Where Were You on 9/11? From the School House to the Sandbox

By: Peter Sessum

It was, admittedly, an inauspicious start to the day the world changed. So, there I was, at the Defense Language School (DLI), no shit. I was on the unit volleyball team, practice had ended and I had just changed into my duty uniform. I saw a group silently gathered around the lobby television on my way out. I stopped to look at what had everyone’s attention and saw a plane crash into the second tower. My first thought was, “We are going to kill a lot of people.”

I didn’t know any more than what I had just seen on the screen, I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew it was bad and that our response was going to be far from a “proportional” response. While I had never been to New York, it never occurred to me that the skyscrapers were anywhere other than America. In my head, this was America, we had been attacked, and we were going to respond. By killing a lot of people.

“We are going to kill a lot of people.”

Class was about to start, and I didn’t have time to get the details as I headed to my car. I listened to the radio as I drove the Asian School. My unit was Pacific theater focused, and I had been there for only the first few weeks of the Thai language course.

As I arrived to class, like the rest of the world, our TV was tuned to news. I remember a lot of misinformation and unconfirmed rumors being reported. This was the biggest news story in recent memory and a lot of unchecked information was making it on screen.

One report that a building in Washington DC was hit. The major in the class was trying to get a hold of his father who worked in the building. There was a lot of chaos and it took most of the day for him to get word that, yes, his father was okay, and that particular building wasn’t a target. The Marine captain had friends in the Pentagon so that became our concern.

Like most of the rest of the country, nothing got done that day. We were glued to TVs until the end of the school day. I don’t remember how the day ended, but those first few hours are cemented in my head.

In the chaos, there were conflicting reports about what buildings were targets. People were frantically trying to reach family members of alleged targets.

I called my unit back home and asked if I needed to return. When they said no, I asked if I had to change languages, and again, they said no. I was, in effect, just to go about my life as if nothing happened. DLI did, however, change overnight.

When the land DLI was on in Monterey was given to the government, there was an agreement that the post would be open to local travel. Overnight, gates were closed and manned. Vehicles coming on to post were inspected. The locals were furious because it added at least 20 minutes to drive around what had been less than a mile drive through DLI. Agreement or not, we were at war and the rules changed.

Naturally, there were no combat units at DLI, so the only pool of bodies they had to pull from were students. All the enlisted had to rotate through inspecting vehicles at the gate and doing nighttime patrols of the military housing on nearby Fort Ord. it was, of course, an exercise in futility since we were unarmed. Fortunately, they had proper guards before I left.

The days and weeks following 9/11 were strange. On the surface, we were studying languages that had nothing to do with new Global War on Terror (GWOT) but there was an undercurrent of getting ready to go. I can’t speak for other veterans, but for me there was a sense that it was time to go to work. I had been Infantry for over six years before I reclassed to Psychological Operations, this was what I was trained for. It felt like we should be getting ready for something bigger, but too many were still worried about the minutia. As if 19 men hadn’t just completely changed the world.

First assignment in Afghanistan. With a conventional unit operating in Khowst Province.

I do remember Jon Stewart’s tearful speech on The Daily Show his first day back on air. He talked about how the view from his apartment used to be the Twin Towers, and then was the Statue of Liberty and what that meant to him. It didn’t take long for him to start making fun of soldiers that were training to deploy. Unlike the politicians that voluntarily go on his show and often looked stupid, soldiers don’t have a mechanism to defend themselves. Poking fun of training soldiers preparing to do the thing you aren’t willing to do is easy, and in my family, we have a saying, “no points for the easy ones.” That was when I stopped watching his show.

It would be a few years before I touched down on Afghan soil. It felt like spinning my wheels. I gave 90 percent of the tactical classes for my PSYOP unit, using mostly the tactical SOP I wrote. I was denied going on the invasion of Iraq because the results of my five-year physical were going to be available in two weeks and the unit had to submit names in one week for a deployment that wasn’t going to happen for a month. They literally had one of the most experienced soldiers sit out because the unit administrator didn’t like me. He hated me so much, he wouldn’t send me off to war. I was later assigned to a different unit that was short handed and for their Afghanistan deployment.

While the unit sucked, my time in Afghanistan was life changing. I was lucky enough to deploy all over the country, in a number of different roles. I was with conventional forces in eastern Afghanistan, then I traveled to southern Afghanistan and worked with a Civil Affairs teams focused on village assessments and reconstruction efforts, last I was attached to a Special Forces (SF) team as part of their PSYOP support.

I was lucky enough to not just see Afghanistan from behind a gunsight. I have been to hundreds of villages and met thousands of Afghans. Pashtun hospitality has no equal, and I took a few positive things I learned from the culture to enrich my life back home. I got to know many Afghans and liked to think I earned the respect of some. it is why I don’t like it when people disparage Afghans, I know there are many honorable Afghans that are worthy of our respect.

Last assignment of my deployment. Having lunch with Afghans while providing PSYOP support to Special Forces in Kandahar Province.

My unit only had one casualty, I took his place and was on the mission that captured the Taliban bomb maker who planted the four-daisy chained anti-tank mines that killed two SF soldiers, a Navy SEAL and the PSYOP soldier.

Out of everything I did in Afghanistan, the most difficult thing I did was walk away from my interpreters. I knew that soon I would go home to a nice warm bed, a family that loved me and a peaceful country. I was sure these great men, ones I trusted with my life, would keep working for the military, possibly until they were killed. The war was on their doorstep, not mine. I was happy to find out that most made it out before the U.S. pulled out of the country.

My respect for the people and desire to help is why I applied for and accepted jobs on two different counter narcotic programs in Afghanistan. My time as PSYOP qualified me to be an international advisor for the Afghan led drug eradication programs, and later as a liaison officer between the teams that cut poppy and the military. It was in that last role that I would meet the only Navy aviation officer I don’t hate who was, at the time, a reserve officer and full time FDNY Captain.

He brought up that the collected group of friends were brought together only by the events of 9/11. He proposed, and we all agreed, that we commemorate our meeting by symbolically returning to Ground Zero. That was the first “Freedom Run.” Since then, it has become an informal event to remember the lives lost in GWOT since 9/11. We log one mile for every life lost since the morning of 9/11. Any exercise done under our own power counts. One mile counts for every 15 minutes of activity that doesn’t track distance.

A few years later, I was writing a college paper when I heard the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed. I went to a local bar and had a few drinks alone, in silence.

It has been 20 years since that morning in 2001, Afghanistan is back to being U.S. military free with the Taliban running the country. While it might seem like things are back to the way they were, I know that I am changed from my time there, and I hope it is for the better.

This entry was posted in Commentary, Never Forget, Random Memories, So There I Was and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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