Thursday, September 11, 2008

I remember 9/11

It's been seven years today.

I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing.

I was US Navy Chief Warrant Officer. I had spent most of the summer of 2001 traveling up and down the east coast to various naval schools in preparation for my pending assignment as the Signals, Intelligence, and Information Warfare Officer onboard USS Valley Forge. I was enjoying the summer and looking forward to returning to sea duty - for a Sailor there's nothing better than being on a warship at sea and I could hardly wait to report in. Valley Forge would be my first West Coast ship, and I was excited at the prospect of living in Southern California for the next three years. I had been away from sea duty for a long time, having spent most of my career in special operations units on land. That summer I left my assignment in R&D at the Naval Information Warfare Activity in Washington D.C., and while that tour was technically challenging it lacked any kind of excitement whatsoever and I'm just not temperamentally suited to an office job. After two years of Washington military politics, paperwork, and Death by Power Point, I was enjoying having no responsibilities other than schoolwork. My schedule was fairly loose, and as a Warrant on detached duty I was about as free as anybody ever is in the military. I drove down to Florida for some leadership training, then back to Washington for refresher courses at the Agency, then to Wallops Island, Virginia to learn Aegis Combat systems, then back to Washington for yet more refresher training, then down to Virginia Beach for Electronic Warfare Officer's school, back to Washington again, and finally down to the Naval Technical Training Center at Corry Station. The navy was paying for my gas and I was enjoying the trips back and forth.

None of the courses I attended that summer required much in the way of effort on my part. I was familiar with nearly all of the subject matter, and in fact had helped to design some of the equipment and had taught some of the courses previously. But regulations are regulations, and I was required to attend the schools per duty assignment pipeline guidelines just like everybody else - the Naval Personnel Manual doesn't allow for much in the way of deviation from the standards.

And so, in September, I was sitting in a dark classroom in Pensacola, freezing my ass off in the full bore air conditioning, listening to a Chief Petty Officer drone on about Afloat Cryptologic Management. Military courses come in two flavors, incredibly exciting or excruciatingly boring - ACM is of the latter variety. It's mostly about the proper way to fill out paperwork and how to submit afloat intelligence reports - nothing you couldn't learn in twenty minutes from a good Chief or from a couple of hours with the manual, and nothing I didn't already know in detail. To make it worse, I was the only experienced Officer in the room, the rest were Junior Officers or newly minted Chiefs - and their questions were just plain killing me. The more simple and boring the subject, the more dumb questions they had, which just kept making the topics longer and longer until I was ready to start banging their fuzzy heads together.

I was sitting in the back, playing solitaire on my PDA and trying to stay awake while the instructor showed us Power Point slides of various reports, when the door opened and young Petty Officer stuck his head into the room. He motioned to the Chief and they went out into the hall. He came back a moment later.

"A plane of some kind just crashed into the World Trade Center," he told us.

"Holy Shit," somebody in the room responded. "How bad is it?"

The Chief shrugged. "Bad enough I guess. Anyway, just thought you would all like to know. Next break, you can check out CNN in the Instructor's Office if you're interested."

I wasn't, nor was I surprised at that point. I'd flown into JFK more than once, and Reagan National, and O'Hare, and Lindbergh Field, and a dozen other big airports stupidly located in the middle of densely populated urban areas - sooner or later I figured an airliner was going to go down in the middle of a metro center or plow into a building. About the only thing I was surprised at, then, was that it had taken so long to happen.

The Chief flipped through his course guide trying to figure out where he'd left off.

"Warrant Officer Wright, you wanna tell me where we were before the interruption?"

"Black three on red four," I replied helpfully. That got a feeble laugh from the Ensigns, who were afraid to show their amusement in front of the Chief.

The Chief rolled his eyes and didn't bother to say anything, he'd had a number of Warrants in his class and knew we were just there to put a check in the box. He found his place and went back to explaining the data fields in the electronic report displayed on the screen. I went back to my game and waiting for it all to be over so I could head down to the mess and get a beer.

The door banged open again and the same Petty Officer barged into the room.

"Another plane just hit the second tower! They've got video, it was deliberate. It was a huge damn jetliner, like a 747! They're saying we're under attack!" he shouted.

Ah hah! I thought to myself, it's a training exercise - it's about damned time something interesting happened.

Then I took another look at the Petty Officer's face, pale and ashen in the dim light, and knew that it was for real.

I was the first one to reach the Instructor's Office, nearly trampling an Ensign or two in my haste. A handful of enlisted Sailors and Marines were gathered around the TV. The replays were just starting. I don't know how long we stood there in amazement and awe struck horror, long enough for the third plane to reach Washington and find it's target, long enough for the reality of the situation to start sinking in and the rage to begin, long enough for me to realize that a number of my very good friends were most likely dead in the smoking wreckage of the Pentagon, long enough for the base to go to full security alert, long enough for the country to descend into chaos, long enough that when the roar of the fighters - training planes, unaramed but gamely scrambling into the air on full afterburner from the training field at nearby NAS Pensacola - reached us it was no surprise whatsoever.

And long enough to realize with cold certainty that I was an officer who would very soon be leading men into harm's way.

For the rest of that day we knew little more than the civilian population. Everything we knew came second or third hand. Corry Station is a training base, and off-circuit from tactical military channels. The low-level circuits we did have were overloaded until the Joint Chiefs imposed emergency restrictions, then the circuits cleared like magic, the orders and emergency plans for just such a surprise attack flooded in over the wire and America's military machine began to rapidly ready itself for immediate action with superb precision and efficiency.

I managed to get through to my wife's cell phone, she and my son were staying with her mother in Milton, outside of Pensacola and I was damned grateful she wasn't at our house in D.C. I told her what little I knew, and told her to be ready for anything. I wasn't worried about her safety, Pensacola is a southern military town, woe betide any foreign force attempting to invade near there. In fact, by the end of the day the Gulf Coast was bristling with ad hoc Redneck militia in pickup trucks, and God himself couldn't have helped any terrorist foolish enough to wade into the midst of that.

We had no idea who had attacked the United States, or what would happen next, but if invaders had followed that first wave they would have been in for the fight of their life. Attacking or even destroying the Pentagon would have had no appreciable impact on our military ability, strength, or organization. Symbolically it was a powerful blow, militarily however it had no impact whatsoever other than to galvanize our forces. Across the country Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps jets screamed into the sky, fully armed and prepared to take on anything. In Norfolk, Mayport, San Diego, and Pearl Harbor the Fleet stood out to sea and sortied to defend the cities in battle-lines thousands of miles long. Across the continent hardened command posts came to full alert and prepared for the worst case scenario. Sealed safes were opened, safeties disengaged, and hellish weapons came online.

In the days that followed I heard from friends who had been at ground zero in New York and D.C. Stonekettle Station regular and occasional commenter, Rick, was in the Pentagon when Flight 77 skimmed in over the Mall and slammed into the outer ring. Fortunately, he was on the far side of the building and was unharmed. A senior Air Force officer and rock solid in a crisis, he helped get people out of the debris field and later walked out of the chaos across the 14th Street Bridge to safety. I heard from others who there, or in New York, and fortunately none of the people I knew personally were killed or seriously injured.

I attempted to contact Valley Forge, to determine if they wanted me to report in early - but they were gone with rest of the West Coast Fleet - armed and alert and ready to stand into harm's way if necessary - and were unlikely to return to port before the report-no-later-than date on my orders.

A week later, when the who and why and how began to emerge, and armed Guardsmen in camouflage filled the airports and the street corners, I packed my family up and we headed back to D.C.

And a week after that I stood with with a handful of my shipmates on the hill at Arlington, overlooking the Pentagon and knew with absolutely certainty what would come next.

And it did. Less than a year later I led brave men into combat on foreign soil - and I was proud to do it, and I still am. I am proud of those men and women, and proud of what we did. Despite all of the things that have transpired since, despite the lies, and the half truths, and the dishonor our leaders have heaped upon us, and all the rest of it - I am still proud of what we did and the men I served with.

But, today it's seven years later and while we swore we would never forget, many of us already have.

Today there will be ceremonies and vigils and remembrances - many are already over as I write this here in Alaska, the crowds gone, the people returned to their lives. Today, the politicians and the speakers and the families of the victims will have their say, they'll speak of the fallen, of lost loved ones, of heroism and sacrifice. The pundits will wax solemnly philosophical and repeat the same words and show the same tapes we've all heard before.

But, we've already begun to forget.

We've forgotten what it was we set out to do on September 12th, 2001. We've forgotten our resolve. We've forgotten the promises of our leaders who swore to bring the enemy to justice. Many in the country and in Washington have forgotten what this war was supposed to be about. Those in power now, and those seeking power, have lost sight of what it was we swore to do in those dark days after the towers came down - if they ever knew at all. They have forgotten their promise to stand together, to put partisan politics aside, to rally America, to defend the principles we as Americans hold sacred: liberty, justice, and freedom. They have forgotten that the real enemy is neither Republican nor Democrat, liberal or conservative, left or right, and they have allowed the American people to do the same. They have forgotten that the purpose of the ceremonies today is to steel our resolve, not to score political points.

Many in this country have lost sight of who we are, as a people and as a nation - and what the United States of America truly stands for. They have forgotten the things that make us great. They have forgotten the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the true might of a free people.

Many have forgotten why we fight, and why we must fight, and against who.

But I have not.

I remember.


Some additional thoughts on 9/11


  1. Thank you, Jim. Both for your service, and for this post.

    I, for one, have not forgotten.

  2. Jim, I have no words to add to what you have so perfectly said....other than Thank-you.

  3. And I add my thanks. I haven't forgotten, either.

  4. I'm tired and I'm still wired from a stressful day at work and I didn't spend any time today remembering until I read this. I remember on a lot of other days, so I'm not going to waste any time feeling guilty because I might have remembered on the wrong day.

    I knew three people who died that day...all business acquaintances, not close friends, but it felt all the more personal even so. Two worked for AON Insurance in the WTC and one was a videographer who was on one of the planes from Boston.

    May I ramble here a little?

    When I stop to think about it, I'm enraged at how our "leaders" have used this to pursue the agendas they wanted to pursue in the first place. I'm enraged that your orders aimed you at an enemy who was, indeed an enemy, but not the enemy. The people who did this to us are still walking and talking and breathing.

    That's not acceptable.

    We've had our Constitutional Rights horribly watered down.

    That's not acceptable.

    I remember what it sounded like that day. I remember what it smelled like that day and for more than a week after. I remember staring at a shocking hole in my skyline.

    I remember not knowing for 4 days whether or not cops I've known for years were dead because their office was one block south of the WTC. I remember feeling helpless and wanting to do something and being told that they were overstocked on blood donations and had nowhere to store any more. And being told that there wasn't anybody to give the blood to because they weren't even finding whole bodies, much less survivors.

    It was the most helpless I think I've ever felt.

    Ramble in a different direction:

    When I was in Israel in the late '70's, I got used to seeing soldiers patrolling in the middle of a city in full combat gear. I'm still not used to seeing soldiers with M-16's patrolling Penn Station. I don't like it and I think it's a stupid waste of everyone's time. During that week, I could sit in my backyard and watch fighter planes with full missile loads visible on their hardpoints circling at about 1500'...and know it wasn't an airshow.

    I think I'm just going to stop here. My feelings and memories are still too strong to come to any coherent point.

    Beyond that, Jim, thanks for going where they told you to go. Thank you for achieving what you were assigned to achieve. I honestly wish you had been aimed at another target and performed as admirably. I'm sure I'd be happier about things right now if you had.

    And sorry for the long pointless ramble.

  5. Not at all, Nathan. I knew when I wrote this that you were there that day and that 9/11 is personal for you. I've read your comments regarding this subject elsewhere. And I know that most of the regular commenters here and the UCF in particular remembers 9/11.

    Still, I never know what I'm going to write until I start writing. I wanted to say something about 9/11 and my memories of that dark day, and this post is what came out.

  6. 9/11 was a day of spectacular high clear blue skies. Just before 9am, and just south of 100th Street on US-131, there was a news blip that a "light commuter plane" had hit one of the WTC towers and that weather was not an issue. My thought was "how stupid did you have to be..."

    WOOD-AM was using ABC News as a feed in those days, and they had an architect on the line from another high rise describing in great detail the fire, when he clearly and unbleeped said, "Oh shit, there's another plane." And my blood went cold. One could be an accident, two is deliberate.

    By the time I got to Kalamazoo, we had three planes hit, reports of another possibly down -- and rumors of five more hijackings. I went to my 10am class and told them we were under attack and that if anyone wanted to leave and try to learn more, I had no objection. A couple of guys I knew were Guardsmen left. By 11am, returning back to the Physics Dept they'd dug up two ancient portable TVs, and word was the university was closing. The traffic jam lasted over an hour.

    When I left after 1pm, there were almost no vehicles on the road, and in flyover Michigan, not one contrail in the perfect clear blue sky. Twice I came over hills and saw zero cars on the road -- it was an SF moment.

    About that time it was reported that fighters were scrambling out of Indiana because radar had an aircraft without a transponder coming south down Michigan. Turned out it was some DEA or Border Patrol bizjet with a malfunction -- and not properly cleared. That may have been it for the Battle of Michigan.

    I've a lot of students rotating in and out of tours -- happens at a university with science, engineering and a top aviation program. The university has really softened the rules to help them, when they have to deploy in the middle of a semester.

    Nowhere close to the front lines, but definitely a nationwide day of infamy which some of us will never forget.

    Thanks, Jim.

    Dr. Phil

  7. Great words Jim.

    One thing I will never forget is standing with my wife in my dad's office on Wall St, S&P building, looking accross to the Twin Towers. That was either on the 8th or the 9th.

    On the 11th, coming to work and seeing the news in the morning, the whole downtown Chicago was leaving for the suburbs. I was working then in the third tallest building in the Loop.

    People were scared, and bewildered.

    Being in Chicago and not reaching anybody in New York for half a day, were single handedly the worst several hours of my life.

  8. Thank you Jim, for a wonderful post and for being willing to put yourself in harm's way to protect this country and the people within it.

    One of the worst parts of the day was trying to find my college roommate who had worked in one of the other buildings in the World Trade Center. It turned out that her office had moved to midtown a month or two before, so she was safe.

    That day is also indelibly connected to one of my former patients -- a retired Air Force colonel. We both found out about the planes hitting from his wife, who called his cell during the appointment. Ever after, when he would come for his semi-annual check-up, we would talk about that day.

    I will never forget, at the very least because of the hole in the skyline that remains.


  9. I learned of 9-11 when a friend IMed me asking if I had a TV, and if I did I should turn it on (the office I was in did have a TV, but no cable or actual reception). When he sent me another message after a few minutes saying that another plane had flown into the second tower I turned the radio to news.

    When I heard the Pentagon had been attacked as well, I had narrowed the suspects down to Usama. He was the only one that could supply the money, handle the logistics of the attack, and had the followers that would carry it out. Two planes at close interval could be a handful of suspects, four planes eliminated most of them.

    I ended up working the whole day, as my boss didn't quite grasp what was happening. There were reports of two explosions in downtown Cleveland (one was some materials in a parking garage that had caught fire, the other was just panic). I wasn't able to "see" it until I got home after 5 and lived that day through radio news. Two weeks afterward there was a rental car found abandoned twelve miles from the town I live in. The last person to rent it had an "arabic name."

    The panic continues with several people telling me lately that they won't fly on an airplane if it has any "muslims" on-board.

    It still enrages me that Usama's head isn't on a spike on the Pentagon lawn, or that he's not hanging from a pirate's noose on the Hudson. That our President goes from "dead or alive" to "no longer important" to "having brought justice to those people who attacked us" had me yelling at the TV last night.

  10. Thank you Jim. For your well written, heartfelt writing, and your service. I literally got chills when you described hearing about it.
    Thank you Nathan for sharing such a personal and painful experience.
    I have not forgotten, and will not ever forget. I can picture exactly how gorgeous that day was here, 2 hours away in PA, the same as it was in NYC. I was out of work, & remember exactly what internet message board I was on when someone posted that a plane crashed into 1 of the towers. I could go on & on.
    It was the day that I, & I guess our country, lost my sense of security and safety in my own country.
    It angers me that people have forgotten. It angers me that you & so many others were sent to the wrong place, and are still in the wrong place, and that so many lives have been lost. It angers me that you came back feeling like a hero, and found that people didn't think you were one. You are a hero, all of you who have fought over there are heroes.
    I remember that we were going to 'get them'. Remember that almost all of the world loved us, grieved with us? Well now all of the world hates us, & we still haven't 'gotten them', 7 long, bloody years later. Sad and tragic.

  11. Good one Bro!

    A different perspective from the same service but in a very different location and situation. I was in London that September 11th. It was somewhere around 2 PM on a designated Prospective CPO Training day and I was fully engaged with a purple face drilling people who wanted to put on anchors and they had to make me happy with their progress as a group as well as individuals before I would let them get off the floor following another 25 push-ups.
    A Marine Gunnery Sgt knocked on the door and the room went dead silent for the interruption from someone other than a Chief. It just didn't happen. I got the P-CPOs to their feet and put them at ease in formation and Mac filled us in on the situation and told us to hustle back to work.
    When we got back to the office the second plane had struck the towers and the news was on the televisions throughout the COMUSNAVEUR building. For the next three hours we worked on gathering reports from outposts, sorting through crap and keeping a single eye on the television.

    The next few days became pretty much the opposite from what Jim described. We were secured from work for three days, which did nothing but piss us off. We were considered non-essential and because we were in Downtown London we were targets. "Fuck em, let them bring it on" was my response and I did leave the house with my cell phone in my pocket and headed for work.
    I live a mile from HQ and witnessed an old Arabic woman being thrown off a bus by some Brit thugs and beaten before I and a couple of other responsible people chased them off. I saw an Indian woman being cornered by some very British women who had her on her knees weeping outside of Marks and Spensors. She was 80 and clearly had nothing to do with it.

    And after all that I got reprimanded for disobeying a direct order.

    Nathan I cannot imagine your horror or loss, you made perfect sense to me. Remember on any day you want just remember.

  12. Jim, I remember…

    I remember sitting in Joint Staff/J2 spaces on 9/11 for an early morning meeting to resolve deployment problems when the O-6 office chief came in to introduce himself and announce that a plane had just hit one of the Twin Towers.

    I remember the surprise and rationalization (not knowing local weather conditions) that a B-25 collided with the Empire State Building just before the end of WWII (28 July 45).

    I remember the same Navy Captain coming back ~30 minutes later telling us our meeting would be rescheduled since he needed to hold an emergency staff meeting because a second plane had just hit the second tower.

    I remember leaving the D ring and being on the A-Ring by corridors 9/10 when I realized something was wrong even though I hadn’t consciously heard, seen, felt or smelled anything.

    I remember time appearing to slow down as I simultaneously noted someone by the windows “pawing” at a fire alarm while I noted an overweight Pentagon Police officer was running towards me.

    I remember asking the Police officer if something was wrong and his response, “a plane just hit the building”

    I remember the fire alarm finally going off and, as I rounded the corner going out the mall entrance of the Pentagon, the sight of the black smoke over the building and the smell of jet burning fuel.

    I remember going around the Pentagon (we had a meeting at the Navy annex) and climbing to the top of the Columbia Pike overpass for Rt. 244 before looking over the debris field toward a new hole in the newly rehabilitated section of the Pentagon.

    I remember seeing torn and distorted aluminum, and building materials stretching from the other side of the Columbia Pike all the way up to the hole in the Pentagon—a humongous crime scene.

    I remember first responders asking uniformed personnel to assist them in clearing the debris field.

    I remember media/camera people slowing down or inhibiting our efforts to clear the crime scene.

    I remember that as people were cleared all the way to the north-side of Interstate 395, first responders suddenly shouting that a fourth plane was heading to DC and that everyone needed to get to safety on the south or far side of 395.

    I remember going back help with the injured.

    I remember finding out that the Pentagon and Pentagon City Metro stops were closed to commuters.

    I remember walking over the 14th St Bridge with no cars and only two DEA employees in sight with an unobstructed view of the burning Pentagon behind us.

    I remember approaching the front gate of Bolling AFB and getting the third degree from fully armed security forces personnel before being allowed to go on base.

    I remember initiating a telephonic recall of my assigned IMA population to make sure that both the members and their families were safe. An effort that subsequently evolved into the largest mobilization in the history of the Command.

    I remember finding out that three functional co-workers who worked in the Pentagon (Bob, Rosa, and Sandra) were killed in their office on 9/11.
    I remember Bob’s (LtCol, Retired) Arlington National funeral with its highly unusual B-52 fly-over for a Vietnam-era B-52 co-pilot who was not expected to survive the crash of his plane—only to be killed in his office by flight 77 on 9/11. (Note: The crew elected not to bail out, because it had lost contact with the plane's wounded gunner. When the plane crashed, the gunner managed to get out and survived. Bob was pulled from the plane and saw it burst into flames when he was just 20 feet away. He had collapsed lungs and a crushed arm and was administered last rites.)
    I remember eating a late birthday lunch with my parents while President Bush announced U.S. attacks on Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban and al Qaeda terrorist camps.
    I remember standing-up Iraq Survey GroupC/J-1 operations from May-Nov 2003.
    I remember watching and wondering about the slanted U.S. media coverage that never reflected anything other than “Chicken Little” reporting.
    And I can NEVER forget those who have given the ultimate sacrifice. Every year I raise a glass with friends in memory of Bob, Rosa, Sandra and all those who have died on and since this second most infamous attack on America. I would ask each of you to also gather with friends and raise a glass in their remembrance regardless of the current date.

    I meant to post this earlier, but I needed to visit the new Pentagon Memorial (dedicated Thursday) first. The last time I was on that ground, it was covered by jagged pieces of aircraft aluminum and building materials. It is now covered by 183 streamlined steel benches baring the names of the Flight 77 victims, each arching out over flowing water, with paper bark trees all enclosed in a rock garden. The benches are all oriented to the flight path of flight 77 and the victims are organized by their dates of birth (NOTE: if your going to be looking for multiple victims memorials, you may want paper and pencil to note birth years at the entrance since that is the only way to locate the individual benches). This memorial is light and airy in comparison to the Vietnam Memorial, especially due to the style of the benches, the planes on approach to Ronald Reagan National, and if you turn to follow Flight 77’s flight path approach to the Pentagon Memorial. Directly in Flight 77’s line of approach you can’t miss the graceful spires of the Air Force Memorial. While one might contemplate what might have happened if the Air Force Memorial had been built 6 years earlier, I was able to individually sit down and remember three coworkers who I had last seen more than seven years ago in a very different era. It is a great memorial that will only get better as the Trees continue to grow. It was personally challenging but well worth it. If you are in the DC area, and you want to remember ….


  13. Thanks, Rick, as I said on the phone the other day, you were the first person I thought of - and I was pretty damned sure you were dead at that point. Glad it wasn't the case.

  14. You bring a fresh perspective to this national tragedy. For me 9/11 unfolded live on CNN. At the time I didn’t know what to make of it. There was talk of Arabs being responsible for the deaths of thousands. I began getting reports of rampant hate crimes against Muslims in the US. Then the war began.

    Through all these years of conflict I never got a chance to fully understand what 9/11 met to the people of the United States. I understood that it was a tragedy, sadness turned to anger, anger turned into a need for justice.

    But now I see that it was much more than that. It brought the nation together, heroes were forged. All of this is indeed reminiscent of WWII and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

    I know you agree with me when I say that was a nobler war. In which true evil was stared down and wiped out.


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