9/11/17: 16 years later
Sixteen years ago, we were living in an apartment in Wilmington, NC with our three dogs, Annie, Ooch and Bijou who are now all waiting for us at The Rainbow Bridge. We had just crossed the four month mark of being married. I was working part time at a school, Jack was stationed at Camp Lejuene.
We lived under the flight path of the Wilmington International Airport and one thing I remember most that day is not hearing the airplanes anymore.
The following is a combination of blog posts I wrote a few years ago – today, we remember.
Where were you? What were you doing? Do you still remember every single detail?
On THIS day – do you remember?
I don’t remember all the details anymore because time erases things sometimes. Plus, I have had a lot of major life changes since then and my brain can only remember so much. My heart, though, will always remember. My heart never forgets. I remember the feelings with a memory so vivid, like it happened yesterday. Disbelief. Terror-filled Fear. Worry. Heartache.
The “What the hell just happened?” feeling in the pit of my stomach.
All of it. THAT I remember.
I was home that morning because I was working part time at a school as the After School Director. It was a Catholic school and at the time I interviewed, they didn’t have any teaching positions open. I had a feeling, however, when I arrived for my interview, that I needed to be at that school in whatever capacity they had to offer me. So, I accepted the job as the After School Director. I happened to turn on the TV some time after the first planes hit and so clearly remember that image on the screen – the World Trade center was on fire and it was bad, so very, very bad. At the time I was watching the TV, no one was for sure why the plane hit but then, there was the 2nd plane. And it was so apparent, in that moment, that this was no accident. THIS was on purpose. After all, it’s not an accident that TWO planes fly into the The World Trade Center and then also, the Pentagon and another crashes in a field in Pennsylvania. Oh no, this was definitely not an accident.
My husband was in the United States Marine Corps at the time and although on leave that day, happened to go to work. I called him and now don’t remember if I immediately spoke with him or he called back but I do remember that the conversation had a lot of “I don’t know” peppered throughout sentences of questioning and trying to figure it all out. The conversation was brief and abrupt.
He had more background knowledge in things of this nature than I did. His whole life has been that of the Military. I just married into it, only 4 months earlier. I was just a brand new Military spouse. This event would be my trial-by-fire initiation into what that truly meant.
I got a call from the school – can I come and sub? One of the teachers had a family member who was working in the WTC that day. She had to leave. Of course, I can come in. I was to be in the Middle School – with kids who are just on the edge of still being innocent, little kids and yet will suddenly become very hormonal and more grown up in the coming months. Kids who will watch the news and hear about what is happening but not fully understand everything. Kids who are expecting ME as the adult to know answers, to be strong and tell them that everything is going to be ok.
I prayed so much on that short drive to the school. There wasn’t a whole lot of educating going on by the time I got there. It was more just managing. Parents were coming early to get their children. We had to stay in the classroom, the kids could not leave the room without an adult. So many precautions put in place to ensure safety that I am sure was not in ANY student or staff handbook. The priority was the safety of the kids because no one knew what was happening.
The kids asked questions and I answered, “I don’t know.” over and over again. We were all worried and scared. At the end of the school day, I transitioned into my role as the After School Director, by this time, we had a little more information but still, so many questions.
When my job was over, I went home and turned on the news. By this time it was after 6pm and there was so much more information and yet not enough information.
When my husband finally arrived home that night, it was only for a brief time. His orders had been given:
Pack a bag, the Marines are deploying to New York City.
“But, you are not supposed to leave for deployment for a few more weeks”, I said.
“My orders have been given”, he said. “It’s Marines FIRST, then everything else, remember?”
Yes, I remembered. His job was priority over everything. I learned that when we got married. We had to relocate our wedding just a month before the big day because a training exercise my husband was involved in got extended and he couldn’t leave town.
Moving a wedding, however, is not such a big deal given the gravity of THIS situation. In that case, we were moving TO him. Now, he is being given orders to go away. The Marines are needed. My husband is a Marine. He must go where he is needed, to any place at any time. No matter what.
“We haven’t finalized our selection of pictures for the wedding album”, I said. (Clearly, the situation we were dealing with negated all sort of rational thought)
“You’ll have to call the photographer and explain the situation”, he said. “I’m sure he will understand”
My Type A (strong Type A) personality doesn’t deal well with sudden changes in plans or routines. I also don’t deal well with not knowing all the answers. THIS event, this day was a “perfect storm” of all things a Type A doesn’t deal with well.
Unexpected events. Sudden change. Change in routine. Total and complete lack of control.
I NEED answers – Where are you going? How long will you be there? What will you be doing?
When are you coming home?
The only answers he can give me are New York City, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know and
I don’t know.
Prior to 9/11, his Battalion was scheduled to go on a routine deployment to the Middle East. It was “routine” because they did this on a schedule, roughly gone 6 months, home 18 months, etc. My husbands job was logistics – “beans, bullets and bandaids” they call it. His job was to ensure everything the Battalion needed while they were gone was on that ship.
“Are you still going on deployment?”, I ask.
“Probably”, he says. “But maybe not to our original destination.”
“Will you go to NY, come home, and then go on deployment?”
“I don’t know.”
Then, it hit me, the very reality of the situation. The very real, strong possibility that my husband could leave the following morning and be gone for a very long time. The reality that he would go to NYC and then leave straight from there to go on deployment. At this point, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that he would be going off to war. But one thing was clear – The reality that, by the time morning arrived, I would be sending my husband off to “who knows where” for “we don’t know how long”.
Trial-by-fire initiation to being a Military Wife.
On September 12, 2001 we left in the early morning hours to make the drive to his base. By now, we know from the media that there are plans for the US Military to retaliate against the enemy. Because we all woke up that morning knowing for real that this was an act of terror. At some point, it occurred to me – not only did I not know when my husband was coming home
I didn’t know IF he was coming home.
I so clearly remember standing in the parking lot, saying our goodbyes. My heart remembers that because that moment could be the last time I ever see him again.
That emotion is never forgotten. The heart remembers that.
After we said our goodbyes, I drove straight to work. I didn’t want to go home and I knew that work would be a distraction for me. I knew that was where I had to go. I wasn’t needed to sub that day but I knew I could find something to do rather than being home. I needed a distraction.
Later in the day, he calls me. “You need to come get me”, he said. “We are not leaving today.” In less than twelve hours I went from sending him off for an unknown period of time to the land of I-don’t-know-where to him coming home.
Military Wife Life 101 – always be prepared for the unexpected.
The next morning, we go through the same routine we did the day before.
Drive to the base, say our goodbyes – get another phone call to go get him.
By the 7th day of this routine, I literally could not get out of bed in the morning. I was so emotionally and physically exhausted. Although I was happy to have that one more day with him, I was mad that everyday I would drop him off not knowing when or IF I would ever see him again and then I would get the phone call to come get him. I was tired because we left early every morning and did not get home until late at night. The news each day was worse than the day before. My Type A personality was in “crash mode” because my brain just couldn’t take any more of the constant changing, the lack of control over the situation, the not knowing what to do.
On September 20, 2001 we once again left in the early morning hours to make the drive to the base. I now know the routine and expected that phone call. It came later in the day.
It was the expected but unexpected call.
“We are definitely leaving today.”, he said. “Are you sure?”, I said.
“yes, but not to New York City. We are going to the Middle East on our deployment”
In that moment, I had just heard the news that my husband was going off to War. The enemy is not in NYC, they are in the Middle East. The War of retaliation does not happen on U.S. soil. THAT is the moment that my heart remembers. THAT moment of terror-filled-fear is still so very real, all these years later.
“How will I know that you are going to be ok?”
“You have to go with the no news is good news approach”, he said. “If you do not hear from me, you have to know that everything is ok. I will try to call and write and email when and if I can…”
Hold up – IF you can?
‘Yes, IF”. “We do not know when or IF we can get communication set up”.
“But how will I know if something bad happens?”
“They will come find you.”
“They” meaning the Military Chaplain and his assistant. “They” meaning a black or dark blue (I assume, because that’s how it is in the movies) car will be waiting for me in the parking lot when I come home from work. “They” meaning a person in an official Military uniform will show up at my door.
We always tell people that our first year of marriage was the “easiest” (please note sarcasm) because he was gone for 7 months of it. It was far from easy. At the very least, no one wants to drive home from work everyday and scan the parking lot for an official looking dark blue or black car. No one wants to spend seven months of outside-of-work time watching nothing but all the major news channels trying to figure out “where in the world is my husband”.
To this day, the site of those official looking cars takes me right back to that day. Sometimes, I drive by our old apartment complex and just the site of the parking lot brings back those memories. The feelings that my heart will not forget.
Fortunately, at certain points in the deployment, I did receive emails and a few phone calls. But they were very few. I received letters as well, but the information like “I’m ok” was so out-dated by the time I got them. Still, they were letters filled with as much generic information as he could tell me.
On September 21st, I realized WHY I had felt the need to be at THAT school. That school was a Catholic school and starting that day, everyone in that school as well as all the parents and the community added my husband (and all the other Marines) to their prayer list. The staff became my extended family and two people, Trish and Nina, took it upon themselves to make sure I wasn’t alone. I got “adopted” into their families – going to their home for dinner, going to their kids after school events, even going on vacation to the beach with them during New Years. They made sure I kept busy, because keeping busy while your husband is off to war makes the time go by faster.
The emotions of that day and that time are still so very real and in some ways, still so very raw. Everyone’s lives were changed that day.
I learned the true meaning of being a Military spouse. I have a special place in my heart for military spouses, especially those who send their husbands off to war and they become single moms. Especially those who sent a husband off to war and although he returned, he was not the same man.
In April of 2001, every single one of the members of the 3/6 Battalion returned home. Life does not just return back to normal after a spouse has been off to war for seven months. It takes time and patience. We were just getting used to being married to each other when 9/11 happened and when he returned home, we had to start all over again. He may have come home from the war, but the war was still with him. He was jumpy and easily startled by loud noises. Even today, years later, I do not know all the stories. There are some I know, some that so clearly support the Power of Prayers, but most of them I don’t know.
In October of 2003, he retired from the USMC. His retirement ceremony was the same week the Battalion was getting ready to go back to war. He was home with me, but yet “his guys” were leaving. Everyday, I have reminders of that day. Reminders of things that would never be in my life had I, too, become a widow of the war:
Everyday in this house, that we bought in 2004.
Everyday we have with our first son, born in 2005
Everyday we have with our 2nd son, born in 2006
Every day is a reminder of THIS day, 9/11. But the Anniversary is the time we take to pause in our day, to share our story. Time may erase the details from my memory but the heart does not erase the feelings, the emotion. Even as I write what I remember, the tears fill my eyes – the emotion is as real as it was that day. The heart doesn’t forget.
Today, share your heart with someone else. Take the time to remember, to teach your children about that day. Take the time to tell your story. It is only in the sharing of the stories that we will never forget. We honor those who fought, those who signed up to fight and those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom by remembering.
Historical Note: In November of 2001, Operation Enduring Freedom began. The 3/6 Battalion of the USMC was the first to go into Afghanistan and overtake the airport in Kandahar as a forward base for the Marines and later, the US Army. They were stationed on the USS Bataan.
Our children were born AFTER 9/11/01.
I think they were about preschool age when we started talking about it.
“The bad men flew planes into the buildings and people died.” That was the extent of our talking about it when they were little. As they got older and learned that their Daddy was retired from the USMC, they also learned that he went to war after 9/11.
Each year, they have more questions and we do our best to answer them. One of the questions was about people who died that day and about people who died in the war. We had general, age appropriate conversation with them about this topic and then one of them said,
“I’m glad Daddy didn’t die in the war.”
I said, “I am too, because then you wouldn’t be here.”
and, as soon as I said it, I paused – mostly because I said it without thinking but really because I could see the look in our son’s eyes.
That inquisitive look, like you could almost see him processing that thought.
“What do you mean, Mommy?, he said.
“When were you born?”, I asked.
“2005”, he said. And then I literally watched as the “light bulb” come on – he figured it out.
Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001 – my husband deployed on September 20, 2001. He came home 7 months later.
Had he NOT come home, everything that has happened in my life since 2002 would have been drastically different – including the boys not being here. For many years, after 9/11, it was the memory of those days afterwards – not knowing when my husband was deploying, not knowing when or if I would ever see him again and just the heavy emotional impact of those events were the first memories I remembered. And yes, those memories are still there, the emotion is still powerful.
But, this past year, the first thing I think of is the path my life has taken since my husband came home from war – he retired from the USMC and has a different career now, we bought a house, we had two boys, we’ve adopted four dogs. None of those specific things would have happened had he not come home.
As we remember today, the lives lost and the lives changed, its important to remember to share our stories. It’s important to talk to our children about that day and our experiences, our memories. Its our way to honor this day.
This photo collage hangs in our office. The flag flew on The USS Bataan during the deployment to the Middle East during Operation Enduring Freedom. It is a flag from the WTC site, signed by rescue workers.