AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
One morning 20 years ago at Dulles International Airport, two men were running late for their flight, so late they almost didn't make it. But at the American Airlines check-in desk, an employee was helpful. He worked efficiently, running through the security questions. Did you pack your bag yourself? Has it been with you the whole time? Well, the two men made it on board Flight 77 to LA that day. The airline employee, Vaughn Allex, had done his job.
VAUGHN ALLEX: I didn't know what I had done. It wasn't until the next day, September 12, that I started finding out what happened.
CORNISH: Back at the airport on September 12, someone handed Allex the flight manifest.
ALLEX: I just stared at it for a second, and then I looked up. I go, I did it, didn't I?
CORNISH: As Allex would come to learn, about half an hour after takeoff in the air over southeastern Ohio, Flight 77 had turned around.
ALLEX: I checked in a family. It was a retiree and his wife. I had time to talk to them.
CORNISH: By 9 a.m., the plane was heading back east, descending from 35,000 feet.
ALLEX: There was a student group, and I checked in a lot of those kids and parents, teachers.
CORNISH: At 9:34 the plane made a looping descent miles from Washington, D.C. And minutes later, nose-down, traveling 530 miles per hour, Flight 77 crashed into the side of the Pentagon.
ALLEX: And they were gone. They were just all gone.
CORNISH: A hundred and eighty-nine people were killed, including the two men Vaughn Allex had checked into the flight that day. They were among the hijackers.
ALLEX: Once it became known, people didn't talk to me. I might go weeks or months, and everything would be just going along fine. And then there would be something that would trigger it. I felt there was no place for me in the world.
CORNISH: This weekend, the nation marks 20 years since 9/11, a day we are reminded to never forget. But no one marked September 12 or any of the days after when so many lives were suddenly so different.
ALLEX: You don't really move past it. It's still always there in some form.
CORNISH: Today, the lasting toll of 9/11, a day that for so many people changed every day that followed. We'll hear some of their stories.
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CORNISH: For years now, StoryCorps has been working with the national September 11 Memorial & Museum to record and catalog these stories. Talat Hamdani's starts with a bird, an injured sparrow that her son Salman found and brought home when he was a boy.
TALAT HAMDANI: And its wing was damaged or something, so he tried to nurse it. And then he went to school. And when he came back, he asked me, what happened to the bird? I said, the bird died, and I threw it in the trash bin. He was very upset at me. So he went back out, and he buried the bird in the backyard. That was him - helpful, loving.
CORNISH: On September 11, Salman was a 23-year-old emergency medical technician in New York.
HAMDANI: He probably saw the towers burning and then ran to help that day.
CORNISH: During the days after, when he did not come home, he was wrongly linked as an accomplice in the attacks.
HAMDANI: And I remember there was a flyer circulating about Salman. It said, wanted by terrorist task force. And reporters printed his picture and published an article that said, missing or hiding. But he was so proud to be an American.
CORNISH: It wasn't until March that Salman's family got word. His remains were recovered in the rubble of the North Tower.
HAMDANI: And they gave us a bag with his jeans and his belt. And they said his body parts were in 34 pieces. There's a vacuum in life when you lose a child. It's a sense of incompleteness. And you always feel it.
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CORNISH: In April 2002, Salman Hamdani was finally given a hero's burial with his casket draped in an American flag. He was one of nearly 3,000 people killed on 9/11. More than 7,000 U.S. service members would die in the following 20 years of military conflict. One of them was Staff Sergeant Donna Johnson, who was in Afghanistan in October of 2012.
TRACY JOHNSON: That day I had a bad feeling.
CORNISH: Donna's wife Tracy was also in the military, a veteran of the war in Iraq.
T JOHNSON: I immediately started scouring the news websites, and it said that they were - three U.S. soldiers were killed in Khost, Afghanistan. And I knew obviously that's where she was stationed.
CORNISH: And that's where Donna was killed by a suicide bomber. The next year her wife Tracy recorded what you're about to hear at StoryCorps. Before marriages like theirs were recognized by the U.S. military, Tracy told her mother-in-law Sandra Johnson how she learned of Donna's death and what happened next.
SANDRA JOHNSON: So how did you get notified?
T JOHNSON: I knew that any communication about Donna was going to come to you guys because even though we were married, I wasn't considered her next of kin. So Donna's sister called me and told me that the military people were there. I went to your place, and I said, you know, I am her wife, and I brought documentation. And when a soldier's fallen, they usually have a military escort that brings them home. And I said, can I do it because I'm military? He goes, well, we'll see. But I know it wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for your insistence.
S JOHNSON: I just - I did not want her coming home with a stranger. I wanted her coming home to family.
T JOHNSON: I was flown up to Dover to see her brought back on American soil. And honestly, I can't tell you how great of an honor it is to escort a fallen hero home. But when that hero is your wife, it means a lot more.
S JOHNSON: Well, I want you to know that I'm very proud of you. I consider you mine because Donna considered you hers. And I wouldn't have it any other way.
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CORNISH: Seven thousand U.S. service members is just a fraction of the human cost of America's post-9/11 wars. There are also national and military police in other countries, opposition fighters, allied troops, civilians, contractors, humanitarian workers, journalists. Altogether, Brown University's Costs of War Project estimates around 900,000 people have died in major war zones since 9/11. Now, one figure not included in that count - suicides among American active duty personnel and veterans of those conflicts. By one estimate, since 9/11, more than 30,000 have died by suicide. And that's more than four times as many than have died in military operations.
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CORNISH: Until now, everything you've heard was recorded by StoryCorps before the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan came to a deadly and chaotic end this summer. By that time, more than 100,000 Afghan civilians and military personnel had been killed in 20 years of military conflict. This year, NPR captured the story of one man whose life was shaped by those violent decades. His name is Said Noor. He still remembers weeks after 9/11, when he was just a boy in an Afghan village.
SAID NOOR: I remember the aircrafts. Like, we saw the fighter jets for the first time.
CORNISH: American fighter jets. Later came American military bases. Said was fascinated by the foreign soldiers who sometimes passed through his village, and one day those same American soldiers help Said's baby sister after an accident. Someone had spilled hot water and badly burned her.
NOOR: They really saved her life. Now she's a growing girl, you know? She goes to school.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Was that, then, when you asked to work with the Americans?
CORNISH: That was NPR's Steve Inskeep talking to Said, who eventually became an interpreter for the U.S. military. He followed troops into combat. He lost friends. He woke up to letters left on his door in the night.
NOOR: And they had signatures of the Taliban commanders, Haqqani networks at the bottom of their letters, saying that I was under their kill list. You know, they're going to come after me. They're going to kill me. And that's when I realized that I was in danger and I had to leave the country.
CORNISH: Said applied for and was granted a visa to come to the U.S., and he did that in 2014, moving to Houston. In the years after, he became a citizen and joined the U.S. Army, where his language skills were valuable. He even spent time deployed back in his home country, where his parents and siblings still lived. But when the Taliban began their takeover of Afghanistan this year, Said knew his family was in danger.
NOOR: They could see the Taliban right outside of my house. And my family, especially my younger siblings - they were, like, really, really scared and freaked out.
CORNISH: This was in Kabul. The family tried to reach the airport. They slept outside its walls. Back in Houston, Said tried desperately to get them help. And it finally came when a member of Congress heard a news report about Said's story. It was Democrat Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, also a veteran who'd recently visited Kabul in a trip that drew a lot of criticism. Moulton's office reached a military contact in Kabul, who sent Said's family to a gas station to rendezvous with U.S. troops. Hours later, they were on the last flight out. Said met them at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin this week.
NOOR: Sometimes I feel like I'm still dreaming.
CORNISH: One of his family members who made it out - his sister, the one whose burn injury triggered a relationship with Americans that transformed his family's life. Having been treated so long ago by an American doctor, Said's sister now wants to be one.
NOOR: Now seeing them, you know, see the smiles on their face coming to a country where they can have, like - you know, work on themselves and build a bright future for themselves.
CORNISH: Said Noor spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep, and his story was originally produced for Morning Edition. The other stories you just heard were memorialized by StoryCorps in partnership with the national September 11 Memorial & Museum. You can learn more about that initiative and find out how you can record your reflections on the life of a loved one at storycorps.org/september11. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.