It is hard to believe that the awful events on September 11th are now 16 years in the past. Much has changed since then. Our country has been in a constant state of war since that date, and we’re no closer to the end of it than we were on that fateful morning. We, as a country are as divided as we’ve ever been, since the time of the American Civil War. Too few members of our political parties seek to work together and reach across the aisle to help erase the problems that face our country. They instead, point the finger and are more consumed with gathering power than representing the people which is what they were elected for.
But for a short period after 9-11, Americans put aside their petty differences and went back to doing what makes this country the great one that it is. They worked through unity, bravery, sacrifice, and strength and brought us as a nation back together. The one thing that bonded the hijackers together that morning was only their capacity to hate. Their vision, thru Osama bin Laden, was to destroy everything that didn’t conform to their idea of what would be a perfect world. Bin Laden attracted the angry, damaged and vulnerable members of the Islamic world and tried to tear us apart. While shocking and disheartening to be sure, it had the opposite effect.
But what does 9-11 mean to you now? Well, depending on who and what you are it may mean a variety of different things. And we’ll touch on a few of those but first. Where were you when you heard the news? It is a moment that many people will forever remember, like when JFK was shot or the first man walked on the moon.
September 11th was a beautifully clear, crisp morning that year. The type of September morning that makes everyone flock to the Northeast in the fall months. Schools had just gone back into session and it was a slow start of the week. Monday had been a day where not much of anything had gotten done, and Tuesday was starting off much the same way.
I had transitioned from the military to the civilian work force and was working for a company that had many of its clients in the World Trade Center. My boss, like myself, then was an avid cigar smoker. He popped into my office just before 8:30 and said, “Let’s go outside and smoke a cigar.” We had been out there just a few moments when two ladies from the building came outside to join us for a cigarette.
8:46 the first plane hits the World Trade Center: This is when Mohammed Atta and the hijackers and passengers on Flight 11 smashed into the 93-99th floors of the WTC North. Everyone on the plane and several hundred people were killed instantly. Just a few minutes later the window opens outside and one of our co-workers tell us that the news broke in stating that a plane just crashed into the WTC. I remember telling my boss that it was a terrorist act. He disagreed. I said, “Look around, a clear day like today, there’s no way a pilot could accidentally hit a skyscraper that big.” We were discussing it and what could make an airliner veer off course so badly.
9:03 the second plane hits the World Trade Center: Now, hijackers crash United Airlines Flight 175 into floors 75-85 of the WTC’s South Tower, killing everyone on board and hundreds more inside the building. As we’re discussing this further, and giving directions to some poor guy who was hopelessly lost, the window opens again to tell us the news. Now there is no longer any doubt what is happening. Everyone from the building piles into the boss’ office where he has a large television and we’re watching things on the news as the confusion of events begins to unfold.
9:37 the Pentagon is Hit: Hijackers aboard Flight 77 crash the plane into the western façade of the Pentagon in Washington, killing all 59 on board the plane and 125 military and civilian personnel inside the building.
9:59 am the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapses: Shock is the only way to describe watching that unfold. It looked surreal, like a bad disaster film, and the only thing one could think about was the hundreds if not thousands of people trapped inside. Later as we’ve seen in the documentaries done on 9-11, the NYC Fire Department was inside the building and making their way up to the worst hit floors. As filmmakers recorded the firemen, what sounded like artillery shells hitting outside was the sound of bodies impacting on the concrete as people hurtled out the windows rather than be burned alive. There were no illusions now as to what they were facing.
10:07 am Flight 93 crashes into a field in Pennsylvania: After passengers and crew members aboard the hijacked Flight 93 contact friends and family and learn about the attacks in New York and Washington, they mount an attempt to retake the plane. In the ensuing fight, the hijackers deliberately crash the plane into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, killing all 40 passengers and crew aboard.
10:28 am the World Trade Center’s North Tower collapses: 102 minutes after being struck by Flight 11, the first tower that was hit collapses. It was a stunning sequence of events, Manhattan was covered by a pall of smoke and dust. My boss at that moment made the smartest decision of the day when he sent everyone home. “There’s no work to be done here today. Go home and be with your families. We’re all only going to watch the television the rest of the day. Plan on being back tomorrow morning.”
The aftermath triggered what some people called the worst governmental overreaction in our history with the oversight on our websites and Muslim’s being under surveillance, etc. While there were certainly abuses to this and other facets of the “Patriot Act” that followed, it in no way reached the point of rounding up and interning thousands of Muslim citizens like the Japanese-Americans had to endure during the World War II years.
What did it mean to me? Personally, my feelings were towards those who lost loved ones either on the planes or in the buildings that day. Particularly to the first responders, the NYC firemen and police who ran into the inferno, instead of away from it.
Both my wife and I lost our jobs over it. As I stated earlier, our company’s biggest clients resided in the WTC and most of them were now dead. But feeling sorry for ourselves over this seemed petty considering what others had lost. We regrouped as we’ve always done and moved on. I felt anger that those hijackers who have nothing but hate in their hearts were able to strike at our biggest city but it also brought home the realization that we always knew in the back of our minds that terrorism can strike anywhere, the only thing we can be is ultra vigilant and not let them change our lives.
I’ve always believed that bin Laden, before getting canoed from SEAL Team Six, died a disillusioned man. He had a vision that his brand of Islam would be swept into power after “he showed the way” and they’d all be aligned in one cause. The fact that the vast majority of Muslims rejected his vision, to me at least is comforting. He died, alone, hiding and wondering how the hell did they find me here.
I belonged to the Cold War Era veterans and many of us had our service that was closing or close to it when the War on Terror (WOT), began. And unfortunately, we’ve reached that curmudgeon status in a lot of ways. Like the Wilford Brimleys of the world, a lot of times we are a bit too critical of the other eras, especially the current one. We turned into our fathers somewhere along the way. But to the younger generation that came after us, you’ve done as well as any group ever. Tip of the Beret to all of you.
The events of 9-11 pushed me right back into the military in a way. I ended up working for a few years on a military training contract with mostly Iraqis and some Afghans. It was a minor piece of the puzzle but it was fun and rewarding to get back into the pool at least a little bit. That led to a few more years of private security work providing protection to clients which included working on a few film sets. Which, while very different in what we were used to in Special Operations, was an eye-opener in other ways. Everything happens for a reason.
Many of our nation’s young people enlisted in the aftermath of 9-11 and if they stayed the course and are still serving, then they’re on the downside of their career as they reach the three-quarter mark towards 20. That we’re still at war 16 years later is a scary proposition. They answered the call and have served as well as any generation served before them. And they’re still paying the price, both overseas and at home.
For the thousands that served and separated from the service, they found a country that was ill-prepared to handle the massive influx of veterans and veterans’ services that would be required after serving in wars all over the globe. There was no plan for handling all of these veterans once their service was complete.The Veterans Affairs system is broken and many have to wait for months at times over a year to get seen for injuries that they have incurred in the line of duty. That the fat cats in Congress, who voted themselves a separate but hardly equal health care system allow this to happen is unconscionable. And it isn’t getting fixed fast enough.
But for today, we remember the friends, family, and love one’s lost on that awful day in New York City 16 years ago. It was one of America’s darkest days but through the ashes, we banded together and remembered what we stand for. “Never Forget…Let’s Roll.”
Photos courtesy: Wikipedia
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