On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in the chow hall eating egg whites and bacon.
We had TVs set up around the dining area which usually played Armed Forces Network (AFN) broadcasts. Usually it was innocuous news or some state of the day, and went relatively ignored by the janes and joes rushing to eat and make formation on time.
I had glanced at one of the TVs and saw a plane crashing into a tower. The sound was off, and I didn't think anything of it, assuming it was some war movie or another. Why would I suspect anything different? We were a peace-time military. My mind pre-occupied with keeping Korean vocabulary words in my short-term memory for a test that day, I dashed out the chow hall and towards company formation between A and C company buildings.
Formation started late with whispers of what happened starting to grow. I immediately connected the image I saw on TV with what was happening. The 1SG confirmed the rumors, allowed anyone with family in NYC to leave formation to call home, and told us that our training at the moment was to be unchanged.
Chatter immediately shifted to the implications of the attack, the day's schoolwork quickly forgotten. Would we be taken out of training and sent to fight? Would our language change to match the needs of the military? We were young and barely in the Army, so anything seemed possible at that time.
It was not until I ran into a lieutenant colonel taking the course with us that the emotional impact of 9/11 became real. Disoriented and dismissive, Kip had lost a number of friends in the Pentagon collision. His face was still wet. Peace time was over.
In hindsight, there were signs that something was amiss. In May or June an order came down from DOD to close all military posts, which included the Defense Language Institute (DLI). Not equipped with enough MPs, the post was forced to fish troops for guard duty at each gate from the various training companies. We didn't receive much training other than a quick five minute instruction from the previous guards on how to use a mirror to inspect vehicles coming in. What we were looking for was very vague, and what we were supposed to do if we did find anything was even more vague. Our role was mostly to function as a deterrent when we weren't pissing off the local population who had until that point used the post as a shortcut to get to the other side of the foggy hill that was the Presidio.
The shift from peace time to war time military at DLI was abrupt and awkward. Our leaders had been trained under a Cold War mindset, casually conducting "Sergeant's Time" every Tuesday to remind us we were still indeed in the military. Post-9/11, the training became much more serious, but we still didn't get how it would help us. Why learn about a Forward Line of Troops (FLOT) if operations were to be urban? Was depleted uranium a strong concern when we didn't even know if we were going to be in tanks? And why weren't we going to the range, considering most of us had not qualified since basic?
Of course the military quickly adapted to a more modern mindset, and today's DLI recruits have a much different experience than the collegiate environment I shared with my peers. Some of those peers went overseas, some were injured. Some were killed. Many are permanently scarred.
9/11 was a loss of innocence for many who had joined the military for college, for money, or for more diplomatic intentions. I don't know if we'll ever have that innocence again.
Among the crowd in front of the White House last night at last events came full circle, and I was overtaken by a naive belief in a sustainable peacetime. I know that's not likely.
But the flag I waved last night is still dancing in my head, and I am jubilant.