Remembering 9/11 in 2020

I was a student at the Air Force’s Air Command & Staff College that day, and it would be 10 months before I joined in the fight. For me, it was agonizing sitting in class while my brothers and sisters were at war.

Uncharacteristically, I hadn’t turned on the TV the morning of 9/11. My wife had gone to work and I was enjoying the morning quiet. My first notice of something going on that day was when I got into the car and turned on the radio to hear, “They hit the Pentagon, too?!” 

Racing back inside, I turned on the TV to see New York and Washington on fire. It was surreal. I was used to going to work when things got bad, so I put on my uniform and left a note for my wife to go to “DELTA” at the house (every military spouse knows that word), then headed out to the base. It was when I saw the line of cars that it dawned on me that as a student, I would only be in the way. For the first time in my career, I was “non-essential personnel.” It was gut-wrenching for a young major who had just left a high tempo job in a critical emergency response role.

We Do What We Can

I went back home and started calling friends and family. My friend who was an American Airlines pilot, I’m Ok, Mick. My friend at Headquarters Air Force, I’m good, will call you back in a few days. My seminar mates, Can you believe this? My friends stationed back at the 355th Wing, Can’t talk about it, Mick.. I didn’t lose any friends that day, but would in the coming years.My wife finally got me to turn the TV off at close to midnight. I didn’t sleep much.

We were out of class for several days, then came back with the Commandant telling us to stop asking to return to our units. “There’ll be plenty of war to go around, your job now is to finish this course.”

He was right.

A Year in the Desert

The following July I was on an airplane headed for Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base, Kuwait to build it up for Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. As we left the States we overflew Manhattan. It was just after dusk, and the Pile where the World Trade Center had stood was still smoking. The lights of the recovery operation were on, and we could see heavy equipment moving around in the early evening light.

At that moment, I vowed this would never happen again – not if I had anything to say about it. The next year was hard, but by the following July, I was on my way home. In a way, leaving Kuwait was harder than going. It felt – unfinished.

Back in the Building

During my next two years at the Pentagon I was privileged to go to Holy Mass almost daily in the Pentagon chapel, which is on the point of impact of American 77 on 9/11. There’s a fire-blackened brick on the outside at the exact center of the crash site. A reminder.

During my last assignment in the Air Force, I was stationed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The Pacific Air Forces Headquarters building still has bullet holes outside and inside that were also left as a reminder of what happened there on their “9/11” day.  Each day I walked up the stairs to my office, I walked past those bullet holes in the building and the stairwell. Those bullet holes reminded me of the fragility of peace, and the necessity for someone, us¸ to be prepared to stand between our fellows and the abyss of war.

What This Means, 19 Years Later

Days like this remind us of what we share as Americans: the desire to live free, to remain so, and to live up to the ideals of our founding. Clearly, we have work to do in order to become the people our founding documents call us to aspire to be. We are a diverse country, but we are all Americans. When our enemies attack us, they don’t single out certain groups. They attack us all. We should remember that – an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. We may not agree on many things, but I hope we can agree that we all have to work together “in order to form a more perfect Union.”

Days like today also remind us that as Americans, all of us, can contribute to helping to make “never again” a promise rather than a lament.

Mickey is an expert in leadership and organizational change. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. Mickey now works with clients around the country to improve performance and help organizational transformation. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC. Mickey is the author of eight books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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