9-11: No matter where they were, they will always remember
We all remember where we were. We remember when a telephone, a loudspeaker or a stranger snapped all of us — military and civilian alike — to attention.
We remember disbelieving reports of a second, then a third, and then a fourth plane. We remember knowing it was true.
We remember feeling that the more we learned, the more we feared what might follow.
And as we look back now, seven years later, we remember squinting at that painfully bright and empty sky. It was pristine, the kind of early September blue that signals the end of one season, and the beginning of another.
Today we remember Sept. 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 people died in New York City, in Arlington, Va., and outside of Shanksville, Pa. Memories from that day are private yet universal.
Five servicemembers shared their memories with us. As we reflect today on that Tuesdaymorning, it’s stories like theirs — of luck and circumstance and service — that carry us through.
A clerical mistakeChildress
Col. Franklin Childress was edgy on the morning of Sept. 11 as he sat on the balcony of his one-bedroom apartment in Arlington, Va., waiting for the movers to unload his furniture.
"I was anxious to get back to work," Childress recalled.
Then the phone rang.
"It was my pastor from back in Hawaii. He asked if I was all right. He told me to turn on the TV," Childress said.
Childress had arrived at the Pentagon for his new assignment Sept. 4, and his household goods were to arrive the next day. But because of a clerical error, there was a delay. He was told his goods could be delivered on Monday, the 10th, or Tuesday, the 11th.
"I told them Tuesday," he said. "It’s a decision that saved my life. Everyone around my desk was killed."
At the time, Childress was serving under Lt. Gen. Timothy J. Maude, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel.
Maude was among the 125 killed in the attack at the Pentagon.
Seven years later, it’s still difficult to think about what happened that day, said Childress, who now serves as spokesman for U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany.
"When you look at the graves of those who perished it gives you an eerie feeling. Some survivor’s guilt," Childress said.
"The good lord has a reason for me being here. There is no scenario in which I can say it was chance. It was the work of a higher being. God spared me for some reason."
When he thinks back on 9/11, one of the images that comes to mind is the weather.
"I remember how blue the sky was. It was the most beautiful day you could imagine in Washington," he said.
In the days after the attacks, part of Childress’ job was talking to the media and getting the stories told of those who were killed and those who acted heroically.
"I will have to tell you, there was a lot of tragedy there. But there also were a lot of heroes, which gets overlooked sometimes," he said. "I think it would have been a lot worse if there weren’t people who put their lives at risk."
Catching a rideBarton
Kristian Barton didn’t want to serve seven years in the Navy without going to sea.
"Seabee" is a bit of a misnomer, as construction battalion work is always on land. So, with about a year left in service, he decided to "ride along" on the San Diego-based USS Valley Forge during a three-day gunnery exercise. That was Sept. 10, 2001.
The guided-missile cruiser got under way on the morning of Sept. 11. The ship’s commanding officer was explaining the exercise over the public address system and mid-stream — and without missing a beat — interrupted with the news that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. He called the sailors to battle stations. "I thought, ‘That sounds like a weird scenario for an exercise,’ " Barton said. "I didn’t know what was going on."
Exercise canceled, the Valley Forge made its way to Los Angeles to patrol the water and airspace around the city with orders to shoot down any inbound aircraft, Barton said.
Barton was told "you might be with us for a while."
"At that moment, I thought ‘OK, this is the real deal. I could be on this ship for six months’ so I resolved not to be a rider anymore. I wanted to help."
Barton started working his qualifications to stand watch and, on that same day, acted as the ship’s conning officer, giving the orders to change speed or direction at the behest of the officer of the deck.
On Barton’s first "mid-watch," the ship tracked an inbound aircraft with a transponder frequency signaling a hijacking. Limited air traffic had resumed, but the Valley Forge was poised to shoot down the aircraft or order another ship to shoot it down.
"Thankfully, the captain ascertained that the setting was a mistake," Barton said.
The cruiser patrolled the West Coast for two weeks before returning to San Diego, and Barton went back to his position as the project engineer at Naval Base Ventura County. He was released from active duty in May 2002 but joined the reserves a year later, and subsequently deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006. He was re-activated in 2008, and the 34-year-old lieutenant commander now works as the production officer in Yokosuka’s Public Works Department in Japan.
He doesn’t tell his Sept. 11 story "too often," but he keeps a picture of the Valley Forge on his wall.
"I look at that picture every day," Barton said. "I will always remember where I was. It steels my resolve to do my duty."
Waiting for boot campCabrera
Jose Cabrera was waiting for his orders to basic training with the other new recruits at the Military Entrance Processing Command in Richmond, Va., when a "Spider-Man" movie trailer came on the TV.
The trailer showed a helicopter caught in a spider web hanging between the World Trade Center’s twin towers.
A few minutes later, the TV was showing images of the towers smoldering. With the volume turned down, it looked like another trailer.
When reality set in, Cabrera called home to New York City.
His cousin Matthew had been working on the ninth floor of one of the towers and had made it out safely.
"He says there was a rumble, then a lot of yelling and people trying to get out. He doesn’t like to talk about it much," says Cabrera, now a staff sergeant with the 2nd Infantry Division’s intelligence section at Camp Red Cloud, South Korea.
In the weeks following the tragedy, shock gave way to anger for Cabrera and his fellow soldiers at basic training and military police training, both at Fort Leonard Wood, Miss.
"There was a sense of, ‘OK, who are we going to attack?’ " Cabrera said. "Before then, we always felt like [our country] was untouchable. … As a young man, you want to go out and do something about it."
Cabrera had little access to news during basic and advanced individual training, but he says his drill sergeants made extra efforts to prepare him and others for the possibility of war in Afghanistan.
The drill sergeants had been in a similar situation in 1991, when they graduated from basic training and shipped off to Desert Storm without much information, Cabrera says.
Cabrera would ultimately be sent to Iraq for the 2003 invasion, where he stayed until Christmas Day 2003.
Cabrera says he still feels emptiness when he returns home and looks at the gaping plot of land where the World Trade Center once stood. He hopes they’ll replace it with something even taller.
"It would be a testament to our strength," Cabrera says. "Coming back and overcoming the trials we’re put under … that’s what we’re known for."
Responding to the callCordell
Tech. Sgt. Denton Cordell, a mental health technician, was stationed at Dover Air Force Base, Del., on Sept. 11.
The Tampa, Fla., native remembers sitting at the clinic, watching the breaking news and not really understanding the magnitude of what he was seeing.
His officer in charge gathered the staff to figure out "what our mission was going to be for the next 48 hours," he said.
During that meeting, the clinic’s critical incident stress management team was formed.
That two-day plan stretched to more than a month of work as the bodies of those killed in the Pentagon were routed through the base.
Cordell’s team focused on assisting the troops who were coping firsthand with the carnage.
They knew they would "have a lot of patients to deal with," said Cordell, now stationed at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. "Things just went into Mach 10."
Cordell said those troops were "normal people who were dealing with an abnormal situation" and had to be monitored for stress, depression and other mental health problems.
The key was that the troops knew they had access to help 24 hours a day throughout the ordeal, Cordell said.
He said he’s proud to be able to look back and say he was there and played a small part in that segment of America’s history.
"Everybody who did a job there, regardless of what they did, every little bit was important," Cordell said. "When push came to shove, all those fears about not being able to perform went away."
He said the month following the attacks was a "traumatic experience" that also affected him personally.
"When you actually see the reality of what terrorism does, you don’t take it lightly anymore," he said.
The smell of deathRodgers
On the morning of Sept. 11, Sgt. Ronnette Rodgers was a private serving with the 63rd Signal Battalion at Fort Gordon, Ga.
She learned of the attacks when, in the course of routine business, she found her company orderly room deserted. She found everyone crowded around a television in the company headquarters.
"I saw everyone watching a TV and was about to ask if this was what everyone did for a living when I saw the towers," she said.
A platoon sergeant tried to tell her to leave the room but was reminded that Rodgers had family in the area — her mother and four younger siblings.
"It was scary because I couldn’t reach my mom," Rodgers said.
Rodgers said it was days before she could reach anyone in her family because phone lines were so busy she couldn’t get through.
When she finally called home, she learned of life in the aftermath of the attacks.
Family and friends told her not to come back, saying "the smell of death" permeated the city, and that dust from the collapsed buildings lingered in the air for months.
"They said it wasn’t New York anymore," she said.
She said she never imagined the country would still be at war seven years after the attacks.
She said she’s learned patience and tolerance. Her 2004 deployment to Iraq, she said, helped replace the anger she initially felt after the attacks with the understanding that not all Muslims are terrorists.
Sept. 11 also changed her disposition toward her military duties.
"I never thought I was going to be in a wartime situation," she said. "The most I ever thought about was what I would do after [6 p.m.]."
Stars and Stripes reporters Allison Batdorff, T.D. Flack, John Vandiver, Erik Slavin and Jimmy Norris contributed to this report.