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911: The Day the World Changed

A Sailor’s Perspective

A ballistic missile submarine has two crews, the blue crew and the gold crew. On the USS Michigan (SSBN 727) the blue crew was clearly the better crew. It should be easy to guess which crew I was serving on. The typical ship schedule was to go out to sea on patrol for a couple months, pull in and complete all required maintenance, then switch crews and do it again. This maximized the strategic deterrence threat, while maintaining an acceptable quality of life for the crew.

Part of the good natured rivalry between the two crews was to attempt to spread rumors about surprise inspections, patrol extensions, or rotten foodstuffs being loaded. It was a real triumph to get the opposite crew in a dither about some nonexistent crisis and watch them fall apart. Drama queens existed in their purest, most refined form onboard an all-male staffed submarine.

As the Machinery Division Leading Petty Officer of the outgoing crew, my position during the maintenance period was running the Maintenance Operations Center (MOC). Machinery Division and Auxiliary Division, the nuclear and non-nuclear mechanical divisions, had the bulk of the required maintenance. I was the natural choice to drive maintenance and track progress since I was familiar with the systems and material conditions of the reactor plant. The MOC was the nerve center of the ship while in refit. Everyone came in to talk to me about what was going on onboard ship, as well as in their personal lives.

At six o’clock on September 11, 2001, I was auditing Work Authorization Forms in the MOC. Someone from the other crew walked into the MOC, proclaiming “I heard terrorists hijacked a plane this morning and flew it into the World Trade Center!” I rolled my eyes. One of his cohorts walked in. “I heard terrorists hijacked TWO planes, and flew them into BOTH towers of the World Trade Center!” It was clear that these guys were terrible at the rumor game. Were they even trying? Then my friend Josh* rushed in, face white and drawn. “Turn on the TV. My wife just called. Terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center.” He reached up and hit the power button. The screen came up just in time to show Flight 175 plow into the South Tower. It was 6:03 AM.

We stared at each other, mouths on the floor. How could this be happening? Was it really happening? Then, the base alarms started wailing. In fifteen minutes, all the shipyard workers were being escorted off the base. In thirty minutes, the base was locked down. I rolled off the base on my motorcycle as they closed the outbound lanes. Everything in Silverdale was shutting down as I rode past, like surfing a wave of reaction.

The personal problem I was facing was my newly purchased motorcycle, the only mode of transportation I possessed, had a temporary tag on it. With a temporary tag, only a temporary vehicle pass was allowed. Furthermore, the temporary tag had fallen off and I was on a one-day tag and a one-day base pass. Clearly, that was not going to pass muster tomorrow with a bunch of nervous, trigger-happy base security personnel. I went to the dealership and described my dilemma. The sales counter lady left immediately to procure my regular license plate. She came back a half hour later: “You’re lucky you came here when you did. The DMV handed me your license plate and shut down the courthouse.” Every government office in the land was responding to the threat.

That evening, I was scheduled to speak in Seattle at a motorcycle advocacy group meeting. In 2001, Seattle was ranked second in the country behind Washington DC for worst traffic delays. Have you seen a post-apocalyptic movie try to capture the utter stillness and silence of an abandoned metropolis? I assure you, no matter the movie, it didn’t do it justice. I rode through a ghost town. There were no planes in the sky. There were no cars on the road. There were no people on the sidewalks. There were no businesses open. Everything was still, quiet, and shuttered. Everyone was hunkered down, just waiting for what might happen next.

The next morning, I arrived at work two hours early to make sure I wasn’t late. The “short” line of cars attempting to enter the base was at the Trigger Avenue gate. It was over a mile long. I ended up just pushing my motorcycle, one car length at a time, the rest of the way to the gate. As the hours passed, the sailors and shipyard workers around me shared our experiences of the previous day. Most still had wide eyes and a stunned expression on their face.

The people I talked to had completely cleaned out their vehicles. They felt there was no need to complicate a tense situation or confuse nervous security guards. As the Marines with their M-16 rifles, undercar mirrors, and bomb-sniffing dogs got closer, the dogs started getting very excited. It turned out even highly trained dogs were still dogs, and still didn’t like motorcycles. The Marine in charge of the detail looked at me and jerked his head at the gate. “Get that thing out of here,” he grunted. I responded that I didn’t have any other way to get to work. “Fine!” he shouted. “Get that thing out of here!” Suitable chastened, I quickly followed orders. I was only two hours late that day.

As heavy security became the new normal, the inspection process became more streamlined. Only random cars were selected for the detailed, thorough inspections. Each ship had to volunteer a few people to augment the security force to perform these inspections. Unfortunately for me, by this time I was driving a vintage Mustang to work. It was heavily modified and quite distinctive. Somehow it was “randomly” selected for inspection - Every. Single. Morning. It got to the point my chain of command didn’t believe me. I had to factor it into my commute time.

As frustrating as it was, you had to be patient with these guys. First, you didn’t want to blow up on them and get nightsticked or, even worse, reported to your command as non-compliant. These were young kids mostly. After all, who were the ships going to send? Young guys who weren’t qualified to do anything important. Top senior guys like me had to get their ships ready to go back to sea. It was pointless to get mad at a young kid because they liked your car and wanted to check it out. Eventually, it came to the point where I would tell them “I’d be happy to come by the barracks and show you what I’ve done with this car in detail. But right now I need to go to work.” These were just young kids who couldn’t grasp the significance of what had happened. They were still allowing their personal biases affect their performance of duties. The impact had not truly hit home yet.

The effect on the lives of myself and the people around me was immediate and acute. The public’s perception of military service changed drastically. Before 9/11, “soldier” was a dirty word. When I was a student at Nuclear Field “A” School in Orlando Florida, all my classmates and myself grew out our hair to the absolute limits of military standards so we looked as little like sailors as possible. We would cover the base stickers on our car windshields with black tape to reduce the chances of vandalism. No one told young women they were in the military; the young woman would most likely walk away without another word. After 9/11? You would get thanked for your service so often I started to avoid eye contact when in public. There were flags on every car antenna. Many businesses would give a military discount where none existed before. Once when I was travelling through South Dakota, I stopped at Wall Drug. A group saw the base sticker on my Mustang and gathered around excitedly. “A real live soldier!” was the most common refrain. They stood and took pictures with me like I was the big plastic cowboy in front of the store. I wasn’t even in uniform.

Eventually, the new normal became the normal normal. The immediate, visceral impact faded from the front of people’s minds. The antenna flags, tattered and faded now, were removed and disposed of. At Lowe’s Hardware, the computer was programmed to flash a reminder for the cashier to thank the customer for their service if a military discount was requested. The security forces were manned up and trained up so I didn’t get randomly inspected every morning.

The Transportation Security Administration was formed, and my suitcases became much more organized after a couple of embarrassing searches. I had to throw away my favorite pair of fingernail clippers that had traveled the world with me for years. Military ID cards were upgraded so they were harder to forge and were promptly hacked, all the personal information stored on them stolen. Plans for a new World Trade Center were developed. Homeland Security did research on the number one terrorist threat to America. Ironically, it was determined to be military veterans. That’s the government for you.

Time passed and the impact from the planes’ collisions further diffused. People started to talk about it, then joke about it. My friend Jimmy the conspiracy theorist started researching the temperatures jet fuel burned at. My middle son Christian saw an episode of South Park ridiculing the 9/11 conspiracies. It became a running gag with him. Everything his parents did was now part of the 9/11 cover-up. It was incredible how many times the grocery store receipt would somehow have 11 items or the numerals in the price would add up to nine, or eleven, or twenty (nine plus eleven).

In July of 2015, the family went on summer vacation. On July 9, we found ourselves in New York City, standing in front of the 9/11 Memorial Pools. It was difficult to imagine this shady, quiet island of serenity was once choked with rubble and dust and panic and fear. My wife Teresa and I walked past all the bricks and bricks of names representing fallen heroes. She found a surname she recognized. A few phone calls to some aunts and uncles revealed he was a cousin, a firefighter who was lost in the first few hours. We walked down into the museum’s Foundation Hall. Retired from the Navy, I was now a utility construction superintendent. This provided a wholly new perspective on the samples of twisted steel and crushed concrete. The forces exerted to cause this scope of calamity were nearly incomprehensible. Room after room had video footage and clips with different perspectives of the event. The images just piled on, one on top of the other. In Memorial Hall, a totaled fire truck was surrounded by other exhibits. The radio dispatch from the casualty response was on loop in the background. My sons and I just stared at each other. There were no conspiracy jokes made now. There would never be again.