11 September 2001 is one of the major days everyone remembers. As with the Challenger disaster, it is one of those days where I remember everything. I was commissioned into the Navy on the 25th of May, receiving my diploma and shaking the President’s hand. I spent the summer with my first ship, a fast combat support ship based in Bremerton, making several voyages in the Pacific Ocean, including a port visit to Cabo San Lucas. Terrorism was very much in our minds and the suicide attack on USS Cole (DDG 67), which occurred in October 2000, was still in our minds.
I reported to my fast combat support ship in June of 2001 and we were in eight duty sections. It was still a good deal, I thought, only having to stand duty less than once a week.
All of this changed on 11 September. I was living aboard the ship, awaiting the November start date of the Division Officer Course in Newport. My stateroom roommates lived in town and I typically slept until 7:00 am and began the work day at 7:30. At 6:45, Scott came in and told me a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. I immediately thought it was going to be some crazy guy in a Cessna like the one crazy guy who crashed his plane into the White House a few years earlier. I got out of my rack (what we call our beds in the Navy) and turned on the TV. Instead of seeing the Pentagon, I saw the burning Word Trade Center and immediately knew that we would be doing something.
We went to Force Protection Condition Delta and all hands remained aboard the ship for through the night. The other ships got underway and we almost did. We were having major work done to one of our reduction gears so we would have to lock the affected propeller shaft and would have been severely limited in speed and maneuverability. In the end, the decision was made to remain pierside.
We also collapsed our duty sections from eight to four, meaning we now would be spending every fourth night aboard the ship, with more people standing security watches. We eventually let up and the standard for ships in their homeports became (and remains) six sections.
Everyone has a story about their 9/11 story and they are all worth telling. Everyone also has their takeaways from 9/11 and the aftermath. For me, it’s a lot of missing aspects of the way things used to be. I miss being able to wait at the gate for a loved one’s flight to arrive. I miss being able to bring my own beverage onto the plane. I miss when airport security was just getting your luggage x-rayed and metal detectors. I miss being able to drive to Canada or Mexico without a passport.
But we got better at some things. The passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93 found out by phone calls and succeeded in preventing the plane from reaching the intended target. That moment marked the end of passively dealing with hijackers. The Shoe Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, and every drunken air-rager since has either had the crap beat out of them by passengers and flight attendants or in some cases has died from asphyxiation. In that sense, 9/11 hastened what I think was a much-needed paradigm shift. Passengers became responsible to stop hostile acts aboard airliners. And trains as well, as evidenced in the attempted shooting on the train in France in 2015. We all decided to take a stand and now it’s far less likely terrorists can actually succeed in Western countries.
I also learned that I have a negative opinion of movies that are made about these kinds of events. I will not watch a single documentary over the coming days about what happened. I know what happened. We all know what happened. I have been to the World Trade Center before 9/11, have been to Ground Zero while construction on the new World Trade Center was happening, have been to the 9/11 Memorial, and have been to the top of the new World Trade Center.
On 15 April 2013, I was in Boston, enjoying a relaxing day as the Executive Officer of a small shore command. Because the Boston Marathon is the first day of Patriots’ Week and schools are out for the week, I brought my nine year-old daughter to work. My Commanding Officer and Operations Officer were running the race and because of communication errors, we missed a deadline to get members of our crew to volunteer at the finish line. This would prove to be a blessing.
At 2:49, I was getting ready to leave work and spend a nice afternoon in Boston. But we had a radio network that connected me to numerous agencies, including the Boston Police Department. I overheard something about a report of an explosion at the finish line. I turned on my TV but the local station was still showing runners along other portions of the route. I then called my wife and told her to turn on the TV because things were about to get real. I then tried to call my Commanding Officer but got a busy signal. I figured the cellular network was getting clobbered so I implemented our security plan and I began making phone calls via land line.
The Operations Officer soon showed up as he finished the Marathon several minutes before the explosions. The Commanding Officer was at mile 22 when they stopped the race. I couldn’t get ahold of him but state police officers gave him a ride back and relayed what they knew (which wasn’t much at the time). After I briefed him on everything I knew and what I did, he started making his phone calls and by 8:00 pm, I was satisfied that things were safe and we finally went home.
A year later, authorities arrested a taxi driver who lived less than a mile from my apartment in Quincy. It emerged that as I was coming home, the Tsarnaev brothers were having dinner with this taxi driver at his apartment. I remember a lot of planes and helicopters flying low in the area in the preceding weeks but didn’t know why until the arrest was announced on the news.
As with 9/11, I have no desire to watch any movies or documentaries about the Boston Marathon bombing. I won’t watch “Patriots Day,” even though I think Mark Wahlberg’s heart was in the right place, him being from Boston and all. These events impacted all of us, but in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing, I was closer to it than I would’ve liked.
While I won’t watch the movies and documentaries of either act of terror, I will read the personal accounts of individuals who were impacted. I will never forget. Neither should anyone else.