Twenty years later, 9/11 stirs deeply personal emotions

·5 min read

A few weeks ago, not long before Saturday's 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, Mariah Jacobsen got a tattoo on her left foot.

"Do something," it reads.

The words are inspiration from a man she never met, from someone she never knew until several years after he had died in the attacks, when, at 19, Jacobsen got her birth certificate from the Minnesota Department of Health and learned the identity of her biological father — Thomas Edward Burnett Jr., of Bloomington.

When Jacobsen, who had been adopted, read those words, she thought back to that September morning in 2001, when, as a junior at St. Paul's Cretin-Derham Hall High School, she saw news of the attacks and had the inescapable feeling she'd lost someone close to her.

"I cannot explain it, not in any way," she said this week. "I just had this knowing."

The discovery of her birth father's identity — that Burnett had been one of the heroes who charged the cockpit on United Airlines Flight 93 and fought the hijackers and steered the plane into a Pennsylvania farm field instead of a Washington, D.C. landmark — would change her life.

On Saturday, during a 9/11 remembrance ceremony on the Minnesota State Capitol Mall, she'll tell of how 9/11 affected her and of the life lessons she's learned from Burnett's inspirational story.

"I felt lost for a while there," said Jacobsen, now 36, a Northfield attorney and mother of three. "How do I even begin to honor this man that I don't remember? But I've really learned lessons from my father and the passengers on United 93. Some of my father's last words to (his widow) Deena were, 'Don't worry, a group of us are go to do something.' "

It's a simple message — "Do something" — that over the years has become profound.

"We have a lot of keyboard warriors in our culture but a lack of individuals who want to act, to do something brave and bold and decisive and make a difference," Jacobsen said. "On that flight we had passengers who didn't wait for someone else to save them."

'Reasons for hope'

The 20-year anniversary of 9/11 comes at a delicate time, less than two weeks after the U.S. government completed a chaotic pullout of Afghanistan, ending America's longest war.

But the reminders of what happened that day are constant — not just in the human toll of two wars fought in 9/11's aftermath, but in the still stepped-up security at airports, in the omnipresent threat of terrorism at home and abroad, and in a reassessment of America's role in the world.

Sept. 11, 2001 was one of those rare days in history — like the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — where Americans old enough to recall the day can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

But for people like Jacobsen, the commemoration of 9/11 is not only nationally significant but also intensely personal.

"That act of fighting back that occurred in front of all of us ... provided some hope and light on a very dark day," she said. "We've had a rough few years as a country — lots of scary moments, lots of disappointing moments. But there are still reasons for hope."

For Jill Stephenson, 9/11 triggers memories of her only son, Ben Kopp.

As a kid growing up in Rosemount, Ben idolized his great-grandfather, a Purple Heart recipient from World War II. Ben would ask him about the military, and spoke of wanting to sign up. His great-grandfather told him that someday, he'd get a feeling in his gut that would give him direction in life.

On 9/11, with 13-year-old Ben still mourning his great-grandfather's death a few months before, he found his direction. Sadness turned to anger as the eighth-grader watched the World Trade Center towers fall. It felt like a mockery of his great-grandfather's service.

"He said that when he was old enough, he'd become an Army Ranger, find Osama bin Laden and make him pay," Stephenson said. "He was destined to join the military. And 9/11 sealed Ben's fate."

After high school, he became an Army Ranger. He deployed twice to Iraq, then to Afghanistan. It was there where he was fatally injured in 2009; he died eight days later at age 21 from his combat wounds. Like his great-grandfather, Kopp was bestowed the Purple Heart. He also was credited with saving six lives on the battlefield in the incident that led to his death.

"9/11 is ingrained in me, almost cellular," Stephenson said. "It's one of those days my body knows. I wake up feeling I'm wearing a heavy coat, and I know it's because of 9/11/2001. That's where it started. That is the day that sealed Ben's fate. That's the date that stuck with him all those years. He never, ever looked away from that day."

On the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, not long after her son's death, Stephenson visited New York City. The experience was profound: walking through the just-opened 9/11 Memorial & Museum and reliving the experiences of that day. On Saturday, she'll speak at Minnesota's State Capitol for the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Her goal, like Jacobsen's, is to make a difference, to use 9/11 as motivation to "Do something."

"It's been very disheartening and disappointing over the last 10 years to see it fall off the calendar," Stephenson said of the anniversary date. "People forget when they don't have a personal connection to it. I want people to remember what has been given up for them.

"We've fallen a really long distance away from that. What I love about sharing Ben's story with the masses is that it puts a face and a personality and a life to a name. We get to know that Ben's not just one other name on a white tablet in Arlington in this sea of white tablets."

Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647

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