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.