Sunday, September 11, 2011

Alone and Stranded on 9/11

Remembering the victims of 9/11, and their families, today. May God bless the survivors as they were profoundly affected on that fateful day that asymmetrical war came to our soil in a dramatic and shocking day.

All Americans, I imagine, recall exactly where we were that Tuesday morning in September one decade ago. A day seared into our memory by the tragic and violent death of so many of our countrymen. How could we forget? May we never forget.

My personal story on that day is not particularly important. But, I'll take the time to tell it, as I remember the day. I was alone and stranded in Alabama. I was far from my family. It was fortunate that I was a seasoned traveler and could cope with the disruption.

I was standing in Germany on US soil on 9/11. How is that? Well, I was inside the foreign trade zone that is Mercedes-Benz USA assembly plant outside of Tuscaloosa Alabama. Our company had won a contract to provide services inside the plant and I was the project leader. I had lived onsite there for 4 months in the Spring of 2001 and I was back that week checking on our team and our services. I assumed it would be a routine and uneventful week.  Boy, was I wrong.

I flew into Atlanta on Monday, September 10th as I had done many times that year. I had flown at least 80 round trips in the year before 9/11, and I could walk through Atlanta's Hartsfield airport in my sleep. I rented a car - a Pontiac G6 I think - and set off down I-20 through Birmingham to the Mercedes plant. I checked into the Hawthorne suites across the road for two nights. I had an electronic ticket to fly home on Wednesday morning. I went into the plant for an work session Monday afternoonl, and had a quiet night in the hotel. Back through the gates into the foreign trade zone on Tuesday morning with my Mercedes badge.

I mention the foreign trade zone, because it had an impact on how much information we had throughout the day of 9/11 - which was minimal. Plant management turned off the TVs and kept the workday going as normally as they could. We had our laptops, and watched bits and snatches. "What, the Twin Towers fell? What do you mean?"

I had one phone call from my wife that morning. I could her how upset she was. I could hear tears and panic. "Randy, they are reporting that the Air Force has shot down an airliner over Pennsylvania!" I remember that statement clear as a bell - as an Air Force veteran. Shocked! But, we kept working and finished our shift.

I went back to my hotel at the end of my shift and sat glued to the television all night. Alone. Away from my family and scared for them. Stranded.

Stranded indeed. How little we knew that week. All flights were grounded? That had never happened before. How do I get home? I was getting snippets of travel information - mainly telling me that my e-ticket was worthless. Only people with paper tickets were going to get a flight, I heard.. That's when we still had hope that there would be flights. That hope dimmed every day.

What did I do to cope with that week? I worked. I dealt with the travel uncertainty by checking out of my hotel every morning and going into work. Our team did the best we could to support the plant, which kept working. I worked with the day shift team, stayed to steady the 2nd shift team, and then went back across the street and checked back into the hotel to watch the news all night. I didn't have a company credit card, just my personal one, and I was stretching it to stay extra nights before I could turn in an expense report. What else could I do? Wednesday, Thursday, Friday I checked out and hoped for a flight. No flights.

On Friday afternoon, I gave up on flights. It was extraordinary circumstances, and I made a command decision. I pointed my rental car North and started driving home. It would just have to become a one-way rental home, and the rental company would just have to deal with that and charge me what the would charge me. Whatever. I had to get home. And so I drove for two days. I stopped midway because I needed sleep. I made it home Saturday, grateful to be home with my family. Grateful and stunned. I could get out of road-survival mode and team-leader mode and get my bearings. And my wife now had help in coping with our children and their fears that week.

That's my story of 9/11/01. It's no more important than any of our stories that day. What was more important was a national reaction. A national focus. A national unity, however brief.

So, what did we learn that day on 9/11, and in the ten years since? President George W. Bush said it well this week, when he said:

"One of the lessons of 9/11 is that evil is real, and so is courage."

Evil is real? Yes, indeed. If we're not reminded of that every day in the small heinous acts that fill our newspapers of pedophiles or abusers or senseless flash mob violence, we are reminded in the big acts like 9/11.

Not everyone recognizes that evil is real, which is why President Bush needed to say it again. One of my favorite political pundits, Dennis Prager, writes often of the Left's inability to recognize or confront evil. Treating terrorism as a common crime, for example, as was our failing before 9/11. Excusing or defining down the motives of the evil-doers. Not being able to name our enemy - radical Islamic jihadists - because of political correctness. Sometimes I feel that more people believe that George W. Bush actions were more evil that Osama bin Laden's, and I truly do not understand that.

Evil is real. We got clarity on that for a moment on 9/11. I fear that recognition is once again slipping away. Never forget what we saw that day.

But on the flipside, so is courage!

So much courage. Courage in the passengers on Flight 93 in the very first battle in the War on Terror. Courage in the responders who went into the towers as everyone else was rightfully running out. Courage in the crews who cleared the rubble and the fragments of remains at great risk to their own health. Courage in our brave men and women who continue to enlist in a voluntary military and deploy to at least two hot war zones. So much courage. Too much to even recognize adequately.

I would add one more lesson to Bush's list. We learned - as the 9/11 Commission shouted in their compelling report - that there are people diligently at war with us even if we don't think that we are at war with them. They are out there every day. Planning. Preparing. Acting with a goal of killing us and our culture.

To those who think America overreacted to 9/11, I ask: how many blows was America expected to take before punching back? The bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon. The first World Trade Center bombing. The Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed many of our airmen. The embassies in Africa. The U.S.S Cole and the sailors that died that day. Many are at war with us. Al-Qaida. Hezbollah (Khobar). etc. They are at war with us. Have we forgotten that in the decade that's followed?

We have fought back, gone on offense instead of defense in this asymmetrical war, and we have done so humanely as possible in war.

Do those of you who criticize America's response to 9/11, who think that we are the warmongers and evil-doers - realize how much power we are capable of bringing to bear on our enemies and have not? Do you realize what hell we could rain on a population that attacked us first? We could level their ass in layers of radiated rubble if we chose, and we have not. We have taken out the evil-doers of al-Qaida and the Taliban with restrained precision, not with the indiscriminate mass slaughter that they brought to our soil. Think about that. Think about the courageous rebuilding of schools and infrastructure that our troops are doing in Afghanistan at great risk to their own lives. We are the good guys. Why don't you get that?

It's the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Never forget it. I thank President Bush and his administration for their courage in responding to it. I thank President Obama for continuing the hunt for Osama bin Laden and bringing him justice in the form of Seal Team Six.

Never forget 9/11. Never retreat to 9/10.

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