When we came home from Desert Storm, everyone was already saying, “We’re going back,” because we hadn’t finished what had been started. And, of course, we know that’s exactly what happened because of 911.
I was in Washington, DC on that day, working at the same place I am now. I was in the National Guard at the time, and I was short-timer and looking forward to getting out in December. At that point, I was done with the military. People were saying, “But you have twelve years in. Why don’t you stay the extra eight and retire?” It was something you had to be there to understand. I’d gotten to the point where I just couldn’t take it any more. I would end up hating it, and I hated what the military was doing to my writing. It was not the best of environments for being creative.
When the first planes hit in New York, we didn’t really know what was happening. Initially, I think people thought it was an accident, but once news started getting out, we were evacuated into the basement of our building in case were attacked.
Eventually, we were kicked loose, and I had to head North, into DC. It was a 14 mile drive and took four hours. Traffic inched along, and unlike normal DC traffic, everyone was mannerly. I sat in that traffic, sick to my stomach, as I watched police escort convoys of cars down the shoulders. So many rescue workers headed in that direction.
My car started to overheat, pumping out pink smoke — the fan had gone out. I finally got over to an exit and got off, moving away from the traffic, to get the engine cooled down. I stopped in a restaurant to wait things out, and I was beyond being stunned or in denial. How can you react to the enormity of what had happened?
I finaly got home, and over the next few weeks as the Pentagon burned, I could walk out to the sidewalk and see the black smoke in the air. And I still had to go to work the next day. My then boss, a retired Army colonel, wanted us to get back on the horse. But, for me, dealing with the fan that needed to be replaced, was almost more than I could handle. It was get by the day, minute by minute.
The first weekend, my then cowriter and I got together to write because it was important to do something normal, even if the rest of the world wasn’t.
It took about two weeks for everyone in the area to start recovering. About two weeks after, it was like the sun came and people started emerging from hiding.
I went to my first drill after, which might have been in late September or early October. I don’t remember any more. I was scared because I had only a few months left, and I knew the military was going to deploy. If the President started calling soldiers up, I would be put on stop loss and deploy, and I didn’t want to go. I’d had one war, and that had been enough.
The route back from drill duty took me past the Pentagon. That part of the freeway had been previously closed, but once the fire was under control, it had been reopened. I remember this guy in front of me jamming on his brakes and pulling over to the side, and then hopping out so he could take pictures like it was tourist scenery. The Pentagon had this big black bite taken out of the side of the building, and it was difficult to even look at.
Time slowed down to an agonizing pace as I watched the news, waiting for the call up to start. My last day in the military was December 25, 2001, and they started deploying soldiers soon after.