I was an E-3 senior Airman in the Air Force the morning of September 11, 2001. I worked swing shift on the flightline, 1500 to 2300, and I didn’t usually go to bed until around 0300, so I was completely racked out when my mother-in-law called. It was almost six in the morning, West Coast time, when my wife turned on the TV in the bedroom. Newscasters didn’t know what had happened yet, but reports were coming in that a plane may have hit the World Trade Center.
While the talking heads on the screen theorized what might have happened, cameras stayed trained on the towers. While I tried to wake up, marveling that something like a plane hitting World Trade Center had happened, an airliner banked out of the sky and hit the South Tower. I have never been to New York or been overly interested in architecture, so I did not know the difference between the two towers. But that day I would learn about the North and South towers, 7 World Trade Center, and New York City, in general, more than I ever expected to know.
We watched President George W. Bush make comments to the nation from an elementary school in Florida after reading The Pet Goat, by Siegfried Engelmann, to a room of second graders. It was surreal. While my wife went to wake our son up for school, I learned about Flight 77 hitting the Pentagon. That was when I knew this was an actual attack, and that things were about to change for me and my family.
I was about to call the squadron when the phone rang. It was my flight chief telling me to get some more sleep and be at work at 1900, rather than 1500; we were going on 12s. We lived in base housing at the time, about 15 minutes from my squadron.
My wife got our son out of bed and slowly moving for school. He had just started the third grade at Travis elementary school. None of us knew for sure what was going to happen, but we wanted to keep things as normal as possible. While he got ready, his mom tried to explain a little about what was going on. As a little kid, he did not have a real grasp on what any of it meant, but he quickly picked up on our anxiety. My wife took him to school, which was just off base.
After she got back home, we started to get more news. As the events fully began to unfold, we started hearing rumors of a base shut-down. With our son in off-base school, we were concerned that we might be separated, and my wife decided to pick him up and bring him home to keep the family together. Teachers at the school were not happy about parents pulling their kids from class. They wanted to keep things as normal as possible, as well, but everyone was learning nothing would be normal again.
Not long after they got home, the base did indeed go on lockdown: no one could come in or go out. Hundreds of cars were lined up at the front gate. Parents were separated from their kids in off-base schools; people who were on base to shop or for appointments were stuck, unable to go home. There was a rumor that the Wing King was stuck off-base. Rumors that the president was coming abounded. Travis AFB is the jumping-off point for presidential support on the west coast. Off-duty personnel were called in to cover their off-base counterparts that couldn’t come to work. I was called by a different flight chief and told to come in at 1900, again.
Our neighbors ran the gamut from personnel to maintenance to airfield and mobility operations. We met in the streets in front of houses, passing news and rumors and stories, with nobody truly understanding what this meant. We all knew something huge had happened and the relative peacetime we were serving in was over. At the time, the 60th AGS, C-5 maintenance, performed presidential support, Northern and Southern Watch, and regular supply and personnel missions in the Pacific region. C-5 combat missions were something I could not fathom, so I was not thinking about deployment.
The Never-Ending Day
The seven days following the attacks were a whirlwind for our family. I did not see them very much because I worked 1900-0700 and beyond from the night of 9/11. If I wasn’t physically working on aircraft, I was posted as a guard at the nose.
All the fully mission-capable C-5s were “cocked and locked,” which meant running up all systems for full checkouts, performing pre-flight inspections, then signing the exceptional release (ER) in the forms. ERs happen once the jet has been verified Fully-Mission Capable, forms have been reviewed, and the production superintendent has signed the forms releasing the aircraft for flight. Once the ER is signed, ladders are retracted and doors sealed. The plane is then ready to load and launch on very short notice.
By the time I would get home from work I would be exhausted. I would kiss my wife and kids and go to bed, get up around five in the afternoon and do it again. My family and I were scared, not knowing what was going to happen. My wife asked me constantly if I would be leaving or staying; would we have to move; would I ever get off work on time. My son would ask when I would go take care of the bad guys, would I have to shoot people, and whether my planes had guns and bombs. It was crazy to him, but exciting in a way, I think. I did not have answers to any of my wife’s questions but replied to my son that I didn’t know, no, and no.
Our daughter had a birthday coming up one month later, turning two years old. She remembers basically nothing about the time. She has vague recollections of me coming home after deployment, but not much else. She is the only one of us to have visited Ground Zero, though, on a trip after graduation. She doesn’t remember the attacks, but her world was forever changed by them nonetheless.
Time to Go
One week after the attacks, at about 0200 on September 18, a group of 48 maintainers gathered for a meeting. We ranged from E-2 to O-3. We gathered in a small auditorium, signed a sheet acknowledging we were about to receive a classified briefing, then told we were leaving. Thirty-two of the group were told they would be heading to Guam, received orders, and were told to go home and pack. The remaining 16 of us were told to sit tight and let the larger group disperse. Naturally, we were a little concerned.
Once the main body had left, the rest of us were told we would be going somewhere else. They couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell us where, but issued us all glow sticks and bug dope, for some reason, and loaded us up to go and sign for B-bags and C-bags. For anyone who doesn’t know, B-bags contain cold-weather gear like parkas, mukluks, mittens, and the like. C-bags are the scary ones: chem gear. Chemical-resistant suits to pair with gas masks to protect against chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Up until then, I had only ever worn chem gear for training, but I knew the gas mask protected against tear gas, so at least I had that going for me. We re-mustered at the squadron, palletized our bags, and were sent home to pack and return within the hour.
My wife woke up when I got home. She was happy I had gotten off work early and could spend some time with her. I sat her down and told her why I was home. It did not go over well. Since I had already flown some peacetime missions on the C-5 I had a go-bag packed with a couple of uniforms, underclothes, and some civvies. I pulled it out of the closet, grabbed a duffel bag, and packed all my uniform gear. Since it was the middle of the night, we had to wake up the kids and load them in the car to take me back to the squadron.
I was crying, my wife was crying, our son was crying, and our daughter was just sleeping. I envied her for that. We still had not been told where we were going or when we would come back, just that we would be leaving as soon as we all gathered and were manifested. Well, that didn’t work as advertised, as anyone who has ever deployed knows. Broken jets, incomplete cargo loads, and shifting priorities kept us in a hurry-up-and-wait attitude. After my family dropped me off with all the attending emotion, we sat for a while before being told to disperse and return in two hours. I called my wife and she came back to get me.
We returned two hours later and gathered in the passenger terminal to be assigned to groups. We were all manifested and told we would be boarding shortly. About an hour later, we were again told to disperse for two more hours. I called my wife again and she came back to pick me up. On the plus side, we had learned we would be going to Diego Garcia, wherever the hell that was. Only one of us had ever heard of it because he had deployed there during Desert Storm. He assured us we would not need cold-weather gear, but most definitely would need the bug dope. And sunscreen.
After solemnly promising not to divulge our deployment location, those of us with families promptly told our spouses where were going, swearing them to secrecy until we were there and set up. Nobody else in my family knew where I was until USA Today ran a front-page story showing the B-2 flying into Diego, and CNN covered the U.S. forces massed there. I imagine some heads rolled when that unauthorized shot of the B-2 was released.
After picking me up and being told to return in two hours for a second time, my wife told me she couldn’t keep coming to pick me up. It was very hard on her and our son. None of us had any tears left, and we were exhausted from the strain. I agreed with her and said I would not call her again if we were only delayed for a couple of hours. Tension and emotion were overwhelming us all.
Not long after, they dropped me off again, and we had a final farewell. Apparently, all the bugs in the system had been worked out because we soon loaded onto a C-5 and rumbled off toward Asia. My wife was at home, shell-shocked, while our son played with his friends and our daughter grew up a little more.
I turned wrenches for three months to keep supply channels open and cursed whomever thought an atoll in the Indian Ocean was a good place to stage from. My days were filled with mindless working and sleeping. At least I had a direction; my family did not.
Growing up, I had traveled a lot. Being somewhere new, away from everything normal, was not a big deal for me. My wife, on the other hand, had left our Tennessee home and family to follow me to California. We had friends in Cali, but with the open-ended deployment orders, and no knowledge of really where I was or what I was doing, she felt the separation from her family very acutely. This was before the big internet boom, so details about anything were sketchy at best, downright wrong at worst. After our daughter’s second birthday, she packed our stuff and went back to be with her family. I had been out-processing to a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) to Georgia when the towers were hit, so we were already gearing for a move. She handled the move by herself, with two kids in tow, something that would have broken me.
A friend flew out to ride back with her, a trip of over 2,000 miles in a Taurus station wagon. It took them two days to make the trip, with few stops in-between because we had little money. She told me stories of hours-long traffic jams, and the fact it cost $25 to drive to the Grand Canyon, an exorbitant sum for us. Grumpy, confused, and crying children in the car must have been difficult to deal with. I’m not sure I could have handled it without losing my mind. She prevailed, though, and finally made it to Nashville. Once there, she had to find a job, and enroll our son in school.
My wife went to work in a restaurant to help make ends meet, and to get out of the house.
There was a pall over everything. Internet was dial-up, phones were prohibitively expensive to use from Diego, and the fact I was half a continent away meant we had to coordinate times to talk via chat. I did not have a set schedule, but I tried to get to the internet café around the same time each week so we could chat. She had to arrange her days around when I might or might not call. When I did, we talked and cried and I tried to be a husband from so far away; I managed pretty poorly I would say. When I didn’t call, she wondered why. Was I working, hurt, forward-deployed somewhere else? Was I having an affair, or decided I didn’t want to talk to her anymore? When everything in your life turns upside down, every scenario is plausible.
Everyone Is Affected
One of the most lasting effects on our son during all this was changing schools. He had just started third grade with all his friends when 9/11 happened. All of a sudden, he was in a different school in a different state. He was around his extended family, but hadn’t seen most of them in over two years. He knew no one in the school in Tennessee. His father was gone with no news on homecoming, and now he was living in his grandparents’ house. His life had changed as drastically as mine. Over the next six months, he wound up attending two more schools before finally settling down again. He went to four different schools in the third grade alone. Kids should not have to deal with that.
Teachers and principals and other students did not understand the life of a military child. They had no understanding of fathers and mothers gone, spotty communication, and all the uncertainty that comes along with that. My son acted out in school, getting in trouble for lashing out. He didn’t understand what was happening, either, but was too young to know how to articulate that. It came out in the way many young boys deal with things they can’t express: anger. It took another year of stability before he could settle down, because we had to settle down, too.
Nine-eleven and the events following that day taught my family strength. My wife was forged in the fire of all this turmoil. She learned she could do anything she had to to protect her family and keep us safe. She oversaw a move, drove across the United States, kept our kids close to her and loved, and persevered through all the uncertainty, fear, anger, and sorrow. She had no idea what was going to happen to me, her, or us, but she kept moving forward. That deployment showed the worst side of military life, and she passed through it with only minor scarring.
Back to Life
I returned to California on Christmas Eve, 2001. Air Mobility Command never sleeps, so I went right back to work. The squadron had reorganized while I was gone, so I knew almost no one. I had to out-process and we had no money, so I couldn’t afford to fly to Tennesse for Christmas, and couldn’t have gotten leave in any case. I spent Christmas Day with my neighbors and finally got to have a real conversation with my family. Christmas dinner was eaten in a hangar on my lunch break.
My wife flew back to Cali after the New Year’s and we gathered up our few remaining items. We loaded them into a moving van, signed out of base housing and the base, and drove away from California for the last time. It was bittersweet leaving that place. California was beautiful and we had enjoyed our time there. When we left, F-16s were still flying coastal defense from the base. I had never dealt with that noise before and didn’t like it. The gates were heavily fortified, and guards now checked all IDs, every time. Buildings had restricted entry. Terror drills were practiced in the schools. My friends were either PCS’d away or deployed. It was different, and not in a good way. All because someone’s ideology led them to fly planes into buildings.
Life soon returned to the new normal. I re-enlisted while deployed, and we knew we were planning to stay in the Air Force. I say we because my enlistment was also my family’s enlistment. Everything connected to my time in the military affected my family as well. When I worked late, my wife had to work late. When I deployed, she had to be a mother, father, and friend to our kids. Everything that affected me affected them. At least, I had a boss to tell me what to do and where to go; she had to do it all.
War is the crucible in which military members are tempered. The fallout is the crucible where families are. I am thankful every day that my family did not break in that crucible. We have flaws and scars from the fire, but still stand side-by-side.