You have all read stories of 9-11 told by civilians. Here is 9-11 as seen thru the eyes of a soldeir.
–Where were You? It is a little before eight a.m. in the DIVARTY headquarters on Fort Hood, Texas as I follow my buddy, Chief Warrant Officer-3 Bob Kerley, into Colonel Ramirez’s office where several other soldiers are watching CNN. We have just heard a report that an aircraft has crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. We speculate that it must be a small Cessna sight-seeing aircraft that made a mistake. Several of us laugh at the stupidity of the pilot. I tell Bob, “Hey, it’s happened before. Back in the 1940s, a World War II bomber crashed into the Empire State Building during a thick fog. I wonder if there is a thick fog in New York City this morning?” The Sergeant Major overhears me and speaks up, “It doesn’t matter what the weather is – no fixed-wing aircraft should be flying that close to buildings. They’re supposed to fly in the middle of the Hudson River – something just doesn’t sound right.” As we watch smoke billowing out of one of two tall buildings on the TV, I say, “Well, I hope not too many people were hurt.” Suddenly, from the corner of the TV screen, another aircraft – much larger than a small Cessna – enters the frame and slams into the second tower. A hush falls over the group. Then several whisper, “We’re under attack!”…..
September 11th, 2001 – now simply referred to by Americans as 9-11. The day that Islamic terrorists hijacked four U.S. airliners and attacked America. Of the four planes hijacked, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City (one into each of its two towers) and eventually leveled them both. One plane crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia and caused extensive damage. The fourth plane never made it to its destination – supposedly the White House or the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Instead the passengers, hearing of the other attacks on their cell phones, heroically stormed the cockpit and fought with the terrorists, eventually causing the plane to crash into a cornfield outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania – killing all on board. The attacks on the morning of 9-11 resulted in nearly 3,000 deaths. The plot was eventually attributed to the Al-Qaeda organization which was led at that time by Osama Bin Laden.
9-11 is a date that will forever be on the same level of shock and anguish to the American psyche as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. And just as with the Pearl Harbor generation, ask anyone who lived through September 11th, 2001, “Where were you on 9-11?” and most of them can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing…..I still can – I still remember.
Writing this story was more difficult than I thought it would be. You see, I am not usually an emotional person – the military has taught me self-control. But there are a few things that do elicit an emotional reaction. Two of them are selfless bravery and selfless sacrifice – and both were on display that September day. From the police officers and firemen just doing their job, to the heroic civilian passengers who on that day made the ultimate decision to not accept the fate planned for them by the terrorist, but instead, to decide their own. Plus, most of us military people have an affinity with police officers and firemen. Soldiers work to protect their beloved country and its people from outside forces while police and firemen work to protect the people from the inside.
Also, on that Tuesday morning, I was one of those who were watching the TV as the second plane crashed into the south tower. That experience left an indelible impact – I was witness to an attack on America as it happened. The attack was live – there was no commentator, no historian providing context – the visual was raw and unprocessed. It felt like being kicked in the stomach by a mule.
Additionally, I also had several friends serving at the Pentagon that day – and two of them did not survive the morning. Even though it was so very many years ago, the emotions are still raw to this day. There have been several movies and documentaries produced about that day, but I still cannot make it through even one – the sadness and anger is still too great.
So, do I remember where I was on 9-11?…..Oh Yes. I vividly remember that day (and the next) as I went through the stages of the grieving process – the shock, the trying to understand “why”, the pain, and then the anger…..the all encompassing anger. Yes, I remember…..and this is my story.
September 11, 2001. As usual, I rose early that morning and by five forty-five a.m. I was pulling into the unit parking lot on Fort Hood, Texas in preparation for the morning’s six a.m. PT (Physical Training). We conducted our usual stretches, muscle training, and a quick two-mile run. Then it was back to my camper for a shower.
It was about a little before seven thirty when I drove my pickup back to work (eight thirty New York time). A beautiful, clear, Tuesday morning – the temperature in central Texas was around 70 degrees with a projected high in the mid 80s.
After parking near the unit’s arms-room, I walked over to my office located in the 1st Calvary Divisional Artillery (DIVARTY) headquarters building. I worked in a large open office (about 60 foot by 50 foot) with about 12 other senior personnel. There were no cubicles – no partitions separated us. Instead, our desks were neatly organized and grouped throughout the room. The walls were an off-white color and mostly unadorned. Although, on that morning, there were a few large maps taped to a couple of the walls where different battle-plans and course-of-actions were being worked out in preparation for an upcoming training exercise.
All of the soldiers in the office were members of my section, which was called the “Division Main Cell”. This included a Sergeant Major, four or five other senior Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) – Staff Sergeants and Sergeant First Class, and several officers – Majors, Captains, and Warrant Officers.
We Warrant Officers had our own corner of the office. There were three of us: Chief Warrant Officer-3 (CW3) Robert (Bob) Kerley was the Targeting Officer, CW3 Jose Perez was the Counterfire Officer, and I was the Field Artillery Intelligence Officer. We were the senior Warrant Officers of the division.
The policy at my unit was that once you completed the morning PT, you had until eight thirty to be back at work. But many in the leadership always came in earlier. It was a little after seven thirty (eight thirty New York time) when I walked into the office that morning. The Sergeant Major, two or three Majors, and CW3 Bob Kerley were already at their desks. CW3 Perez would not be in for a few more hours. Perez was the oldest of the three of us Warrant Officers and was only a few months shy of retirement – we continually kidded him about already training to be a civilian since he came in late almost every day now .
I walked to my desk, dropped my hat, and poured coffee into my stainless-steel coffee cup – the same coffee cup that even now sits here on my desk as I type this story – the same one that Sherri gave me as a gift in 1995 while stationed in Hawaii, and shortly after our visit to the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
For the next 20 or 30 minutes, I checked my email as Bob Kerley and I shot the bull. We talked about the upcoming training exercise and made jokes about whether or not Perez would make it in before lunch time.
I was making a new pot of coffee when an NCO popped his head in the door and said, “Hey, did you hear? Someone just crashed their plane into one of the twin towers in New York City. I just heard it on the radio as I was pulling up.”
The Sergeant Major, sitting right at the entrance to the office and who was from the New York City area, turned and looked at the NCO with a confused look. “That doesn’t make sense. There are all kinds of airspace restrictions to keep the sightseeing aircraft1 away from the buildings. Shoot, the Hudson River is over a kilometer wide near the towers. Something just doesn’t sound right.”
1 = The Hudson River, as it passes through the metropolitan New York City area, was a popular sightseeing route.
The Sergeant Major quickly got up and walked across the hall to the DIVARTY commander’s (Colonel Ramirez) large office where a large TV screen was mounted on the wall for videoconferences. The Sergeant Major turned on the TV and tuned it to the CNN news channel.
The Sergeant Major’s actions caught everyone’s attention, so several other people from our office followed him into the Colonel’s office. Since it was a slow morning, once I refilled my coffee cup, I followed Bob Kerley into the Colonel’s office also. Some of the guys watching the TV speculated that it must have been one of the small Cessna sight-seeing aircraft that made a mistake and turned left when he should have turned right. Several of us laughed and make jokes2 at the stupidity of the civilian pilot.
2 = Please don’t think us callus. It’s just that we soldiers were no strangers to death. We lived with the possibility of injury and death every day that we trained. Many of us had to help clean up what was left of a soldier after he made a critical mistake. Mistakes that are made while handling large tracked equipment or munitions that go BOOM! are usually not very forgiving. I guess it’s just our way – we laugh and make jokes about danger to hide our own fears.
I told Bob, “Hey, it’s happened before. Back in the 1940s, a World War II bomber crashed into the Empire State Building during a thick fog. I wonder if there is a thick fog in New York City this morning?” The Sergeant Major, who had overheard me, spoke up and said, “It doesn’t matter what the weather is like, no fixed-wing aircraft should be flying that close to buildings. They’re supposed to fly in the middle of the Hudson River – something just doesn’t sound right.” Then I answered back, “Well, hopefully not too many people were hurt.”
As we watched the TV, we saw emergency personnel – police and firemen – rushing to the scene as smoke billowed out of one of two tall buildings. It was a couple of minutes after eight a.m. (nine a.m. New York time).
Suddenly, from the corner of the TV screen, another aircraft – much larger than a small Cessna – entered the frame and slammed directly into the second of the two towers.
You know, the mind is such a funny thing. So much can rush through it within the span of a few heartbeats. As the scene of that plane hitting the second tower unfolded before me, I remember thinking, “Did I just see that? I did. But that’s not right. One plane can be an accident. But two planes – that’s…..deliberate. But why?”
When the second plane hit, a hush fell over the group (which by this point had swelled to five or six people) as the significance slowly sunk in. But it only lasted a few seconds. Then I remember that several of the guys (those that were a little sharper than I was) whispered, “What?….Terrorist?” Then from a couple of others, “We’re under attack.” then louder, “We’re under attack!”
We finally snapped out of our contemplation and fell back on our training. Orders began to fly3. “Call the units and tell them we are now on Alert. This is no drill.” “Tell the units, Officers-Call4…here, in 30 minutes.” We had no idea how extensive this attack was – an isolated attack, a coordinated series of attacks, or a prelude to some form of invasion from some unknown enemy. Until we knew for sure, we had to go with worse-case scenario. So we armed our soldiers and prepared our equipment, and ourselves, to move out to defend against any enemy.
3 = That has always been the great thing about the American fighting man – initiative. Unlike other countries where officers and NCOs are afraid to do anything until given orders by higher authority, American officers and NCOs will take the initiative and do what they know needs to be done to accomplish the mission. So we did not need to be called by any higher authority to be told that America was under attack, to put everyone on Alert, and to be prepared to defend our country – we just did it.
4 = An Officers-Call is simply a meeting of all of the officers in the unit where information is put out.
One of the officers who had been sitting at his desk that morning was Major Hill5. He was the DIVARTY S-3, in charge of the Division Main, and my boss. Major Hill had not been watching the TV with us but once told what had occurred, he started calling higher headquarters to coordinate operations while the rest of us called our subordinate NCOs and section chiefs.
5 = Interestingly, in early 2012 when I first started writing this story down, I worked as a Department of Defense (Army) Civilian (Civil Service) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and continued to work alongside soldiers (several NCOs even worked for me in my department). And Major Hill, still on active duty but now a full bird Colonel, worked right down the hall from me. He was in charge of one of the Combat Developer branches. The Army is a small family (especially in my specialty field of Field Artillery) and it is always comforting to see old friends and familiar faces.
Once I got things rolling with my soldiers, which due to our continual training, took less than ten minutes to pass instructions along to my NCOs, I then called Sherri at her workplace in Lawton, Oklahoma6 (where she was working at a title company). “Sherri, have you been listening to the radio – did you hear about the attack on the World Trade Center?” She said, “No, I’ve been working. What happened?” I then told her, “We are under a terrorist attack. They have already flown two planes into the world trade center towers and the news says there may be more suicide planes in the air. We are on Alert here and the post has been locked down. Do not go near Fort Sill – military installations may be next. We don’t know how extensive this attack is. I’ll call when I know more. I love you.”
6 = In mid 2001, when I was transferred to Fort Hood, Texas, Sherri and the boys stayed in the Lawton, Oklahoma area. It was not supposed to work out that way. You see, I was tired of moving around every few years and uprooting the family every time the Army wanted to transfer me. So when I was called by DA (Department of the Army) in early 2001 and told that they wanted me to move again, I told them, “No thank you. I’m putting in my retirement paperwork and staying here.”
And usually, that was all it took. I had over 21 years of active service at that time so normally I could retire anytime I wanted. But this would not be one of those “normal” times. Because just a few days later, I was called by some Major from DA Headquarters who said, “No, you are going to Fort Hood. You still have a service obligation on some tuition assistance you used.”
You see, the Army had a program called “Tuition Assistance” where you could take a college class and the Army would pay for 75% of it. The only thing is, you acquired a 24-month service obligation every time you used it. Well, I had used about $300 of tuition assistance about 18 months previously for another night class to help complete my bachelor degree. I had been told that if I did decide to retire before the 24 months was up, then I would simply have to pay a prorated amount of what I had borrowed back to the Army. Well, it seems that is not quite the whole story. Because when I told the Major that I was willing to pay the prorated amount back on the six months left on my obligation, he said, “No, you don’t understand. Whether or not you are allowed to pay the tuition assistance back is up to the Army. And right now, the Army needs a senior Warrant Officer at Fort Hood. Oh, and by the way, because you are PCSing (Permanent Change of Station), you automatically acquire another 12-month service obligation. You have a nice tour.”
So they had me. But the family was already nicely settled at home – we had been living there since our return from a Hawaiian tour in 1997. Sherri had a good job and the boys were in junior-high school with girlfriends. So instead of uprooting them again, I pulled our 25-foot 5th-wheel camper down to Fort Hood (right outside Killeen, Texas) and lived in it for a year before I was able to retire and return home.
I can remember that the waiting was one of the hardest parts of that day. Soldiers are men of action – we need something to do – something to focus on. At first, we were all able to fall back on our training – prepare the troops, prepare the equipment, prepare to defend – this provided us a focus. But once everything was as prepared as we could make it, there was nothing to do but wait – wait for orders or for more information.
I, like several other soldiers would continually pop in and out of the Colonel’s office to watch the TV coverage – hungry for the latest news. Throughout our floor (and I assume other buildings on the entire post) soldiers were pulling out TVs from everywhere and tuning them to the news stations. We were all hungry for news. For the rest of that day, it seemed that almost every 30 minutes, I was called by my soldiers for any new information – but I had nothing to tell them.
Rumors and speculation was rampant on the news stations. We heard that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. That more suicide planes were in the air. That suicide truck bombs had been set off. That there were more bombs expected to go off. That a suicide plane had crashed in a Pennsylvania field – it was first said that it was shot down by fighter jets, then later that the passengers had forced it to crash. The comparison between this and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was already being spoken about amongst us.
During one of the trips to the Colonel’s office, I saw people on the TV jumping and falling from the windows of the towers – the heat and smoke just too much for them. I remember one of the soldiers standing near me ask, “How can they do that – just jump to their death?” One of the Majors standing nearby spoke up and said, “They are not doing it through conscious choice. The body itself will actually push you away from an intense heat. Or if the smoke is so thick that you can’t breathe, the body will make you lean further out the window trying to get just one more breath of fresh air. So, it’s your body, responding to the intense heat and smoke, which will push you to make that horrific choice.”
All of the planes over the U.S. had been grounded – those already in the air were ordered to land at the nearest airport. One of my soldiers got caught in the melee. He had been home on leave and was flying back that morning when the terrorists attacked. His plane landed in St. Louis, Missouri. And there he would sit for three days.
It was nine a.m. (ten a.m. New York time). I had just walked out of the Colonel’s office – antsy – unable to stand still for very long, when I heard a loud collective moan and “Noooooo” from the crowd in the Colonel’s office. I quickly walked back in and looked at the TV screen. Earlier I had stared at smoke billowing out of the twin towers but now there was just a huge cloud of smoke and dust. And where there had been two huge towers just a few minutes ago, there was now just one – the South tower had collapsed. It was so hard to accept what my eyes were telling me – “Did they have time to get everyone out?” “What about all of those police and firemen who had rushed into the building to help?” And previously where my military mind had been assessing the possibility of up to a hundred dead and injured, now my brain was struggling to recalculate for the possibility of thousands.
Everyone eventually hits a point where the horror numbs the brain and their “emotional off-switch” engages – they become detached from what is occurring around them. When this happens during combat, soldiers quickly fall back on their training. This allows them to continue to operate – to continue with their mission. Well, I had hit that point – my “emotional off-switch” had engaged. But, there was no training for me to fall back on – no enemy for me to focus on – no mission – I had nothing.
I don’t quite remember what occurred in the next 20 or 30 minutes. But I do remember that I was sitting at my desk – just staring out the window at nothing7 – when at nine thirty a.m. (ten thirty a.m. New York time) a soldier came in, slowly looked around at everyone, and in a dead-pan voice said, “The second tower just collapsed also.” I remember just looking over at the soldier and slowly nodding my head. I was too drained of emotion – too detached – to respond.
7 = There are between five and seven stages of the grieving process, depending on which model you read. I spent most of that first day in the Shock/Denial stage.
The mood among the troops in my building was dreamlike – “How could this happen?” For me, by then I was fighting a jumble of deep emotions. Sadness at the loss of so many innocents8. Worry that more suicide attacks were to come that day. Frustration at knowing I was helpless to do anything to stop any of it.
8 = I had heard that a hijacked plane had also crashed into the Pentagon. It would be weeks before I would learn the status of those of my friends who were serving in the Pentagon that morning. When the casualty list was finally released, there would be the shock of recognizing the names of two soldiers who I had known.
The atmosphere in my building the rest of that day was mainly subdued. I remember hearing many quiet conversations around me – hushed whispers about friends, family, and loved ones. Only the hardest of hearts could have not been moved by the events of that morning.
It was a monumental struggle to be a soldier that day. Our job was to protect our country, our homes, and the people we loved from all enemies. Everyone tried to stay poised in an alert status – ready to respond when the call came in. But with no mission for us to focus on, there was inevitably too much time for us to ponder the senselessness of the attacks – the mind continually had trouble digesting it all.
But still we kept trying to do our jobs. We leaders had several meetings where we discussed possible scenarios of what the unknown enemy might do and what course-of-actions we would do to counteract them. But the main questions asked at each meeting were, “What other attacks are still to come?” “Is this the faint to a larger attack somewhere else?” “Is this the first salvo in a series of attacks?” “Are these attacks going to continue?” Questions that could only be answered by much-needed information. So, we waited for more information, or for instructions from higher…..and we waited.
Finally, around eight p.m., people were allowed to go home. It was a little after eight p.m Major Hill came in and told all of us in the office, “Okay, Colonel Ramirez has made the decision for everyone to go on home for the night. Nothing can be done until a better picture of what has occurred can be developed. So, send your people on home and just tell them to be back in here by zero six hundred in the morning.” Then he added, “Tell them to go home and kiss their wife and children – I know that is what I plan to do. And maybe we can all say a prayer for the people that have died today?”
This was definitely not “just another day in the life of a soldier.”
The emotions around me at work had been intense all through the day – running the gambit between shock and sadness. But I saw no tears, either from the men or the few females who worked in administration – these were soldiers after all. However, on my way home that night, I stopped in for a loaf of bread at a small military shoppette that was located about a block from my camper. As I got out of my pickup and walked toward the entrance, I saw a woman, about 30 years old, sitting on a bench in front of the store – she was staring off into space and quietly crying. Inside the store, it was unusually quiet. Although there were several civilians (probably military dependents) they were very subdued and moved around the store lethargically. As I walked to the back of the store where the bread was located, I passed one woman who held a package of something in front of her as if reading the label. After picking up a loaf of bread, I walked back up the same isle, and that same woman was still staring at the same package. I then realized that she was not reading anything – her mind was too far away. Even the people in the checkout line were quiet – no one seemed willing to break the silence. As I paid for my bread, I saw that the cashier’s eyes were red and that little rivulets of wetness ran down both of her cheeks.
The civilians – I had not even given them a thought. Instead, I had been focused all day on getting my soldiers ready for whatever might come. Once I thought we were ready, I had run different possible scenarios through my head on what the enemy might throw against us and what course-of-actions I would need to perform to counteract them.
But as I walked out of that shoppette, I realized that from this day forward, those civilians would never be the same. Psychological and emotional trauma leaves an indelible mark – it alters the way we see things – it changes the way we take in the world around us. For some, this trauma would be manifested through nightmares, fears of additional attacks, and fears of attending public events, of riding on a subway, or of flying. As I drove to my camper, I knew that all of our lives had been transformed – that no matter how large or how small, we would be emotionally scarred for the rest of our days.
That night was spent talking to Sherri – telling her how much I loved her, checking on the kids, and watching the news. There was no easy sleep for me that long night as the emotional fatigue of the day slowly settled in. I kept trying to wrap my head around the why of it all – my mind and emotions now transitioning from the Shock to the Pain stage of the grieving process.
I watched the news late into the night – asking questions like, “Who did this?” and “Why?9” In 2001, I knew who our projected enemies were supposed to be – North Korea, a resurgent Russia, maybe even China. But the name being spoken about on the news was Al-Qaeda? “Who the Hell is Al-Qaeda?” “And why would they kill innocent civilians?” Innocent civilians. I am a soldier; we kill enemy combatants – not innocent civilians. Although civilians may be injured in the crossfire, we do not target them intentionally – it is not honorable. So that last question still baffles me to this day.
9 = “Where were you when the world stopped turning?” is a song by Alan Jackson about 9-11. It is a fitting tribute to not only those who died on that day, but especially for those of us who were left behind – still trying to understand “why”.
It was during this time period that I felt a rising fury beginning to build inside me. Shock and sorrow were quickly being burned off and replaced by anger. While rage may illicit and an out-of-control emotion, anger can be very effective. And what came with anger were thoughts of revenge and punishment.
But eventually, around four a.m., the news10, and I, finally ran down – the newsmen unable to dream up anymore rumors. And me…..well, the brain can only take so much before it too shuts down. I finally fell asleep in my chair for about an hour or so.
10 = President Bush addressed the nation from the White House that night. Among his statements: “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.” “Terrorist attacks can…shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.” and “The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts…we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”
By the next day, I had completely made it through the Shock and Pain stages of the grieving process and was well into the Anger stage. I can’t really speak for everyone else, but for me, and for those soldiers who I came in contact with for the next few days, the mood was one of seething rage. Our attitude was, “Just give me the name of anyone who had anything to do with 9-11, point me in their direction, and just get the Hell out of my way.”
So, there you have it – my September 11, 2001.
Eventually, for America, 9-11 will move beyond being an emotional memory to just being part of our history. Once this generation passes on, it will be something Americans will simply read about in their history books – the same as what has happened with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. However, until the current generation does pass on, the emotions from 9-11 – the sadness, the pain, the anger – will continue.
Yes, I still remember September 11th, 2001. But what about you? Where were you on 9-11? Where were you when the world stopped turning?