditional military movements as a single unit.

But on this day, my eyes locked on the midshipman officer marching at the front of 16 Company. With his distinct jawline and ceremonial sword, my son Christian was easy to find, even amid a brigade of dark naval uniforms.

Watching my son and the dress parade, my mind drifted back to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. I marveled how the trajectory of Christian’s young life was still being steered by the events of 20 years ago.

Jason Swensen at the Deseret News offices in Salt Lake City.
Jason Swensen at the Deseret News offices in Salt Lake City. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

I could not have foreseen any of this on that awful Tuesday. Christian was still a pre-schooler, and I was simply trying to process, in real time, how the world had changed in a single day.

Read more: How 9/11 forever changed the lives of Latter-day Saints serving in the military

I also had a job to do. As a Church News reporter, I was immediately pulled into a series of 9/11 stories of interest to Latter-day Saints around the world. My work day on Sept. 11, 2001, ended at the Tabernacle on Temple Square covering President Gordon B. Hinckley as he presided over an impromptu memorial service.

“Our hearts are deeply touched, as are those of all Americans and of free people across the world,” said President Hinckley at the gathering. “This has been a tragic, solemn and dark day. We have been reminded that evil is still rampant in the world. Its insidious and dastardly hand has struck again in a most reprehensible manner.”

But the peace of Christ, he assured, will “rest upon us and give us comfort.”

Millennia ago, the prophet Lehi taught his own son Jacob that “there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). The prescient words of that ancient seer were realized at a moment seemingly defined by evil.

A few days after Sept. 11, my editor, Gerry Avant, asked me to write a Church News Viewpoint capturing the stark duality of the day. I began my column with a question: “What would we give to live Sept. 10, 2001, again?”

“For most it was a Monday filled with Monday’s rituals: the beginning of a new work week, family home evening, perhaps an hour or two watching the football game. Who knew that Monday would be the day before a new generation would suffer its own day of infamy?

“Tuesday yanked us from Monday’s comfort and routine. The world witnessed horror from their living rooms and workplaces. Footage of broken planes and buildings stretched across television screens, carving ugly images in our minds. Hijackers, terrorism and death defined the day. People gasped, asked why and wept. Mothers and fathers fulfilled a sad duty, telling their children that bad people had done bad things. Evil delivered a swift kick.”

I was a young father on 9/11. And like countless other parents, I pulled Christian and his older sister close to me and did the best I could to discuss the actions of bad people.

But, as my Viewpoint noted and Lehi foretold, remarkable goodness existed alongside evil.

“Woven among the hateful scenes were episodes of decency. We learned stories of men and women at the World Trade Center towers who began their morning as perhaps stock traders or custodians — then put on the hero’s hat when that first hijacked plane veered into their offices. There were sustaining accounts of strangers helping one another down darkened stairs in a race to safety. And a news report of an injured Pentagon worker soothing her endangered co-workers with the only rescue tool in her quiver — a prayer.

President Gordon B. Hinckley addresses the memorial service in honor of those who died in the terrorist attack on the United States Sept. 11, 2001.
President Gordon B. Hinckley addresses the memorial service in honor of those who died in the terrorist attack on the United States Sept. 11, 2001. Credit: Tom Smart, Deseret News

“Armies of police officers, firefighters and medical professionals soon descended on the disaster sites. Enlisting know-how and big hearts, they searched for survivors among the rubble. Scores of such lifesavers would lose their own lives.

“Soon a nation groaning with pain and rage began looking for ways to help. Many living near New York or Washington, D.C., made their way to the attack’s ‘ground zero,’ finding ways to volunteer or support professional rescue crews. Others erected makeshift memorials around the dust-laden crime scene, cheering encouragement as relief workers began and ended their exhausting shifts. Even Manhattan-area school children aided hungry rescue workers by offering their own form of homemade comfort — peanut butter and jelly sandwiches stuffed into little plastic bags alongside hand-scribbled notes of appreciation.”

I also saluted elected officials and “folks from partisan backgrounds” who chose to “set aside differences and unite for the common good” following 9/11.

Scribbling in my reporter’s notebook from my seat in the Tabernacle on the evening of the terrorist attacks, I underlined President Hinckley’s reminder to me and my wounded world that Christ is “shining through the heavy outcast of fear and anger.” 

I found peace on that Tuesday night listening to a Prophet’s voice and reading the Savior’s comforting promise: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

“The coming weeks, months or even years may offer many heavy-laden moments,” my Viewpoint concluded. “No one need bear them alone.”

Watching Christian and his fellow midshipmen recently march across Worden Field reminded me that I still need Christ’s rest. 

My son will graduate from the Naval Academy in a few months and take his place in the fleet, serving in a post-9/11 world. The tragedies of the past few weeks confirm that perils remain, especially for men and women wearing their country’s uniform.

I’m a military dad. That frightens me.

But I will find courage in the Christ-centered goodness and hope that once lifted me and countless others above the despair of 9/11.