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In Their Own Words – What 9/11 Means to the Servicemembers Who Lived It

This article first appeared at In Military.

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor of In Military, InCyberDefense and In Space News. Veteran, U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force.

It’s been said that September 11th, 2001 was our generation’s Pearl Harbor, our defining moment. But that bold and shameful attack against America in 2001 was different from Pearl Harbor in one key aspect: Most casualties on that day were civilians.

It was like a dagger in the heart of the world’s most preeminent military power. If we can’t even protect our citizens, how can we be expected to honor our alliances? It was clear then, that the 20th century was over. Whether the United States would maintain its status as the world’s sole superpower going into a new century would be decided on what our next actions would be.

What followed was one of the largest reorganizations in U.S. military history. The U.S. had to pivot away from training to fight nation-states and learn how to fight terrorists who didn’t play by the rules – asymmetrical warfare.

But what’s often lost in the big history of 9/11 are the individual stories.

We were all changed on that day.

And the wars that followed would forge friendships and shape servicemembers’ lives for almost two decades.


9/11 tribute sailors


Thinking about 9/11 nineteen years after it happened, I resolved to reach out to veterans, military spouses and military moms, and ask them two questions:

  1. Where were you on 9/11/2001? Seared into all of our memories, there are very few of us who don’t remember key details of that day. I suspect our generation will remember for the rest of our lives, the way our parents remember the JFK assassination and our grandparents remember Pearl Harbor.
  2. What does 9/11 mean to you today? Almost twenty years later, when many servicemembers who joined the military in response to 9/11 are approaching retirement, I thought it would be interesting to ask what 9/11 means to them now.

Gary S. – U.S. Air Force

I was going to second period English class during my senior year of high school. I heard in the hallways that a plane flew into the World Trade Center. I went to class and turned on the TV expecting to see a small Cessna-style plane. The first plane had hit the tower and two minutes later the second plane hit. Two periods later, I was in economics class when the towers fell – It was a rush of emotions from sad to mad to scared.

For those immediate moments, this country was not focused on politics. There were black people and white people and every other ethnicity in the streets bleeding and helping each other. It was a bad time, but the American spirit shined bright and showed what this country is built of and how much more we are capable of when we all pull together instead of apart.

19 years later I feel like we have forgotten that morning, even though we said we never would.

Crystal P. – U.S. Air Force

On 9/10 I was traveling home from a deployment to Turkey and didn’t get home until early that morning. I woke up to a recall asking us to come into work and that’s when I found out what happened. Talk about exhausted and furious. My bags didn’t make it back until weeks later and they were missing things I bought over from Turkey, perhaps due to the heightened security.

It seemed like there was a moment in time where time itself appeared to stop, and the country was at its most united. Broken but united. Sad but pissed. Together we would heal and never forget the lives lost and the pieces we had to pick up.

Wes O'Donnell
Courtesy Chase Shands

Andy H. – U.S. Army

I was the Noncommissioned Officer-in-Charge (NCOIC) of Veterinary Services for Tinker Air Force Base and Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma City and Enid, Oklahoma respectively.

9/11 to me today has become the lost tragedy. People swore to never forget the sacrifices made, but they have. I truly believe it was the biggest push yet of terrorists with other agendas to lock our country with fear and division. I don’t think we learned the full story of what happened that day. There are too many unanswered questions about too many things surrounding it all.

Shane P. – U.S. Air Force

Where was I? I was standing in my high school’s hallway waiting for the first period to begin when I heard the news relayed by a friend. I didn’t understand what a World Trade Center was and when I pictured an airplane, I thought it was a small Cessna (ironic I know). I jeered and made a joke. Once first period began, I saw the news coverage. I often reflect on my initial reaction with shame of the child I was.

Looking back on what it means to me now? I’ve been in the military for the better part of two decades and I’ve met people and seen places that have opened my eyes to the world. I think back to who we were as a country and how we came together to support and help each other as Americans. I wouldn’t understand the love for each other in those days for years to come.

I can’t help but to reflect on those days and contrast them with the loneliness we are enduring today. The division. The pain. It brings back feelings of that childish shame. We’re growing apart and in some ways, I would never want a replay of 9/11 but I do miss who we were on 9/12. I believe we can mend our division and stand with the strength to defend our American family, and know one day we will. That is what 9/11 means to me today.

Wes O'Donnell
Courtesy Wes O’Donnell

Kelly A. – Mom of two Air Force veterans and an Army veteran

Wow 9/11/01

We lived in Santa Clara, California. I remember being scared to take the kids to school and to go to work. Moffett Air Station was down the street. (Was it a target?)

I picked the kids up that afternoon and we cried. I tried to explain to them something that I didn’t understand myself, but I had to try and make them feel safe. My youngest at the time was 5 (turning 6 a few days later). I bought every paper I could, CDs and some books about the day. I let the kids watch the news if they wanted. That day and those following are why my kids chose to serve our country.

As for what it means to me today? Tears. Every single year I remember hearing the DJ from a local radio station saying a building was hit and then another, as I was waking up that day. I don’t think it will ever go away. And that’s okay. Too many people lost too much that day. I am a proud American, proud military mom, military brat (dad is a Marine) and daughter-in-law (father-in-law was in the Air Corps). Our family serves. Either by contract or contact. Everyone who serves in any capacity is family as far as we are concerned.

Randy P. – U.S. Army

On September 11, 2001, I was stationed in Beudingen, Germany working as a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) NCO for 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment (Blackhawks). I was preparing to go home for the day while hanging out in the loading zone connected by my office when people ran out of the clinic next door screaming that New York was under attack.

I thought it was some drill but realizing the time difference – and the multiple people confirming from around the building, I knew it was true. About an hour later, I was called to open the arms room and prepare to issue weapons for patrols around our base and town if terrorism was going to make its way to our doorsteps. It made for a very long night.

What 9/11 means to me today is that it serves as a constant reminder of how every so often our resolve and fortitude as a nation will be tested. We are experiencing those times right now in 2020 – with COVID, anarchy across the nation and foreign adversarial challenges in other parts of the world. As we are reminded every year of the 3,000+ people who perished, and a few iconic structures now a distant memory, we as Americans can always remember back on this day and the subsequent days and know that “this too shall pass” and we will emerge triumphantly – keeping our democracy, our freedoms, and this great republic alive as the greatest country on Earth, despite the challenges we face.

Tom E. – U.S. Air Force

On 9/11 I was stationed at Tinker Air Force Base. I was a Staff Sergeant RADAR technician at the time and had just returned from a deployment in Saudi Arabia that summer. After I returned, I had taken leave to be with my family. On the morning of 9/11, I slept in. My military coworker and friend, Dave, called me on the phone to tell me to turn on the TV and watch what was happening. When I turned on the news, I saw the first tower on fire after the first plane hit. At first, I thought it might have been a strange mishap. Maybe the jet malfunctioned, or the pilot strayed off course.

Moments later, the second plane hit the second tower and I instantly realized that this was deliberate. Looking back, I knew the world would never be the same again, but I didn’t quite know how different it would be. Everything changed that day. In the shock, many Americans seemed to take an angry and resentful approach, while others used the opportunity to draw closer to those they loved.

There was a genuine desire to get payback on the enemy that did this. The question became, who was the enemy? No one knew for sure.

9/11 means a lot to me, personally. While I didn’t lose any family or friends in the attack, I realized after it happened, just how strong and resilient America is and how quickly we fight back and recover. Nothing can keep us down forever. Nothing can break our spirit. I found a deep resolve after the attacks. After 9/11, I made a personal choice to not only survive but to make sure the nation was stronger and that our rebuilding efforts sent a message to the enemy that if you mess with us, you’ll be sorry.

I made a lot of personal connections with military friends and family members after the attack. For the first time in my life, I saw citizens joining the military out of a duty to serve, and not just get a free college education. It was an amazing thing to see! With a new brotherhood and sisterhood formed, we vowed never to forget what happened.

Wes O'Donnell 9/11
Courtesy Wes O’Donnell


Mark C. – U.S. Marine Corps

I had just finished competing in a Spec Ops Reality TV show when I saw the attack on the news. After seeing the attack, I stopped what I was doing and wanted to go back immediately.

9/11 changed my life. 9/11 showed that our country is still vulnerable, but if we come together, we can overcome anything and achieve anything.

Cris W. – Military Spouse – U.S. Air Force

On the morning of 9/11/01, we were living in San Antonio, Texas where my husband was stationed at Kelly Air Force Base. I was home and my husband called me from work and asked me if I had the TV on. I turned it on to see the first tower burning and as we were on the phone, I watched as the second plane hit. It’s still one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. Over the phone, my husband and I discussed me possibly returning to my parents’ home in another state, just in case war broke out and my husband had to deploy.

The generation before me will remember where they were when JFK was assassinated, my generation will remember where we were on 9/11. For the next generation, it’s just something that happened in history.

The anniversary date brings mixed feelings. I’ve attended a few memorials, I’ve visited Ground Zero after the new construction started and I’ve been to the 9/11 museum in New York City, as well as a 9/11 exhibition at the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. I felt so lost and alone at the NYC museum. I felt sadness due to the loss of innocent lives, but grateful for and proud of the First Responders who made the ultimate sacrifice. Even prouder of the individual stories of office workers who helped each other.

It’s difficult to put into words what 9/11 means to me. Nineteen years later and it seems like yesterday. Such a strong, visceral memory. I think now, for me at least, it means pride and patriotism in America. Not like on the 4th of July when we celebrate very loudly, but a more quiet, inner, dignified patriotic pride. Knowing that we, as a nation, really came together to grieve and support those that lost loved ones: It’s proof that we can overcome such horrific atrocities and that we will never forget our fallen.

Matthew K. – U.S. Air Force

On 9/11 I was sitting in English class in Pittsburgh watching it on the television in our classroom. Education stopped and we all watched, concerned and unsure of what we were seeing. When the towers fell, I was outraged. I wanted to fight, I wanted to find the people that did it and bring the pain to them that they brought to so many Americans.

9/11 to me is a reminder that blood is thicker than water. That we may be tough on each other in this country like quarreling siblings, but we are still Americans and nobody else is allowed to pick on my family. Having served and brought the fight to the enemy, I’m also reminded of the sacrifices so many have made from the day it happened to those continuing to unleash hell on those wishing to create the next 9/11. Never forget is the slogan, but it’s also a mantra worth repeating: Never forget where you come from and how blessed we are to be Americans.

Jacqueline N. – U.S. Air Force

I was at Gerrard Hall at Keesler Air Force Base when 9/11 happened.

9/11 today? That’s kind of a tough question. There’s sadness for all those lives that were lost, heroes and innocents both. There is also a sense of pride that we, as a country, didn’t fall when it would’ve been very easy to do so. That when it mattered, the country stood together. 9/11 tends to remind me these days about camaraderie and its importance in everyday life.

Dr. Chris Reynolds, LTC (Ret) U.S. Air Force

I was a young Air Force Captain in my office at Headquarters, United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) when our Commander, Col. Steve Yevich, yelled out to everyone to, “GET IN HERE NOW!!” As I walked into the main office, Col. Yevich pointed to the television monitor in the corner and said, “…we’re under attack.” We all watched in horror as the second plane hit the tower. We all knew right then and there that all of our lives were about to change. Two weeks later, I was deployed to the theater. I spent 11 months on active duty in Qatar, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

9/11 has a solemn meaning to me on several dimensions. First, it was the first time since Pearl Harbor that our nation was attacked by a foreign power. We all wanted “payback” and could not wait to “get into the fight.” It was also the largest loss of life in the New York Fire Department (FDNY) Firefighters with 343 killed. Today, I reflect on all of the men and women who have fought in the war on terror and the losses many families have sustained through the United States’ longest conflict. Just like Americans did after Pearl Harbor, we must NEVER, NEVER forget 9/11. We have to remain vigilant and ready to fight the terrorists or any hostile nation on their ground. I respect and honor ALL who have served, lost their lives, and sacrificed so much for all of us.

What about you? Where you were on September 11th, 2001? And ask yourself, in a quiet moment, what does 9/11 mean to you today? We would love to hear from you in the comments.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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