We had been called into the gym at 0445 with our “go bags”–bags that we were supposed to have packed at all times, filled with so many pairs of socks, underwear, uniforms, a toothbrush, deodorant, enough stuff that if you were called away for deployment on short notice, you’d have enough to last you 30 days. We’d been called in for drills like these a couple of times before. When you deployed as often as we did, every 4 to 6 months, you were used to an accelerated operations tempo, and most of us just lugged in the bags that we hadn’t unpacked from our last trip to Kuwait. Mostly, we were a gym full of sleepy, slightly irritated Airmen. I sat in the corner, sullen, grouchy, and wishing I was back in my warm bed just across the street from base.
Around 0500 we were loaded on buses and taken over to the pre-deployment hangar–another ruse in the squadron’s scheme to make us think this time was THE time when it wasn’t a drill. Our squadron liked to test our preparation; it was like playing chicken, but with toiletries. We’d even heard they might go so far as to load us in a C-130, takeoff, and fly us around for a couple of hours just to scare us enough to really pack our bags with the right stuff. Again, most of us still had the six bars of soap and bag of disposable razors that we hadn’t used from the last deployment, and we weren’t skerred. At the time, I smoked about a half pack of cigarettes a day, and as we drew nearer to the hangar, I could feel my anxiety build. Once we got there, we wouldn’t be allowed to go back outside until this drill was over. If anything had the power to make us nervous, it was the idea of being locked inside a non-smoking facility. This drill-business just got real for a lot of us.
We processed through the pre-deployment line like hot knives through butter: shot records updated–check; emergency data information updated–check; are you aware of the services the chaplain can provide while deployed–yes; take a pamphlet; take a magnet; take a contact card–check, check, check. Eventually, I made my way to the folding chairs, neatly lined up in good, military formation for the next wait. Anyone in the military has heard the adage, “hurry up and wait.” We’re really good at waiting. Be ready to wait. Always hurrying to wait, wait, wait. That day was no exception, as we were moved into the pre-load area of the hangar, a new place to carry out more waiting, we were happy to see a push cart with a television and VCR. We figured we had another 2 or 3 hours to go before they finally called it quits, and someone was prepared with a tape of Blow or the first Fast and Furious, or some other action flick. I could probably make it as long as Johnny Depp wasn’t smoking through the entire thing. I was becoming more irritable and wondered if anyone would notice if I slipped off to a far corner and lit up.
During those years, cell phones were still relatively new for me. I had only recently bought my very first cellphone weeks before. Each time I used the tiny clamshell phone, it was like being on the bridge of the Starfleet Enterprise–real space age technology. Most of us had jumped on the cellphone bandwagon because of our frequent deployments. It was nice to be able to stay in contact with our family and friends as we waited for hours in terminal after terminal, on our way to Kuwait or Bosnia. But during the bag drag exercises we weren’t supposed to have any of the “new-fangled doohickies,” as my grandma called them. Smartphones hadn’t been invented yet, so there really was no reason to have them unless we were going to make phone calls–something we were simply not allowed to do. Our directive was to turn off all cellphones before entering the holding area. Even if we could call someone, most of the folks at home were still asleep, or they were just starting to put the coffee on and flip on the morning news. It was only 0545.
We hadn’t put in the video yet, so the room was filled with silence–folks were too tired and irritated to carry on conversations with each other–too tired even to walk across the room, plug in the television set, and pop in a tape. We hunkered down against our GI duffles and dozed. Just as I had almost decided to try my hand at smoking a cigarette in the farthest corner by the door, an officer came into the hangar and told us the United States was under attack. Geez–I guess they were really going all out with this drill scenario. Sometimes, we were given a scenario that some country with lots of sand was being overrun by another country with even more sand, and we had been tasked to deploy to support intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance requirements. But an attack on home soil was a new one for me. I think I rolled my eyes. That would never happen; they need to do better if I’m going to be brought in at the buttcrack of dawn. Almost as soon as the words were out of the officer’s mouth the first phone went off, startling everyone in the bay. It had one of those tinkling rings that ran up the notes like a quick-handed musician on a xylophone. The Sgt whose phone was ringing frantically tried to reach his hand in his pocket to silence it. Phones were supposed to be turned off. But before he could shut it down, another phone went off–again, the xylophone. Then, like a rippling wave gaining momentum before it unrolls onto the shore, phones starting ringing and buzzing, popcorning the room with jangling techno sounds.
“This is not a drill,” someone shouted, “my wife says she’s watching the news and a plane just hit the Twin Towers.” More people’s phones are ringing–families are frantically trying to get in touch with their loved ones to make sure that the world isn’t crazy. But it is.
I remember being released to head home immediately. We were instructed to get our affairs in order, for real, none of this bullshit 6 bars of soap and an old bag of razors. Take care of your stuff because we’re most likely moving out. Everyone was on call. Eventually the base was locked down, but many of us made it out of the gates before that happened. I lived right across the street in some nearby apartments, and I rushed home to turn on the news. Within minutes the second plane hit the other tower. This was real, not the horrific accident of some tweaked out pilot like I had hoped. I had hoped for tweaked out; what I got was unfathomable. I tried to call my husband who was working a mid-shift on the communications help desk. When I finally was able to speak with him, he informed me that they had locked down the base and no one was being allowed off or on. He didn’t know when he would be home, but everyone was going nuts there–activating all their emergency procedures. All I could do was stare at the television screen and cover my mouth with my hands. I couldn’t scream loud enough to encapsulate the horror I was witnessing. I sat on the bed and watched the news for the rest of the day. I waited for the call from leadership that would put me on a plane to somewhere, and I lit up a smoke.
Less than 2 months later, I was seated in an air operations center in Saudi Arabia, watching the unmanned aerial vehicle track targets along the mountainous dirt roads in Afghanistan. The shock of 9.1.1. was still with me. The entire country was still reeling from a sucker punch to the gut. What I remember about those days was the support we received as a nation; on the air operations floor nearly every country in the United Nation coalition was represented, and they seemed to be banded together with us. I had not really experienced that type of empathy in earlier deployments. Or maybe I was just not sensitive to it. And, at the same time that I was witnessing the great international machine come together in earnest, back home the nation was oftentimes splitting apart–if you were Muslim, you were in trouble. The same people who would hang up a flag and declare their undying devotion to the colors wouldn’t seem to hesitate in stomping on the freedom of other, fellow Americans. To add to deployment tensions, several of my friends were coming up on their separation dates, but because of the Global War on Terror, the military instituted a “stop loss” preventing them from leaving until they were no longer needed to fight. So many people, civilian and military, were so very angry. Fear manifests in a myriad of ways, and people were scared and unsure of the future. But we kept doing our jobs, limping along until the bone was able to set. Eventually, stop loss was lifted and people put away their flags. But I think we still have a limp.
Today, 14 years after the planes hit the towers, I’m serving with a generation who was in elementary school when the towers fell. They peripherally remember their parents’ reactions to the horrors of that day, and many of them joined because of 9.1.1. That historic day led them to a life direction. My career, nearly my entire adulthood experience, has been shaped by the events of that day. For me, I feel the great benefit of knowing life before 9.1.1. and watching life evolve afterwards. And because I can remember the before and after, I appreciate the carefree ignorance or denial that came before as well as better understand the cautious vigilance that has followed.
A few years ago, I visited the 9/11 memorial in New York City. Its serenity and peacefulness in the midst of the most electric city in the world stole my breath. I couldn’t help but think of the people murdered there, of how so many knew they were to die and thought to call family and friends for last words of love. And I was grateful to them for making me think of that, of who I would call, of what that love looked like in the face of such unbelievable circumstances. I’m grateful to the men and women who died on September 11, 2001, because every year, on this day, I hug my kids a little tighter, I walk a little taller, and I breathe in a little deeper. Rest in heavenly peace, brave ones. We will never forget.