A shrill telephone ring announced to me that the world had changed.
I was a Navy SEAL junior officer, sleeping in my individual quarters at an Air Force base in Florida. Our SEAL platoon was there to train with Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) in “call for fire” techniques. We had spent most of the night prior training with AFSOC aircraft that provided close air support for us on the ground, for “in extremis” situations.
I answered the telephone and my dad told me to turn on the TV. I did, and I watched the second plane hit shortly thereafter. I then saw the first tower fall. Then the second.
Deep, seething rage welled up inside me. We knew exactly what it was, from the start. There was not a doubt that it was a terrorist attack. I walked outside my room and yelled like an animal. I was gut-punched and shell-shocked.
Like everyone else, I kept watching. All morning. Training was suspended. I forced myself to the gym, and watched on the televisions in front of the treadmills. We drove back to Virginia Beach later that day.
Both towers had fallen, and we all knew that so many first responders had been inside, trying to help. At the time, I could not really comprehend the death toll of the firemen and police that day, although I felt the sadness for them, like everyone else. I could not fully grasp it, though. I understand that loss better now, having joined the brotherhood of firefighters. FDNY had its heart ripped out that day.
I would find out later, from employees who were working at the CIA on 9/11, that the Agency thought that one of the planes was coming for it that morning. The building was evacuated, except for some key personnel. They braced for the worst. It never came to them, directly, although that would not stop the Agency from leading the hunt for years afterward to bring vengeance to those responsible for the attacks. It would become an obsession for many at the CIA, driving them every day.
My friend’s wife saw the plane hit the Pentagon from the adjacent highway. Everyone has a story about that day. We all know where we were. We all remember how we felt. We were all born into fire, dust, and ash on that Tuesday. We live in it, still, and every year, we remember. We replay it. That pit in our stomach forms again, and the horror creeps back in, a little bit.
For many of us, born from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, 9/11 was the start of our adult lives. It would frame the next 15 years, shaping it more than any other single external factor. There is a whole generation of us for which this day will always mean something momentous, terrible, and unifying.
We were all of us—Americans—effected by it, profoundly. We will never forget.