Remembering 9/11 – Up Close – AMAC


Like September 11, 21st birthdays pass, emotions swirl. Some years I put them away, others I embrace them. Some years I go to Arlington National Cemetery, where good friends lost that day are buried. I walk, think, search for voices in the wind, listen to the echoes of the past and watch the shadows cast by the stones.

Sometimes people ask me, why do you write so much? Why do you bother? Why stay engaged when it makes little difference? Why dwell on it when few people read, fewer think and minds don’t change – what’s the point? Why stay so focused on America’s future, revisiting the past and pushing people to seize the present?

Well, here’s the point. America is the sum of our investments, yours and mine, those that have brought us this far, those that we see every day, those that depend on us to convey this preserved meaning as best we can, true to what others have done for us, some of which lie under these stones.

The day was bright, almost too bright. The sun made me wince. The morning of September 11, 2001 was like any other. How unlike any other, I was soon to learn. I boarded a DC plane that was scheduled to take off 45 minutes before American Airlines Flight 77. Both planes were heading west, mine to Phoenix, theirs to Los Angeles. Neither would go where they were headed.

As a Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer based in DC, I regularly worked with active duty friends at the Pentagon. We were the CNO-IP (Chief of Naval Operations-Intelligence Plot), our job was basically tracking red forces around the world, producing products and informing the channel. That day, my civilian job sent me to Arizona for a speech, so I wasn’t there.

What happened after I boarded the plane changed me, changed the nation and ended the lives of my CNO-IP friends – who at the time were actively following piloted planes by terrorists, working to protect America. Angie, Jerry, Darin, Jonas, Dan and Vince were among the 184 people who perished at the Pentagon that day, 2,977 nationwide. They died when Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, arrived at 4e ring, and entered our spaces. Their stories were commemorated by Richard Leiby in the Washington Post.

At the exact time it was happening and for most of 9/11, I was in the air. The captain announced he had been ordered to land wherever he was, so we descended rapidly — nose-to-tail planes, like elephants lined up — into Wichita Kansas. Once downstairs we were told what had happened – the twin towers had collapsed, the Pentagon was hit, a national emergency was declared and our nation was at war.

I had no idea what happened to my friends, but I knew I had to come back. I called home, rented a car, drove all night. The night will live forever in my head. Every rural and urban media market in a dozen states advertised prayer meetings – even National Public Radio. Small groups held candles by the side of the road, praying. Flags covered every overpass, ambulances silently poured blood toward waiting military planes, thinking blood was needed in New York and DC.

It was not. What was worse – while I was driving those 23 hours – individual calls came in, a fellow naval officer informing me one by one our friends were gone. I volunteered for active duty that night and within days was helping to rebuild NOC-IP, working with other active duty volunteers.

We started in Maryland, near Andrews Air Force Base, and eventually moved to the Pentagon, working in spaces adjacent to the destroyed “corner” where the plane had entered, now sealed off with floor-to-ceiling plastic. I will never forget, I can’t forget, the smell of the place, its horror.

Over time, America rebuilt the Pentagon and Americans tried to regain a sense of normalcy, to find comfort in old routines, to remake the world we had lost. But life has changed, the psychology of the country has changed. We were at war, a war that would expand before it contracted, all unwillingly vigilant.

For me, the active service devolved to the reservists, the family priorities, the chance to serve at State with Colin Powell. The Pentagon shifts have faded. The opportunity to train Iraqi and Afghan police officers presented itself. National security seemed to become central to most of the nation, by circumstance and not by choice.

Looking back 21 years, my mind and heart are caught in a strange vortex, imagining these six friends and our freedom-loving nation as we were, as they were, young and unaware of impending danger – then suddenly too aware, completely overwhelmed, their young lives gone, the world has changed forever.

So these days, after watching our nation fight two wars in the aftermath of 9/11, seek to rebuild two nations weakened by what followed, sacrifice more than 7,000 more American lives, spend three trillion dollars under four presidents to try to straighten out the post-September 11 world, we are humble.

The reality is this. We who live after 9/11, who lived through it and who remember it, some more personally, others as a total and unconscionable attack on our nation – have an obligation. What duty? The obligation to stay engaged, to step up, to speak out, to do what we can – to preserve the freedoms the nation stands for and for which so many have died.

Why? Because we live and they don’t, that’s the crux of the problem. Our burden is to understand how special life in America is – and, with all we can muster, to defend it. Look for those voices in the wind, listen to those echoes of the past and know it’s upon us now.

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