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.