20 years ago, I woke up and went to PT. I ran down Ardennes from York Theater to Smoke Bomb Hill and back. The same thing I did every day. After PT I went home to my government housing at 11C Bastogne. I was with my soldier Dias, who had a soldier of the month board later that morning. We were working on making sure his uniform was squared away. Barbara was upstairs taking care of 4-year-old Alex, three-year-old William and not quite one year old baby Matthew.
The phone rang. She answered and called down that it was my mom. Mom had called to tell her that something crazy was going on in New York. She asked Barb to turn on the TV. Barb came downstairs holding Matthew. “Y’all have to see this.”
We all watched transfixed. We saw the second plane hit the towers. When that happened, my pager went off. Then Dias’ pager went off. I called our platoon office. 1LT Mike Donahue answered. “It’s Hall, sir. What is happening?” “Not sure. We meet with the BC in 5. You guys need to get your gear and get back as soon as possible. It’s a full lockdown. As of now we are on full alert.”
Dias and I grabbed our stuff. I got my “go gear” from the closet - a fully packed duffle and rucksack already rigged for aiframe and ready to go. Barb loaded the kids up in the car, and we threw our stuff in the back. She took us back to the company area and dropped us off. I said goodbye to her and the kids. “I don’t know when I will be back. I don’t know anything really.” “I know” she said, “We love you.”
When we got in the company area everyone was huddled around TVs watching the coverage. We watched the towers fall. “SSG HALL!” boomed the voice of our First Sergeant. “You need to get to the BC’s office right now. He wants to talk to you.” I rushed over to Battalion HQ and knocked on his door.
“SSG Hall. Glad you’re here. Look son, there are some things going on. I don’t know what role we will have in this, but we are damn sure gonna have one. Here’s what I need to know. I need to have absolute confidence that every piece of equipment in this battalion works. Every radio. Every computer. Every night vision device. And I need you to be the one that handles this. Get set up. Give me a plan. And we’ll make it happen. Be ready to brief me in 20 minutes on your plan.” I saluted and turned to leave. “One more thing Jeff” (he had never called me by my first name) “This is really important. And that’s why I am giving it to you. Don’t fail me. And don’t stop until it gets done. We may be at war this time tomorrow.”
I didn’t sleep for three days. My team and I tested every piece of equipment. I got a medal.
We didn’t leave for war the next day. A year later that unit deployed for Afghanistan. I was in Korea, and deeply bitter that I hadn't gotten a chance to lead my team into Afghanistan. I got my chance the next year though and went to Afghanistan in 2003.
This is how my war started.
Over the next few years, I lost people close to me. Mike Donahue - the LT who called me in on the morning of 9/11? He was killed by a roadside bomb in Kabul in 2014. He was one of the best leaders I ever served with. And one of the best men I ever met. I lost others too. Some in Afghanistan, some in Iraq. Some years later when they were no longer in the Army, but still fell to the wounds of war.
For the 6 years I served before 9-11 the Army was a 9-5 job where they paid me to be in great shape and talk shit. It was perfect for me in my 20s. The longest I had been away from home was 25 days. I planned on being a soldier for as long as they would let me.
During the 6 years after 9-11, I was home for 18 months. They were nonconsecutive. I would be home for 2 weeks, leave, home 3 months, leave, home 4 days, leave. Every time I came home I either already had orders to leave again or would get them within days of being home. Even when I was home, I wasn’t home.
This is how my war was fought. A relentless drain on my emotional and psychological resources every day for 20 years.
War broke me. It finished the process started by having a narcissist mom and surviving childhood sexual trauma. When I left the Army in 2007, I had nothing left. I was a barely functional alcoholic with rage issues, depression, anxiety and untreated PTSD. I was a mess. In 2010 I began the process of trying to get better. It has been a long and winding path, with detours to jail and psych facilities, electro convulsive therapy and warrior meditation, a suicide attempt and the death of way too many friends.
And while all this was going on? Most of the rest of the country yawned. Less than 1% of Americans currently serve. Fewer than 7% has ever served. The burdens of 9/11 were not carried by the country. They were outsourced to a handful of kids, most of whom joined the military because it was their best chance out. Out of Detroit, like Hardy and Davis. Off the reservation like Ingram. Out of Mexico and toward citizenship like Gonzalez and Rivera. Out of an opioid addled corner of Appalachia like Cumbie or a farm in Iowa like Boergerding or a Wyoming cattle ranch like Walker. They come from every corner of the country, this 1%. But they are not the whole country. Not even close. Many Americans haven't seen their lives change at all.
From the opening moments of the "forever war" most Americans were told that the best thing that they could do was not join the military but go shopping. We were told that NFL football would make us whole again, and that a robust economy was the way to show the terrorists that "America wins."
To paraphrase the words of Susan Sontag immediately after 9/11 (in an essay she would be vilified and attacked for), the American public was never asked to bear much of the burden of reality. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines - and their families - we did that. And our war was a constant bombardment of reality.
That was my war.
20 years later, my son (who was not quite 1 on 9/11) and my son in law (who was 4) both serve in the military. My son is an Air Force intelligence analyst assigned to the NSA. My son in law is an infantry Marine. I literally passed the war down to the next generation.
I have watched the rise of a fascist demagogue who inspired a literal coup and breach of the US Capitol building, and who still holds sway over 35% of the country who will never leave him, and who view him as the best of America. I have watched our national - and local- discourse collapse into misinformation, moral relativism, and tribal nativism. I have seen people sacrifice principle to their desire to have someone agree with them and hate who they hate. I have watched hope be consumed by fear. I have watched community be swallowed up by distrust. Down is up, up is down, a deadly virus is called a hoax and preventing school shootings is considered intrusive while a citizen's arrest of a woman exercising her constitutional right to choose is called freedom.
We are through the looking glass.
I imagine that if Osama Bin Laden has CNN wherever he is these days that he is pretty fucking pleased with how things are in America 20 years on.
It started with planes and buildings. A field in Pennsylvania. It started with a buzz on my pager. It ended with a man in a Viking helmet standing in the office of the Speaker of the House, gallows waiting outside. It started with me wanting to go to war. Wanting to fight. Wanting revenge for all those people in those towers who couldn’t fight for themselves. My head was full of plans. My heart full of righteous anger.
The war has ended with me praying that my sons don't have to see what I saw, and don't have to carry around the platoon of ghosts that I see every time I look in the mirror and know that I am here, and they aren't.
This is how my war ended.
It has been a long 20 years.
Through it all I have come out the other side. I don’t know what kind of person I am. I leave that judgement to others. I know what I try to be - someone who lives honestly and tries to make a difference. That’s all I can do. 9-11 showed me that I am not superman. Even if I wanted to be and tried to be. I am just a regular guy. That’s all.
One of the things that people will say today is that 9-11 changed the world. I don’t know. I know it changed me. And while there is a lot about the last 20 years I haven’t enjoyed, I am still grateful for all of it.
Because it has led me here.
And since I am here, I hope. And if I can hope, I can dream of the world that is possible. I can overcome the darkness by finding even a faint flicker of light.
And 20 years later, that's enough.