Military Members, Veterans Recall America's 'Darkest Hours' on 9/11

A memorial flag is illuminated on Sept. 11, 2007, near the spot where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. (DoD/Brandan Schulze)
A memorial flag is illuminated on Sept. 11, 2007, near the spot where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. (DoD/Brandan Schulze)

PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- On Sept. 11, 2001, Kevin Smith was supposed to be in the path of the World Trade Center.

The day before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, he was staying with his mother in New Jersey, the two having scheduled a shopping trip in New York. Smith planned to wake up early so he could be in New York by 8:15 a.m., half an hour before the first plane hit the first tower.

He overslept and didn't make it. That day, he turned on the television and saw the first tower up in smoke, initially under the assumption it was a movie trailer. Soon, however, he realized the country was under attack.

Smith was in his mid-20s at the time and had just graduated college but wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life. However, being spared on Sept. 11 left him with the feeling he had a higher calling. After some soul-searching, he joined the Navy in 2007.

"I wanted to give back," Smith said. "If I had gotten up when I was supposed to, my wife and children wouldn't be here right now."

Smith is one of several locals connected to the military who shared their 9/11 stories with The News Herald: where they were when it happened, how the event changed their lives and what will be the legacy of that tragic day.

Smith is now a Master-of-Arms Chief at Naval Support Activity Panama City. Looking back 15 years later, he said the attacks brought about a camaraderie in the nation, allowing people to come together to help each other out, regardless of appearance or heritage.

He said 9/11 also brought more awareness to the military, what it does and the sacrifices of those enlisted, who often are separated from spouses and children because of their missions.

"It's not easy what we do," Smith said. "The country relies on you for protection, but you're still worried about your family back home."

'The world has just changed'

Susan Johnson was a communications squadron commander at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, on Sept. 11, 2001. When her first sergeant told her an airplane had hit the towers, she initially thought it was a bad accident. But as more information came in, she knew it was more than a mishap.

She said security measures were enacted immediately -- the base closed down, non-essential personnel were sent home and it was crucial that Johnson be made aware if anything at the base stopped running.

"The world has just changed," Johnson recalled of her initial reaction, while hanging out at the VFW Post 10555 in Panama City Beach. "Life will never be as it once was."

As a communications officer, Johnson was in a position both to comfort the base's young airmen and keep them on track, telling them to remain professional and to check that their families were safe. Despite the calamity, she said her military training kicked in, and she knew how to react to the crisis.

After 9/11, base lunches were cut down to 30 minutes, work hours for extended and supervisors were required to know where everyone was at all times, Johnson said.

"It impacted not just the people in uniforms but civilians dearly," she said. For instance, the attacks changed how people think about war and brought about a realization that everyone in the United States is vulnerable to danger.

Johnson said she now keeps away from crowds and said others should be similarly cautious, adding terrorists don't have a base country or state. She believes 9/11 woke the sleeping tiger of anti-American feelings overseas.

"There's no doubt in my mind it will happen again," she said.

'The darkest hours of America's history'

Andres Torres Jr., now an aviation maintenance administration chief at Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division, was on the USS Enterprise at the time of the attacks, with a port call scheduled on Sept. 13 in Cape Town, South Africa.

When a coworker said a plane had flown into the World Trade Center, Torres, who then worked in the maintenance office, was watching a VCR tape of a Monday Night Football game with the rest of the crew. They switched over to TV reports, saw the cloud of smoke and resumed watching the game.

Then someone told them about the second tower.

"I can remember it like it was yesterday," Torres said. "We watched some of the darkest hours of America's history."

The attack occurred during Torres' first deployment. He said the attacks halted the crew's good mood, as the boisterous mess hall became quiet.

"It was an eerie feeling," he said. "I remember feeling helpless. What are we going to do?"

The young sailor looked to their usually lively senior offices for answers, but they only covered their faces and sat in silence.

He remembered that as reports first came in about Osama bin Laden, no one knew the name.

He returned home that November and was up for re-enlistment. His friends and family asked if he was getting out, but Torres felt like he had a calling. He stayed in.

"It was one of my proudest moments," he said.

Of all his numerous deployments, Torres said his homecoming around that time was the most patriotic, with American flags a common sight.

"It sends chills up my back still," he said.

Since the attacks, Torres said Americans have refused to be intimidated by terrorism. When he watches footage now, 15 years later, 9/11 still doesn't seem old to him and that no matter the year, every anniversary should be a remembrance of how the victims live on through the efforts of the military.

"Those people that perished, they're heroes too," he said. "Some people, we don't know their names. But they died in a bigger realm."

Different type of warfare

On Sept. 11, 2001, VFW Post 10555 Commander Ken Waringa was at work on Thomas Drive as a Navy contractor. His coworkers turned on the TV after someone in their office heard about the attacks.

"I wasn't sure," Waringa said. "It wasn't a lot longer when the tower actually collapsed. It was shock. There were theories."

Waringa initially was in disbelief but said anger also soon settled in. He said the media, despite good immediate coverage, excessively reported on 9/11 in the weeks after, not giving people time to heal.

He also noticed changes on base: Security screenings increased when entering a building, the Department of Homeland Security was created and first responders began receiving more public recognition. It also changed the way the public views veterans, he said, leading to respect for the service even among those who don't support war.

Regarding the American military's subsequent presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, Waringa said actions had to be taken to go after terrorists. He said the attacks opened Americans' eyes to the country's vulnerabilities, especially now that the country is engaged in a different type of warfare against a faction that could be anywhere in the world.

"You don't know where to find them," he said. "It might be the mountains of Afghanistan. And they have no hesitation about giving their lives for what they believe in."

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(c)2016 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)

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