Tuesday marked the 17th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack in American history — a date when nearly 3,000 people were killed and another 6,000 seriously injured.
And 36-year-old Dustin Dickens — organizer of Bartow County's annual March to the Mountain — said he is distraught over how many people have disregarded the horror and heroism of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I've had multiple people ask me why are we putting out the flags," he said. "A lot of people, they have forgotten, and that just sets in stone even more why we're wanting to put this event on."
Dickens, a Cartersville native, said the event — which has been held every year in the local community since 2014 — was inspired by the 9/11 memorial March to the Arch in St. Louis.
"I was very moved by the event," he said. "The idea behind the walk was to sacrifice your time and your day for those who have sacrificed everything."
A little over 100 people participated in the 2018 march, which began and ended near the base of Pine Mountain. The 6.5 mile march looped through downtown Cartersville, with participants taking a brief detour at The Fite Living Center.
"That's one of the most special parts of the whole day," said Brad Cowart, one of the march organizers. "They bring out all their veterans and they sit them in rocking chairs. Everybody walks single-file to be able to shake their hands and we get to thank them for their service."
The pre-march ceremonies began at 9:11 a.m. Before participants started their walk down Main Street there was a presentation by the Bartow County Sheriff's Office Honor Guard, a singing of "The Star Spangled Banner" and a moment of silence honoring those who died in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001.
Dickens recounted his memories of that morning.
"I was in college, standing in the cafeteria, very confused and worried," he said. "They cancelled school shortly after and I went home ... I think I was just very much moved by what took place on that day. It just shows how vulnerable we can be."
Fellow march organizer Erika Wyant was only 11 years old on 9/11.
"I actually lived in Pennsylvania in 2001, so the event really hit close to home," she said. "We were actually in school when it happened and our parents pulled us out, we were dismissed early … you can't really understand the magnitude of the panic kind of surrounding you. But, I just knew in that moment that things would be different moving forward. I was just unsure of how different it would be."
Since then, an entire generation of children have grown up in a "post-9/11" society. Dickens and Wyant said they are concerned that both the historical significance and moral lessons of 9/11 are at risk of being lost.
"It's our jobs as adults to really commemorate and home in on how tragic it was so history does not repeat itself," Wyant said. "I think in some ways maybe our youth are fortunate that they don't necessarily have an event like that in their recent memory to worry about — for those of us who went through it, it's something that's always going to be plaguing our minds."
The annual march, Dickens said, isn't just meant to pay respect to the thousands of people who lost their lives on that grim September morning almost two decades ago. It also serves as a tribute to America's men and women in uniform.
"I don't know what it's like to have a child in the military or anything like that, but I do it for them," he said. "I want to make sure those folks know we appreciate them, so it just goes without being said."
While it's difficult — if not impossible — to escape the abject terror and sorrow of 9/11, Wyant said even in so much death and destruction one can find a silver lining.
The actions of the hijackers may represent the worst aspects of humanity, but the actions of emergency personnel — the firefighters, the policemen and paramedics who rushed headlong into almost certain death to save the lives of total strangers — on that day are emblematic of humanity's noblest traits and characteristics, she said.
"I always go to the first responders. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the people who are running towards the chaos while everyone else is running away from it. This is an important day for us to reflect on the average, ordinary, everyday people who didn't get to go home to their families."
Seventeen years later, however, Wyant said she still sees the signs of national solidarity forged in the wake of 9/11 within the local community.
"You wouldn't believe how many cars stop to thank us, or they roll down their window and shout 'go USA,'" she said. "That part is really unifying, and it's just a testament to how much — on this day especially — we identify as Americans."