It’s 12:09 a.m. as I write this. All the major networks are running nothing but 9/11 anniverary shows – showing clips from that day, talking to survivors, talking to first responders, debating the war in Iraq and the significance of this anniversary.
Here’s what I’ll be remembering.
I was at Ramstein Air Base, Germany five years ago. I worked for the Kaiserslautern American newspaper as a staffwriter in the public affairs office. I was 20 years old, and was engaged to marry Martin, who at that time was a tank commander for the German Army. The wedding – which was taking place over there – was the forefront of all my thoughts. I had a Web site set up, detailing the wedding plans so my family in the states could follow along with flower selections and cake tasting.
That day was particularly good.
The weather in Germany was sunny, blue and clear – just like it was in New York City and Washington despite being six hours ahead. Our work for the newspaper was done early, and I had spent extra time at the gym that early afternoon, whipping myself into shape for the dress. I returned from the gym to my office, where I updated the journal on my Web site. The text below is the entry I wrote:
September 11, 2001 – Well, 14 people have purchased their tickets and are anxiously awaiting for the FedEx person to bring them to their door. We are even more dedicated to coming up with activities that will truly provide for our guests a fun and memorable trip to Germany, now that we know who exactly is coming, and what interests them. On another note, my orders for Aviano have arrived, which is very reassuring. Granted, there’s a mountain of paperwork needing signatures, but there’s definitely a place in Italy for Martin and me. Yet, I don’t think the fact I’m going to be there with Martin next year at this time has sunk in. It seems like a far-off dream. Up until this point, I had my ‘life’ planned out. Ever since the 8th-grade, I KNEW I was going to be in the Air Force as a journalist, living in Germany, visiting remote countries nobody’s heard of. I have letters, journal entries and friends from back then who can vouch for this. I was determined. However, I didn’t think I’d reach all my goals before the age of 20, but that’s what happened. And so now, I really don’t know what’s ahead of me like I did as an 8th-grader. Don’t get me wrong; I still have goals and things I want to do. But everything really is a new adventure now. And nothing could be more exciting or scarier or nerve-racking or interesting as that.
Not even ten minutes after I posted that entry, our admin person came in, her eyes wide. “Did you see the tower?” she asked.
I assumed she was talking about the tower on our flight line, which stood just outside our window. It looked fine to me. “No, on the television!” We rushed to the conference room, and like millions around the world, saw the image of the second plane slamming into the building.
That’s when my boss came into the room, pointed at me, and said, ‘Get across the street, now. Advise the commander that we’re going 24-ops. Go.” She handed me a notebook and suddenly, I went from being a two-striper Airman writing for the paper to sitting at the table as the wing general and colonels talked about lock-down, the evacuation of the Pentagon (which I learned there had been hit) and how to guarantee the safety of the more than 40,000 Americans who lived in that immediate area of Germany.
I didn’t go home that night.
The base locked down immediately. European media started calling, not to get the latest dirt, but to share their condolences and to ask how they could help. Throughout the night, I acted as the base’s spokeswoman, speaking on behalf of the general to our local American Forces Network radio deejays, reassuring those in the community and letting them know of closings, of where they could contact officials, what they could expect in the morning (security-wise.) I later got awarded for that, which meant a lot to me. It was good knowing I had contributed something.
At around midnight, I was finally able to sit down and post a message on my Website, knowing my family was probably going to look there first for any news about me. I wrote the following:
September 11, 2001 – Two entries today. Tragedy has struck America and Americans today. As a U.S. servicemember, I am still at work at Ramstein Air Base, since all U.S. military installations are under strict security, and my office is responsible for alerting all the Americans in this area. I can not describe the feeling of helplessness I experienced today as things unfolded on the television screen. The military’s heart, the Pentagon, was struck; the military is small, so we all know someone who works there. I do. I’ve been getting calls from parents who’s grown children are at the Pentagon, asking how in the world they can contact their loved ones, to see if they were hurt, or worse. Media reporters, who are known to be arrogant, pushy and scratching for deadline information, has called not to question, but to express concern and sympathy. My hands are shaking from all the coffee I’ve been drinking; it’s going to be a long night. Martin called me at the office, asking if I’m all right. It was reassuring to hear his voice. Now, more than ever, the reality of life is more vivid, and the importance of love, strength and pride is clear. But this makes me wonder, what kind of world lays ahead of us? Just the other day, Martin and I were talking about our future, of one day actually settling down and raising a family. But how, in a world like this? I asked one of my co-workers, how is she going to explain this to her children. She didn’t know. None of us know how to explain this. It’s just so tragic and so terrible. I want everyone to know that I’m thinking of them. There are Americans in every corner of the world, watching, working hard to protect our country amid this turmoil. I hate to think this happened in my home, on the land that I always felt was safe. They say this is America’s darkest hour, but be sure there’ll come many shining moments from this. I wish I could hug all my loved ones, but I am glad I am here in Germany, doing what I can to serve this country. Just please, say a prayer for everyone involved in this, from the citizen offering his medical knowledge in New York, to the 19-year old kid standing outside my window, guarding this base’s flight line. We need all the support we can get.
I went home at 8 a.m. the next morning. The base was eerily quiet – a ghost town from the lock-down. Yet as I was leaving the gate, I gasped at the sight. There’s a single road leading onto the base that runs alongside the perimeter. It’s a good three miles from the entrance to the highway. As I headed east, the westbound lane was packed with cars. All military people. All in uniform. All waiting to get through the extensive military checkpoints now set up.
And that’s when it hit me.
The world had changed. I had to pull over and cry – just heaving over the images I’d seen, at the lonlieness of me returning to my off-base apartment, feeling painfully exposed and foreign in a country that I had grown to love.
At the time, I lived in a studio apartment above my landlord, who was about 70 years old and spoke no English. She was an early riser, and heard me pull up. She met me at the door. We didn’t speak, but she just opened her arms to me and whispered, “Es tut mehr sehr, sehr leid.” (I’m so, so sorry.) It was exactly what I needed.
The following weeks went by in a blur. There were many things I couldn’t write about then for the safety and security of the aircraft, people and mission. Within days, Ramstein started sending cargo aircraft over Afghanistan, filled with humanitarian goods and special forces. Within weeks, they were returning with those killed in those initial fights there. My days were spent escorting media, which included local German stations to Associated Press to MTV to the Today show, onto the base to cover the operations.
It was constant activity and it’s never stopped – not even five years later. It being the war on terrorism and the gut-wrenching moments we military folks have experienced ever since.
For example, on Dec. 6, 2001, we had our first post-9/11 fallen soldier ceremony on the flightline in Germany. All of us military people stood on the side of the flightline in the icy rain to pay respects to a stranger killed in combat as his body was carried off the plane. It was the first of several.
In late 2002, this time in Aviano, Italy, I watched as my coworker embraced her toddler daughter one more time before boarding a plane to fly to the desert for seven months, just in time for the Iraqi invastion in the spring of 2003. Try listening to a child who doesn’t understand things like duty, patriotism and sacrifice cry out for her mother and not feel like your chest is being shredded.
In 2004, I stood at attention as I listened to the mother of a fellow Airman plead with us to continue taking care of each other as we had taken care of her son, who was killed by a mortar in Iraq. She said she didn’t care what others thought about the war. She just cared that her son had been loved by us, and wanted to tell us how much he loved the Air Force in return.
And now, here in 2006, one of my best friends and her husband are dealing with his post-traumatic stress after his spending a year in Iraq. Listening to her question how she’s suppose to sustain a family like that breaks my heart, very much like the way my heart was broken on that drive home five years ago. We were the pair of teenagers who dreamed big and never imagined drama like that in our lives.
So, why do I do it? Why do any of us in the military keep doing it when it comes with all of these gut-wrenching moments?
It’s because we don’t forget what led up to that terrible day in September 2001, and all that followed. That day was about more than hijacked aircraft and the loss of innocent lives. Those terrorists who killed thousands that day would have done anything they could to have killed thousands more. It’s a threat that is out there, that’s BEEN out there and while I’m not sure it’ll be my generation that figures out how to eradicate it, it’s going to be my job – and that of my peers in uniform – to try.