Today is the quindecennial of a morning I cannot ever forget.
I originally posted this first-hand account five years ago on the original version of this site, and today seemed an appropriate time to publish a revised version of the original here.
My late father, who was old enough to fly P-51D Mustangs for the USAAF during World War 2, once told me that he could remember exactly where he was and what he was doing when he heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Likewise, my elder brother (the only one of my siblings who is legitimately a baby boomer) can recall exactly where he was and what he was doing when he heard about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
In the exact same vein, a certain September day a decade and a half ago is irremovably burned into my memory.
At the time I was stationed at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in South Bend, Indiana, having transferred there a mere eighteen months previously from the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67). This was to be my final duty station before being honorably retired from active duty, scheduled to occur in another 292 days. Two days previously, I had attended an open-air free concert hosted by WBYT-FM (county radio) that had been cut short by a really nasty thunderstorm.
Because it was a Tuesday morning, according to how Captain Chapman ran things, this was the morning for the weekly staff meeting. Because I was the Staff Duty Officer that week, according to protocol, my assigned seat (the only actual seat assignment) was the one nearest the captain’s office door, which placed that door at my right elbow.
I remember the color of that chair (lifejacket orange), and that it was fairly comfortable by military standards (tolerable without being soft). I remember that my right ankle was crossed over my left knee, to support the clipboard on which I was taking notes. I remember that I had just taken a swig of fresh hot coffee, and that I had just sat the cup down on the end table immediately portside of the chair in which I was sitting.
And then the phone call came in . . . specifically to the captain’s desk phone.
It was the Command Ombudsman, calling to let the skipper know that a plane had flown into one of the trade center towers, and that perhaps he should turn on the television in his office. The captain, a Bronx native, didn’t think much of it (supposing that it had been someone in a Cessna getting blown into one of the towers), but picked up the remote on his desk and turned on the office television anyway.
The television in the captain’s office was located in the corner to my left. It was mounted on a platform about head high if I was standing, and the way that the office was laid out, everyone save someone sitting in the chair I was in could comfortably view it from where they were seated. I didn’t bother to get out of the chair, figuring that I could always change my mind if it was something worth watching.
The expressions on everyone’s faces told me at a glance that something had indeed happened . . . evidently Captain Chapman had turned on the TV just in time for everyone in the room who wasn’t me to watch United Airlines Flight 175 plow into the World Trade Center South Tower.
And in that instant, the entire day went to hell, even in north-central Indiana.
Within seconds, the three cell phones that were in the office rang . . . nearly simultaneously. Calling in to the captain’s personal cell phone was his wife (a Brooklyn native), asking if he was aware of what was happening in Manhattan. Calling in to the captain’s official cell phone was the Naval Reserves Midwest Region Commander (a rear admiral headquartered at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center), alerting him to what had happened in New York City. Calling in to the duty cell phone (sitting on my right hip) was the Region Duty Officer, advising me of what had just happened and directing me to be prepared for further instructions.
I already knew what the further instructions were going to be. The Navy wing of the South Bend reserve center was home to six reserve units, and I was already figuring that a full recall was going to be ordered, so the sooner I got started, the better.
The skipper didn’t waste time on the staff meeting; it was over. The others in the room were instructed to pull together lists of the medical, administrative, and logistical readiness on each of the reserve units under our responsibility, and then assist me with the initial phases of the recall that he and I both knew was going to be ordered eventually.
A full recall like the one I’m describing has as its objective “hard contact” with at least 95% of each reserve unit under the reserve center’s responsibility. Voicemail messages, e-mail messages, or talking to the reservist’s spouse, employer, and/or significant other isn’t going to cut it; only a conversation with the reservist in question (whether face-to-face or over the phone) counts toward the recall. With 208 reservists between six units, and knowing that realistically there’s no way that I make hard contact on the first try every time, that’s an awful lot of phone calls to make.
Captain Chapman’s plan was for the “initial phase” (as he defined it) to be just making as many phone calls as possible – screw hard contact at the moment – and then have me follow up as the day went on with anyone we didn’t catch on the first pass. His overarching goal was to have everyone but him and me gone home by lunchtime; because he figured that they’d be safer there. As plans go, this one worked pretty well. Within a couple of hours I had six reasonably neat stacks of folders sitting on the service counter of my office, and six recall lists marked up as to who’d been hard contacted and who’d been left messages, and it was just the skipper and me in the Navy side of the building from that point forward.
I was also by this time receiving calls from Navy veterans and retirees, who wanted to make sure I knew how to reach them and to let me know that they were ready and able to serve if needed. Typically, they’d report their name, rank, service number, discharge date, and a phone number where they could be reached. I think that the first one caught me off guard, but after that I started writing them down, and I must have filled at least a half-pad of paper (if not more) throughout the course of the day.
Also, from my office vantage point, I saw something that sort of cemented in my head the typical attitude of those veterans who were calling me to “check in.” I watched a man, and I’m sure that he was in his late sixties or early seventies, walk down the hall of the Marine Corps wing of the building and right into the First Sergeant’s Office. I was told later that the man was a USMC Veteran from World War 2, and that upon entering the office, he’d snapped to attention and asked, “First Sergeant, where do you need me?” (Not, “Do you need me?” but, “Where do you need me?”) All I need to know about once-a-marine-always-a-marine I learned right there.
At some point early in the afternoon, I managed to get a long enough break in the action that I stepped out of my office to take a walk up to the drill deck. I noticed that members of the National Guard unit were dressing out and deploying to various points in the area (the airport, the train depot, the county-city building, and so forth). We weren’t anywhere near where the attacks had taken place, but armed detachments of soldiers were found at key locations anyway.
That’s when it sunk in that terrorism is an entirely different dynamic . . . there is no such thing as a front line to terrorists. As it became more and more clear that this was indeed the handiwork of Al-Qaeda, and in all probability personally ordered by Osama bin Laden himself, I began to realize the real value of the security briefings that I had either sat in on or personally delivered to our reservists that were deploying overseas.
By the time that I had the recall completed, the appropriate reports filed, and a final security walkaround complete, it was approaching 23:00 (11:00 p.m. for you civilians). I can tell you that I was never happier to see my two dogs than I was that evening.
The NFL took a week off, so did NASCAR, and the rest of professional (and I think also collegiate) sports followed their lead. So, oddly enough, did the Emmys. I’m not necessarily a fan of David Letterman, but his opening monologue upon returning to the air six days after the attacks impressed me as much as President Bush’s remarks the evening of the attacks and his address to a joint session of Congress nine days later.
But four days after the attacks, I became a very busy boy, as Naval Mobile Construction Battalion TWO SIX (a detachment of which was assigned to the South Bend reserve center) was quietly mobilized to North Carolina in support of Operation Noble Eagle, and would stay there through the following April. That meant, specifically, that my office (and me in particular) was tasked with processing and coordinating the activation and travel orders for about five dozen reservists (plus the reservists from other units that were being called up for active service). Suffice that it made for an interesting few weeks of paperwork flexibility.
Of course, it didn’t take too long for the various conspiracy theorist wingnutjobs to start spewing one version or another of some “911 truther” stories to start getting attention. The fact that each and every single “observation,” “fact,” and/or “question” has been more than satisfactorily answered, debunked, and/or resolved hasn’t seemed to matter too much to such fools. And more’s the pity because of it. (This, by the way, is different from what we know are legitimate questions, which is not what I’m referring to here.)
This year is the quindecennial of those attacks – and, yes, also the quadrennial of the Benghazi debacle (but that’s outside the scope of this account) – and I suppose that some people seem to have an appropriate interest in doing something special to commemorate the anniversary. The 9/11 memorials in Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in a now-infamous field in Pennsylvania have probably been busy this weekend. I’ve also noticed that the televised NFL games, which normally skip the honoring of the colors, put those honors on full display today, including remarks from Presidents Bush and Obama (which, credit where it’s due, were nicely done).
You know, on that morning, when I stood up to see what everyone else in the office was watching, that was the last time – ever – that I sat in that chair. It didn’t matter why I was in the skipper’s office; I never sat in that orange chair again. (If it was a Tuesday staff meeting when I was on duty, then I opted to stand for the entire meeting.) And no one ever asked why, either. In fact, I remember noticing that, other than the captain, none of the other people who were in that office at that time on that day ever sat in those same spots ever again, regardless of why they were in the office.