I was a paratrooper then. I think once you assume that title it stays with you. I woke up every morning at 5:00am. We all woke up early. We had no choice. We stood together in formation being miserable. We stood there in shorts when it was 35 degrees outside. We stood there in the rain. We stood there hung over. There was no recourse, we just did it. We just stood there.
We saluted the music as the morning Reveille played and then we ran. We ran past our motor-pool where our vehicles sat ready for a war that seemed as far away as getting on the wrong school bus in kindergarten. We ran off the main road, down a hill and into the secret backwoods known as “Area J.” This is where we spent our mornings. Wide open, hearts pounding, sand under our feet and hills rising and falling into the distance. Sweating, swearing, blisters, fighting. It was the best of times it was the worst of times. This was my slice of life when I was 20.
Early Morning Hours
The morning of September 11th was very special for me. I had spent the last several weeks preparing for a promotion board. I walked into a room of senior sergeants and began to answer their questions on military customs, leadership, and current events. I was hoping to prove my worthiness and be promoted to sergeant myself. I wore my green dress uniform and highly-shined jump boots.
“Tell me about a current event,” First Sergeant Chris Raines said.
“Five minutes ago two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York,” I replied.
The four board members changed their expressions. There was a moment of uncertainty. The Sergeant Major glanced around the room to view the expressions of his highest leaders. They knew well before I did that a storm was coming.
In the spring of 2002 we got the news. We were deploying to Kandahar, Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. It was a strange time. The emotions, the fears, and the realization of the situation we were heading into were awkward and unknown. But overall we were excited to be getting into the fight. For young soldiers that wanted to prove their courage, we thought we had finally got our turn. So many questions to answer…What would it be like going to war? Would I be good enough for it? Would I leave my wife of almost 2 years a widow at 20?
I learned many things living in a combat zone. Firstly, let me point out that I was no infantry hero with stories of breaking down doors and running down the enemies of America on foot. I was simply a cog in a much larger wheel trying to solve puzzles about how we could get an edge over the enemies of America. I did however encounter enough death and stories of it to face my own eventual demise. I spent 16 months of my life in a combat zone. Eight months in Kandahar, Afghanistan and eight more in Fallujah, Iraq. During that period, I spent a lot of time thinking about life and its value.
Conversations on the Roof
We had a very close group of guys. At night in Iraq we would sit on the roof and talk about our families, our beliefs and our plans when we made it home. We bounced ideas off of each other and offered encouraging words when things were tough. Mostly we all just held the worst of it in. We tried to cloak our personal issues under a veil of manliness and duty. Business was business. Deep down, I craved conversation with my wife. We had only been married for two years and I knew she was at home, alone.
Pamela and I had spent the last several years doing everything we could to be together and here we were on opposite sides of the world. I remember one night having a nightmare and waking up at 2 am. I walked down to the phone and begin to dial the operator in Fort Bragg. I dialed that number every 4 seconds for an hour and a half before I finally got an open line. I was connected to my home phone and my wife,
Pamela answered, “Hello?”
“Hey, I love you,” I said quickly.
But, it was too late. The open line that I managed to find had failed. I was left holding a phone that had the power to let me speak to the one person in the world I needed to, but tonight it simply refused to do the job. I dialed again and again for another hour but I never got through. The dark night slowly receded and the morning sun announced that there was work to be done. I would not speak to her for several more days. That was tough. She made an incredible personal sacrifice going days without knowing if she was still married or the newest widow at Fort Bragg. She was growing up every day alone with the prospect of staying that way.
Do you feel lucky?
One night near Fallujah, Iraq we were under a rocket attack for quite some time. We were sheltering under a thin single layered tin roof. That roof was great for keeping the moonlight out but probably not very effective for deflecting bombs from the sky. As the rockets fell in the distance, I started to let myself think about the worst. We made it this far and now at the end we are going to lose someone. We had just lost a doctor and his assistant to a similar attack the week before and it was fresh on our minds. After what seemed like forever but was probably less than an hour, the dark skies filled with the roar of two fighter jets passing overhead. Within minutes they had found the launch sites and quieted the assault with some very well-placed 500 pound bombs. It almost goes without saying that the jets you see and hear at an airshow are very different from the ones I hear. I can close my eyes and see our stuff in that small room. I can see the people in there with me. I can feel the bombs shaking the ground and the relief it brought late at night. I like to think that dealing with fear is my specialty but there have certainly been some days that got the best of me.
We flew out of Germany and landed at Fort Bragg for the last time in the spring of 2004. I was finished. After 5 years of learning what it took to be called a paratrooper, it was time for the next chapter. I was left with a deep appreciation for life and with a great sadness for war and its effects on humanity. War is ugly. I wish that all people in all lands were born into prosperity and goodness. But, it is not so. The human mind is good at spreading ideas. When an evil idea of oppression and ignorance is born into a mind gifted for persuasion and leadership bad things happen. I’m satisfied knowing there will always be men and women in this land that are willing to stop the spread of evil. I’m glad to have first-hand knowledge on how we go about putting out these evil ideas and making the world a place our children and grandchildren can enjoy and be proud of.
I am unbelievably grateful to the many generations of incredible men and women that carved our freedom out of a world that seemed almost wholly opposed to it. I’m grateful to those who were with me during my time overseas. It is the courage on their faces that I still try to mirror in my life.
The aftermath of September 11, 2001 in many ways shaped who I am today. It forced me to grow up. It gave me a pretty good edge on coping with the stresses of everyday life; and most of all it showed me that getting on the wrong school bus in kindergarten is not the worst place you can find yourself for the afternoon.
What’s your 9/11 story? How did September 11th change your life? What were you doing when you found out? Having another perspective can change the way we react to and understand others. Let us hear your story in the comments!