Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years

Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good - Romans 12:21 (KJV)

Ten years ago today I was in Oceanside, California, thousands of miles away from my home in Northern Virginia.

On September 10, 2001 I flew from Reagan National Airport to San Diego for what was supposed to be a wonderful trip.
My then fiance (now husband) was returning from a six month deployment to the Middle East.  He spent six months with the 11th MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) out of Camp Pendleton, CA.  We were nearing the end of a 4 year long distance relationship, so I was used to being away from him for a few months at a time.  But never as long as six months, and never where I had to worry about him so much.

His travels took him from San Diego, to Hawaii, to Australia, and then on to places like East Timor, United Arab Emirates and Jordan.  While in Jordan, he was part of the group of  Marines that bin Laden threatened to attack if they did not leave the country (which, strangely enough, I can't find any news information about).  

As the summer of 2001 came to an end I started planning my trip to California.

 I was so excited, but nervous.

I had never traveled somewhere so far away, by myself, without someone waiting for me.  I had been to Southern California many times, Ryan was always there waiting.

The other obstacle was the timing.  The military is famous for giving one date, then changing it.  I settled on September 10th, a Monday, even though his ship wasn't scheduled to return to port until that Wednesday or Thursday.  I was afraid if I flew during the middle of the week, they would change the return date and I would miss his return.  And after waiting six months for him to get back, there was no way I was going to miss it!  I was a veteran Marine Corps girlfriend at that point, and I felt I had earned my exciting military "Welcome Home" pomp and circumstance excitement.

Then word came that they pushed the return day back to Friday, possibly Saturday.  I had already planned to do some sight seeing on my own until he returned, but I wasn't sure I wanted to do that much.  So I briefly considered changing my flight to the Tuesday, September 11, instead.  But the amount of money to change the ticket wasn't worth it, so I stuck with my original plans.

On September 10, 2001 my mom drove me to Reagan National Airport very early for my 6:30am flight.  We took the HOV lanes on 395, and got stuck in some nasty traffic just as we were coming up on the exit for the airport, which happens to be right before the Pentagon.

I finally got to the airport, and said goodbye to my mom at the gate (remember the days when you could do that?).  The flight was uneventful, though I was nervous as always, because flying scares the living daylights out of me.

Once I landed in San Diego, I managed to locate my bag, find a shuttle to the rental car lot, and secure my rental.  It's funny how clear those memories are.  I can still see everything that happened during that time, like it was just a few days ago.

I got on interstate 5 and made my way to Oceanside.  I just remember thinking, holy cow I'm driving on the highway in California!  And being so thankful that there wasn't hardly any traffic.

I found my hotel, and got lunch at a taco place next door.  I got checked in, called my parents and then Ryan to let them know I made it, and set out to find food.  That mission didn't go well, and I ended up with snacks from 7-11 before returning to my room.  

The next morning, I woke up around 6:30 local time.  I'm the type that turns the t.v. on as soon as I get up.  I can't stand having complete silence, I need the background noise.  For some reason though, I didn't that morning.  I was getting ready to get in the shower about five minutes after I woke up when my cell phone rang.  I almost didn't answer it, but I did.

It was my dad.  He asked me if I was watching tv - I said no.  He told me that planes had hit the World Trade Center, and one had just hit the Pentagon.  I laughed.  I said you're kidding, right?  He said no.  I said, what channel do you think it's on?  I'm pretty sure that's what shock sounds like.

I turned the t.v. on and there of course was plenty of coverage of the events.  Then not long after, the first tower collapsed as I watched.  I dropped to my knees and started crying.

My dad calmed me down, and the rest of our conversation is a blur.  Once I got off the phone with him, I tried calling my mom.

Both of my parents were working within just a couple miles of the Pentagon.  Flight 77 flew directly over my dad as it took it's route that was parallel with Columbia Pike to the Pentagon, my dad saw it fly over.  My mom was working for the federal government in a building just a couple blocks over from the Pentagon in Crystal City.  An area full of government offices.
When my dad saw the plane go over and heard the crash, he called my mom and told her to get out.  Then he called me.  My mom was lucky that she left the area when she did, she was able to get a head start from everyone else.  The area was so gridlocked with people trying to leave that some people abandoned their cars on the side of the road and walked.

When I was finally able to get through to my mom, she was at home.  We just sat on the phone watching the news coverage, crying.  I eventually got off the phone, and went in search of a computer so I could email Ryan.

That's when my next panic set in - what if he didn't get to get off the ship?  What if they were turned around and sent back out to fight?  What if California was next?

In the lobby of the hotel, they had the tv on watching the news coverage.  I broke down again, and the desk clerk just hugged me.  I will forever be grateful for that. 

I found the public computer lab, and emailed Ryan asking him to call me ASAP.  I tried to go to the mall, but it was closed with a sign saying something about it being a large target and closing for safety reasons.  I found a Target and wandered around.  I remember telling the cashier that I was from Northern Virginia and my home was just attacked.

Ryan finally called me, and we talked a lot.  He didn't know what to expect either, no one was saying.  I sat in my room watching the tv pretty much nonstop.  The next day I discovered that I could see the group of three ships with the 11th MEU from a marina near my hotel, so I sat there for a couple hours just watching them. 

I watched the line of cars of people trying to get onto Camp Pendleton - I was across the street from the base.  I decided that if any kind of attack happened there, I was getting my butt over the fence and onto the base somehow, someway.

The rest of the week is more of a blur.  I did a lot of sitting at the marina, a lot of talking to my parents on the phone.  I called my former employer, which happened to be with the Marine Corps.  I wanted to check on the Marines that I worked with, and make sure no one was in the Pentagon.  Turned out one man was, it was his second day working there.  He wasn't hurt though, thankfully.  I called the Red Cross and donated money.  I found a Trader Joe's and was finally able to stop eating junk from 7-11.  I didn't do any sight seeing, I rarely left my hotel.

Finally the day came that Ryan was going to be able to get off the ship.  I made my way onto the base, and got through security (one Marine was very friendly, the other I'm pretty sure growled at me a couple times).  There was no big welcome home celebration.  Everything that I had waited six months for went out the window.  Our welcome home was me sitting in my rental car at the barracks, waiting for someone to drop Ryan off.

Once he was back, the next obstacle was how I was going to get home.  At that point the planes were still grounded.  I was terrified of flying anyway.  We looked into taking a train back home, but it was $800 for a one way ticket without a sleeper, just a seat.  No thanks.  I considered staying in California until Ryan got out of the Marine Corps later that fall.  I decided that the terrorists wouldn't force me to do something like that, and scheduled a return flight.

I can't remember when I flew home.  I know it was a few days later than I had originally planned on, because we had to wait for flights to resume.  But I know I was scared to death.  I left Ryan at the security check point, and went to my gate.  I cried and cried.  I managed to lose my address book, but some kind person found it and tracked me down.  I was a mess.

Once on the plane, things got worse.  My row mate was an arabic man.  I didn't even notice that until I realized he was reading an arabic newspaper.  I just remember staring at him, then looking up and making eye contact with the flight attendant that was coming down the aisle.  She stared at me with a panicked look on her face.  I'm sure I looked the same.

My flight home was uneventful other than that.  I flew into Dulles Airport this time, because National was still closed.  I'll never forget walking through the doors and seeing my parents waiting for me.  I can still remember how it felt, almost like I was sinking into the ground.  Just such a "thank God I'm home" kind of feeling.  I was so scared that they would get hurt because they were so close to the Pentagon attack, it was such a relief to be able to hug them.

So here we are ten years later.  My husband is no longer a Marine.  He got out of the Marine Corps that December, but was then called back to active duty in March 2003 right before the start of the war.

I'm now the mom of two wonderful little boys.  It scares me to think that they may one day follow their dad's foosteps into the Marine Corps.  Ryan and I have agreed that if they decide to do this, we will support them.  But we will not encourage it, nor do we talk a lot about his years in the Marine Corps.  This is hard for me because I'm so proud of my Marine, and of my time as a Marine Corps girlfriend and wife.  Ryan likes to say that I'm more OOH-RAH than he ever was, and he might be right.  But as things stand now, things aren't the same as they were when he was in the Corps.  They're much scarier.  

As the mom of two boys, I know that it is my responsibility to teach them about that horrible day.  Luke is obviously way too young.  But I read FIREBOAT: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey to Cody this week.  It is a nice story about a fireboat in New York and includes some historical information.  The section about 9/11 is fairly short, and I think it introduces the subject well.  Cody is still too young to understand, but I wanted to open the subject to him since he would be hearing about it on the tv, and from us, today.  He understands that bad people did a bad thing, and that people lost their lives.  But we mostly focused on the good - that many people survived, and that many people were heroes that day, and we have lots of brave people protecing us to make sure that something like that never happens again.

I pray that my children never experience anything like 9/11.

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