I can still remember what I was doing and the place where I was doing it on Sept. 11, 2001.
I was aboard the USS Kearsarge. My unit was added to a larger Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU, pronounced me-you) for a six-month deployment in the Mediterranean Sea. We were there as a reactionary force, deployed in response to any situation, whether it be combat, humanitarian, etc.
I had been in for a little over two years. I was a lance corporal, one of the lower ranks. Naturally, I was on phone watch in our company office.
Phone watch is exactly how it sounds. I sat in the office and answered the phone anytime it rang. I did this while the lieutenants in my company tended to their “responsibilities,” which mainly consisted of sitting in a circle and telling stories about Officer Candidate School.
On this particular day, the phone rang as my platoon commander sat next to it. He yelled out “Phone watch!” and motioned to me to answer it. Yes.
That same day, my First Sergeant walked in to the office, breathing a little heavier and quicker than normal breathing. He told us in the office that a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York. I just looked at him as I thought to myself “How does someone fly a plane into a tall building?”
We had TV on the Kearsarge. First Sergeant Contreras, a man I greatly love and respect, turned it on to one of the network stations.
We were able to watch the Armed Forces Network, NBC, ABC and CBS. When the screen came on, we saw an image of WTC 1 on fire. A little later, we watched as a second plane flew into the South Tower of WTC 1.
My relief arrived soon after that, and I ran back to our living area of the ship to tell the others what had happened.
I ran down a stairwell and passed one Marine in my unit. I told him what happened before getting to the bottom of the stairs. I continued on until I got to our living space, which is called a berthing area on a ship.
I went inside and saw everyone in our recreation room watching a movie. They played movies for us throughout the day each day. I didn’t say anything. I just changed the channel. I received some colorful words, followed by a room full of wide eyes and open mouths. I joined the room, because I looked at the screen and I saw that the Pentagon was on fire.
We had just left Turkey the day prior. We stopped at a port in Marmaris for a few days and were on our way to Rota, Spain, when those awful events unfolded.
We spent the following days wondering if we would continue to Rota before returning back to the US, or if we would be redirected to the Middle East. We continued on our way to Rota, and the MEU that replaced us was sent to Afghanistan.
I still remember these events like they happened yesterday. Life in the military had changed. My generation hadn’t known what it was like to be at war.
George W. Bush said days after Sept. 11 that those responsible for the attack had “awakened a sleeping giant.” That was what had happened. We were on a deployment, but a lot of the time it felt like a vacation. We stopped at ports in several countries, were able to walk off the ship and see new places and cultures. After those tragic events, that stopped.
We were at war. We didn’t know it at the time, but we would be at war for at least the next 19 years.
Osama bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda is not a high-level threat to our way of life. Our current enemy in Afghanistan, the Taliban, also are not a threat to our way of life. But we are still there.
As we move further from this event, it seems as though the memory itself is fading. We now have adults in this country who were born after 2001. Other young adults may have been alive but were probably too young to understand at the time.
For them, 9/11 is not a memorable event. It is a historical event, in the same sense as the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor is for my generation. But unlike us, their America has been at war their whole lives.
I served in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, two extensions of the Global War on Terror. I was in Iraq in 2004-05.
Our military is still in Iraq. I was in Afghanistan in 2010-11. Our military is still in Afghanistan. In addition, we have conducted, or are still conducting, combat operations in Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia.
These events changed America and the entire world. Our surveillance state is massively overgrown. General distrust of certain races and creeds is higher than it was before the attacks.
Our government prioritizes national security over civil liberties. In certain parts of the world, people are suffering due to the Global War on Terror. A simple Google search will reveal images of men, women and children left with nothing because their homes were destroyed.
Those who do remember that day remember what happened to America in the days following. America was united. Sure, we had differing opinions on how to respond or why these attacks happened in the first place.
It’s not like you can get hundreds of millions of people to agree on anything. But the one thing most people in the country agreed on was that we are America, we are resilient and we would overcome this tragedy together.
I’d like to see us return to being that America.