[Partial repost from 5/2, the day I learned about bin Laden’s death, but it contains my 9/11 story. Please share yours]
In 2001 my family lived on an American military base on a godforsaken little island in the middle of the Pacific ocean. The joys of government service, n’est pas?
My day began at 4:30am when I and two other kids attended an early morning meeting for teenagers. Only one of us had a driver’s license so we carpooled together to this meeting, back again to catch a bus at 6:30. The island was tiny but the roads were so bad that it took over an hour to get just 30 miles to our school. I got out of school at 2:30pm, then had soccer practice until 5pm, and then back onto the bus for a ride that zigzagged back home and took longer than the initial ride to school did. I stumbled through the doors sometime between 7 and 8pm, did homework, and fell into bed. I was a shockingly well behaved teenager, but in retrospect that might have been because I was consistently exhausted.
September 11, 2001 didn’t start out too differently. That morning I climbed yawning into the car and the three of us drove off to our meeting. As we passed through the gates we noticed far more men in camouflage than usual, but chalked it up to some sort of training exercise and weren’t too alarmed when the heavy bars slid shut behind us.
But when we got to our destination, the youth leader was standing outside her car. Shivering. On a tropical island. The three of us braced for bad news, but even we weren’t prepared to be told that the United States had apparently been attacked.
Remember, we lived on a base and our parents were employed in the military or government of various countries. A million thoughts ran through my head: Are we at war? Will my family be separated? Will they send me and my siblings away? Is it even safe to travel? We have dozens of planes and ships stationed here – are we a target? And then, finally, how will I get home?
It turns out that the base had utterly shut down, we could get off, but they weren’t letting anyone back on. But we had a secret weapon, my Dad’s considerable rank. We called him and he escorted us on base, and when we were stopped at the gates and denied entry, my usually mild mannered father snapped, “This is my daughter and she is coming in.”
That was when the fear really hit me.
10 years later that fear has actually largely dissipated. The world is the way it is. The nature of my father’s profession meant that we were frequent travelers and though the fear of terrorists never stopped me from getting on a plane, it would a lie to say that it never intruded on my travel thoughts and plans. I grew up in government and military circles which has meant that for the past ten years many of the people I knew were at war or at least directly affected by it, and not in ways confined to CNN or BBC news blips.
[end of repost]
When the Pentagon was hit, both my mother and I blanched, even though it had been over a decade wince my father worked there. For the first time in my life my government and society was caught completely off guard and a sense of security was shaken in a way that I have never felt before or sense. I am not special. My life was not the only one changed, and it was certainly not the most affected, I lost no friends or parents. But my generation has been affected in ways that we don’t even recognize sometimes. I still have to practically strip to get on a plane. Most people I am acquainted with have known a military serviceman or woman who has served in the Afghan or Iraq war. Anytime a news agency reports a man-made tragedy, my brain goes first to terrorism. I can’t help but wonder if something as huge and devastating as 9/11 will happen again.
For me personally the people I admire most from that fateful day were the people on United Flight 93 who fought back, because I hope that I too could be as brave as that in those circumstances. But then I realize that there is a chance, however small, that I may be put in that position someday, the world being the way it is now, and I doubt my bravery. There were many acts of bravery that day, and for me that should be the legacy of 9/11: that people, in the face of crippling fear and terror, volunteered to fight back, to run into the flames, to carry neighbors to safety, to put aside retirement or days off and show up to help when they didn’t know what was happening, for civilians to bring water and food for rescuers and the rescued alike, or to stay and bear witness to what no one should ever have to see. That’s what we should “never forget.”