I was an undergraduate at the University of Rhode Island on Sept. 11, 2001. I was dating a girl, Kerry, at the time and she happened to stay over my dorm room in Fayerweather the night before. My roommate, Danny, had to be up early for an 8 a.m. class.
Shortly before nine, our phones started to ring. We thought nothing of it, let them go to voicemail, and rolled back over. But they both kept going off. Kerry and I were getting annoyed. After all, we had been up late the night before and neither of us had class until the afternoon.
Finally, I answered. It was Danny. He told us to turn on the TV. His mother in Hoboken, N.J. had just called frantic, saying that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
I was worried, but I quickly thought back to the 1994 attacks and how benign they seemed at the time. Regardless, I turned on the TV and saw the smoke billowing from the north tower. I was stirred, but not shocked--I still had no concept of what was actually happening. The shock came when the second plane slammed into the south tower as we watched live. Speculation over whether or not this was an accident could immediately be thrown out the window.
I turned to Kerry and said, "well, the shit hit the fan."
I had joined the Army Reserve just after graduating from high school in 1999, and we often used that phrase to describe the most unlikely of doomsday scenarios under which we could all be instantly called to go to war. I was now watching this unlikely scenario unfold right in front of me.
As the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 rolled on, the gravity of the situation became apparent. News came in that a third plane had struck the Pentagon and another was hijacked somewhere over western Pennsylvania. This was the real deal. How many planes were hijacked? America was clearly under attack, but on what scale? Were we even safe in Middle-of-Nowhere, R.I.?
Kerry and I were glued to the TV as innocent people jumped from the towers to avoid the horrors of burning alive. We heard reports from the ground that police and firefighters were running into the building and other first responders were thinking of ways to possibly evacuate those stranded above the points of impact.
This was all for naught. As reporters struggled for words to describe the situation that was unfolding, the south tower gave way, plummeting to the street below.
Smoke and dust quickly swallowed up downtown Manhattan and nobody could say for sure what just happened. Then came confirmation that the south tower had collapsed. What now? How many people were inside? How many people got out alive? Could the north tower possibly be saved?
The grim answer to that last question came a mere 29 minutes later when the top floors succumbed to the burning jet fuel, leading to another chain reaction as the north tower's internal support structure buckled, collapsing to the ground with thousands more innocent civilians and first responders trapped inside.
Danny finally returned from class and the three of us did our best to sort through what we had just seen. Danny, Kerry, and our other friends from the New York metro area scrambled to try and contact loved ones potentially caught in the mess. Cell phone lines were clogged and many of my friends were left wondering what exactly had happened to their families. Later in the day, we learned that Danny's mother had watched the towers fall from her office window across the Hudson River.
In an effort to calm down, Kerry and I retired to her sorority house and talked for the rest of the morning about what we had witnessed. Class was an afterthought. She finally managed to get a hold of her mother in northern New Jersey and her father on Long Island. Though they were never really in danger, it was comforting to know they were safe. That night, as expected, I received the dreaded call from my Reserve unit. They had put together a security roster and were calling us in for overnight rotations.
Upon hearing the news, I called my friend Rish, a member of the Rhode Island National Guard at the time. He had received a similar call. We talked outside of my dorm for about an hour amid the eerie calm of empty skies. I would get off easy at the time. I only had to pull about a week of overnight guard shifts at my Reserve center before they formally activated some of my fellow soldiers for 90 days of duty. Rish was not so lucky. He was put on orders from the National Guard to pull similar shifts at his unit, eventually forcing him to withdraw for the semester.
After 9/11, the fall semester was by far my worst at URI. With the war ramping up in Afghanistan, my friends working around the clock, and Reserve training kicking up about 10 notches, it was hard to focus on anything else. Eventually, I turned it around in the spring, but now Iraq was closing in our radar.
Fall 2002 I made the dean's list, but in late December my Reserve unit was put on alert. We were going to Iraq. I quickly withdrew from URI, made arrangements to move out of my house, and basically packed up my life for a year to go serve my country.
The moment the two planes hit the towers has now come to define the subsequent eight years of my life and great deal of my personal character--a week of balancing overnight armed guard duty at my Reserve unit while juggling fall classes, my year-long deployment to Iraq, my subsequent motivation to graduate upon returning home, my work at the Naval War College, my move to Washington, D.C., and my work today for AMVETS and American Veteran magazine.
As the war in Afghanistan continues to heat up, I implore all Americans to remember the mission at hand: Holding those responsible for the 9/11 attacks accountable for their actions. Osama Bin Laden remains at large, Al-Qaeda continues to carry out attacks on our allies around the world, and the Taliban continues to inflict harm on Americans looking to bring stability to Afghanistan.
Today, I hope we each pause to not only remember the victims at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pa., but also the 2.5 million brave men and women who answered the call to serve our nation in the wake of 9/11--especially those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
To me, Afghanistan is a war worth winning--something that we must never forget, even in the wake of discouraging polls about the "value" of our involvement.
I will never forget and I will continue to support all the brave men and women serving in harm's way. This is my personal story of 9/11 and how it has affected me. We're eager to hear your personal stories on this blog.
(Photo: The World Trade Center towers burning on Sept. 11, 2001 with the Statue of Liberty in the foreground. National Parks Service photo, released.)