As I watch the 9/11 memorial coverage today, I thought I’d share my thoughts remembering where I was on that fateful day.
I was serving in the Navy with Beachmaster Unit One as an Officer in Charge of a Beach Party Team (BPT). In a traditional amphibious (ship-to-shore) assault, the BPT is one of the first groups to land on foreign soil. The BPT is tasked with organizing the entire ship-to-shore movement of vehicles, people (usually Marines), gear, and supplies. Imagine having 1,000+ Marines on a Navy ship only a mile or two off shore. Then think of trying to get all those Marines and everything they need to fight a war to the beach. That effort was what my team of 25 did time and again (mostly in a training environment).
On September 10 my team and I departed for a week-long training session at Camp Pendleton, CA to help us prepare for war. We were excited about working with the Marine Corps to learn how to set up a defensive perimeter, the basics of urban warfare, and lots of live fire exercises. We would run endurance courses, obstacle courses, and crawl through the mud with machine guns – all with a very unlikely chance that we would ever have to do these things in a war-time scenario.
On Tuesday September 11, my team and I were participating in a morning live fire exercise, enjoying the chance to hone our proficiency with the M-16. Our first word of the attacks on America came from some of our Marine instructors. Since we were somewhere in the middle of Camp Pendleton, we had no TV, internet, or news sources to confirm or amplify the bits of news we were getting.
Planes flying into the World Trade Center? There’s no way that could be true, I thought. This has to be some kind of a drill that they’re running. A story like that gives our week of training more meaning, but it’s only a story.
We quickly learned this wasn’t a training scenario. Planes had flown into the World Trade Center. And the Pentagon. And there were more headed for other US cities.
I remember being huddled around a white van with the doors propped open, the radio tuned to the local news channel. We listened intently and immediately we all knew that the US was going to war.
The remainder of the week was a bit of a blur, as we were still in shock that the unthinkable had happened. I remember that we had a renewed sense of purpose for our training. We continued to get bits and pieces of details by word of mouth and newspapers that were delivered to us, but still no TV. We headed home on Thursday afternoon and saw US flags everywhere – bridges and overpasses, car windows, buildings, and businesses. This was our first contact with the outside world since Monday of that week, and we were amazed by the displays of patriotism around San Diego and immediate outpouring of support for the military.
I arrived home and turned on the TV to see the first images of that terrible day. Like everyone else in America, I was completely stunned.
In the days that followed, I met with my operations officer and commanding officer to talk about how quickly we could be ready to deploy overseas. Previously, my team had been preparing for a post-Christmas deployment, and we had a lot of work left to be ready. After the President’s address to the nation declaring war, we knew that our timeline would be shortened. We rose to the challenge and were ready to go 17 days later.
We got the call to leave shortly thereafter and deployed onboard the USS Ogden alongside the USS Bonhomme Richard and the USS Pearl Harbor. Our six month deployment turned into 7+ months, but we were never called to do more than training exercises. The US war effort was still ramping up.
My story isn’t particularly poignant, moving, or meaningful – especially when compared to those in and around Manhattan, Washington DC, and on Flight 93. My team was charged to be ready for war. And we were.
My Naval Academy classmate, LT Darin Pontell, was among those whose lives were taken in the attack on the Pentagon. Other friends of mine were sent to fight the ensuing war; some of them didn’t return.
Seeing the images 10 years later, I am without words. I remain proud of my service to this great country and proud to be an American.