On September 11, 2001 I was just a month into my junior year in college. Since I’ve never been a morning person, I avoided scheduling any early classes that semester, but I was up early on that day to get an oil change done on my truck. I returned home at around 8:15 am and clicked on the television while I continued to try and find the bottom of a pot of coffee just to feel somewhat human.
Like most, my memory of that day is very vivid. I remember sitting in my ratty old hand-me-down recliner and trying to preplan an interview I was scheduled to give on the air at our university radio station later that afternoon. At the time I was the president of the Interfraternity Council and the host of the radio show invited me to speak about the benefits of Greek life. As I really started to focus, my attention was drawn to the television set as the local news was interrupted by live video in New York City where an airplane had crashed into one of the World Train Center towers.
I remember wondering what kind of idiot pilot could have made such a horrific mistake while I listened to the broadcasters as they made speculations. Having no knowledge of the inner workings of an airplane or the FAA approved flight plans near NYC, I started having a creeping feeling that this was no accident. As I began to wrap my brain around everything that was unfolding, I had the unfortunate experience of watching as another airplane plowed into the side of the other tower. At that moment, I realized that my suspicions were true. Our nation was under attack.
As a USMC reservist, I immediately called and spoke with an admin clerk at my reserve training center to verify that my contact information was correct in the event of a call-up. It was a Spartan-esque building with no television, but my call was apparently not the first received by the Sergeant. I knew full well that I would not be at the “tip of the spear”, but I wanted to do something, so the phone call seemed to be at least a step in the right direction.
Less than an hour after my telephone call concluded, the news flashed to Washington D.C. where another airplane had crashed into the Pentagon. The news began to report numerous aircraft that had not checked in as required by the FAA. It seemed as though the world that I knew was coming to a halt. I was frozen in that recliner, unable to move away from the television as if my gaze was going to somehow help those that were in peril.
Just as I began to consider how my life was going to be changing as a result of these acts of terror, the South Tower of the World Trade Center came crashing down and snapped me out of my trance. Anger filled me as I sat helplessly watching my country under attack as the streets of New York City filled with debris and a white plume of dust and smoke.
News broadcasts began to focus on the second tower, and it seemed to come alive as the building strained under the pressure and heat from such a horrific event. I watched as people dove from the windows to escape it, plummeting to what they knew would be a certain death in order to avoid the interior of the building and the suffering it held for them. I hoped against hope that the North Tower would remain standing so that more people could be spared. I beat the hell out of the poor old ratty recliner as it collapsed before my eyes.
I received a telephone call from the eventual Mrs. Donut as she was leaving her morning class and managed to convince her to come to my apartment rather than to continue to her next class. My screaming and yelling at the television had already awakened my sleeping roommate and brought him downstairs, but I felt like I needed her to be by my side. Although we were almost 1,000 miles away from New York City, at that moment it seemed like nowhere was safe and I felt much better having her with me.
Classes were canceled for the remainder of the day shortly after she arrived, presumptively because no one was going to be in class to begin with at that moment. Higher education had no place in my thought processes at that time.
The campus radio station host called and asked me to keep the interview appointment in order to express my views on the attacks as a member of the military. I remember walking to campus rather than driving to clear my head before I said something regrettable on the air. I checked windows and corners almost as though I was on some sort of patrol the entire way as my brain reverted to a dark place where I was able to exact some kind of revenge.
The interview came and went without me dropping any vulgarities or declarations of war. I’m not exactly sure what kind of insight she expected of a junior enlisted Marine reservist, but I answered the questions I could and returned home to my apartment and the television.
Like every other American in 2001, my world did change. Nearly 3,000 families were devastated. We all lost innocence. We all felt the hopelessness of the moment and the extreme sorrow that followed. We focused on the importance of “normalcy” while watching recovery efforts. We learned about the heroism of the first responders who rushed to the scenes, and those passengers aboard Flight 93 that refused to be weaponized. We all came together to stand as one for at least a brief period of solidarity as a nation.
As the war in Afghanistan began in earnest, I started to feel left behind as I returned to my coursework. I remember the juxtaposed feelings of anger of being left out of the retaliation efforts and relief that my number had not yet been called in the “War on Terror”.
In order to graduate from college I was tasked with doing an internship in law enforcement. When I began in this line of work as a reserve police officer to satisfy my internship requirements, our nation was extremely appreciative of the men and women who served as first responders. I was still about 1,000 miles from New York City, but that day was still impacting my life.
During the time that I was just starting to get my feet wet as a policeman, our nation expanded the “War on Terror” and invaded Iraq.
After I graduated, I started as a fulltime officer and my lovely college girlfriend became Mrs. Donut. Shortly after we said our vows and began our life together we discovered that the first sugar donut was on her way. About a month later I was nearly 3,000 miles away from Washington, D.C. preparing to deploy to Iraq, but the events of 9/11 were still impacting my life.
The war in Iraq was not a direct result of the attacks on our nation, the door was opened by our pursuit of terrorists and that somehow extended into the country 6,000 miles away from New York City. I had many experiences there that forever changed me, but perhaps the longest lasting was the birth of my first sugar donut; a child I would not see for several months until I was back on US soil and some 3,000 miles away from Shanksville, PA.
It’s been 15 years since that horrific day. While I’ve still never stepped foot in the State of New York let alone New York City, it’s never too far from my mind. I’ve never been to Shanksville, PA, but I often wonder if I have the courage to act as those heroes did as they sacrificed themselves to prevent Flight 93 from reaching its intended target. About a year after the attack on the Pentagon, I saw the rebuilding efforts in progress there. The scope of the damage even at that point was hard to digest. It’s always below the surface in my subconscious.
As a father I’ve made it my personal goal to raise my children with the understanding that absolute evil exists. I’ve seen it plenty of times in person, but never on the scale that I saw it on television on 9/11/2001 as 2,996 people perished. Rather than focusing on evil alone, my children will forever know that heroes exist and that good will overcome evil.
The selfless acts of 343 firemen, 8 paramedics, and 71 police officers at the World Trade Center and the untold numbers of others who walked away but have since contracted cancers and other diseases from those sites are unfathomable. Their actions demonstrate that even in the darkest of days, there are people who are courageous enough to do everything they can to help others survive.
The Donut is about 1,000 miles from any of the sites directly impacted by these terror attacks, and yet every year on 9/11 I am transported back to that old recliner in my mind. The emotions are still very raw. Some years I have tried to completely avoid viewing anything about the attacks on television and other years I have allowed myself to soak it all in and embrace the pain.
My life is no different than anyone else who watched in horror fifteen years ago. I will never be able to grasp it or set it aside. I will never forgive. I will never forget.
It’s time to go patrol the Donut…