Memories of 9/11: A Military Member’s Perspective

Soldiers from the US Army 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan have a moment of silence in honor of the 9/11 victims on the 5th anniversary of the event. Photo by Flickr user Morgan-Family, via CC.

Note: GeekMom originally published this article on 9/11/2012. We’re running it today in memory of those lost on 9/11/2001. 

Where we were on 9/11 have become such fixtures in our memories. Relating what you were doing has become as commonplace as remembering what we were doing when when the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia accidents occurred. Or in the case of my parents’ generation, remembering where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. My story shares what it was like for a military member in a very non-military assignment.

September 10, 2001

I had been serving on active duty in the Air Force for about six and a half years on 9/11/01. I was serving during a time of relative peace, although on 9/10/01, the American military was certainly busy with assorted peacekeeping missions around the world: Operation NORTHERN WATCH and SOUTHERN WATCH in Iraq, Operation JOINT FORGE in Bosnia, Operations ALLIED FORCE and JOINT GUARDIAN in Kosovo, Joint Task Force – Bravo in South America, and we always counted the “cease fire” operations in South Korea. There were other missions but I might not have been privy to them. In my mind, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Korea were some of the most dangerous places to serve. And it wasn’t that bad.

I had served tours in Bosnia and Korea by this point, and in September 2001 I was in the final stretches of my Master’s Degree work at the Air Force Institute of Technology, which is their accredited graduate school at Wright-Patterson AFB, near Dayton, Ohio. Between about Labor Day and the end of September, the students have a 3-week “fall break.” New students are having a review session — since most of us active duty students hadn’t cracked open a textbook in 5-8 years — while those of us who weren’t new could take a much-needed break.

I was in a class with 11 other weather officers, all of us working on our meteorology Masters degrees. Some of my classmates had taken leave (i.e., vacation days) to go home and visit family, or take vacations. Three members of my class, my husband among them, had traveled to Seattle, Washington on September 10th for a conference on lightning research. Their advisor was flying out to join them on September 11th.

Whenever there was an academic break, our class of 12 had to identify the “senior ranking officer” who planned to remain in the local area. With about hafl of our classmates gone, including the two highest ranking officers in our class, that job fell on me. As of September 10th, this position didn’t really require much. He/she is just supposed to know where everybody is in case of an emergency.

Business as Usual

On the morning of September 11th, I went into my office at school to work on my thesis. Even though it was a break, several of us were using the peace and quiet to catch up on data analysis and writing. We have a television in our computer lab, one of the few rooms on the 2nd floor of our building to have one. It was usually on either the Weather Channel (go figure!) or one of the news networks. Several of us had our preferences between Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC, and whomever got to the remote control first got to choose the network. Usually the volume was very low, or muted altogether.

We remember taking note of the smoke pouring from the first aircraft hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I distinctly remember thinking it was a Cessna or other single engine small plane causing it, because of the Twin Towers being so big. I remember the our computer lab had started with just 4-5 of us, and quickly filled up as those without TVs in their offices came in to see what was going on. I won’t go through the timeline here, but when we received word of the progressive grounding of flights, from the NYC area, to the entire northeast, to all of the United States—just an hour after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, we knew something very, very bad was happening.

The Fog of War: Processing Rumors, Finding Our Loved Ones

I have vague memories of being glued to a TV set for the rest of the morning. I remember flipping channels between the major networks and cable news networks as they were all processing information from several directions, all varying. The rumors were flying. Major city centers were evacuating and reports were coming in of additional crashes and fires, many of which were unfounded.

I called my husband at around 10 am. He was three time zones behind on the west coast, so he was just preparing for his day at the lightning conference and hadn’t yet turned on the TV. We spoke briefly and then hung up. He says he turned on the TV just before the live shot of the second World Trade Center tower collapsing. I remember him calling me back within the hour very very upset about it all. He’s a native New Yorker, and like GeekMom Kristen said at the end of her remembrance, you don’t mess with New Yorkers and their city!

Also heavy on my husband’s mind was that we had just been to New York the week prior, for Labor Day weekend with his family on Long Island. We had just driven across the George Washington Bridge, enjoying one last glimpse of that skyline that included the Twin Towers.

As the news was coming in, we, like everyone else in America, checked in with all of their friends near the impact areas. I called my closest friend who lived inside the Washington Beltway at the time. She worked at an elementary school and told me about all the parents coming in to get their kids. Her in-laws were near New York, including a sister-in-law in lower Manhattan! She was trying to get in touch, but it wasn’t easy. As for Dave’s parents on Long Island? Forget it. The collapsing Twin Towers severed the major trunk cables that connected Long Island land lines with the rest of the country. It would be several days before we could talk to them on the phone.

After lunchtime, all U.S. military installations were put in Force Protection Condition DELTA. In other words, highest alert. Nobody goes in. Nobody comes out. When this happens, you know things aren’t going well. Panic went through my mind.

When you don’t know how long this is going to last, you start thinking about things like “What about my children in child care?” and “What about that dinner in the Crock Pot?” In my case, I was in a panic about my dog Howie. Howie was used to one of us coming home to let him out by mid-afternoon, if we didn’t come home for a lunch break. I had planned to head home pretty early, but that plan was shot. There was only one hope: My friend Bill was stuck outside the base gate and everybody in my lab asked him to perform a number of tasks, mainly checking on pets. Imagine not knowing how long you might be confined to the base…Bill came through for us and I’m still grateful to him for popping the screen on a window to get into the house to let our dog out.

Go Home, You’re Of No Use To Us Here

Since we were in student status, we weren’t really useful for combatting terrorists and were released from the base by dinnertime. We wouldn’t be allowed back on the base for the rest of the week.

Remember when I said I was the “Senior Ranking Officer” for my class? That meant contacting everyone in my class and ensuring they were okay. I did that without incident, but one of our advisors was airborne in the middle of all this and we were all very worried about him. It didn’t take authorities long to realize that cross-country flights were being used to hit the buildings, and we wondered if a Chicago-to-Seattle plane might have been hijacked. It wasn’t my responsibility to contact this officer for his whereabouts, but I made some phone calls and learned that his flight had been put down somewhere in the Dakotas and he got a rental car and drove home.

Sonic Boom

A couple friends and I hung out at my house that first night. We had been in “let’s get the job done” mode for most of the day, but as the family members started begging on the news networks for information about their loved ones, the tears really started flowing. It was an emotional first night. When we parted ways, I was afraid to sleep; I was in the house by myself (well, my dog Howie was with me, but he was hardly a guard dog).

At about 2 am a loud BOOM overhead awakened me and to this day that was the most scared I had ever been in my entire life. The airways were empty, right?

What was that BOOM? It turned out it was from a couple of Air Force fighter jets patrolling the skies, performing a mission known as “Combat Air Patrol”, or CAP. The local news outlets were quick to report on what it was, since our entire community was in a pretty fearful state.

Trying to Be Useful

Our base remained closed for the next three days. On Thursday, September 13th, a small group of us decided to heed some advice on the news and pay a visit to our local blood bank. Even if we weren’t in a position to be mobilized for war like many of our peers, we would be useful this way.

The line was so long! I believe we waited nearly three hours outside on the morning of the 13th.

Of the four of us who attempted to donate blood…none of us were qualified. Three of us had been to locations that prohibit us from donating blood for one or more years. One of us had been to Europe, one of us to Africa, one of us (me) to Korea, and one of us was on a prescription medication that prohibited him from donating.

Boy did we feel incredibly useless.

The Long Road Home

In the meantime, my husband was still in Seattle. The air routes were shut down until further notice, and the the conference they were attending was canceled, a large number of attendees were planning to fly on September 11th and never made it to Seattle due to cancellations and reroutes. They—and most Americans—had no idea when the air would be open for flying again. On Thursday morning, September 13th, he and his group got in their rental car and began driving eastward.

They drove straight through, with stops only for meals and a shower somewhere in Minnesota. About 46 hours after they left Seattle, Dave made it home. It was early Saturday morning, September 15th, 2001.

The emotion of that week was incredible. Writing it all down like this has been very interesting for me. Like dredging up deep dark memories…although my memories aren’t really that deep and dark. Those who were actually in lower Manhattan, Arlington, Virginia, or on those four aircraft would have much darker stories to tell.

Please take a moment today to remember the 2700+ innocent people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when terrorists executed a plan that was seven years in the making.

I remember the spirit and unity the United States felt after the attacks. I’m saddened that we don’t have that emotion anymore, and that it took something as tragic as 9/11 to make it happen. American flags everywhere, impromptu singing of “God Bless America,” and something that reminded me of the spirit Americans probably had during the Revolution.

How will you #NeverForget911??

Patricia Vollmer is a geeky meteorologist mother of two emerging geek sons, ages 11 & 14. Patricia blogs about her family's nomadic military life at Ground Control to Major Mom. Home is always where the Air Force sends her family, which for now is in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Hobbies include running, despite no one chasing her, and exploring the world with her boys. Ask her why the sky is blue at your own risk.