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Where Were You on 9/11? APUS Students Sound Off

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, AMU Edge

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. As such, twenty years seems like a good time to reflect on how that single day changed many of our lives forever. Air travel is certainly different and the government is much better at electronic surveillance than it was. But two decades later, the world has evolved: The next terrorist attack is much more likely to come from hackers rather than hijackers.

Personally, I had a very different life planned for myself before the terrorist attacks. My goal was to leave the Army and start film school with my Montgomery GI Bill. Instead, I would find myself in the Air Force seeking retribution against those who harmed us.

In hindsight, the Air Force led to opportunities for me that may have never presented themselves otherwise. Lifelong friends were made, valuable skills were learned, and several degrees were earned. The “me” before 9/11 is a stranger to me now; I wouldn’t recognize him if I bumped into him on the street.

And yet, I don’t know of any Americans who weren’t touched by those events. The conflict in Afghanistan may officially be over, but we still have servicemembers deployed to Iraq, Syria, and several countries in Africa to prosecute the ongoing Global War on Terror.

A great many students, faculty, and staff at American Public University System are military or military-affiliated. Their lives have arguably been touched the most by those events. We asked graduates and staff of APUS to share with us where they were on 9/11. What follows are their answers:

Jersey City, NJ – December 14, 2015: The glow of sunset shines through “Empty Sky,” the official New Jersey memorial to the state’s victims of the 9/11 terror attack, located in Liberty State Park. Linda Harms.

Share your recollections and experience from September 11, 2001

Carla Ferris, Medical Historian

I observed my son watching the news report. He was doing his third-grade homework when the president encouraged the public “to go about without fear.” I took my brave boy to school.

Bob Vesseliza, Instructor

I was working in federal law enforcement and was conducting operational surveillance when I heard the news on a popular syndicated edgy radio show. I did not believe the news until a few minutes later when my boss called and told us to return to our office. We would be on standby for deployment to New York.

Matt Peeling, Senior Director, Information Security and Project Management

I remember lying in bed convalescing at home watching the morning news when suddenly the reporter reading the news had a shocked look on his face. At first, I thought it might have been a stalker that had entered the newsroom because there was a recent spur of reports being stalked. The next thing I saw and heard was the reporter say, ‘Oh my!” and he was then handed a piece of paper. With a pale face, he turned to the camera and said that a plane had hit one of the twin towers in New York City.

At that time, it was thought to had been an accident but as the reporter kept saying, commercial flights do not fly low enough to risk human life in a populated area and that if they were having trouble, would normally have flown over the water or an unpopulated area. The screen then turned to New York City where someone was filming the tower burning. Minutes later, a second plane hit the second tower and I immediately knew that these acts were purposeful. It’s a day I will never forget. I will never forget the sinking feeling in my stomach as the reality of what just happened sank in.

As a disabled veteran, soon after the anger set in knowing that I couldn’t report to my unit to prepare for what was to come. 20 years later, I still recall that day and the days thereafter. Many people have suffered from the effects of that day and will for generations to come.

Tanshameca Hawkins, Paraprofessional

I was pregnant with my youngest son and working at Walmart when all of the TVs flipped to the news as the first plane hit.

Wes O’Donnell, APEI

In September of 2001, I was in Dallas, Texas having just left active duty Army infantry and was about to start my time in the reserves. It was my day off and I remember glancing at the TV and I see that some foolish pilot had a horrible accident and crashed his plane into one of the World Trade Center towers. I kind of shrugged and hopped in the car to drive to the gym to exercise. But by the time I got there, it was clear that it wasn’t an accident. We were under attack.

The wars that followed changed the trajectory of my life. I finished my time in the Army and joined the Air Force, completing eight years of active duty service and two years in the reserves, across two branches. I lost friends and family in the Global War on Terror. Later, my son would be born on September 11th, 2004 bringing a little bit of joy to that painful date. I can’t believe it’s been 20 years already.

Randy Purham

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 2021 – 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.

Shane Patrick

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 the 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.

William Smoot, Goldwind Americas

Conducting a Field Exercise at then Fort Lewis, WA. After “stand to” the commander called all of us into a half-circle. He and the 1SG explained what happened with the towers. We immediately returned from the field and began the tremendous duties of guarding HVA’s and all gates entering and exiting. The world changed that dreadful day.

Calandria Owens, Calandria Coaching and Consulting

I was in the 10th grade in American English class. One of my classmates had to be taken out of the classroom because her aunt worked in one of the towers. My father was active duty military at the time (stateside) and was told he may have to be deployed. It was so unbelievable someone could attack American soil.

Jeannine Gibson, APEI

The morning of September 11 I was caring for my 2-year-old daughter and 3-month-old son while also attempting to work out using a VHS exercise tape when my youngest sister rang me on the phone. “Have you seen the news?” I hadn’t. There are many recollections but these stood out to me: I recall noticing the sheer stillness of the daytime sky. There was an eerie and absolute quietness that belied the chaos that was unfolding just 34 miles away at the Pentagon, in Pennsylvania and NYC. I realized later that it was because every plane was landing wherever they could as quickly as possible.

A very good friend was the head of air traffic control at an International Airport in New York. I later learned from him what it was like that day to bring down all the planes within the airspace surrounding the airport as fast as they could. He is the type of person you want directing that type of effort: calm, focused, and with a strong faith that steadied him through the day, none of us will forget. I recall too my exchange family from Australia trying desperately to reach me by telephone to understand from someone nearby what was really happening. They were due to visit me in the Washington D.C. area in just a few short weeks. I spoke with each of them to assure them we were out of harm’s way but that many others were not. I didn’t know then but one of them I would never speak to again, my caring exchange host Dad, who died unexpectedly just a few weeks later. And lastly, my youngest sister, still fresh in our grief from losing our 31-year-old sister less than 8 weeks before “I am glad Rena is not here on this earth to see this”.

Ronald A Simonson, School Safety and Security Coordinator

I remember being at work at a high school. All of the students and staff were very anxious and sad. I tried to keep everyone calm, but I too was in a state of shock and confusion. It was a day I will never forget.

Shareema Granville, HR Manager

I was pregnant with my youngest daughter and had just dropped my oldest daughter off at school. As I walked into my house, my sister called me and asked did I see the news, so I turned the television on. In disbelief, I was watching a big hole in one of the towers while my sister was explaining everything that was going on in the city. She worked for the NY Supreme Court which was not too far from the World Trade Center. She said all they heard was a loud noise and the building shook. While she was telling me, I watched the second plane hit the other tower. It was like a scene out of the movies, and I started seeing people jumping from the windows live on TV. My sister said that they were evacuating them, and she’ll call me when she gets home.

Once I hung up the phone, the towers started to fall and all you saw was a big dust cloud on the television as they showed it from the helicopters. I rushed to my daughter’s school to pick her up to learn that we were under attack. That was a Tuesday that I would never forget.

I attended the community college which was up the block from the Trade Center and one of my classes that I had that night was off-campus at Fiterman Hall. Fiterman Hall was directly across the street from Tower #7, and later to learn that the tower fell on it. When we were allowed back at school, my off-campus class was now in trailers along the West Side HWY. The smell in the air was horrible that I would walk down the street throwing up even with my mask on. I had a friend that was in my class that I haven’t heard from, she and her brother worked at Windows on The World which was a restaurant the was located at the very top of the Trade Center. I tried calling her phone as I was walking into my school to see a display of the names of classmates and faculty members who had lost their lives. Days later, I found out that 2 of my High School classmates had worked in the building and perished as well. NY has never been the same and has changed our lives forever.

Barbara Herrera, Writer

I was only 11 when it happened, but I remember my stepmom kept me out of school that day and we just stayed in bed watching the news. Crazy to think that, 20 years later, it’s finally coming to an end…

Elisa Zanni-James, Veteran Caregiver

I was in Italy, working at a travel agency. Our contractor came in saying “World War 3 is about to happen, brace yourself”. Then we turned on the radio and suffered from a distance. For an entire week, I could not turn the TV off and watched in disbelief. The following days at the travel agency we could not keep up changing paper and toner to the fax machine because of all the people canceling their travel plans for the foreseeable future. The stress was so high that I had a complete change of career.

Lynn McAfee, Criminal Intelligence Specialist

I was working at my office and one of my coworkers came in and told us about the planes hitting the towers. We were glued to the TV in our breakroom for the rest of the day.

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?

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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