My story of joining the military on 9/11
Every generation has their moment, that defining moment. I think back to D-Day and “a day that will live in infamy”, the assassination of JFK, and the declaration of “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” As a grew older, I couldn’t fathom what defining moments my generation would endure, but in 1986 I got my first glimpse with the Challenger explosion.
I was fascinated with planes and flying and all the possibilities air and space offer, so I watched with all the enthusiasm a 6 year old could muster. I remember starring in amazement at those brave men and women being shot into space, only to have that dream shattered 73 seconds into the flight. I remember crying and feeling helpless even at this young age. This was my first personal life moment.
My next life moment was the divorce of my parents, then came the start of the Gulf War (I collected all the trading cards) and finally I think back to Joe Carter’s homerun to win the ’93 World Series. Still none of these things were defining to our generation. I would have to wait 20 years for a moment that will be with me until my last breath. 20 years for a moment so astounding that I often times cannot believe I watched it unfold.
I joined the Delayed Enlistment Program or DEP (signing into Inactive Reserve for a period of 180 days) in Feb 2001 with the intention of serving our United States Air Force. During those 180 days before I needed to officially report to sign into Active Duty. I got my affairs in order, made the most of my family and friends, and even fell in love during those days. It was an incredible time in my life, such budding possibilities for what the future would hold. I woke up on Sept 10, 2001 (the 179th day of my DEP), finished packing my bags, embraced my friends and family one last time, and waved goodbye to the only life I had ever known. My dad and I traveled to Harrisburg, PA to my designated Military Entrance Processing Station or MEPS where I would soon sign my name on the dotted line and finally raise my right hand to “solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…” Little did I know that tomorrow would bring American to its knees and truly put that statement to the test.
We awoke at 4:00AM on Sept 11, 2001 (my 180th and final day to enter Active Duty) for a gauntlet of physicals, tests, interviews, and much more. Around 8:30AM, I finally was called from a waiting room of 50 into the Air Force liaison’s office where I confidently signed my name over in service to our great nation. At 8:50AM, I used the restroom and heard “This just in, a plane has struck the World Trade Center.” The reporter’s voice was so monotone, almost robotic and unemotional. I thought to myself, “how could some idiot in a Cessna fly into the largest building in the world,” but I thought nothing more of it. The reporter had lulled me into some state of denial and I only mentioned it in passing to another person in the waiting room as I sat back down to watch the ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ on the little TV we had. The waiting room was filled with 50 or so “future” military members all waiting in various stages of enlisting. The liaisons’ offices lined the walls of the waiting room and several minutes after I sat down, the phones began to ring off the hook. The time is 9:01AM. A Marine bursts through the waiting room, flipping chairs, and pushing people to reach the TV. He turns the channel and we catch our first glimpse of NYC. I remember watching the North Tower burn and thinking “Dear God, that was no Cessna.” At 9:02:59, I watched a second plane disappear into the South Tower. “This cannot be real.”
The liaisons call an emergency meeting and after a short diliberation the USAF liaison utters words that echo in my brain nearly every night, “We are at war. This is why you have chosen to serve. If you do not wish to be here, or this is no longer for you, please see your respective liaisons to shred your paperwork.” I didn’t even react to his words, locked in some type of freeze frame. Time seemed to move so slowly and much around me went blank like those times at night when there is no sound, but your ears seem to bleed from the piercing silence. In fact, I am positive that I never even turned around to acknowledge his speech because I was so fixated on the plumes of smoke rising from the World Trade Center. At this very same moment, people leapt from their seats, clamored for their respective liaisons, and practically clawed at one another to ensure that they were able to undo what they had committed to just moments ago. To take back that solemn oath to “support and defend…against all enemies foreign and domestic.” To erase their names from the dotted lines of service. To go back to normalcy, to go back to mediocrity, to serve hamburgers in a drive-thru of a town they would never escape.
This was a time for ACTION, not a time for putting our tails between our legs and running back to what we once knew. This was OUR moment, that defining moment that comes along once in a lifetime. All of those people were poised to pen the most incredible chapter of their lives…yet they chose to erase their names from the story. I don’t think them cowards, I just think them misguided or disillusioned with what the military is. The military is, plain and simple, a war machine. It’s not a free vacation and chance to travel the world. It’s not just an educational system. It’s a blank check made payable to ‘The United States of America‘ for an amount of ‘up to and including his or her life.’
There I sat, four other people with me huddled around the 13 channel TV that held our entire world. Five FUCKING people out of more than 50 in the room! (I do not normally curse here bc my mom reads this, but there is no other way to put my disappointment to paper than that choice of wording) FIVE! The shock of this moment was only broken by the South Tower collapsing. I remember embracing these total strangers and knowing that these were my brothers and sisters. We weren’t heroes, just committed. These were the people I wanted on my left and right in a trench, not the ones who stuttered and cried “I didn’t sign up for this.” We wept. I realize this sounds almost Biblical, but I could find no other word that describes this deep sorrow. Crying is the shedding of tears during emotional duress or happiness. Sobbing is more of a pitiful cry reserved for funerals. We wept, we wept tears and expelled emotions so haunting that I get chilled to the bone writing this. The remainder of the day is a blur. I tried calling my parents to let them know I wasn’t on one of the planes, that I was alright. I sat like a redwood starring at the visuals of chaos flooding streets not 3 hours from me. I watched smoke bellow from a gaping wound in our Pentagon, I gazed at a smoldering crater in PA just minutes from where I sat.
Finally reaching my parents, my father drove back to Harrisburg to pick me up and take me home. The days after were filled with discussions by many who thought I should just opt out, leave this fight so that others could take my place. I remember my girlfriend and I watched the bombing of Kabul in Afghanistan and sobbing. I remember a lot of those times, but what I remember most occurred Sept 16, 2001 when I returned to MEPS in PA (the first day it was opened after 9/11).
As we pulled into the parking lot, there were literally thousands of men and women waiting outside MEPS. From 5 to 5,000. The station could not even hold this many people so they sat outside, patiently waiting for their chance. The station may only hold 400-500 people and could process only a little over half of those in a day. But today was different, and I am sure that many days after that were different. There were no more overly excessive tests. Physicals were conducted in mass by multiple doctors. Liaisons now had more staff. Most importantly, the rooms where we were to commit to service, where we raised our right hands, were filled. It was like an elevator when that last person just has to cram in, but with this I didn’t mind. I remember standing up straight, head held high, raising my right hand for a second time and solemnly swearing along with a sea of people. I remember lowering my right hand and the person next to me grabbing it as it fell. We both hugged and cried, strangers, but brothers in arms and thankful to be apart of the story that was about to be written.