I’ve been a civilian since 2007, and the memory of the 9/11 terror attacks and the experiences of the years that followed continue to shape me to this day. From the start of Operation Enduring Freedom (called OEF) in October 2001 to the time I separated from the military in 2007, I would ultimately spend nearly three years in Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to help to execute the War on Terror. And while it was my job to do just that, I found that my time away from the combat theaters was tinted with guilt and anxiety while so many of my comrades-in-arms remained in harm’s way.
I don’t think anyone can say that what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 made them “a better person.” But I do think that, as has happened so often when our nation is tried by tragedy, we faced choices that would lead us down noble or treacherous paths. We chose the noble path in 2001, and we became stronger as a nation. On a personal level, like everyone else, I struggled with hate and fear as we were plunged into war. While I think I was able to ultimately turn away from those more corrosive emotions, I struggled with them for years.
When al-Qaida terrorists first attacked the World Trade Center, I was a young lieutenant serving on a base in the Middle East, preparing to go on shift at the Watch (part of the effort monitoring Iraq’s compliance with the United Nations’ Southern No Fly Zone). While my teammates and I ate in the dining facility, the images of smoke coming out of the first tower started broadcasting across the large-screen TVs. Slowly, all eyes started watching, wondering what kind of accident could have caused it.
When the second plane hit the towers, we knew what was happening, and the next few hours are still vivid in my memory. At once, dozens of soldiers, sailors and airmen leaped up and charged out of the facility. We jumped into our vehicle and raced to the Watch. Upon arriving, we were greeted with a human tempest as men and women surged throughout the building, desperately trying to assess the attacks. While we stood there getting our bearings, a captain called out to us: “They hit the Pentagon!” and then he disappeared into the maelstrom. I bolted to my station to join the new war.
As with everyone who was affected by Sept. 11, the following weeks were traumatic. But I had an outlet that many did not. Our base became the command center that directed combat air operations over Afghanistan as OEF began. I poured myself into our new mission, and although I was only one small part of a much greater effort, I was able to watch as the Taliban and the al-Qaida terrorists they harbored were routed from Afghanistan. By the time I redeployed back to my home unit in December, the country had been liberated, and al-Qaida has been on the run ever since.
From that point on, however, I became obsessed with staying in the fight. Driven by anger, and even guilt, I volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan the following winter. The deployment only lasted a couple of months, so before I had even returned to my home base, I volunteered to join a deployable combat unit that promised to send me with the troops into combat zones.
Instead of Afghanistan, I wound up doing over a year in Iraq, which had become the next front of the war. My unit would deploy for four or five months, return for about six months and then off we’d go again. When I was finished with that tour, I volunteered to serve a year in Qatar, serving as an analyst for the operational commander overseeing air operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, I decided I needed to move on, and so following this last tour, I left the Air Force.
Since then, I’ve tried to channel that post-9/11 drive into other ways to serve my country. After leaving the armed services, I’ve spent more time with my church and tried to involve myself with community services. I’ve become a husband and a father, which seemed like a remote possibility at best while I was deployed. My love for my country has never been greater, and I can’t describe how much I appreciate the riches that our nation enjoys.
No one can take away the pain and outrage of that day in 2001, but we can overcome it. The truth is, though, that I still feel a certain amount of guilt that I’m not out overseas with those who still sacrifice today. I doubt I’ll ever get past that. In fact, I hope I never do.