Before I was a widower, father, husband, or IT manager, I was a Marine. 15 years ago, I was driving into my platoon’s shop, listening to Howard Stern, as I did every morning, when he suddenly stopped his usual schtick, and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. They bantered on a bit about it, and, at the time, no one really knew what exactly had happened.
I listened for the 15 minutes or so it took for me to get into the shop, and when I arrived, some of my fellow Marines were gathered around a small TV, watching news coverage, just as the south tower was hit. Even then, I hadn’t thought about the greater implications. It was simply a horrific attack to us. A few hundred faceless, nameless people had just perished in a plane crash in Manhattan.
Then we heard the fighter jets taking off.
I was stationed on a Marine Corps Air Station, less than 300 miles from Washington DC. The reality sunk in almost immediately. If the two towers had already been hit, why were more jets scrambling? Utter confusion ensued over the next 20 minutes, as F-18s were taxiing and launching in a roar of activity just outside our windows. An all-hands briefing was called in 15 minutes by our commander, and we were still glued to the television.
Flight 77 hit the Pentagon before that briefing could occur. Immediately, all non-essential Marines were sent to the barracks to await further orders. The jets were still creating what can only be described as a noise beyond comprehension. As we started arriving back at our barracks, groups of us gathered in various areas to watch the news coverage for some sort of clarity.
We were Marines, but we were also, mostly, kids. I was twenty years old. Over half of the Marines in my barracks were younger than I was, having already served three years. None of us were married, and save for a few, we weren’t even in significant relationships. These attacks brought a sense of not grief, but anger. We wanted revenge. We wanted to crush whomever did this. We wanted to do what we thought of as our job…fighting wars. The firefighters, police, and other first responders were valiantly doing their jobs in New York and Washington DC, and we wanted our chance as well.
Then the South tower collapsed, in front of our eyes, on live television. Reality smacked us in the face. Thousands of people just vanished from this earth. Those first responders? The ones we wanted to emulate and work with, doing our part to avenge the attacks? They were victims too. They were going above and beyond to do their jobs, and they were rewarded with the loss of their lives. We were scared. There was the immediate threat of being attacked ourselves, but there was also the sudden realization that after a few years of relative peacetime, we Marines were going to be in some far off land soon, having shots fired at us in anger, and it wasn’t a drill.
The rest of the day’s events, from the other tower and world trade number 7 collapsing, to flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania, and the president’s address that evening only added to the fear and anxiety that pervaded over the next few weeks. For the rest of my service period, all we focused on was anti-terrorism and preparedness. I was too young and inexperienced in life to consider all of the widows and widowers that were created in a few hours’ span that morning. Most of them were created that day, in an instant. Others are still being widowed from long-term effects of the chemicals and general chaos of the sites. The indirect effects of that day are still happening.
It’s a huge stretch to speculate on, but I myself may not have even been a widower if it wasn’t for that day. I met Megan and started dating not three months after my discharge from active duty in the Marine Corps, in late 2002. I had already toyed around with the idea of re-enlisting by that point, but meeting her kept me a civilian. I still had that anger and desire for revenge flowing through me, and she tempered it. Had I went through with re-enlisting, we would have most likely broken up, and i would have been overseas. She had her own personal fight to stay healthy, and I wanted to be by her side through it all. From her sudden lung collapse, to her transplant, to a brief three years of good health, followed by the sustained decline and ultimate demise at the hands of her disease, September 11th was an allegory.
Though it’s a few days past, I would ask that we remember not only the innocents on the planes and in the towers and Pentagon, the first responders and military veterans of that day, or anyone else that gave their life during the attacks, but also those that are still suffering. Though almost 3,000 people were killed on September 11th, 2001, there are also countless widows and widowers that lost life as they knew it.