September 11th was just another Tuesday in 2001, or so we thought.
It was two days before they attacked. Yes, I’m talking about September 11, 2001. September 11th happened just two weeks after I called it quits from 10 years as an infantryman. I first served on active duty and then the Army National Guard where I finished as an infantry squad leader.
Patrick and I met in the mid-nineties when he volunteered from another battalion to join my company for our deployment to Bosnia. Within minutes Patrick and I became inseparable. He, a former Marine infantryman, the same age, and similar mindset; people often mistook us for each other although we looked nothing alike. Halfway through our deployment the platoon sergeant, a veteran Ranger from Operation Urgent Fury, had to separate us due to the shenanigans we often got ourselves into. We were the guys he loved to hate. Always on point and ready for action, but when boredom set in, we were busy getting into trouble. As an example, I had Ron Jon Surf Shop from Cocoa Beach Florida send me hundreds of stickers. Soon, every Yugo in Srpski Brod Bosnia had a sticker on the back bumper. Patrick stayed in first platoon and I went over to the quick reaction force (QRF). Even then, they couldn’t keep us apart.
On December 15th of that year, a few Serbs hijacked a NATO tanker truck and held two men hostage. The bell sounded so we donned our battle rattle and took off in a sprint to surround the building. It was on the intra-squad radio that I said “keep your head down around Zucker”, his squad leader (my former) who didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. That line came from one of our favorite movies, Heartbreak Ridge starring Clint Eastwood. Zucker had given me my first and only counseling statement of my career. You see, some of us learned from the Rangers’ experience in Somalia in 1993; who went out on a daytime raid leaving their night vision behind, yet found themselves in an 18 hour firefight that took the lives of 18 special operations soldiers. Patrick and I didn’t need another Somalia to learn from their mistake and carried our night vision goggles (NVGs) in our butt-pack 24/7. Fearing that we would lose or damage them, Zucker demanded that we keep them in the padded cases for accountability and to ensure nothing happened to them, but we didn’t listen. It was the night of December 15th that our insubordination paid off. Out of his entire squad and the QRF response element, Patrick and I were the only two with NVGs.
After Bosnia, in 1998, Patrick moved up to Northern Virginia where we shared a house, attended college together and I got him a job with me where we worked as contractors for the US Government. It was a cool gig that was both flexible and paid well. Not to mention we learned some trade-craft that you won’t find in the private sector. It was Sunday, September 9th, 2001, two days before the world would change; a gorgeous afternoon when Patrick and I were headed back home to Virginia from Maryland where we had spent the weekend camping. I had been out of the Guard for just two weeks and he still had some time left on his enlistment, but he was planning on getting out, too. We were chatting about how complacent our country had gotten as far as its security and the global threat of terrorism. We agreed that it was just a matter of time before something happened on American soil and one of us; neither of us remember who, said “what this country needs is a wake-up call, something to happen in the United States, before anyone really gets it.”
Tuesday morning, Patrick and I were just starting a training evolution with a couple of surveillance teams where “new hires” for the organization we worked for were about to get their final skills evaluation at the end of an 11 week hostile environment trade-craft course. During our morning briefing we learned that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers in New York. I don’t recall if we had found out about the second plane, but as we exited the building to the top level of a parking garage in Arlington Virginia at around 9:30 am a colleague said “damn, that plane is pretty low”, although it was common to see low flying aircraft in the area due to our proximity to Reagan National and Dulles, this one stood out as extremely low. While we were close, we didn’t know to stick around to see the plane impact the Pentagon, which was out of our line of site from where we stood anyway. A few minutes later, in Rosslyn Virginia, we noticed a sea of people evacuating high rise buildings and suddenly, we noticed the plume of smoke coming from the Pentagon, less than a mile from where we sat in our car, adjacent to the Iwo Jima Memorial. A call came over our radios to RTB, return to base, and turn in our equipment. We did, and within minutes found ourselves stuck in traffic on I-66 trying to head west towards Fairfax.
Patrick and I were in separate vehicles and couldn’t reach each other by cell phone, but we were both thinking the same thing; get back to the house and grab our shit. We met back at the house, collected our gear and loaded our weapons. At that point, we didn’t know what was happening, but we knew America was under attack and we just saw the Pentagon on fire with our own eyes. We staged our gear in our trucks and stood by the TV as everything unfolded. We remained awake and glued to the TV for the next few days as we weren’t allowed to return to work. We were both finishing up an EMT course (for fun) and had the final test that Thursday, but other than that, we were just waiting around. He got called from his unit and was placed on active duty to augment security at a local military base for a few months. I had recently been hired by the World Bank to work on the President’s protection detail and had an October 1st start date. That was my reason for leaving the Guard, because I would be traveling extensively with the new job and the Guard wasn’t excited about me missing drills, otherwise I would have stayed.
By early 2002 Patrick had left the Guard and I was working for the Bank. We hated not being a part of the war effort so we decided to join the Navy as corpsman and try out for the Special Boat Teams. We swore in and I quit my job, and we were to leave June of 2002. Both of us lost rank and had to go in as E-3s, but there was a $30,000 bonus involved so we weren’t too torn up about it. Two weeks before we were to ship out we got a call from the recruiter saying the bonus wasn’t guaranteed, nor was SWCC School, the school we would have to attend before getting picked up by a team. I called the Bank and they were willing to take me back so I opted out of the enlistment. Patrick took the risk and went off to training. As it turned out he got the bonus and the school, but I don’t regret my decision. I only regret not being there with Patrick. I spent the next five years living one dream while Patrick lived another. I visited more than 50 countries, got deputized by the Marshal Service, flew everywhere in first class, and carried an issued Sig Sauer P229 and credentials everywhere I went, even on commercial flights. Something was missing though; I missed wearing a uniform. I ran into a friend from the Army who had joined the Air National Guard (ANG) and explained that they were a lot more flexible than the Army Guard as far as missing drill weekends. A week later I was a part-time “blue suiter”; joining Security Forces, the Air Force’s version of military police. Not a tip of the spear job, but I got to shoot, train in the field, and had potential to deploy. After five years of living the dream at the Bank, we moved home where my wife and I started a family. After a short stint as a police officer, I spent five years as the Director of Security at a beautiful ocean front resort and continued to serve in the Guard.
Today, two days before the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I find myself nine months into a four year tour at ANG HQ serving as a training manager for all ANG Security Forces. After 10 years in the Air Guard and a combined 20 years of military service, I sit here punching a keyboard as I get part-time Defenders to the right schools and pre-deployment training to ensure they are the best trained air base Defenders in the world. As the anniversary approaches, I reflect on that Tuesday morning in 2001 and remember that it was a perfect day. No one suspected a thing; we were just living life and enjoying our freedoms when a group of terrorists caught us off guard. I often remind my fellow Defenders that today is no different than September 11, 2001, in that today, or any day, it can happen. Whether a gun wielding disgruntled coworker or an Islamic extremist choosing to pay back the infidels who bombed his homeland and drives his car through the gate – it’s not a simple matter of “if”, but “when”.
Thirteen years later Patrick and I continue to serve in different capacities; I deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and today he finds himself just a month away from returning home from there. This goes to show that no matter your career field, duty station, or life choices, you truly never know where life will take you, or when. It is our duty, regardless of our status, to maintain a high level of vigilance and fight the natural path of complacency because “nothing ever happens at our base”.
I continue to stress this mantra because all too often I hear my fellow Defenders complain about our duties of simply standing post. Sometimes there is an identity crisis as to whether we are “cops” or “grunts”. Are we law enforcement or air base defenders? Should we train for deployments to war zones or prepare ourselves to write tickets on base? The fact is, we do both, and we should be proficient in both, to an extent. Realistically, I think it’s too difficult for part-time Defenders to master any one skill-set, but the one thing we must maintain is our sense of duty and our ability to remain flexible enough and passionate enough, to learn all we can about our responsibilities as Security Forces Airmen. Regardless of our label, cops or grunts, at the end of the day we are the Defenders of the Force. We protect people, assets, and resources. Whether on patrol at home station or patrolling outside the wire in a war zone, our mission is the same, to remain vigilant and keep our Air Force protected from those who wish to do us harm and disrupt our operations.
September 11th was just another Tuesday in 2001, or so we thought. Which day will have us waking up to the next attack? Will it be tomorrow or two years from now? For any American who has served in uniform, there hasn’t been a period of 10 years that the United States hasn’t been involved in combat in centuries. Spanning over anyone’s military experience over the past 40 years, there have been a number of combat actions since I’ve been alive or serving in uniform: Vietnam up to 1975, Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, Iraq in 1991, Somalia in 1993, and 13 years of war since 2001. If you enlist and think you’ll simply get a signing bonus and some college money, you may want to reconsider. There will likely be another “perfect Tuesday morning” in your lifetime.
Note: Zucker is a pseudonym
MSgt Peter K. Bowden