By Elaine Wilson, AFPS
Sept. 11, 2009
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have become this generation’s Pearl Harbor – both were tragedies that shook our nation to its core. It’s become common to ask, “Where were you that day?” and I’ve never seen anyone lacking in a response.
The haunting images of that day – grieving family members, soot-covered rescue workers, caved-in buildings, crashed aircraft — are etched in my memory forever.
Eight years ago, I was a few months pregnant with my daughter and had decided to separate from the Air Force after four years of service. My airman husband and I were concerned about the dual-military impact on our future family. So, while using up my left-over leave, I started a new job as a writer for the San Antonio district court in early September 2001.
I have to admit, I was pretty miserable on the job. I was writing brochures and fact sheets rather than the feature stories highlighting servicemembers that I loved to do. But my bosses and co-workers were kind and I tried to adjust to a civilian lifestyle.
On Sept. 11, I was sitting at my desk fiddling with a brochure when my husband called. He was at home that day after having his vision corrected and was trying, against doctor’s orders and with blurry vision, to see the news about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. Like most people, I figured it was a pilot of a small plane and the resultant damage would be minimal. Of course, as the events unfolded, we discovered it to be a horrific terrorist attack that resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people.
My bosses evacuated the building. I remember driving through San Antonio crying over the losses and not wanting to go home – I wanted to help. At that moment I knew I had chosen the wrong path.
The next day, I walked into my supervisor’s office and quit. I told him I couldn’t stay and do nothing; I had to reenlist if the Air Force would take me back. If not, I’d find another service that would take me. The response was shocking. My boss offered me complete support, thanked me for my dedication and service and asked me to stay in touch. I was floored by that unselfish support, but have since seen it repeated countless times toward military members.
That same day, I walked into my Air Force office and asked for my job back. Turns out, since I was technically still on leave, I wasn’t officially separated yet. I put on my uniform and reported for duty the next day.
I never looked back and served for four more years in the active duty before becoming a Defense Department civilian.
It’s been nearly a decade, but I’ll never forget how Sept. 11 shook me to my core and changed my course forever. I can’t even begin to imagine how much it changed the lives of the people who were in the Twin Towers or in the Pentagon, along with their families’ lives.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Brian Birdwell, a former Army lieutenant colonel who had been severely burned in the Pentagon attack. He had been just 20 feet away from the impact point, and was burned on more than 60 percent of his body.
He was in San Antonio, not to seek care, but to offer comfort and hope to patients recovering in the amputee-care center and burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center.
I was amazed that someone who had suffered so much could be so selfless, and, in meeting him, I felt connected to the tragedy in some small way.
Birdwell was one of many who were able to turn such a horrific event into something meaningful and positive.
The attacks changed the fabric of this nation, but for the better. We strengthened our resolve to preserve America’s hard-earned freedoms, and our determination to help people of other nations find theirs.
I hope none of us ever forgets where we were that day, never forget the pain and anguish, the loss of precious lives. The memory is too important for our nation and for the troops who continue to combat terrorism and selflessly serve today.
As we take time to commemorate 9/11, maybe you can take a moment to recall: Where were you that day?