Monday, September 14, 2009

Where were you?

Wow, just looked at this blog for the first time since, well, May. It's been a ri-freakin'-diculously busy several months, and I've been forced through sheer fatigue into this long hiatus. I think I've got a handle on my life now, so I will start updating again.

Today's entry is three days late- I had originally inteded to publish this on 11 September, but got lazy.

During September 11th, 2001, I was working in the Washington, D.C. area. I was attached to an agency called the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and was doing a joint (meaning multi-service: Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines) mission dealing with a couple of Latin American countries. There were about thirty of us, of which maybe five were Army personnel. We all lived in these really nice furnished apartments in the D.C. suburbs. Mine was two blocks off of the Ballston Metro station. I had already been in D.C. for ten days, and had settled into a routine.

Every morning, I would wake up, get dressed in my Class B uniform (slacks, shirt, name tag, medals, beret), and go downstairs. The van would pick me up, along with the other personnel assigned to the DIA for that day. We'd get to work at about 0700, get a bagel and Diet Coke, and start work no later than 0730.

The 11th was business as usual. I had just settled down to work, had my headphones on and was listening to Weezer. We worked on the 14th floor of an office tower complex called Crystal Towers, in Crystal City, VA (approximately one mile from the Pentagon, and maybe seven miles from D.C. proper). Anyway, there I was, Weezering it up, and all of a sudden, heads start popping up from cubicles. I took out my earphones to find out what was happening, and started hearing radio stations announce that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers.

Since we were all intel nerds, we stopped what we were doing and went to the TV to watch CNN. That's when we saw the second plane hit. We were stunned- no one spoke. Finally, one of the Airmen said what we were all thinking.

"Holy Shit." (sorry, Mom).

We all started making phone calls to our respective headquarters- we knew it was a matter of time until we were recalled back to our units to prepare for war. That's when it happened.

An Air Force colonel came running in to our office. "Everyone evacuate the building- a plane just crashed into the Pentagon!"

Here's why I love the military. At this point, instead of devolving into panic, we all looked at our NCOIC for instruction.

"Get out of the office, walk down the stairs, and get outside."

Which we did. We got outside and saw all traffic at a complete standstill. We also saw, about a mile away, a column of thick, black smoke coming up from the Pentagon.

"The van will be here in an hour. Til then, no one leaves. Report to me if you need to use the bathroom or leave the immediate area for any reason."

We stood there for an hour, watching all the buildings on our block disgorge literally hundreds of military personnel, all in their Class B uniforms. Then we all stood there for another hour, watching each other watch the same unmoving cars.

Those few of us who were able to make cell phone calls contacted our loved ones. My Mom was at my apartment, visiting Jen.

"Mom, turn on the news. I'm ok, just wake up Jen."


"Turn on the news, I'm ok, now wake up Jen."

"Oh my goodness, are you ok?"


"Yes, I'm ok, now wake up Jen, please."

Once I finally told Jen I was ok and not to worry, I hung up. That was the last phone call I was able to make for two days.

Back on the street in Crystal City, we finally decided that the van wasn't coming. So we all started to walk home.

We walked past miles of stopped cars, past police and emergency responders, past National Guardsmen. We walked through two suburbs- eight total miles in plastic dress shoes and wool slacks. I know because I kept a 100-meter pace count and counted the kilometers all the way.

As we all walked home, we saw thousands of military servicemembers, all walking to their various suburbs. All I could think about was "holy crap, if they got us now, look at how many casualties they'd get."

By the time we made it back to our apartments, it was dark. We all congregated in one apartment and watched the news. No one wanted to be alone. Later, we all went back to our individual places and went to bed.

That's my story. I was at a 9-11 rememberance cremony on Friday, and someone asked those of us who were personally affected by 9-11 to raise our hands. My First Sergeant looked at me and said "I spent three and a half freaking years of my life in the Middle East. How's that?"

Personally, I hate 9-11 rememberances. I know it was horrible- I was there (kind of). I remember the feeling of helplessness and anger, and the urge to retaliate. I remember the resolve we all had that this would never happen again. I imagine people felt the same way on December 8th, 1942.

But I for one would just like to get on with it. Let's remember that it happened, not with a schmaltzy funeral every year, but with decisive action, with determination, with substantive fixes for the systemic problems that led to the attacks. Remember 9-11, but keep it to yourself.


~j. said...

doing a joint.

AzĂșcar said...

I love that you know exactly how far the distance was to your home because you counted. Is that part of your training? I mean, I'd assume it was, but now I'm asking.

dastew said...

I remember that day. I think your mom was running interference for Yen because we called her that afternoon and your mom answered and told us you were fine. The strangest call I received was from my mom in upstate New York, we were in Utah, asking if I was okay? I know that's a mom thing but I couldn't help but laugh and say yeah unscathed. But then again I'm kind of a douche (sorry waldo's mom)

sue-donym said...

That last paragraph rocked.

And the part where you described your Class B uniform.

dalene said...

i agree about getting over it and moving on, especially when it comes to the media coverage--it is too much and i don't trust the motivation behind it.

but personal remembrances are fine and even necessary. and i believe those remembrances mean something significant to those who lost loved ones on that day.

my friend, who is also the daughter of one of my best friends, died tragically at the age of 22. it was on the 4th of july. one of the mother's biggest fears is that people will forget her daughter. so, even though i'm more into birth days than death days, on the 4th of july i take a moment to remember and reflect on kate's life. and her death. i make myself recall what it felt like standing in the doorway of my friend melody's house when shane came to tell me kate was gone and how it felt to hold my friend lynda while they carried kate's body out through her doorway in a black bag.

i feel perfectly justified then, remembering what i felt and recognizing the loss of so many on september 11. i do it for the people they left behind.

Waldo said...

Azucar- Yeah, it is part of the training. We all are supposed to know our 100 meter pace count on various types of terrain (59 paces on flat ground, by the way).

Stew- you are, in fact, a douche. But I love you anyway.

Dalene- Agree, personal rememberances are important and necessary. My objection is to the organizational-, state-, and national-level pity parties that have sprung up, basically turning 11 September into a slogan. I mean, who really remembers the Alamo any more other than to yell "remember the Alamo?" That's where I feel we're going with this.

The other problem I have, and I alluded to it earlier, is that this isn't the first time this has happened. Pearl Harbor was as much of a surprise and ultimately cost more lives than 11 September, as it got us into WW2 (which was necessary and justified). But we don't see the same type of response. Heck, Pearl Harbor isn't even a slogan. I've been to the Pearl Harbor memorial- it's beautiful and moving. But no one cares.

Several of my close friends and co-workers lost family, friends, and continue to be affected by the attacks (multiple deployments, IED attacks, etc). I remember them, and I grieve for their families, and all the families of the victims. I respect people's personal losses and grief. What I don't like is the showmanship involved. Let us have our personal feelings, and institutionally, let's get on with it.

dalene said...

i agree with you, especially about institutional vs. personal remembrances.

granted i am older, but i do remember pearl harbor being a big deal at one time. it became ingrained on my memory because its anniversary was the same day we got word my uncle was shot down and MIA in viet nam. it was also the first time i ever saw my dad cry. somehow viet nam and pearl harbor are now strangely juxtaposed in my memory.

so do you think pearl harbor was replaced somewhat with 9/11--that it's old news to the movers and the shakers and they found something else shiny to look at? or is it just that the generation that was the most affected by it doesn't have the voice that newer generations have?

Waldo said...

Dalene- I think we have replaced a LOT of things with 9-11 fever (the only prescription, of course, being more cowbell). 9-11 becomes a convenient excuse to *institutionally* forget not only Pearl Harbor, but we overlook human rights abuses by our allies in the war on terror (I'm looking at you, Israel and Spain). We abrogate civil rights (yeah, Patriot Act, you know who you are).9-11 fevah also breeds a national attitude of racism.

Before you think I'm going off half-cocked, think about what happened. How many times did the Curry in a Hurry restaurant on State Street in Murray get burned down? (The answer is twice). Because of 9-11, now it's OK to hate people of the Muslim religion, or who LOOK like they might be Muslim, or, and this is the most ridiculous thing I've heard, are named Barack Hussein Obama. "His middle name is HUSSEIN and Obama sounds like OSAMA!!!!!" Now it's ok for country singers to make popular songs about kicking ass for the American dream, as if the American dream isn't one of inclusion and tolerance.

In a lot of cases, 9-11 brought out beautiful examples of heroism and showed the nobility of the American spirit. But in a lot of other cases, 9-11 is used as an excuse for jingoism and unjustified racism. And I think a lot of these issues would be solved if people just shut up about it, and got on with business.

That's just me, though. Don't hate me :)

Nigel said...

I've started about four different comments to this post but deleted them all. Suffice it to say, I don't approve of how the previous commander-in-chief handled things.

I can't imagine what it was like to be right there on Sept.11th. People (mostly politicians and reporters) say "everything" changed that day. A lot of things have changed that really didn't need to. Taking off my shoes at the airport is annoying, but no one is shooting at me. Servicemen have borne most of the change along with its accompanying pain and difficulties. Thank-you.