It is hard to believe that a full decade has passed since the greatest crisis of my generation struck home. Every channel on television and every site on the internet, it seems, is reeling with coverage of the attacks on this anniversary of that momentous and horrible day. I think that is good for all of us regardless of your background or political bent; it would truly be tragic if we collectively forgot about the events of that day and the effect the catastrophy had on all of us.
As a youngster I listened as my elders talked about where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot. I was always a little mystified by their clarity- every one of them could reel off, from the top of their heads, where they were, who they were with, and what they were doing when they learned that awful news. Never in my life had anything so momentous occurred; no event had bonded us as a people in the same way as Lee Harvey Oswald did with his Italian army surplus bolt action rifle.
I remember President Reagan’s brush with his own assassin and watched the space shuttle Challenger explode seconds after launch. The wall fell between East and West and we fought a war in the Arabian sands, but those events failed to captivate in the same manner as that fateful day in Dallas. It wasn’t as though I wanted something to happen, but I felt that in some strange way my generation lacked that singularity of shared experience that brought everyone into the same place, into the same moment, and seared that moment into their souls. I had never been party to an event that so universally affected everyone despite their race, religious beliefs, or political bents.
As we all know, that has changed.
In my case I was forward deployed to Okinawa, Japan when the twin towers fell. I was the commanding officer of an artillery battery that was part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is a crisis reaction force in perpetual readiness for whatever emergency may threaten the United States or her interests abroad. It was in the evening, after dinner time, when I caught the first inkling that something was amiss. The sixteen hour time difference between Okinawa and my home in San Diego made the early morning attacks a night time event for us, and the news came after most of us had gone to bed for the night.
My unit had been out training in the jungle, but had been recalled because a typhoon was headed straight for us. We headed for the barracks after securing our our vehicles to protect them from the growing storm and storing our weapons in the armory. With the rain beginning to come in sideways and the palm trees shedding their fronds we headed for our rooms to ride out the storm. I ate dinner in front of the television set as I watched a football game on the Armed Forces Network, which is the American military’s television and radio system that brings home-spun sports and shows (and incredibly cheesy public service announcements) to those of us posted to foreign shores. After the game I surfed through the local channels, which if you have ever seen Japanese television you know can be a visually jarring experience complete with incredibly colorful animated programs capable of inducing epileptic seizures and gameshows specializing in things like eating worms and swimming through kiddie pools filled with green slime. As I flipped through the channels I saw a grainy image of what looked like an office building on fire. I couldn’t really tell what it was because of the signal interference so I kept on plowing through the channels. After a few minutes of not finding anything interesting, I headed for bed.
15 minutes later I was ripped back to consciousness by my ringing telephone. It was particularly jarring because it had never really rung before, and the only people who had my number were my wife and the Marines in my unit. I rolled over and picked up the handset, and the life I had known to that point changed forever.
“They’re doing it again!” my wife exclaimed.
“Who is doing what again?”
“They’re doing it again! They’re attacking the World Trade Center!”
My wife had been in New York city during the 1993 attacks. When the first plane flew into the tower, she instantly knew what had happened and called me.
Suddenly the grainy image made sense. I turned on the television and watched the second plane disappear into the second tower in an vulgar eruption of orange flame.
After a hurried conversation with my wife, I put on my uniform. I didn’t know what else to do, frankly, but at least it was something. I called my officers and told them to round up the Marines while I went to see if I could find out what this all meant.
I bent my cap against the pelting rain and ran to a friend’s room. He was the operations officer, and if anybody knew what to do it would be him. Like me, though, he didn’t. What he did know, however, was the immemorial martial response to crisis. “Get ready,” he said, “because it’s gonnna be a long night.”
And it was.
Bracing myself against the growing storm, I went back to my room. The Marines had been assembled, and somebody had to tell them what was going on. Being the Commanding Officer meant that the somebody was me, and it was a duty that I felt completely inadequate to perform.
What could I tell them when I had no idea what was going on? A million questions zinged through my head. I had Marines from New York City in my unit, but had no idea if their families were safe. I had no idea what was happening half a world away, where people were supposed to be protected because we were trained and deployed thousands of miles from home to keep the wolves away from our heartland. Were we at war? Would we be attacked? Were our families safe?
With my mind reeling with the magnitude of events I stood outside the room where my Marines waited for me to pass the word. To tell them it would be OK. To tell them that their families were protected.
I walked into the room. They rose to attention and warily eyed me as I stood before them.
“Get ready,” I said, “it’s going to be a long night……”