I was nowhere near Manhattan, Pennsylvania, or our nation’s capital on September 11, 2001. I was serving as a Marine Corps Drill Instructor, cycling a platoon of recruits through boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. New York City seemed to be a world away, but in a flash, what we were doing there, making Marines, took on an entirely new importance.
Of the four Marines on my Drill Instructor team, I was the first to learn about what was going on north of us. Our recruits were undergoing training in a remote part of Parris Island, and while they were learning how to use Crew Served Weapons, my Senior Drill Instructor sent me on a routine coffee run for the DIs.
I entered the base’s tiny coffee shop to find the barista and three Drill Instructors staring at the tiny black and white TV in the corner. I heard Matt Lauer’s voice, more cautious than normal, and I asked, “What’s going on?”
“Some jerk flew a plane into one of the Twin Towers,” a DI explained. Like many people I assumed it must have been a Cessna, but seconds after I looked at the screen the second plane hit the South Tower and took with it all the oxygen from our nation. It became instantly clear what was happening. Matt Lauer was silent. No one said a word as we scrambled to leave, to get back to our appointed place of duty, to spread the word and await orders. Surely there would be some sort of military reaction, and Marines are always at the tip of that spear.
We were no longer at peace and the conflict free years during which I’d served my country were finished; as much of the country knew, this act of war would bring swift change to the Defense Department. For most of my ten enlisted years we’d been quietly training for war, but the Marines we were making at Parris Island were the ones who would go out into the world and strike back. I spent the remainder of my 23-year military career preparing Marines as best as I could to do just that.
Earlier in 2017 I joined a group of military veterans and family members representing The War Horse on a guided tour of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in lower Manhattan. With the rigorous pace that Drill Instructors keep, I had done little to process my emotions back in 2001. Visiting Ground Zero, even years later, surfaced the grief, fear, sense of duty, and national pride I’d felt years before.
As I traveled through the museum, my emotions took their own journey, moving between anguish and pride. In the private alcove dedicated to those who jumped from the towers rather than suffer a fate they knew was coming, I broke down. I huddled in the corner wiping my tears as I imagined their last minutes and their deliberate decision to leave the world on their own terms. I began to weep and though I wasn’t embarrassed, I hoped my fellow veterans wouldn’t see me. I allowed the feelings I’d suppressed 16 years earlier to come to the surface and breathe. Catharsis at last.
I will never fully “recover” from the pain I still harbor from the events of September 11th, 2001, but visiting the memorial has helped me turn a page in my healing. I also understand that I’m fortunate to have the ability to heal. It isn’t as easy for those who survived the tragedy or lost loved ones that day, whether in the sky, at the Pentagon, or at Ground Zero. But for those directly affected I say, we are still with you. The people I know and the Marines I served with will never forget what you gave and lost. We still have your back.
Header image by Anna Hiatt