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Where Were You on 9/11? APUS Students Sound Off

By Wes O’Donnell
Director, Social Communities at APUS

This year marks the 22nd anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. As such, twenty-two years seems like a good time to reflect on how that single day changed many of our lives forever. Air travel is certainly different and the government is much better at electronic surveillance than it was. But more than two decades later, the world has evolved: The next terrorist attack is much more likely to come from hackers rather than hijackers.

Personally, I had a very different life planned for myself before the terrorist attacks. My goal was to leave the Army and start film school with my Montgomery GI Bill. Instead, I would find myself in the Air Force seeking retribution against those who harmed us.

In hindsight, the Air Force led to opportunities for me that may have never presented themselves otherwise. Lifelong friends were made, valuable skills were learned, and several degrees were earned. The “me” before 9/11 is a stranger to me now; I wouldn’t recognize him if I bumped into him on the street.

And yet, I don’t know of any Americans who weren’t touched by those events. The conflict in Afghanistan may officially be over, but we still have servicemembers deployed to Iraq, Syria, and several countries in Africa to prosecute the ongoing Global War on Terror.

A great many students, faculty, and staff at American Public University System are military or military-affiliated. Their lives have arguably been touched the most by those events. We asked graduates and staff of APUS to share with us where they were on 9/11. What follows are their answers:

Share your recollections and experience from September 11, 2001

Chris Hassett, Executive Director at ManTech

I often find it surreal to think about where I was during pivotal moments in history. The September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon was a time when many asked, “Where were you?” As for me, I had only recently returned to the U.S. after living in Japan for seven remarkable years. The blend of cultural nuances, language immersion, and scenic beauty that is Japan had been my reality. Three months after bidding goodbye to the Land of the Rising Sun, I was still settling into the rhythm of college life at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California.

In a time zone three hours behind, I woke up to a tragedy already in progress. Two planes had already hit the World Trade Center and moments after waking up, a third had crashed into the Pentagon. Watching this unfold on television, a feeling of dread washed over me. It was not just about the immediate shock of the events; it was the realization that the world as I knew it had irrevocably changed. The base’s response was swift. We were put on immediate lockdown. An atmosphere of tension, worry, and quiet solidarity filled the air. My dad was already on the other side of the base working at his squadron and I wondered what this meant for him.

I also wondered how my friends I had left behind in Japan were doing. Thankfully, through the power of the Internet, I was able to e-mail and chat with some and found that they too had entered a strict lockdown. The events of 9/11 have shaped our world in countless ways. For me, it was a stark reminder that life can change in an instant. It taught me to cherish the present, embrace different cultures, and above all, value human connection. While I didn’t know it right at that moment, these events would inspire me to leave college behind and join the military. Within six months, I would ship off to basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and a short year later, would deploy to Iraq.

Today, as I reflect back on that pivotal day in our history, I feel a deep sense of gratitude. Gratitude for the heroes of 9/11, for the resilience of our nation, and for the global community that stood with us. My time in Japan and my experience at China Lake have given me a unique perspective on the interconnectedness of our world, and the shared humanity that binds us all.

Carla Ferris, Medical Historian

I observed my son watching the news report. He was doing his third-grade homework when the president encouraged the public “to go about without fear.” I took my brave boy to school.

Bob Vesseliza, Instructor

I was working in federal law enforcement and was conducting operational surveillance when I heard the news on a popular syndicated edgy radio show. I did not believe the news until a few minutes later when my boss called and told us to return to our office. We would be on standby for deployment to New York.

Matt Peeling, Senior Director, Information Security and Project Management

I remember lying in bed convalescing at home watching the morning news when suddenly the reporter reading the news had a shocked look on his face. At first, I thought it might have been a stalker that had entered the newsroom because there was a recent spur of reports of being stalked. The next thing I saw and heard was the reporter say, ‘Oh my!” and he was then handed a piece of paper. With a pale face, he turned to the camera and said that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers in New York City.

At that time, it was thought to have been an accident but as the reporter kept saying, commercial flights do not fly low enough to risk human life in a populated area and that if they were having trouble, would normally have flown over the water or an unpopulated area. The screen then turned to New York City where someone was filming the tower burning. Minutes later, a second plane hit the second tower and I immediately knew that these acts were purposeful. It’s a day I will never forget. I will never forget the sinking feeling in my stomach as the reality of what just happened sank in.

As a disabled veteran, soon after the anger set in knowing that I couldn’t report to my unit to prepare for what was to come. 22 years later, I still recall that day and the days thereafter. Many people have suffered from the effects of that day and will for generations to come.

Tanshameca Hawkins, Paraprofessional

I was pregnant with my youngest son and working at Walmart when all of the TVs flipped to the news as the first plane hit.

Wes O’Donnell, APUS Employee

In September of 2001, I was in Dallas, Texas having just left active duty Army infantry and was about to start my time in the reserves. It was my day off and I remember glancing at the TV and I see that some foolish pilot had a horrible accident and crashed his plane into one of the World Trade Center towers. I kind of shrugged and hopped in the car to drive to the gym to exercise. But by the time I got there, it was clear that it wasn’t an accident. We were under attack.

The wars that followed changed the trajectory of my life. I finished my time in the Army and joined the Air Force, completing eight years of active duty service and two years in the reserves, across two branches. I lost friends and family in the Global War on Terror. Later, my son would be born on September 11th, 2004 bringing a little bit of joy to that painful date. I can’t believe it’s been 22 years already.

Randy Purham

On September 11, 2001, I was stationed in Beudingen, Germany working as a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) NCO for 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment (Blackhawks). I was preparing to go home for the day while hanging out in the loading zone connected by my office when people ran out of the clinic next door screaming that New York was under attack.

I thought it was some drill but realizing the time difference – and the multiple people confirming from around the building, I knew it was true. About an hour later, I was called to open the arms room and prepare to issue weapons for patrols around our base and town if terrorism was going to make its way to our doorsteps. It made for a very long night.

What 9/11 means to me today is that it serves as a constant reminder of how every so often our resolve and fortitude as a nation will be tested. We are experiencing those times right now in 2023 – with COVID, anarchy across the nation, and foreign adversarial challenges in other parts of the world. As we are reminded every year of the 3,000+ people who perished, and a few iconic structures now a distant memory, we as Americans can always remember back on this day and the subsequent days and know that “this too shall pass” and we will emerge triumphantly – keeping our democracy, our freedoms, and this great republic alive as the greatest country on Earth, despite the challenges we face.

Shane Patrick

Where was I? I was standing in my high school’s hallway waiting for the first period to begin when I heard the news relayed by a friend. I didn’t understand what a World Trade Center was and when I pictured an airplane, I thought it was a small Cessna (ironic I know). I jeered and made a joke. Once the first period began, I saw the news coverage. I often reflect on my initial reaction with shame of the child I was.

Looking back on what it means to me now? I’ve been in the military for the better part of two decades and I’ve met people and seen places that have opened my eyes to the world. I think back to who we were as a country and how we came together to support and help each other as Americans. I wouldn’t understand the love for each other in those days for years to come.

I can’t help but reflect on those days and contrast them with the loneliness we are enduring today. The division. The pain. It brings back feelings of childish shame. We’re growing apart in some ways. I would never want a replay of 9/11 but I do miss who we were on 9/12. I believe we can mend our division and stand with the strength to defend our American family and know one day we will. That is what 9/11 means to me today.

William Smoot, Goldwind Americas

Conducting a Field Exercise at then Fort Lewis, WA. After “stand to” the commander called all of us into a half-circle. He and the 1SG explained what happened with the towers. We immediately returned from the field and began the tremendous duties of guarding HVA’s and all gates entering and exiting. The world changed on that dreadful day.

Calandria Owens, Calandria Coaching and Consulting

I was in the 10th grade in American English class. One of my classmates had to be taken out of the classroom because her aunt worked in one of the towers. My father was active duty military at the time (stateside) and was told he may have to be deployed. It was so unbelievable someone could attack American soil.

Ronald A Simonson, School Safety and Security Coordinator

I remember being at work at a high school. All of the students and staff were very anxious and sad. I tried to keep everyone calm, but I too was in a state of shock and confusion. It was a day I will never forget.

Shareema Granville, HR Manager

I was pregnant with my youngest daughter and had just dropped my oldest daughter off at school. As I walked into my house, my sister called me and asked if I had seen the news, so I turned the television on. In disbelief, I was watching a big hole in one of the towers while my sister was explaining everything that was going on in the city. She worked for the NY Supreme Court which was not too far from the World Trade Center. She said all they heard was a loud noise and the building shook. While she was telling me, I watched the second plane hit the other tower. It was like a scene out of the movies, and I started seeing people jumping from the windows live on TV. My sister said that they were evacuating them, and that she’d call me when she got home.

Once I hung up the phone, the towers started to fall and all you saw was a big dust cloud on the television as they showed it from the helicopters. I rushed to my daughter’s school to pick her up to learn that we were under attack. That was a Tuesday that I would never forget.

I attended the community college which was up the block from the Trade Center and one of my classes that I had that night was off-campus at Fiterman Hall. Fiterman Hall was directly across the street from Tower #7, and later learned that the tower fell on it. When we were allowed back at school, my off-campus class was now in trailers along the West Side HWY. The smell in the air was horrible that I would walk down the street throwing up even with my mask on. I had a friend that was in my class that I haven’t heard from, she and her brother worked at Windows on The World which was a restaurant located at the very top of the Trade Center. I tried calling her phone as I was walking into my school to see a display of the names of classmates and faculty members who had lost their lives. Days later, I found out that 2 of my High School classmates had worked in the building and perished as well. NY has never been the same and has changed our lives forever.

Barbara Herrera, Writer

I was only 11 when it happened, but I remember my stepmom kept me out of school that day and we just stayed in bed watching the news. Crazy to think that, 22 years later, it’s finally coming to an end…

Elisa Zanni-James, Veteran Caregiver

I was in Italy, working at a travel agency. Our contractor came in saying “World War 3 is about to happen, brace yourself”. Then we turned on the radio and suffered from a distance. For an entire week, I could not turn the TV off and watched in disbelief. In the following days at the travel agency, we could not keep up with changing paper and toner to the fax machine because of all the people canceling their travel plans for the foreseeable future. The stress was so high that I had a complete change of career.

Lynn McAfee, Criminal Intelligence Specialist

I was working at my office and one of my coworkers came in and told us about the planes hitting the towers. We were glued to the TV in our breakroom for the rest of the day.

What about you? Where you were on September 11th, 2001? And ask yourself, in a quiet moment, what does 9/11 mean to you today?

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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