On September 11th, 2001 I was just over a year out of the military, taking college classes and preparing myself to transfer to the University of Southern California. My grandmother spoke to me from our living room and said a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I talked about it with her from the kitchen for a few moments, and just as I walked into the family room I saw United Flight 175 hit the South Tower. A chill ran down my spine. The phone rang seconds later. It was my sister: “A plane just flew by my window. What’s going on?” she asked. Sadly, I don’t even remember my response, and I’ve never thought to ask her. I know that she was evacuated from her building, and that a kind stranger offered her a tee shirt to breath into to avoid inhaling dust and debris. I also know that on a deeper, more philosophical level I’ve been trying to answer her question — as it pertains to Islamic terrorism — ever since.
We can count dead bodies. We can put a dollar amount on the damage to the city of New York and the country as a whole. We can calculate the economic impact al Qaeda had on the United States and the world, but what we can’t do is quantify the psychological toll the terrorist attacks of 9/11 wreaked on the nation. Regardless, I am more than happy to offer myself up for amateur and professional sociologists everywhere.
Prior to 9/11, I was not much of a crier. As a former infantryman, I prided myself on having a bit of a “tough” exterior. I was a master at hiding my emotions and keeping my “military manner” when necessary. On that day though, I remember driving to class with tears in my eyes. I had to compose myself in the parking lot before entering the building, and while my body was in a college classroom my mind was somewhere else. Psychological aftershocks were reverberating in my head, and it wouldn’t be until years later that I would be able to look back and identify many of the changes to the landscape.
For instance, post 9/11 I found myself tearing up just listening to Tony Blair defend Western Civilization. I’d see pictures of George W. Bush meeting with injured soldiers and I’d get a lump in my throat. Sometimes, random stories about 9/11 would come on television and I’d struggle to keep my composure. I tried to tell a friend about former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell and I couldn’t finish because my voice kept cracking. I’ll now see the random veteran in public, and I although I want so badly to thank them for their service I rarely can do so because the tears begin before I ever utter a word. I can’t control it and I understand how it comes across as inane. However, I tend to think of my physiological response to these situations as something born out of the realization that the freedoms we enjoy are much more fragile than most people realize. When I think about the idea of America I have reactions that late night comedians find humorous — and I don’t care.
A friend of mine recently asked what my life would have been like if I entered the military after attending USC. It’s a good question, and it’s a slightly different version of the same question I ask myself almost every day: “What if I stayed in?”
When I exited the service in August, 2000 I was generally of the mindset that I had fulfilled some sort of unspoken, patriotic duty. In my mind, war could have broken out at any time, but it didn’t during my enlistment. I was under the impression that any war that involved the United States would take place years after I was in any position to help out. After returning to civilian life, working so hard to get into a prestigious university, taking out college loans and charting out a new path for myself, 9/11 suddenly had me second guessing everything. My friends were being sent to Afghanistan, and then Iraq. While I was in Southern California reading and writing my friends were being shot at. In California I was dating the woman who would ultimately become my wife, and yet there was always a part of me that screamed “You should be over there!” And I wasn’t. How many of my tears are of guilt and remorse I guess I’ll never know.
As a religious man, I have tried my best to live up to God’s plan for my life. There are too many coincidences — sheer blessings — for me to to believe there isn’t someone upstairs looking out for me. And so, my mind and my spirit tell me that writing is what I was made for. My mind and my spirit tell me that I can do more for God and country through the written word than I could with an M16A2 or an M4 carbine — but my heart often tells me I failed to be there for my buddy Leija or any number of other guys I knew from Charlie 1/18.
Perhaps the better question is: What would I be like if September 11th never happened? In a sick and twisted way, I think I would have been worse off spiritually. Hopefully, I’ll have many more September 11ths to turn it over in my head, along with the the friends I’ve met through this blog.
Thanks for reading,