Re-visit: I’ll Never Forget What I Saw at the Pentagon After 9/11

**I’m sharing this piece that I wrote for The Federalist 2 years ago as we remember the 17th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.**

In summer 2005, I visited the Smithsonian’s American History museum in Washington DC with a couple of Marine friends. All of us were stationed in DC at the time. We were nursing wounds from our experiences in the Global War on Terror, and wandered around the museum admiring various pieces collected from our nation’s history.

I pushed one of my friends in a wheelchair because an improvised explosive device had shattered his leg; the same IED killed three of his friends. It had not yet dawned on me that a 9-11 exhibit might already be on display since it had only been four years, but we rounded a corner and there before us hung a massive American flag.

The room was crowded with visitors, many of them high school students. People were posing, laughing, and making funny faces as they took pictures. I was stunned. My friends were enraged. They turned to look at me. There we stood staring at the American flag that had hung on the side of the Pentagon days after 184 people were murdered on-site in this nation’s largest terrorist attack in history. We all thought: Is nothing sacred? Is four years long enough to forget? Is joking around appropriate in the face of such suffering and evil?

To be fair, these kids were young when 9/11 happened. They were probably 10 or 11 on that fateful day, and irreverence is often a part of youth, but they should have known better. Nearly 3,000 people perished that day, and countless more have died since at the hands of terrorists.

What We Saw that Day

My memories of that flag will forever be different from the majority of Americans and the rest of the world. While most remember it blowing in the breeze in news reports or when they visited the American History museum, I was there in person to see it. I saw it for the first time when, after volunteering at the Army base where I was stationed north of DC, I helped 400 grieving family members visit the Pentagon crash site shortly after the attack. I still see in my mind’s eye the gaping hole, floors collapsed in on one another, smoke rising from the smoldering ashes, the tormented faces of loved ones.

The intensity of seeing the site was amplified a thousand-fold by standing alongside agonized grieving family members; many of whom collapsed at my feet from the sheer weight of their pain. When those families visited for the first time after terrorists flew a plane into that iconic building, I struggled to keep military bearing while standing by in my dress whites, but it became impossible as tears streamed down my cheeks.

One of the clearest memories I have is of the general in charge. He had escaped from the fire that erupted in his office after the blast. Seeing my tears during this family visit, he checked on me. I had never seen so many stars in person, and I was embarrassed for showing what I thought was weakness, but he only said: “Are you alright, sailor?” He knew the tremendous burden of relief work. He was a truly kind man and the type of general a soldier would want to follow into battle.

My immediate thought in seeing the site was: There are no survivors. My second thought was: I am staring into the gates of Hell. While we were in the initial rescue phase then, the site looked like a tomb. This proved to be correct, since there were no survivors. In fact, many bodies were never recovered because of the heat from the blast. I spent 45 days listening to such grisly details as I provided logistical and emotional support to the family members of those killed.

Read the rest over at The Federalist.

A Letter to University Students in Need of a “Safe” Space from a Veteran

Dear University Students in Need of a “Safe” Space,

Today is Veteran’s Day. On this particular Veteran’s Day, university students and their professors across the nation are crying that they are traumatized by the results of Tuesday’s election claiming they need “safe” spaces to deal with the horror of Donald Trump’s election (There are dictionaries on campus to help with defining words like horror, tragedy, trauma, pain, and suffering in case they are needed.) Students are not attending classes and their professors are encouraging this infantile behavior by cancelling their classes and “protesting” with them. It is fitting in the face of this adolescent behavior to contemplate what I was doing when I was 18-22 years of age (I served 6 years, but most college students are 18-22).

I enlisted in 1999, during peace-time. I needed to pay for college, and while that was my initial reason for enlisting, that quickly changed as I learned of the real sacrifice of serving in the military. I am thankful that my military service did in fact pay for my Bachelor’s degree and it is now paying for my nearly completed Master’s degree. I am not saddled with $100,000 in debt I can never repay with a BA in Underwater Basket Weaving.

I was a linguist and my position required mainly desk work. That desk work meant that when I was 20 years old I was in charge of complex classified systems at a large government agency. I was doing work graduate students only dream of–I hadn’t even finished college at the time–but I was already fluent in a second language. You are claiming exhaustion and trauma from an election. I worked rotating 12 hour shifts for years without even knowing what day it was while entrusted–along with all of my fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines–with the task of keeping this nation safe.

At 20 years of age the unthinkable happened. A real trauma and tragedy: 9/11. Overnight we went from peace-time to war-time. I found myself standing in front of the burning rubble of the Pentagon with 400 grieving family members. We stood in front of the tomb where 184 people had been murdered. Trauma is not when you don’t get your way. Trauma is a response to actual violence. An election going as elections go in a Republic is not a trauma. It’s the electoral process of this nation.

Three years after 9-11 I found myself trapped in the pain and real trauma of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had actual, not made up, PTSD. My relief work proved deeply painful and I had to pay a great sacrifice; one that so many of my fellow Veterans pay and carry today. You don’t have any idea what the need for a “safe” space is when you’ve never woken up from nightmares in a state of sleep paralysis alone in your bed across the ocean from your family or you had to run out of a movie theater, cower in a corner, and have a panic attack at the entrance because you didn’t expect the 9-11 movie trailer. The same goes for combat Vets when they see combat scenes. Hollywood can occasionally get something right, and they are pretty good at portraying flashbacks. You have no idea what it is like to give so much and carry that kind of tremendous weight your entire life. Being an undergraduate at a school where you are coddled, isn’t trauma. War, terrorism, violence, natural disasters, abuse, cancer are real traumas. Those of us with PTSD in the military, kept doing our jobs while getting treatment. We didn’t get to stop acting like adults in the midst of that suffering and neither do the men and women battling the scars of war today.

You and your friends are safe in your warm dorm rooms whimpering about your losses and how this country is going to fall apart and all of those “racist” voters will destroy this country. It’s much easier to label people than engage in actual intellectual debate based on reality and facts. I didn’t vote for Clinton or Trump, I exercised my free right to go third party, but I accept the election results because that is what we do in a free nation. The way you are acting implies your desire for a dictatorship based on your feelings and relativistic beliefs predicated upon nihilism. I know people of all backgrounds and races who voted for Trump. Just because you want something to be true does not make it true.

While you are playing beer pong and comforting one another in response to that “awful” Donald Trump, I have friends who have committed suicide from the trauma of war. I have friends who have died suddenly from injuries that occurred in war zones or on humanitarian missions. I have three cousins who gave years of their lives to war in the Marine Corps. I have friends who have been shot, blown up, and lost friends in IEDs. I have family still serving in the military.

Today we remember the people who serve or have served this great nation and who understand sacrifice in the face of tremendous pain and suffering. So, it’s time to put your big boy or big girl pants on and accept what has happened. It’s time to be an actual adult. You have no idea what a “safe” space is or what real trauma, tragedy, and suffering is like. I do and so do countless others.

Sincerely,

A U.S. Navy Veteran

The Federalist: I’ll Never Forget What I Saw at the Pentagon After 9/11

In summer 2005, I visited the Smithsonian’s American History museum in Washington DC with a couple of Marine friends. All of us were stationed in DC at the time. We were nursing wounds from our experiences in the Global War on Terror, and wandered around the museum admiring various pieces collected from our nation’s history.

I pushed one of my friends in a wheelchair because an improvised explosive device had shattered his leg; the same IED killed three of his friends. It had not yet dawned on me that a 9-11 exhibit might already be on display since it had only been four years, but we rounded a corner and there before us hung a massive American flag.
The room was crowded with visitors, many of them high school students. People were posing, laughing, and making funny faces as they took pictures. I was stunned. My friends were enraged. They turned to look at me. There we stood staring at the American flag that had hung on the side of the Pentagon days after 184 people were murdered on-site in this nation’s largest terrorist attack in history. We all thought: Is nothing sacred? Is four years long enough to forget? Is joking around appropriate in the face of such suffering and evil?

To be fair, these kids were young when 9/11 happened. They were probably 10 or 11 on that fateful day, and irreverence is often a part of youth, but they should have known better. Nearly 3,000 people perished that day, and countless more have died since at the hands of terrorists.

What We Saw that Day
My memories of that flag will forever be different from the majority of Americans and the rest of the world. While most remember it blowing in the breeze in news reports or when they visited the American History museum, I was there in person to see it. I saw it for the first time when, after volunteering at the Army base where I was stationed north of DC, I helped 400 grieving family members visit the Pentagon crash site shortly after the attack. I still see in my mind’s eye the gaping hole, floors collapsed in on one another, smoke rising from the smoldering ashes, the tormented faces of loved ones.

The intensity of seeing the site was amplified a thousand-fold by standing alongside agonized grieving family members; many of whom collapsed at my feet from the sheer weight of their pain. When those families visited for the first time after terrorists flew a plane into that iconic building, I struggled to keep military bearing while standing by in my dress whites, but it became impossible as tears streamed down my cheeks.

Read the rest over at The Federalist.