On the evening of September 10, 2001 I walked in to work. I worked in Kunia, a military post on the island of Honolulu, Hawaii. The Regional Security Operations Center had been operational for decades, and was currently the place where I went every day to perform my duties as a linguist in the US Army.
That evening was like any other evening. I worked the night shift in a 24 hour office. There were maybe a dozen of us in the office, sitting at computer stations engaged in our Military Intelligence jobs and drinking coffee to stay awake through the long night.
I don’t know exactly what time it happened, but on the morning of the 11th two other Soldiers and I were standing up and stretching, talking, and looking forward to the end of shift in a couple of hours so we could each go home and get some sleep. One of the other Soldiers on duty came in from the Watch Floor across the hall with some news. The Watch Floor had 3 big screen TV’s which they kept tuned to the news, and our friend told us that a plane had just crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York.
We thought he was joking, and told him so. He kept assuring us he wasn’t, so final DL (one of my friends) and I decided to walk across the hall and see for ourselves. We walked onto the Watch Floor in time to watch the second plane hit and just stood there for a couple of minutes in stunned silence at what we saw playing out live on the news.
As we walked back into our office, we had no idea what was going on. We did know three things for sure. 1) The planes crashing into the Twin Towers was no accident. One plane might be an accident, two was by design. 2) They may not have realized it, but someone had just declared war on America. And 3) We and everyone else currently in uniform was ready to take that fight to them.
Over the next hour we talked in the office, amazed at what was happening on the news and with no idea what would happen next. We shortly got the order to close up shop and go home. We were told to get home, stay home, and don’t come back to work until we are called in. It could be days.
I remember trying to exit out of the parking lot onto Kunia road. For anyone who has been there, Kunia road is a small two-lane road that runs from Wahiawa, HI down to H1 outside of Waipahu. The northbound lane was bumper to bumper, and not moving. I finally turned south and drove down to H1 to make a large loop in order to reach the house out towards the North Shore in a military housing area near the Dole Plantation.
That day I remember sitting on the couch watching the news, trying to process what was happening, and worrying about family members on the mainland. No one knew who had perpetrated this horrible act, or what the United States would do in retaliation. I knew my job would likely keep me in Hawaii, but I was ready to go and do whatever was necessary for my country.
In the end, it would be 8 years before I actually had the opportunity to deploy. Eight years of continuing to do my duty in the Army, watching others go over and come back, and wondering why I was blessed to be in positions that kept me out of deployments.
I left Hawaii in 2005 to change station for the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA. The MI branch had a few slots for Drill Sergeants, and the three bases which produced linguists (and some other MI specialties) only allowed MI Drill Sergeants for their Soldiers. While I was in Hawaii, our branch manager came out to talk to the Soldiers. I had an appointment with him and he asked me if I would be willing to volunteer to be a Drill Sergeant. I was wanting to volunteer as an Instructor at one of the Military Intelligence training schools, but he asked and I agreed to go through Drill Sergeant School. That decision led to a three year tour of duty as a Drill Sergeant in Monterey, CA at the Defense Language Institute. It also lead to spending time with the best group of Drill Sergeants in the Army, and having the wonderful opportunity to train and get to know hundreds of Soldiers as they came to DLI to learn a new language on their way to a career in the Army.
I knew that some of the Soldiers coming through DLI would likely finish their training and deploy in support of OIF/OEF while I was still a Drill Sergeant. I was thrilled to be a part of preparing them for that, but I wanted to be one of the ones to go over. I remember talking to our Senior Drill Sergeant part way through the tour of duty and telling him that I was thinking of just volunteering to deploy in order to get over there. I will never forget his words.
“Don’t do it. IF you go to a unit which is deploying, I have no doubt you will do a great job. But, you don’t want to be over there. It’s war.”
Those few words forever changed my view on those who had deployed and those who had not.
Needless to say, I left that base for the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, and a few short months later found myself in Afghanistan supporting OEF X. The actions of a few cowardly terrorists nearly a decade before had placed me in Afghanistan, Platoon Sergeant in charge of teams of Soldiers spread over two provinces.
Today, I sit here in Arkansas, safe in the United States. I look over my computer monitor at the memorial wall hanging I got upon leaving the 173rd. And these days I spend my time counseling Veterans and helping them file paperwork for disability or pension. And when it comes to deployments, I tell them this. If they deployed, I thank them and we talk about the different deployments. If they were in the Service since 2001 and never deployed, I simply look them in the eye and tell them “You were one of the blessed ones who didn’t have to go over there. And believe me, you didn’t want to. It was war.”
Watching the United States pull out of Afghanistan over the past month has been difficult. Was I surprised by what happened with the Taliban coming back in? No, I wasn’t. I and many others of us knew that when the US and allies finally left, the Taliban were just waiting to swoop in and take the country back over.
My hope and prayer at this point is that those still over there who want to get out, can get out safely. I think of our interpreters who worked with the teams and wonder how they are doing. I think of the Service men and women of the United States and all of our Allies who spent so many years over there. I think of the ones who came back injured in body and/or mind. I think of the ones who never came back at all. I think of the families who have been impacted forever. And I pray.