History & Culture / Keeping America Safe

Remembering 9-11 – Up Close

As the 9-11 21st anniversary passes, emotions swirl. Some years, I put them away, others I embrace them. Some years, I travel to Arlington National Cemetery, where good friends lost that day are buried. I walk, think, strain for voices on the wind, listen for echoes of the past, and watch the shadows stones cast.

Sometimes people ask me, why do you write so much? Why do you bother? Why stay engaged when it makes little difference? Why keep at it when few read, fewer think, and mind’s do not change – what’s the point? Why stay so focused on America’s future, revisit the past, and press people to grab hard the present?

Well, here is the point. America is the sum of our investments, yours and mine, those who have gotten us to this point, those we see each day, those who depend on us to pass forward meaning preserved the best we can, true to what others did for us, some of whom lie beneath those stones.

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

As a DC-based Navy reserve intelligence officer, I regularly worked with active-duty friends in the Pentagon. We comprised the CNO-IP (Chief of Naval Operations-Intelligence Plot), our job essentially tracking red forces around the world, producing products, and briefing up the chain. On that day, my civilian job sent me to Arizona for a speech, so I was not 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 tracking terrorist-flown planes, working to protect America. Angie, Jerry, Darin, Jonas, Dan, and Vince were among the 184 who perished at the Pentagon that day, 2,977 nationally. They died when Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, got to the 4th ring, and entered our spaces. Their stories were memorialized by Richard Leiby in the Washington Post.

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

I had no idea about my friends’ fate, but I knew had to get back. I called home, rented a car, drove through the night. The night will forever live in my mind. Every rural and urban media market in a dozen states announced prayer meetings – even National Public Radio. Small groups held candles roadside, praying. Flags covered every overpass, ambulances silently rushed blood to waiting military airplanes, thinking the blood was needed in New York and DC.  

It was not. What was worse – as I drove those 23 hours – is 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 rebuild the CNO-IP, working with other active-duty volunteers.

We began in Maryland, near Andrews Air Force Base, and eventually relocated to the Pentagon, working in spaces adjacent to the destroyed “wedge” where the plane had entered, now closed off by floor-to-ceiling plastic. I will never forget, cannot forget, the smell of the place, the horror of it.

In time, America rebuilt the Pentagon and Americans tried to resume a sense of normal, find solace in old routines, remake the world we had lost. But life changed, the country’s psychology altered. We were at war, a war that would expand before it contracted, all involuntarily vigilant.

For me, active duty devolved to reserves, family priorities, the chance to serve at State with Colin Powell. Pentagon shifts faded. The opportunity to train Iraqi and Afghan police surfaced. National security seemed to become central for most of the nation, by circumstance not choice.

Looking back 21 years, my mind and heart get caught in a strange vortex, imagining those six friends and our liberty-loving nation as we were, as they were, young and unaware of the imminent danger – then suddenly too aware, wholly overwhelmed, their young lives gone, the world forever changed.

So, these days, having watched our nation wage two wars in the aftermath of 9-11, seek to rebuild two nations brought low by what followed, sacrifice more than 7000 more American lives, spend three trillion dollars under four presidents trying to put right the post-9-11 world, one is humbled.

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

Why? Because we live and they do not – that is the nub of it. Our burden is to understand how special life in America is – and, with all we can muster, defend Her. Strain for those voices on the wind, listen for those echoes of the past, and know – it is on us now.

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anna hubert
6 months ago

It was a horrible day that no one should forget the question is have we learned from it

Marta Alvarez
6 months ago

Sorry, did I miss the author of this article? It moved me to tears, for the tenth time this past week. The author asks ‘why to stay engaged?’. Because we must. We can not forget, or pretend it never happened as many do. The past shapes our lives in ways we can’t imagine as a society, as well as individuals. Let’s never forget 9/11! Keep it in our memories as the day that America truly changed.

6 months ago
Reply to  Marta Alvarez

Marta, thank you so much … I am the author, RBC – and I am moved that the piece and day affected you in a good way… That day so profoundly hit so many, indeed all … Looking back, we know again, we are blessed to be alive, and in that blessing resides an indelible, undeniable obligation – to give nd live with all we have while we can. I am again grateful for the comment – and with reaffirmed strength, from time again yesterday at Arlington with friends, onward. That is how they would approach each day, and because we are now their voice, how we must. Thank you. V/R, RBC

6 months ago

“To preserve the liberties for which the nation stands”. Couldn’t agree more but what is our present “administration” doing? Open borders, run away spending, disastrous exit in Afghanistan, etc., etc. and to top it off, most Americans don’t even think we are at war with terrorism anymore. National security? We are more worried about the documents former President Trump had than what is happening right now at our southern border. And there’s China, and Iran, and Russia and drugs flooding across the border. America needs LEADERSHIP. Until we get that back, we have a very dim outlook for the future.

6 months ago
Reply to  Rich

We must redouble our resolve …

Sharon Ormsby
6 months ago
Reply to  Rich

Right, but we have now had 88 terrorists that have now come over our border. This is frightening. So, why is this administration not doing something about it? They certainly know they have come over. Our Governor Abbott has received a report on them, since they have come through the Texas and the Arizona border. The Arizona governor got the same report, so you know the National Government got the same reports. They should never have been allowed to come through!

6 months ago

RBC, September 11 will and always has been a heavy day in my heart. I have a cousin who had just lost her mother to a brutal murder in July 2001, that she and her husband worked in Trade Tower #2. I was on leave when my wife called me that some fire had started in a building in NYC. I turned on the TV and after a few minutes, I witnessed the second plane hitting the other tower. End of leave. I tried to get hold of my cousin to see if she was alright but the lines were clogged because of the catastrophic events that had occurred. A day later I was relieved to talk with her that they had taken the day off from work by a divine providence of God.
Unfortunately, I had two classmates that had just finished a meeting in the Pentagon, on their way back to their offices when the plane hit the Pentagon ring. One did not survive.
So this day is special, I celebrate with those who survived and remember those who have fallen.

6 months ago
Reply to  Max

God bless you, and them – with condolences, and knowing so many suffered so much on that day. Take heart in each sunrise. V/R

Stephen Russell
6 months ago

I urge a new Navy ship named Shanksville for town from 9/11 Jet crash
& 9/11 Mem Centers per state to ID victims per state from 9/11

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