Looking back now, it’s amazing the little things I remember about September 11 2001. It started off as a beautiful morning in Manhattan. The sun was out, it was a warm, late summer day. The summer’s heat was finally breaking.
It was election day in New York, primary day. There were candidate flyers everywhere.
I was still sweating a little after a morning swim when I sat down for a 9:00 AM class. I was many things that morning – student, veteran, New Yorker, serving Guardsman.
I remember the fire engines next, sirens wailing, rolling south on Lexington Ave, loud and constant enough to interrupt the class.
I remember the soft, small voice of a young woman behind me: “An airplane just hit the World Trade Center.”
I remember the sense of dread as she updated us: “Two planes, both towers! Its terrorism!”
I remember the panicked faces of students and the shrieks as the first tower collapsed on TV screens in the student lounge as I raced through.
I can still see the fear and anguish on my cabbie’s face as I forced him to stay in Manhattan long enough to get me to my armory.
The fear in the voice of the man who seeing me running southwards in an Army uniform said with alarm: “Now I’m really scared.”
I remember the frustration of “hurry up and wait” at the armory:
… the pain in my fists from punching my wall locker in frustration.
…the realization that so many people were dead.
… the sight of lower Manhattan at Ground Zero burning that night when I finally set eyes on what was left of the towers.
In those long days after, the pains and frustrations:
…Lt. Mike searching desperately for his sister, who was gone.
…the smoke and the smells of destruction and death all around us.
…the cold, mean rain on the night of September 12th, falling like a further curse upon us.
…the salute for the NYPD officer’s remains as they pulled him from the pile.
…the Bucket Brigades, as other soldiers sifted through the debris.
There were moments of relief and comradery as well:
Firefighters Chris E. and Sean G. appearing among the living after days of not knowing where they were.
The amazing reactions of New Yorkers – restaurants that fed us for nothing, civilians walking around with homemade sandwiches, citizens cheering and waving American flags at marching soldiers.
The reactions of all Americans – the tons of clothes, toiletries and basic necessities like flashlights that were shipped and distributed to military and first responders on scene.
I remember the sense of burn-out after twelve days at ground zero:
… the working dogs who were getting PTSD as they approached the two week mark.
… the psychologist who was more scared than the soldiers he was trying to comfort.
… the uncomfortable press of the crowds in Central Park when I stopped there after being dismissed.
… the dust on my boots in the Armory the next time I opened my locker, dust from the fires.
September 11 is for many among us today our defining moment. The decisions our nation has made since then has cost us more lives, and more of my friends than the attacks did.
The one thing I remember the most though, is the sense of belonging and purpose I had as a serving National Guard soldier. I have confessed many times that my own greatest blessing that day was my ability to respond instantly and purposefully. America is at its best when Americans serve a cause beyond themselves. I was lucky to have a way to serve in 2001. The frustrations that came from serving at Ground Zero were minor compared to the frustration I would have felt without a way to respond.
Today communities all across our great country are reeling from the effects of hurricanes and wildfires. Today, September 11, is a great day to remember that no matter how bad it gets, America can and will come together to help one another. If you are safe and well take a minute today and serve. Write a check, pack a box, volunteer for an organization providing relief. When Americans serve one another, putting aside debate until the crisis is resolved, we show who we really are and what we really can do.