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Sep 11, 2011

What This Day Means to Me on the 10th Anniversary

Ten years ago today, I was stationed in Naples, Italy. I was a new sailor in the United States Navy, on the last day of 72 hours of duty, in the last three and a half hours, and looking forward to a nice 72 hours off.

Close to 3pm I was sitting around with the others, nothing going on, when a woman from another area came in. She was pale, paler than I'd ever seen someone, and she told us that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. We all thought for a second that it was a joke (since we all played practical jokes on each other when bored), but her paleness and the look on her face quickly squashed that thought. I stood up, thinking to myself that maybe it was an accident like the plane that hit the Empire State building back in the 1930s, and walked into the Watch Officer's office, the only spot with a TV. I told him what happened, and he quickly switched over to the Today Show, which we got live over the Armed Forces Network (AFN) in the afternoon. Immediately my thought (and perhaps hope) that it was an accident due to weather were destroyed as I saw it was a clear, sunny day in New York City. How could a plane crash when visibility was perfect? Still, as I stood there with the growing crowd in the doorway of the office, I continued to hope that it was an accident. We watched the TV in near silence for a time, when I turned my head to make sure there wasn't a phone ringing or anyone needing me. As I turned back to the TV, a plane came into the shot from the right, flying straight for the towers.

It exploded.

We all gasped.

For a moment I was wondering if that was video from earlier, but then my brain processed that the first tower hit was still smoking.

And I knew.

I knew it was no accident.

The US had been attacked, with the WTC the target for the second time. 

I don't know what others thought. I do recall telling those that were voicing disbelief that it was an attack. I looked at the Watch Officer and told him that. I think I walked away from the TV for a bit to get away from the footage, trying to get a grip on what I'd just seen.

Some time later, the word got out that the Pentagon had been struck. All I could think was Holy fuck, when will this end?! I got up to look at the TV again, but there was no footage to be seen on the Today Show yet, though they were confirming the reports. I kept going over in my head that we were under a full scale attack, and I hadn't signed up for this. I didn't want to go to war. I signed up for the Navy as a last ditch effort to get money for college. I wanted to get in, do my time, then get out. The USS Cole attack had happened only two weeks before I left for boot camp, and at the time I wondered if we would go to war over that, but when nothing really happened with the government afterwards, I didn't worry anymore. But I *knew* that with this attack that worry would become a reality. An attack on civilians, in our borders, was a guarantee of war. It made my stomach burn thinking about it.

Then word was passed around that another plane was hijacked.

Where the hell would it strike this time?!

What was next?!

How many more planes?!

Would attacks take place all over the world at American bases and embassies?!

At the same time, word came down that the base was on lock down. Anyone who lived on the economy or over at the Support Site base would be stuck, meaning that the entire base was packed full of people. There was also the rumor that those of us currently on duty wouldn't be leaving for the night, even if we lived in the barracks on base. I wish I could say I wasn't pissed off about that too, but I was. It had been a very long 72 hour stretch, and though I would have 12 hours between the 12 hour watches, I was still exhausted. We all were. (And when the Day Workers - those that worked from 7am to about 4pm - started to bitch, I wanted to smack them!)

Suddenly rumors went around that the hijacked plane was down, but no one knew where until several minutes later when it was said to have crashed in Pennsylvania. After that, when no more reports of hijacked planes or crashes came out, it seemed as though everyone and everything was slowly calming down. We all hoped it was over, that it wouldn't get any worse. It sure seemed as if it wasn't. I spent that time talking to others or being quiet, trying to let everything sink in. I got up to look at the TV again, asking if anything new had happened. Nothing had, so I just stood there watching the screen.

Movement in one of the towers caught my attention. 

Down it went.

The tower was gone, though at the time the TV was saying a chunk had fallen off. But I could see through the smoke from the other tower that there was only sky. Then a closer shot showed the building collapsing in on itself. I think I tuned out everything at that point, just watching, but thinking how strange it was that the people on TV sounded so calm about what had just happened. I stayed where I was, watching, as they continued on about everything, getting reports from Washington DC about the Pentagon, looking at the shot of the tower left standing, looking at it's antenna. A cut away shot of smoke in DC, then a return to New York, where the antenna was surrounded by a cloud of dust, going down.

Silent horror.

A hope that the buildings were empty by then.

I don't know how long it was before I went and plopped back into my seat. But I do remember how silent the whole area was, which was something I'd never heard before. Where I worked was a major communications station for a large portion of the world. There were always phones ringing, radios going off, beeping from computer systems, and talking. But at that moment, it was silent. A crowd continued to stand in the Watch Officer's doorway. Elsewhere it seemed like no one was talking. The radios, phone, and machines were quiet.

Then all at once everything went off.

Highly important messages started hitting the systems, setting off alarms. The beeping seemed to be every where. Everyone dispersed from the doorway to handle everything. Phones started ringing.

The rest of that watch was a blur. I think I returned to glance at the TV a few times, but didn't stand there for very long. The whole base was on lock down and high alert, though eventually those living off base were allowed to leave, and those coming on base to start their watch were allowed on after sitting in line for up to an hour. Word passed around that we would be changing our shifts from the 72 on days/72 off/72 on nights/96 off (in hours) to something much tighter. My anticipated 72 hours off were gone. I was told to expect going back in much, much sooner than I hoped. All leave was canceled. Those on leave were called back.

I walked back to my barracks room that evening with the base nearly deserted. Fully geared Marines stood on top of all of the buildings, their eyes watching the base and the area around it. It was then I heard something that would terrify me the rest of the night: A plane coming in to land at the Naples airport, which sits right next to the base, the main runway running a mere 500 feet or so from where I worked. My room faced that building and the runway, so all night, as I watched AFN to get more news about the attacks, I clutched the armrests of my recliner every time I heard a plane take off or land, hoping it wouldn't crash into the base. It wouldn't be until late that night when I would be able to sleep, long after the airport had closed and the planes stopped going. The next day I was informed I would be going to back to work the day after that, now working a 24 hours day/12 hours off/48 hours night/24 hours off schedule so that the watches would have twice as many people working. This continued until January 2002, and it was exhausting for everyone, especially for those with families. Several ships that were in the area were sent back to the east, including one that was about half way home after over six months at sea.

Some time after the attacks (I believe sometime in 2002), there was a large group of Chiefs (E-7s) that were sent to the command. Included in this group was Chief Brown, a nice guy who I liked as a Watch Officer. During watches he would come out of the office and bullshit with us, and wasn't one of the Watch Officers with a stick up his ass. Yet every time he would smile or laugh, it would never reach his eyes, and I always had an urge to ask him what was wrong. Of course I didn't, and I couldn't, because it wasn't the right thing to do and because it was none of my business.

It wasn't until late 2003 that I mentioned it to another Chief who was the Watch Officer at the time (they changed sections all the time) about how it seemed something was wrong when Chief Brown smiled or laughed. I think I brought it up because that Chief told me they had been stationed together before coming at the same time to Naples.

Either way, that Chief said, "You don't know?"

Know what?

"Chief Brown's son was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon."

I was stunned in disbelief.

It turned out that they had made the rank of Chief at the same time. In the military, making the rank of E-7 is a big deal, because you become an upper enlisted rank who is now in a major leadership position. (The highest enlisted rank is E-9.) In the Navy those who are chosen for E-7/Chief are picked based on their service record, and when selected are put through an initiation by other Chiefs. The morning of September 11th, 2001, saw Chief (select) Brown and the other Chief at the golf course near the Pentagon working as caddies for other Chiefs. They all heard and saw the plane as it went over them and crashed into the very offices they would've been in that day had they been at work. They all raced to the Pentagon to help.

What they didn't know was that Chief Brown's son, Bernard Curtis Brown II, was on that plane. He had been selected with other Washington DC students to fly to California as part of a National Geographic trip, and they had left with their respective teachers that morning. The very plane 11 year old was on was the one chosen by the terrorists to be crashed into the Pentagon, an action that would've killed his father too if it had been any other day.

Of course this explained what I had noticed in Chief Brown's eyes that whole time. I had heard about the students and the trip they were on, but I never knew the names of those children.

I never talked to that Chief again about it, and I never even thought of bringing it up to Chief Brown.

In 2004, Chief Brown volunteered to go to Iraq. The last time I saw him was when he was on leave before going out. We talked a bit about him heading out there, and I had thought he was assigned to go, but he told me he offered to. He almost seemed excited about it. I don't want to say that the look in his eyes were crazed, but it almost seemed like it. But who could blame him? He had a chance to go to a place where a branch of the terrorist group that killed his child were becoming very active. What parent wouldn't have that drive inside of them to try and destroy those who had done that to their kid?

I don't know what happened to Chief Brown. I imagine that it would've been news if he had been killed in Iraq, but I don't know if he was injured, I don't know if he's still in the Navy. But his story made the horror of that day even more real for me. Perhaps on purpose I had avoided learning about many of the victims, mainly the children, and suddenly I was face to face to one of the victim's father. All I could think about is how much it must take for him and his wife to make it day to day.

Every year I think about Chief Brown.

I think about the loss of his son.

Of the loss of so many sons and daughters.

Of the desperation of those trapped by the fires in the towers.

Of the selflessness of those who worked to help others.

Of the terror of those stuck on those planes.

Of the courage of those on Flight 93. 

I remember how much I hoped, with everyone, that there would be more survivors pulled from the wreckage, and the despair when I saw the empty stretchers outside the hospitals as the medical personnel waited in vain.

I think about everything that has happened because of those attacks, from the nine and a half year manhunt to the completely unnecessary war in Iraq.

I think about the young guy who called me back while I was on watch once things were fixed simply to hear a female voice.

I think of family members sent out to the war zones.

I think of everyone sent to the war zones.

I reflect on fanaticism, and how it needs to be dealt with, no matter what the cause of it is.

And I remind myself how fortunate I am. My family is safe. None of them perished on September 11th, nor did they perish in the war zones. Considering how big my maternal family is alone, with twenty-plus cousins, several of which have served or are serving, that is very fortunate and I am grateful that they are okay.

I am also grateful that the many people I met in the military, and who I know who are still serving or have family serving, that none of them have died because of the wars.

I mentioned the other day to the Husband that September 11th defined my life, and he asked me how. I couldn't answer him at the time, but I think I understand now.

September 11th changed my life because the reality of what I signed up for when I joined the Navy hit home. Having grown up with my dad in the Air Force where the biggest thing was the Gulf War in the early '90s. While it was serious, it wasn't a full blown war lasting years. There was also the situation of the Cold War, but again, it wasn't a full blown war. So I thought when I signed up, Hey, there aren't any major enemies right now, so it should be a breeze to do four years! 


I imagine that's what a lot of American military were thinking before the Nazis and Japanese started their invasions.

But with September 11th I became a part of those wars. I wasn't in the combat zones physically, but my whole job involved helping to maintain the communication lines for those out there, for all branches.

I think it also defined me because I was like all other Americans, thinking that being back in our borders I was safe. Living in the UK when I did, I witnessed the IRA bombings that took place there on top of the worry of living in an off base American housing area during the Gulf War. (Would someone try to bomb our houses since we have no security or gates? Not fun to think about when you're nine.) There was the attack in Oklahoma City by an American, but that was a fluke in my mind, something that wouldn't be repeated nor something that would involve a foreign group inside our country. Yet all of that was shattered by the attacks. The reality that there was no place safe in the world was a lot for an eighteen year old to swallow. I guess I could analyze it further by saying that my parents having gotten divorced only the year before on top of my dad's alcoholism didn't help how that all sunk in.

Lastly, I simply mourn the crazy amount of life lost. I know there's a lot of tragedies in the world happening every day, yet no one can focus on every single instance and expect to be able to live their lives. So I've focused on this one that I witnessed and the first I fully understood while it happened. I mourn every year because this act, for me, represents all of the hatred in the world and the loss of innocence as a result. It's the day I give myself to shed tears for all of the heartache and loss that happens all the time. I don't only mourn for those that died in that one tragedy, I mourn everyone affected by tragedy and loss. I reflect not only on the attacks, but everything that led to this even happening.


That's a lot of soul searching.

I know this probably doesn't make sense to anyone, but that's okay. Different events affect people differently, and this is me.

Anyway, it's been one hell of a decade since that sad day, and I hold onto hope that the next ten years will be better than the last. I hope that for all of us.

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