Nearly 17 years later how does this make you feel? My stomach still knots up. My skin turns clammy, mouth dry, hands turn into vices. My eyes well up and my chest burns. I still cannot watch videos of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. Then again, I saw that scene replay on CNN and Fox News on that prophetic day so much that it’s burned into my memory. Every camera angle, over and over again. Each time hoping that the plane would turn away. Seeing the grotesque collision belching flames and broken glass shattering everything that I knew.
I was 17.
I grabbed the books I needed for my next two classes, closed up my locker, and walked on to math class. My normal routine since senior year started the previous week (the school year starts after Labor Day in NY). A friend stopped me and asked if I had heard the news. He said terrorists had crashed a plane into both of the Twin Towers in the City. I shrugged it off because making up a joke like that would’ve been normal for him. As I walked the few hundred feet to math I heard some teachers talking about the attacks, trying to keep their voices quiet. By the time I got to class I realized it was true. Still, I hadn’t seen it yet. TVs were only in a few of the classrooms, most were only set up to play VHS tapes anyway. The day went on with updates trickling in. It wasn’t until after 3:00 when I got home that I finally saw the full scale of the horror.
More than 2,700 dead when the Towers collapsed. Another 200 plus at the Pentagon and on Flight 93. The towers burned and then gave out under their own weight. People who were cut off on floors above the crashes jumped to their deaths. Hundreds remained trapped in elevators they rode at the time of the crashes until the buildings fell upon them. Cable news mercilessly replayed the crashes in the corner of your TV while their live coverage continued. We relived the trauma of planes gracefully gliding in the air and then slamming into buildings dozens of times that day. We saw the sickening implosion of the Twin Towers and people fleeing on the street, covered in dust, blood, and tears.
I had known that I was going to apply for an ROTC scholarship before starting senior year. If no scholarship was offered I would enlist in the Army. Camouflage was already in my future, now conflict was too. Senior year of high school became an exercise in passing time. I knew what was ahead of me and just wanted to get there.
A scholarship was won and the following August I began four years of education and training to become an officer. I became part of Year Group 2006, which would become the first year group of officers to have been cadets in a war time Army for all four years of college since the Vietnam War. The suddenness of our transition from peace time to war time was quite queer.
The group of seniors at Bonas who were about to commission in 2003 seemed larger than life in some ways. It was clear that many of them were exceptional and would become great leaders. One would go on to be awarded the Soldiers Medal for his actions during the Fort Hood shooting in 2014. That group set a high bar for my class. We were fortunate to have them as role models. This was something I took for granted, only later realizing how uncommon this was.
St. Bonaventure was a serene place to find yourself. It was safe and welcoming. I became more confident, less introverted, more outgoing. There was tremendous personal growth. The whole time the specter of 9/11 hung overhead. Constant reminders of what caused our current conflict drove me, fueled deep seeded anger. That anger and hatred of our enemy clouded my judgement around the build up to invading Iraq. I was a typical American in that regard. Still stinging from the terrorist attacks and wanting a grand battle, something that Afghanistan could never be, I went along with the excuses to invade and initiate a regime change.
I remember being issued a Kevlar helmet shortly before the invasion started. When news broke of the first bombs dropping on Baghdad I strapped the helmet on and started running around the dorm floor. As the bombs fell I saw my future and grew excited at the prospect of getting my chance to get there to do my part. Shock and awe gave me a hard on. I was fanatical. I suppose that’s what you’d expect from a sheltered 18 year old. Oddly, being a freshman at the time of the invasion provided enough time to sour on the decision and become cynical by 2006.
Seeing the war in Iraq become a muddy counter insurgency and the floundering of our hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan made me wonder just what was waiting for me after commissioning. The incompetence and outright stupidity of so many of our military and political leaders left me feeling helpless. I could see the futility of war playing out, but at the same time I knew that it would become my job to execute those plans. I did my part as a good future leader and kept studying doctrine and field manuals, reading all the right books about grand strategy and foreign policy, working out twice a day (mostly). My duty was to prepare myself and then do my best in whatever assignment was handed to me. Being a cadet at that time was an odd mix of having the freedom to be critical and speak freely while knowing that I would become part of the machine executing and promoting a failed strategy. Kind of like wearing a helmet with ‘Born to Kill’ scrawled on one side and a peace symbol pinned on the other side.
All the while the anger born of 9/11 remained, compounded by the anger over the administration’s failures. Keeping busy with school and looking forward to what parties were in store each week made the time pass. Allowing my chest to puff and head to swell off of the lines fed us about our greatness and bravery for volunteering during war time built up an unhealthy ego. Added to that was an unrealistic idea of what life in the Army would be like. Our ROTC instructors had a completely different experience of Army life, having 10 – 15 years of mostly peace time service they painted a picture based on that experience. By the time we all got out into the real Army it was a rude awakening to the realities of an Army that had been in a war footing for 5 years.
Disillusionment was a foregone conclusion. It’s hard to imagine any possible future for us that would end any other way. We were excited, patriotic, driven to serve a higher purpose, defend freedom. These things were not what we would end up doing. To make matters worse for me, the Army branched me in Air Defense Artillery. The Taliban and al-Queda didn’t exactly have air threats that needed to be defended against. The branch had been marginalized, it amounted to about 2% of the Army, and there was no real shooting mission for it in the Global War on Terrorism. CRAM did become operational towards the end of my tenure, but SHORAD – the more traditional soldiering part of ADA – was dying when I commissioned.
I had a difficult time accepting all this and kept looking for a way to get in the fight. I tried to transfer to Armor branch (tanks and cavalry) but ADA wouldn’t release me. I applied for Civil Affairs, only to get the rejection letter on my birthday. Finally I called my branch manager (they’re like career advisors) and said my separation packet would be coming to his desk if I couldn’t get an assignment to a Military Transition Team. Another odd twist of timing, the MTT assignments were winding down, with only two more cohorts planned. My branch manager had to make a deal with Field Artillery branch to swap out slots so that I could get the assignment, but he came through. Three years after commissioning, 8 years after 9/11, I finally had my piece of the fight.
The MTT assignment turned out to be a BTT – Border Transition Team. The Army had decided that few Iraqi Army units still needed embedded military advisors and had shifted focus to the Iraqi Border Police and the National Police to help build up those aspects of the Iraqi civil defenses. Our military advisor training started at Fort Riley, KS in mid-June and lasted about 90 days. In September we boarded planes in Topeka and headed to Kuwait. Stepping out of the plan the nasty air smacked me. Early morning local time, I was finally in the shit. It was September 11, 2009.
The 11 man team that I was on would be military advisors to a Border Police academy in Basra. The cadre of the academy all had more experience than any of us. Most had served the Iraqi military in some form for 20 or more years. I was paired up with a colonel who was in charge of the academy’s training plans and doctrine. Most days I just drank chai with him and talked about our families. We both knew that there was little I could offer. Fortunately my advisee did not begrudge me. I probably learned more from him than he would ever learn from me. It was another chance for me to grow through building an understanding of the Iraqi culture and history as related by this colonel. We would occasionally exchange gifts. He knew I liked the native dates and I knew, from the captain I replaced, that he enjoyed blue Gatorade. I also found the English/Arabic Koran I had kept from one of my classes at Bonaventure and gave it to the colonel. He was studying English and I knew he would appreciate the book more than I would. These days passed slowly.
Eventually one of the other BTTs from our cohort got reassigned and we picked up their responsibilities in Basra. We began advising a battalion of Border Police commandos. They were kind of like a SWAT team for the Border Police. Not long after this Iran seized a small oil field on the Iraq/Iran border. It fell within the area of responsibility for the commandos and they started rotating units out there in what was essentially a Mexican stand off with the Iranian Army. Finally a chance for us to get in on some sort of real action! We looked at several options for transport out to the oil field, with the only feasible option being helicopters. In the end there wasn’t leadership support for this, so we remained in Basra and continued with our limited engagement with our partner units.
Then the deployment ended. My T.E. Lawrence dreams faded. Any thoughts of doing something of meaning were over. Just one more exercise in futility. Youth wasted. Anger remained.
As I typed the first sentence of this post, it shocked me to realize that as many years have gone by since September 11, 2001 as had gone by in my life before 9/11. That 9/11 effectively marks the half way point in my life, and the beginning of my adult life, is distressing. Knowing that the post-9/11 world will forevermore be the majority of my own life is a hard thing to swallow. Every new day makes my pre-9/11 existence seem smaller and smaller. The innocence of youth all that more distant and unknown. Barely old enough to know the world before the world was torn down.
I imagine these are the same feelings that veterans of World War I must have felt. Plucked from their sleepy lives, far removed from any notion of globalization, they were tossed into a cauldron of boiling blood and severed limbs. Before they could understand what was happening, it was over, and then they were supposed to get on with life. Over the years WWI and the interwar period began to make more sense to me than the post-WWII years. The demons haunting Hemingway seem more real than the V-E/V-J day euphoria. The desire to dive into Gatsbian gaiety because the only thing that makes sense is absurdity feels more visceral.
Howdy Doody, Leave It to Beaver, Andy Griffith – are you fucking kidding me!? More like Aunt Bee gives Barney Fife a Cleveland Steamer while Wally and Beaver double team Miss Canfield and Buffalo Bob turns Howdy Doody into a fleshlight that pukes white. That seems more recognizable having grown up in a post-9/11 world.
A memory often comes to mind these days. Sitting at the kitchen table with my Uncle Joe, (who manned the top turret of a B-17 in 1943 – ’44) when I was in my early teens, talking about Vietnam. I said to Uncle Joe that he was lucky to have been in WWII since it was a good war. Uncle Joe simply put his hand over mine and calmly said “Timmy, there are no good wars.”