Editor’s note: Art delaCruz originally wrote this reflection for Team Rubicon in 2018.
I was probably 10 years old when I first realized that a major event could bring up memories many years later. I was with my childhood friend when his mother walked through the room, eyes red and with remnants of tears on her cheeks. My buddy asked if she was alright and she stated that she was fine; she was simply emotional as it was the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. She shared where she was on August 16, 1977, and talked about the time she first heard him on the radio, the crush she had as a teenager, and of a concert she got to attend. As she described each of those moments, she brought us there, not so much centered on Elvis, but the memories it stirred. Memories and reflection.
I experienced something similar with my father-in-law who was able to recall, in graphic detail, where he was and who he was with the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. He did the same for man’s first steps on the moon. On another occasion, I sat around as a group from my squadron recalled where they were when the Space Shuttle Columbia mishap occurred in 1981. In each of these events, people with no direct involvement were able to recall emotion, events, pictures, and people. Memories and reflection.
Today we mark the 17-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a series of four coordinated attacks would change the world forever. It seems like every anniversary of 9/11 involves a discussion about where people were and how things changed, but I’ve never really shared much about my experience. I think it is time; here are my memories and a bit of reflection.
At 8:46 am Eastern time, the first aircraft struck the World Trade Center north tower. I was on the USS Enterprise, exiting the Persian Gulf, during month five of a planned six-month deployment. I was an officer at Fighter Squadron FOURTEEN (VF-14), an F-14 squadron that was part of the USS Enterprise. The squadron had just completed our responsibilities enforcing the no-fly zone in Iraq. We had completed our time “standing the watch” and were soon to be relieved by the next battle group. We’d heard the day prior that we’d been approved for a port call in South Africa and the USS Enterprise exited the Gulf and steamed south. A group of us had walked into our ready room, which is essentially a common space for the members of the squadron. As we walked in, we saw images of smoke coming from the north tower of the World Trade Center on CNN. We openly wondered what happened and had little information. All we knew was that a plane had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center.
In a room full of aircrew, we speculated that perhaps a small aircraft had lost control in the unseen turbulence buildings like the World Trade Center would cause. We watched the smoke billow, still going about our work. Then shortly after the top of the hour, at 9:03 am Eastern, the south tower was hit. Speculation disappeared as we watched the images of the second passenger jet slamming into the side of the south tower of the World Trade Center. The shock would continue. Roughly 30 minutes later, we would see images of the aftermath of the Pentagon being attacked. 30 minutes later we learned of the crash in Shanksville, PA.
Over the course of a couple of hours, the mood had completely changed from one of excitement surrounding an approaching port call to one of shock where nobody really knew what to think. The demeanor of the squadron had changed; despite having spent the previous five months at sea, we knew everything had changed. It was confirmed shortly after when the captain of our aircraft carrier spoke on the 1 Main Circuit (1MC) which is the shipboard public address circuit.
”We are awaiting orders from the President.”
I still remember that moment in the Ready Room – the people, the faces, the images, the smells, and perhaps most vividly, pictures broadcast over the ship’s television of our Nation over 6,000 miles away. Memories and reflections.
So as I reflect 17 years later, one of the things I find interesting is that my recollection is influenced by my current situation. Perhaps like my buddy’s mother, I find myself connecting elements of the past with the present and future. A lot has happened in the 17 years. I continued to serve until my retirement in 2013. I’ve gone on to join Team Rubicon as the Chief Operating Officer and now take great pride in my small role in ensuring our veterans have an organization where the skills, education, and experiences can be utilized to help those in need, post natural disaster. I suppose I’ve gone from one service to another type of service and that shapes my reflections.
So 17 years later, what stands out? First, in the face of tremendous uncertainty and an attack on our soil, our country came together. Though I couldn’t witness it first-hand, the men and women on the Enterprise learned of people helping people in their time of need. I can remember reading about New Yorkers helping strangers that needed a place to stay or a way to contact far-away families. With travel crippled, people opened doors and welcomed people into their homes. Nobody was a stranger; in this time of need, everyone was a neighbor. New York became a part of everyone’s neighborhood and our country came together. I can recall reading about volunteers from around the country, serving in every capacity from firefighting to providing food and clothing. Together these volunteers and first responders came to the aid of a city devastated by an attack in search and rescue operations and any other need. People rushed to help our Nation recover with no conditions, only an expectation of contributing in any manner possible. And of course, I recall the stories and images of heroes rushing back into the Pentagon or moving the debris that was once the World Trade Center to search for and save those trapped in the wreckage and debris.
I also remember that it reminded us that we were the United States. I vividly remember amazement when a young Sailor told me about his mother, who had literally spent hours in search of an American flag to hang on their house. She eventually found one and wasn’t alone in her desire to show her support by displaying our flag. I remember a front-page picture from another Sailor’s hometown newspaper. It was a picture of Main Street, rural America. Every door had a flag proudly displayed.
I remember shared mourning. Our nation had endured a major loss and for some, it was the unthinkable devastation of losing a friend or family member. We collectively shared these losses and collectively hoped for a miracle whenever we saw a picture posted by somebody searching. We all paused to mourn our lost. We all paused to pay tribute to those who perished in the line of duty. We thanked those who rushed to the World Trade Centers, executing their jobs as public servants and applauded the bravery and selflessness of the men that rushed the cockpit of a high-jacked airplane to save people on the ground. As a Nation, we all truly mourned and in mourning, we came together.