Arriving at work on that Tuesday morning in September 2001 the day was looking no different than those that had preceded it. The weather that morning on Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot was beautiful and neither I nor any of my fellow Marines had any idea that many of our lives would be dramatically changed just a few short hours later.
We conducted our morning muster to ensure everyone was accounted for and then began the normal tasks of the day. In the Marine Band (which was my job) the day usually consisted of a significant amount of practicing our instruments and then group/ensemble rehearsals or just gig after gig. For those who don’t know, each Marine Band does 350-400 gigs per year on average so we honestly don’t have a ton of downtime: We’re either working up pieces for the next gig, practicing marching movements around the base, or traveling across the country supporting the Marine Corps recruiting, or abroad on troop morale missions.
Little did I know that the terror that would occur mere hours later would lay the foundation to not only a world-changing experience for military members from all branches, but also allow me to serve my country by performing in some of the most incredible and meaningful concerts of my life.
Before I go further, I know that my Marine Corps experience (in the Marine Band) was very different from that of a Marine Recon, Navy SEAL, or even Marine Corps grunt. Many of those guys were neck-deep in the crap soon after 9/11. I have nothing but respect for those guys. They did a heck of a job and sacrificed a ton over the past 20 years. I will briefly speak about many of my friends from the band who also deployed overseas and were in the fight as well, but mostly this article is going to be about my experience. Even after 9/11, I didn’t have bullets whizzing by my head nor was I kicking down terrorists’ front doors. I wasn’t patrolling the bloody streets of Ramadi nor was I worried daily about roadside IEDs. My job was to support the men and women who were overseas by helping to drum up public support and patriotism. I can say for a fact that the men and women I worked with took this job seriously. We knew that we weren’t in the fight yet — even though a solid core group deeply wanted to be — but we knew that us performing our job to the best of our abilities would only help provide support for those who were already in the fight.
Back to the article…
On the morning of 9/11, we were doing sectionals (instruments divide up by type and work on instrument-specific playing concerns). We were missing one of our corporals from the rehearsal. I went to look for him and found him in the small, dark room that the tubas had taken over as their own. Besides having small mementos scattered about the room, the tuba room had the only TV that I knew of in our band hall. It was a tiny TV (maybe 10″) but I noticed that everyone in the room was inordinately glued to what was on the screen, including our missing corporal. I said something to the effect of “what’s going on there” and they told me a plane had struck the World Trade Center; but, like most who were watching this unfold in real-time, we still believed it to be an accident. Then, a few minutes later we saw the second plane number hit the other tower. We then knew immediately that this was a coordinated attack against our country. My first thought was, “Man, I bet our life is about to change.” I was right.
Many people aren’t aware that the band’s mission during war isn’t playing instruments, it is rear-area security. More specifically, in a war zone, the band is tasked with performing security duties for the high-ranking military personnel that are in-country. On our base stateside, we were quickly reassigned to the base PMO (Military Police). We were soon doing patrols both around the base and in the water, and running security checkpoints for anyone who wanted access to the base, including active-duty personnel stationed on the base (a strange experience).
One thing I vividly remember is that we had someone from the local government come in and do a one-day crash course in boat operations and patrols. Following that course, we were licensed to both operate and patrol the waters surrounding Parris Island. We also practiced chemical warfare training and response and we drilled different emergency scenarios. We practiced donning our emergency MOPP suits and we stopped a bunch of cars for extra security checks. Life on base definitely changed that day for us all.
We continued doing patrols one day and concerts the next for many months following 9/11. One of my fondest memories was when the Marine Band was tasked with going to New York City, visiting Ground Zero, and performing in a concert and a parade for the good people of New York. Upon our arrival to New York City, we were met immediately by a police escort. From the moment they intercepted our custom Marine Corps Band bus we didn’t stop at another light through all of Manhattan. As a 21-year-old Marine, I was in awe.
Once we arrived at our destination in Times Square, I was surprised to find out that we were staying at the Marriott Marquis Times Square, one of the coolest hotels in the area, in my opinion. I’d never been to NYC or even to a hotel the size of where we were staying. To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. On top of that, I felt great pressure to put on an incredible concert for the people of the city who had just faced such a profound tragedy. After all, that was our goal: to raised morale for troops and civilians alike.
The concert we put on that night was moving. It wasn’t surprising that the crowd was stirred because of our musical selections, but what surprised me is how emotional many in the band got. It sounds harsh, but when you do anything very frequently you become numb to it. The band performs gigs, such as funerals, so frequently you sometimes need to remind yourself of the sacrifice of the person in the casket so that you ensure you pay your proper respects. I don’t remember everything about the concert that night, but I remember the deep pride I felt while playing in a historic city during a tragic and historic moment for our nation. I also felt a deep pull to go see the wreckage at Ground Zero.
Ground Zero Personal Photos
My future brother-in-law, some other Marine friends, and I headed straight to the scene of the attack. What we saw was both heartwarming and heartbreaking. We saw support for those who were still lost or who were known dead and we saw memorials stretching for city blocks.
I saw a Burger King that had been next to one of the towers. It had a large cut down the side of its exterior where a piece of the World Trade Center had toppled onto.
We saw the church that became the casualty collection point for the wounded citizens and first responders. The marks, scratches, and wear were all still present on the white, wooden benches on which people had been laid out and treated for their various injuries following the attacks.
We were told by an employee at Ground Zero that every building surrounding the church had fallen on 9/11, but the church remained upright… an omen, perhaps. Either way, I was saddened, awed, and proud to be an American that day. I knew I was willing to do whatever it took to help support the effort that was now brewing overseas.
“On this rock I will build my church, and even the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” -Matthew 16:18
The Funerals Begin
Just a couple of months after leaving New York City, I, along with four other musicians from the Marine Band, were selected to provide musical support for the first Marine who died in Iraq following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. If my memory serves me correctly, in attendance at that funeral was not only the commandant of the Marine Corps but also President George Bush. When I considered it, I couldn’t believe that just two years prior I’d been finishing high school and now I was in Florida playing a funeral for a fallen Marine, the commandant, and the president.
The five of us supported that funeral with a feeling of gratitude for the work our men and women were already performing overseas. We were still in Florida when we got a call to provide musical support for yet another funeral near Orlando, FL. We played for that funeral — and I believe one additional one yet — prior to returning to our home base to continue our everyday lives; but, I didn’t return the same man that I had been when I left. I’d learned true respect and admiration.
A Troop Return Like No Other
Once we arrived back at our base we continued with the normal daily grind. A few months later, we were tasked with providing musical support for a troop return at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, SC. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I’d never seen a troop return before, let alone ever played at one.
We were told that the fighter jets were about 30 minutes out as we began setting up and getting ready to play. The families of all of the deployed troops had gathered. Men, women, and children were everywhere the eye could see. I thought to myself, “this is shaping up to be a big deal.” I had no idea.
We got word that the jets were near and we started playing patriotic music to welcome them home. The jets did a flyover in full formation and then circled back to land. Once all the jets landed, the pilots waited in their cockpits until the troop carriers landed. Then everyone got out all at once. The loved ones in attendance went absolutely bonkers when the Marines began walking towards them for their first embrace in months. Some of the Marines were newlyweds who had been deployed shortly after tying the not; others were new fathers who had never seen their baby in person. The atmosphere was breathtaking. I’ve never been more moved by a concert in my entire life. It was truly inspiring.
Following that day, we continued to do troop returns, funerals, and MP shifts well into the fall of 2003. By late 2003, I personally was prepping for discharge after my four years of service and was considering my next steps. Yet, I was torn mentally. I was ready for a fresh look after four years of traveling the country playing gig after gig, but I also had a desire to go overseas and not play, but fight. Many of my kinfolk have served in various wars from the Revolutionary War to the Korean War. I wanted to carry on this tradition.
I ultimately made the decision to EAS and get married, but that decision would be one that has haunted me since. I’ve always felt like I missed out on my greatest opportunity to truly serve.
Many of my friends (some who are still on active duty) did choose to re-enlist and I think every last one of them was deployed into a war zone. Again, not to play, but to fight. One of my friends, Chris, was even on the front page of the Marine Corps Times because somehow the band had beaten most other units to Iraq and instead of providing rear area security was on the front line of the fight.
I was proud to be a Marine on the day I left the military, though a bit sad that I couldn’t be with my friends. I had missed my chance.
To finish this article, I want to honor those who didn’t miss their chance to serve in the war on terror. I’d like to start with the NYPD and NYFD officers who ran into the building rather than away from it, ultimately costing them their lives. I’d like to thank volunteers and other first responders whose job was to sort through the wreckage and try to find survivors.
I’d like to thank the military personnel who traveled overseas to take the fight to the enemy’s soil rather than ours. And, I’d like to thank the men and women who left whole and fit and returned home broken and disheartened; or didn’t return home at all. These men and women are the true heroes and the people whom we need to never forget.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13
On 9/11 we all said that we would never forget. Let’s, for once as a nation, live up to our promise.
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