Remembering September 11: Stories from Military Families
Do you remember where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001?
I was a young mom, and with a couple of active toddlers and two other elementary aged children that I homeschooled, I wasn’t in the habit of watching television during our busy days. But that morning, my husband called me from his office on MacDill AFB and said quietly in a voice I'd never heard him use, “Turn on the TV.”
On the screen, I was shocked to see one of the Twin Towers in New York City on fire. Smoke billowed out of a gaping wound in its side. As I listened to the news that a plane had flown into it, I wondered along with the rest of the country if this could possibly be an accident. All doubt was removed moments later. I watched in horror on live television as another plane slammed without hesitation into the second tower. In an instant, I knew everything had changed.
Plumes of smoke billow from the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan, New York City, after a Boeing 767 hit each tower during the September 11 attacks. Via Wikimedia.
The fears, the worry, the grief...it all came in waves as I heard of other planes also hijacked and watched the Twin Towers crumble, knowing there were thousands of people inside. It seemed surreal. I gathered my little ones close. Could this really be happening? How could I explain this to my children? What new world would they be living in?
I could not stop weeping as the story unfolded, breathing desperate prayers for my fellow Americans who’d simply been starting their work day or taking a flight...I envisioned what they were going through, and it was overwhelming. I couldn’t even imagine what their family members must be feeling in those moments. News hit of a plane going down in a field in Pennsylvania and another hitting the Pentagon. We braced ourselves for more tragedies. Air traffic was shut down, the President and VP’s location were unknown and speculated about--everything seemed uncertain and in chaos.
Iconic image of NYC firefighters raising American flag at Ground Zero, by Thomas E. Franklin.
Can we ever forget the patriotism that rose up in the wake of 9/11?
It was like nothing I’d ever experienced in my life up to that point. Whether it was the sight of American flags waving from front porches or a hug from a stranger at a candlelight vigil, we were all in shock but united in our grief. The toll of lives lost rose to a total of 2,977 people killed in New York City, Washington, DC, and outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, with victims ranging in age from two years to 85.
Our country held its collective breath and watched recovery efforts play out, ever hopeful, but feeling desperate to help in some practical way. Americans stepped up, donating over 36,000 pints of blood in the days following the attacks, giving over $3 million dollars to the Red Cross in just two days, and with towns and cities across the country sending their own firefighters and EMTs to help at Ground Zero. (via CNN)
Three days after September 11, I watched along with millions of others the Remembrance Service at the Washington National Cathedral. Still unsure of what the future would hold for our nation, the words of people like Billy Graham were a balm. He appealed to our better selves, asking us:
Not to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually as a people and a nation, but to choose to become stronger through all the struggle to rebuild on a solid foundation.
If you were part of a military family at that time, you can probably mark your life as before 9/11 and after 9/11.
Where we lived on base, we went from normal family life to Threatcon Delta and the presence of snipers on everyday places like the commissary roof. My husband was assigned to Central Command, and that day marked the end of our lives as we’d known it before. Repeated deployments became an expected part of life for every military family, including ours.
Still, I think we felt grateful in some ways that we could make those sacrifices, for our countrymen who’d lost their lives, for their families, for those who'd survived but would be affected forever, for the firefighters, police, and first responders who ran into the choking smoke instead of away from it--it felt worth it for them, to feel we could contribute in some way. (The NYCFD alone lost 343 of its force that day.)
They were us, we were them.
More people enlisted in the U.S. military in the 12 months following the September 11 attacks than in any of the years since. As well, since 2001, 2.77 million service members have served on 5.4 million deployments across the world. (Forbes) For those who've joined the military since that time, they’ve never known a military not at war. But with the average age of service members at about 26 years, 9/11 is part of history to many of them or vaguely remembered. (Military Times)
Never forget. Never again.
It’s something we said in the days following 9/11, and it’s important to continue sharing our stories. I asked some military families what they remember about that day and the time following. Here’s what they had to say.
Where Were You on September 11, 2001?
Part of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at Ground Zero.
Linda Hagan, MilitaryByOwner Customer Service and Marine Corps spouse:
“On September 11, 2001, I was at Cracker Barrel in Jacksonville, North Carolina, right outside of Camp LeJeune eating breakfast with my best friend and my three-year-old. My husband was in the Marine Corps, and we had just moved there and I was enjoying the morning having breakfast out. The waitress came to our table and we could tell she was upset. She told us, 'We are going to war, a plane just flew into a building!' Of course, we thought she was exaggerating until we went home and turned on the news. My husband was deployed four months later.
Such a scary time to be a military spouse! The immediate response was such strong military support, which I think is still just as strong today. There was huge patriotism as well, but I feel like that has dwindled. The increased security in airports and venues here in the U.S. and continued military presence in multiple overseas countries has become the new normal. I will never forget that day and that season of life.”
Dawn M. Smith, MilitaryByOwner staff writer and Army spouse:
“Living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, was a quite an experience immediately post 9/11. A national event like foreign terrorism is why Fort Bragg exists. At the ready, and ready to go! I can't imagine the chaos at the crash sites, but I do recall the chaos on base. Like most, I was driving to work and didn't get the news until I arrived and saw the crowd around the break room television.
As soon as it was pieced together that the strikes were deliberate, I knew I wouldn't hear from my husband for not just hours, but days. I actually assumed he would be on an airplane out for somewhere undisclosed, and he would be in touch when he could. I was somewhat wrong, he didn't go immediately, but every soldier available guarded every potential threat site on Fort Bragg--regardless of job, rank, or MOS.
I didn't see him for days, and communication was limited. I sat at home trying to make sense of what was going on, not only globally but just 10 miles down the road at Fort Bragg. I do remember, after working a full day about 40 miles away from my house, wondering if I'd encounter roadblocks or security checks and hoping I could get home to take care of my dog. I worried about that. A lot. I made it home fine-- no men with guns inspecting my car like I imagined. But, as much as I tried to guess what was in front of us according to the Army, it was nothing compared to what our lives really have been like.
There was a new normal that was just beginning. In military life terms, it meant a maddening operational tempo. Endless deployments, redefining what was acceptable communication between married people. Just about 20 years later, the new normal is normal.”
1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division held a Deployment Ceremony at Ray Barracks, Friedberg Germany, January 5, 2006 for their official farewell before deployment to Iraq. Here, 1st Armored Division troops march from the field. From Army Flickr account.
Danielle Keech, MilitaryByOwner staff writer and Marine Corps spouse:
"I was in third grade when 9/11 happened. For me, there was no such thing as tragedies, war, or politics until that horrific day. I remember getting to school and settled in for class when someone came in to speak to my teacher, and just moments later our parents were there to pick us up. I was excited. I thought it was a special day and we would do something fun — I always welcomed a change in routine. But as my mom walked me home, I remember realizing that this wasn’t a good thing.
I think she was trying to explain it to me, but it didn’t register until we got home and I watched the accident repeat on TV all day. But even then, how much can you understand as an eight-year-old? Even now, I’m realizing that this wasn’t something I was capable of processing. But this was the defining moment for me. As an adult, I realize that it shaped my entire worldview and perspective on war and politics. I learned to assume that these things happen. That war is constant. And wasn’t capable of understanding the magnitude of this act of terrorism until much older."
David Gran, co-owner of MilitaryByOwner and Lt.Col., USMC, retired:
“I was working in the Navy Annex up the hill from the Pentagon. We heard a plane fly over or near the top of our building. It was very loud. After it flew over, we did not hear the explosion, we heard silence as the whine of the jet engines immediately stopped. At that moment we did not know it hit the Pentagon.
I have kept a meeting reminder as a warning of how our world can change in an instant. The next morning, on 9/12, I had a scheduled meeting with Rosemary Chapa, who worked manpower issues for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Her office was just recently moved into a renovated area of the Pentagon. Unfortunately, the new location is where one of the 9/11 planes hit the Pentagon. Rosemary did not survive the attack.
A lot changed after that day. On the military side, a continuous buildup, to disrupt and eliminate our attackers, that transitioned into a decades long war in multiple countries. At home, unprecedented security for air travel, a surge in patriotism and support for the military, and the realization that our planet was much smaller now.”
The Pentagon after 9/11/2001 attack. Image via Pixabay.
Kara MacPherson, Air Force spouse:
"My husband Tom was in the Air Force Honor Guard in DC. I was at school at Gallaudet [university for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing]. We could see the smoke from the Pentagon from the university. The live captioners had already left for the day, so I spent hours interpreting the news for my deaf professors and classmates. I finally left school once things had calmed a bit and went home, but Tom was locked on base. He spent many days doing extra duty securing areas of base in the following weeks. We had an emergency plan for the house that included what we would do in the case of an attack that included some kind of chemical agent. We had no idea how things were going to progress. I was eight months pregnant."
Salina Clark, active duty Air Force:
"I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and we were going through a typhoon at the time. So already being stuck in the dorm, a friend burst through the door late at night and said to turn on the TV and we watched both towers go down. Across the screen, it started to say FPCON Delta. We were nervous and in shock, watching what our nation was going through from afar. The days proceeded with worries of what was to come, since we were stuck three days inside. Everyone was always glued to the TVs watching the fire crews, the damage, the mess, America hurting, but the biggest remembrance was the unity. I heard stories from friends and family back home talking about how people were driving around with their American flags everywhere as if representing their sports team. Our lives changed with the security on base and easy security access to airports. Everyone was on pins and needles when flying."
Ashley Corral, daughter of Army Reserve and military spouse:
"My mom's Reserve battalion was based out of New York. They were all called in to do search and rescue (then search and recovery) within about 48 hours. My dad was actually flying on a plane that day leaving Pennsylvania, and we couldn't find out where he was for pretty much the whole day. I was still a kid myself. A sophomore, sitting in economics class when my teacher was interrupted by another teacher and told to turn on the TV. And from there, we all watched together in horror."
Wreckage of Twin Towers after 9/11 attacks.
Katarina, daughter of active duty Army, school-aged during 9/11:
“We were in Germany getting ready to celebrate my sister's birthday. I remember recognizing that something was wrong, but didn't fully grasp the severity of what happened until the next day when pop-up security stations started appearing at base entrances filled with armed guards. The image of the first time a soldier with a bullet-proof vest and rifle climbed onto our elementary school bus to inspect our bus passes will forever remain in my mind.”
Danette Miller, Air Force spouse:
"We were stationed at Offutt AFB in Omaha. My husband Cory was sitting alert during an exercise. It was our first day of Bible study, and I turned on the TV to entertain my daughter while I did her hair that morning. My study leader had a daughter who was a flight attendant out of New York. She never told us she had not heard from her that morning, yet she carried on. I remember going to Threatcon Delta. A Navy neighbor was home, and we were talking over the fence. We heard the sound of fighters after all air traffic had ceased. What I later learned from Cory was that was the escort for Air Force One headed into Offutt for the President's secure meeting."
Sam Torkitt, Air Force Reserve and military spouse:
"I was an ART on duty at McGuire AFB, NJ. My husband was active duty, working a mid-shift. Many of my fellow reservists were full time firefighters, Transit Cops, or financiers who worked downtown. I’m also from NYC. It took me three days to make contact with every single person in the squadron to see if we lost anyone, while at the same time trying to contact my family to see if they were safe.”
Patriotism was on full display across the country after 9/11/2001.
Debbie Sweitzer, Air Force spouse:
"I was in military housing outside of DC in Landover, Maryland. I was home with two of my children and waiting for the other to ride home on the bus from her preschool almost in DC. She was all of three years old. I heard something from a neighbor and turned on the TV and realized that she was potentially very near a target. In addition, about half of our neighborhood worked at the Pentagon.
All of the SAHMs went to my friend's house and watched TV and waited to hear from everyone's husband. There was no phone service for hours, and traffic was at a standstill. We were trying to act normal for our kids but I don't know if we succeeded. We were all in shock. It took almost 12 hours for some spouses to get home (it was a 30-45 minute commute normally). We lost a member of our military community at the Pentagon. One of our friends was often in the the section that was hit. We didn't know if he was there or not until hours after the plane crashed.
Immediately after 9/11, I was incredibly moved by the patriotism and general goodwill in our country. There was an appreciation for life and those who serve and the little things that was beautiful. I don't sense much of that any more at all.
September 11 eventually sent my husband to Iraq, changing the dynamics of our little family forever."
Terry Johnston, Air Force spouse:
"I remember the silence of the skies when all planes were grounded. And the sound of the fighter airplanes was all you heard in the air for several days. I was at home in Springfield, VA, talking on the phone with my mom and watching it all unfold on TV. Rich was at Fort McNair in DC and heard the airplane hit the Pentagon. Traveling by air became more complicated, and I think Americans became much more aware of those surrounding them and less trusting of strangers."
Tara Howes, Army spouse:
“We were at a joint assignment in Florida. He immediately packed because they said he was leaving ASAP. I was terrified, because before that it was just Bosnia for us. I knew things had changed.”
Part of the National September 11 Memorial. "The names of every person who died in the 2001 and 1993 attacks are inscribed into bronze panels edging the Memorial pools, a powerful reminder of the largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil and the greatest single loss of rescue personnel in American history." (More information about the memorial, photo via Pixabay).
Tasha Neri, daughter of active duty military and Air Force spouse:
"My parents were stationed in Italy. We were stationed at Langley, and I remember being in complete shock. I didn’t eat. I didn’t move from this spot on the carpet in front of the TV. I was home alone and couldn’t get in touch with my parents for what seemed like eternity--and forget trying to get in touch with my husband on base. All the lines were busy for days, but I was most concerned with my uncle who was working in the Pentagon. Thankfully, he was okay. But I didn’t know that for almost 18 hours. I just remember feeling like this was a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from. I felt SO alone and just continued to watch people die on my TV screen, while I searched the crowds for my uncle."
Sherry Mathis, Air Force spouse:
"We were at Offut AFB, Nebraska, where they took President Bush for safety. We watched him come and go."
Air Force One. Image via Pixabay.
Lisa Greene, Air Force spouse:
"We were on a plane, moving from Germany to Texas. My husband, my four-year-old daughter, our dog in a soft side carrier under a seat, and myself (7 months pregnant) were on our last flight flying from Arizona to Texas. We were on the runway about to take off and the plane came to a sudden halt. The pilot came on and didn't really know what to tell us. He said that we were returning to the terminal and that a plane had flown into a building in New York City and we could stay on the plane or if we wanted to get off, we could. It was very early and this pregnant mama was hungry! So my husband David got off the plane to get us some breakfast. While standing in line, he saw the second plane hit. He came back on the plane so fast and said that we needed to get our stuff and get off the plane--that we weren't going anywhere. We ended up renting a van and driving to Texas."
Amanda Martin, Air Force spouse
“I was shopping at the commissary in Spangdahlem, Germany. They played the news over the speakers, and everyone came to a stop to listen. Base went to Delta. It was my parents' 30th wedding anniversary and my dad was traveling back home to ATL from PA. We were on pins and needles waiting to hear that he was safe. It was my first reality into my ignorance of the world, and also a look into the hatred some have for western civilization.”
Amanda, military spouse:
"My husband was stationed at the Pentagon initiating the emergency phone tree and looking for missing members in his unit. I was on lock down in my classroom with my students until evacuation could be approved. No school for the next week. But he returned to the burning building because the Pentagon is not shut down or left empty-- ever."
Originally posted 2019. Updated 2021.