A colleague from USC Aiken sent me an email seeking my thoughts on a memorial event reflecting Sept. 11, 2001. The email included background information on previous 9/11 events and the potential negative perception by the university’s military veteran community if an event did not take place this year. My colleague’s heart wanted to do “something,” but was not sure how many years following a tragic event should the community hold memorials. The students in this year’s freshman class – for the most part – were six years old in 2001. These are the kids, so to speak, President Bush was reading to on that horrific day. I wonder what these now college students remember of that day or the story read to them.
I let the email sit for a few days before responding. September 11 continues to stir me. I needed to ensure my reply was not soaked in my own issues. I lost several friends that morning: Ray Downey Jr., Jack Fanning, John Paolillo and many, many more. Paolillo introduced me and several other Marines to New York City’s finest bagel shop earlier that year.
To be perfectly honest, I do not attend 9/11 memorial services, remain silent during morning moments of silence or listen to speakers tell of that day. I am not at the point where I can process that day’s attacks. As with my colleague’s email, this column’s topic is a stretch for me.
Two years before Sept. 11, 2001, I was part of a Marine Corps unit – well trained and strategically located to respond to acts of terror. Previous attacks against American citizens, internationally and nationally, were the springboard for this specialized unit. The years leading up to this day, my unit spent with the nation’s leading police and fire departments. Special operations chiefs from Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. became close friends in protecting American citizens. We spent countless days away from our families wrestling through the worst of scenarios. Ray Downey Jr., a U.S. Marine Corps veteran turned deputy chief of Special Operations Command, Fire Department New York, proved invaluable. Ray opened not only the fire department to my unit but the city itself.
Early afternoon on Sept. 11, 2001, I received news that Ray, along with 343 other brothers, were in the towers when they collapsed. I will never see Ray, Chief Downey, again. He was a legend in the Fire and Rescue community; he served his community with the passion of a Marine and community servant.
I watched the attack of the four planes from within our command center. The officers of my unit spent the hours following preparing for launch orders, the enlisted men ensured equipment and supplies were ready. Our families came to the base to say goodbye and hoped for answers. We lived 19 miles from the Pentagon; nobody was sure what the future would bring. My youngest son, 12 at the time, handed me my rucksack and was lost for words. I told him I would be home soon. I do not know how he processed that moment; I only remember his eyes staring deep at me searching for assurance.
My unit never deployed that day or the next; we watched as the nation watched. As a Marine, I never questioned why; I dealt with it. Weeks later, a few others and I received orders to the Middle East; at least there, we would respond.
My response to my colleague’s email was simple, perhaps not popular, but true to my thinking. We do not neglect the events and loss of 9/11 without a formal ceremony, but allow people in their own way to honor the day. Not by way of a formal must-attend event, but through individual actions.
Long ago, our nation set aside two special days: Memorial Day for remembrance and Veterans Day for honor. We all have friends or family for each. For me, this Sept. 11, in early afternoon, my wife and I are getting on an international flight, a visit to family. I am choosing to dwell on what is true and honoring. I am honoring the day and those friends lost with my freedom.
Robert A. Murphy is USC Aiken’s Veteran and Military Student Success official, and a veterans advocate with the Aiken/Augusta Warrior Project.