Rituals, Crying and America’s Longest War

I’m a woman of ritual. I tend to commemorate personal occasions with my own wordless ceremonies. 9/11 is one of those. As an Army combat veteran with three tours in Afghanistan, it is my annual ceremony to ruminate on how it all began. Each year I drag a small step stool into my closet to reach a plastic bin on the top shelf filled with military newspapers I once wrote for.  On top of the stack is a story I wrote back in 2007 for a small poset in upstate New York, Fort Drum’s, paper, “The Blizzard,” about a 9/11 survivor I served with, Rafael Hernandez. This year as I lift it from the bin, there is a different feel to it. Just days before the 20th anniversary of the attacks the war in Afghanistan ended. The entire veteran and military community felt the loss as the Taliban took Kabul. What was it all for, then?  The photo of Rafael that accompanies the story is by me, too. He stares wistfully into the warm glow of a sunrise. He looks hopeful. But today I’m unsure of hope. 

In 2007 I was serving as a Public Affairs non commissioned officer recovering from my first deployment, an extended 16-month tour in Afghanistan, about to go into training for my second. The survivor was an artillery soldier, also a non commissioned officer, who stood beside me in formation every day. As we neared September he mentioned he’d been in the first tower hit. I asked if I could write his story and the next day we locked ourselves into the Conference Room at the Fires and Effects office at the 10rth Mountain Division’s 3BCT headquarters. Then he very matter of factly told me about being on the 82nd floor of the first building when the plane hit. He was only supposed to be there for one hour to give a presentation for an internship. His fiancee and cousin had just arrived to go to breakfast with him afterwards. 

He shared how the building shook like it was an earthquake, violently. They tried to look out of the windows, but the heat emanating from them was too intense and all they could smell was jet fuel. Like everyone else in the entire building, his small trio made the decision to evacuate. They ran to the elevators but the wires had been cut and there was only a gaping chasm, filled with the screams of those above. People crowded into the foyers around the stairwells, trampling each other, getting trampled, as they all wedged themselves on the staircase to begin what would become a grueling descent. 

He told me that the people we saw jumping from the towers on the news were not jumping, they were popping out of the windows as people crowded the stairwells, the sheer capacity of people forcing them out and down to the streets below.  Rafael said he tried to keep his eyes on his cousin and fiancee but it was hard in the surging throng. He says he was able to keep his cousin in sight until the 32nd floor. His fiancee for just a few floors more…and then they were gone. He remembers the firemen pushing through the descending crowd, moving up against it, to try and help those still caught in the buildings. He said you could see in their eyes that they knew they were never going home. 

Soon they heard the second plane hit, then heard that building fall, their own shuddering violently. When Rafael reached the lobby he refused to leave. Although officials screamed at him to please go, he stumbled around in the dust and debris, screaming his fiancee’s name. He escaped as the tower came down, running like hell from the building, others behind him screaming to just. keep. running. Don’t look back. 

Rafael was found at the edge of the tower’s debris and woke up in the hospital days later. It would be many days more before the worst was confirmed, and Rafael’s loved one’s  DNA was found at ground zero. I asked him if the anger or helplessness of that day 

drove him to join the Army. But the answer would be no. His internship and the jobs he would apply for were no longer available because of the attacks. He didn’t want to be just another statistic from Harlem…so he joined the Army. 

As I folded the story back up, I began to cry. I cried for Rafael, for those he lost. I cried for the wars that unfolded from that day and what they have taken from me and so many others. It took my mental and physical health and my friends. Some lost on the battlefield, others lost at home when the war they brought home in their mind became too much.  I cried for my Afghan friends, for Afghan women and all who helped us during our 20 years there. We were their allies. 9/11 was, and is, not just consolidated into that one day back in 2001. It has stretched on, across the hot sands of Iraq and the beautiful mountains of Afghanistan. It has stretched out across two decades and different generations, into many different countries. They say the war is finished, but we all know that it is not. 

The repercussions of that day will vibrate on in so many different ways.  Each year I pull out this story, on top of a stack of other stories from the different military papers I’ve written for. Stories about and from war. On top of the stack is a box of what is left of my Army experience. Medals, patches, coins, my bronze star somewhere at the bottom. This year as I pulled out that box, the memories stared back at me in a different way. As if now the war is over, I’d never look back again.

By: Amber Robinson