I used to fall asleep with the radio on, in those days. It was always tuned to some soft rock station and I usually fell asleep listening to Delilah. I never really paid attention to the show that was on when I woke up in the morning. I would just turn the radio off and get ready for work. But today was different, because someone was crying on the radio.
I had just gotten back from a three month deployment to Kuwait. Good, old Ali Al Salem Air Base. We were 39 miles from the Iraq border. The “Tip of the Spear” of Operation Southern Watch. We were the closest deployed troops (at that time) to Saddam Hussein’s forces. It was the hottest summer I ever lived through. We lived and worked in tents. The food sucked. And the rats were big enough to escape from industrial sized rat traps.
I was still on my two week R&R, so I wasn’t going into work that day. But I was woken up because someone was crying on the radio. Between the tears and sobs, I remember hearing something about a plane crashing into a building. I figured it was some big accident. So I got up, wandered into the living room, and turned on the t.v.
The second plane hit right before my very eyes.
I remember thinking that something went really wrong with the air traffic control system. I flipped the channel to ABC News and started watching Peter Jennings. Mr. Jennings was my news guy, the one I could trust. We had lived through the 1st Gulf War and Oklahoma City together. Surely he would be able to help me understand what was going on in New York.
As the news started to piece itself together, it was becoming apparent that this was no accident. At first I got angry. I thought to myself, “Those bastards! Those cowards! How come they couldn’t bring it to us?” “Us” being the military. That thought would soon haunt me.
Then I got scared. My mom worked in downtown Chicago. And of course, no one knew if another city was being targeted. Cellphones weren’t big yet and none of my family had them. I had a hell of a time trying to get through to her and my dad. I eventually did and everyone was alright.
The first reports I remember hearing about the Pentagon was that a helicopter went down. Then, the reports got progressively worse. They had brought it to us. My thought had come back to haunt me.
As the morning went on, I wasn’t really sure what to do. So I got dressed and went into work. I was stationed at Tinker Air Force which is right outside of Oklahoma City. As I was coming through the gate, the guards were fully armed and they were changing the signs to Threatcon Delta. Delta is the highest level of alert. Its something we had practiced for but never thought we’d really have to live through, especially being in the middle of the country. It has just got really, real.
I walked into work and there were only a few of us there. We watched the news, debated about who we thought it was, and wondered when the call would come. We were part of the 3rd Combat Communications Group. Give us a empty field and a dirt road and we could be landing planes in 24 hours. The call would be us going to war. It was just a matter of when.
By the afternoon, Flight 93 had already gone down. Air traffic had come to a halt. I went home, turned the news back on, and just stayed glued to the t.v. What else could you really do?
The next day, I woke up sick as a dog. I had strep throat. I moved the bed mattress into the living room and just laid there watching the news. I was sick, miserable, and angry.
The only night that week that I changed the channel was on Thursday night. I’m a big pro wrestling fan and the WWE was doing a special live episode of Smackdown. I really commend them for doing the first big sporting event after Sept 11th. Most of the superstars broke character and did small segments talking about how they felt. Many of them cried. I did too as I watched it. The healing had begun.
Over the next couple of weeks, my unit started packing up to deploy as I started packing out. I had orders to California. For awhile there, I seriously thought about trying to cancel them. How could my unit go to war without me? How could I abandon them? I ended up moving to California at the end of September. A month later, some of my guys got deployed to an undisclosed location.
I haven’t had to deploy since that summer in Kuwait, through there’s a big part of me that regrets not being part of some big combat operation. While the husband and father in me knows better now, there’s still that little part, deep down inside that wishes I could have been “in the shit”. I can honestly say that I’ve done my part in supporting the warfighter. But the war isn’t over yet. I still may get my chance.
Up until now, there’s only been a couple of people that have heard my September 11th story. It’s nothing glamorous or spectacular. It’s only one of tens of millions of other stories from the day when we lost our innocence. I write this to heal and for my children. I want them to know what their dad was doing on September 11th.
Ten years later, the healing still continues. The numbers 9 & 11, together, still haunt me. If I see them together, I make the sign of the cross. If I see them together, I’m brought back to that life changing day. The day someone was crying on the radio.
Photo found via Flickr.