The Army’s Facebook page asked people who joined after Sept. 11, 2001, to share their stories today, and it struck me that while it’s a story I’ve shared with several people, I don’t think I’ve ever written it down. So when I got home tonight, late after a long day of preparing my boss’ Sept. 11 remarks and preparing strategic communications for the newly-energized hurricane season, I thought I’d try to share the story of how that day turned my life around and led to where I am today.
So, before I begin, it’s important to set the scene. My dalliances with the U.S. Army were many and varied before I finally signed a contract. My grandfathers were both veterans of World War II and Korea with Bronze Stars. My dad spent four years in the Pentagon and left as a Specialist 5 and a Bronze Star. I didn’t know it then, but I’ve got a lineage that goes all the way back to the Revolution. But here are the results of my initial shots with the Army:
- Tried to get into West Point my senior year despite being a mediocre, yet really smart, student. Secured a senatorial nomination, fell short by an unspecified number of pull-ups.
- Earned an ROTC scholarship for college. It didn’t pay for my freshman year. At the end of my freshman year, they closed the program at UTC. Instead of taking it elsewhere – WHICH I COULD HAVE DONE – I gave it up to stay at UTC because I was convinced I had a future in sportswriting.
- Went to a recruiter my fourth year in college to look into being a pilot (flight warrant officer) after graduation. Never followed up during my fourth or fifth years.
So there’s all of that. Then I graduated on Aug. 13, 2001. I think most people who knew me thought it was a miracle. I know I took my sweet time. And taking that time had me graduating into what was kind of a crap economy. The jobs weren’t plentiful, and I, honestly, didn’t do the things you’re supposed to do in college to set yourself up for the future. So I kept on bartending and scouring the classified ads to find something that would get me out of the late-night grind and into a job that would pay enough to handle my student loans – taken because I’d given up a great scholarship – and put a roof over my head. That’s where I was on Sept. 9, 2001.
That was a Sunday. I don’t remember every detail, but I remember I was driving along I-24 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, from my apartment in Red Bank to my job at the Chattanooga Billiards Club. I was talking on the phone with my dad; there was no hands-free option, and we didn’t care back then.
He decided that was the day to broach the idea of me joining the Army again. He told me it was a good job. As a college graduate, they’d make me an E-4 – SPECIALIST! – and the pay would bump about $250 in 2002. He told me they’d pay off my $25,000 in student loans, which seemed insurmountable at the time. He told me they had journalist jobs. That’s what I’d been going to school for!
It seemed like a decent idea. Five years, experience, loans covered. Not bad. I told Dad that I’d go talk to a recruiter on Tuesday.
Sept. 9, 2001, was a Sunday. I told my dad I’d talk to a recruiter Tuesday. Now let’s fast forward about 48 hours.
At the time, I had a girlfriend. We were having issues. In fact, we were broken up. LAter, we were together again. Eventually, we went our separate ways. But for some reason, we stayed together the night of Sept. 10.
We woke up to her phone ringing. Off the hook. Several times. I remember being hung over. Finally, I told her to answer the phone. Then I remember her saying “BABY, TURN ON THE TV!”
So I did. We watched the North Tower smoking. My first thought was “What the fuck?” I remembered the original attempt at destroying the World Trade Center in 1993, but at the moment all I knew was a plane somehow crashed into the WTC. Then, within minutes (I think), we saw the second plane crash into the South Tower. Any doubts were instantly erased. We watched it. My mind raced. I knew what I’d told my dad. I was incredibly conflicted.
At some point, because she knew, she asked me if I was still going to the recruiter that day. In the moment, I only had one answer:
“I kinda have to.”
Here were my thoughts in that moment: What kind of man would I be if I told my dad I would go today, and then failed to do it when this happens? Could I look myself in the mirror if I did that? Fuuuuuuuuuuck.
So she went to class, and I headed to my apartment. I listened to the radio. I remember how weird it was that there were no planes in the sky. I got home. I watched and/or heard about the plane at the Pentagon, and the plane that crashed in Shanksville. I watched – this I’m certain of – both towers crash to the ground as I got ready for the day. It was a day that went from “I told my dad I’d talk to a recruiter, but really, who cares if I get around to that?” to a day in which I only had one thing to do: Go to the recruiter.
So I finished getting myself ready and, doubting whether anyone would answer, I called the recruiter in Hixson:
Me: “Hi, I don’t want you all to think I’m crazy, but I was wondering if you’re open today and if I can talk to you about joining the Army? I was planning to come in today. Are you open?”
Them: “We’re open. Come on in.”
Now we go long story short. I went in. We talked. I decided to go after it. On Oct. 1, I signed my contract. On Nov. 7, I reported to Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I did it all: two tours in Iraq, garrison duty, joining in humanitarian assistance efforts after Hurricane Rita. I left active duty, and 10 years later I continue serving in the Army Reserve. As a civilian, I’ve become a trusted advisor on strategic issues that affect where our military is going in the future.
Sept. 11 changed my life. I’ve said that before. But remember, I called that recruiter because I didn’t want to let my dad down. It was absolutely the best decision I’ve ever made, but I wouldn’t call it the bravest. Everything I have in this world – my family, my career, my passions – came from that decision.
I’m not a hero, but I’m part of the post-Sept. 11 generation. Now I’m a relatively senior leader of Soldiers. We should all share our stories.