This is not one of the things I do well in life. I am not trying to bridge some gap between what happened 15 years ago and how it relates to business or real estate or health. I have an obligation as an American and as a Soldier to submit to a somber quiet moment in order to reflect on the past. It is this day in particular that has reshaped the way our entire world operates. Today is a day that, unlike many others, I am able to look back and re-trace my steps. It is a vivid reminder that no matter what happens in life that our lives are very fragile and unpredictable. It is this very day that reminds me to be awake, alert, and aware of my surroundings in any given situation.
September 11, 2001:
I was 5 years into my Army career in a place called Darmstadt, Germany. Living the life that most would dream of. I was overseas enjoying all the pleasures of Europe while being able to pay my bills and not have much to worry about. It started out as a very normal day indeed. I remember it was nice outside with a few clouds but the sun was shining. We were getting close to the end of the day (Germany time) having already eaten lunch and doing the odds and ends we had to complete before going home. Then a formation was called early. Our First Sergeant called us all together to inform us that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and that we should get to a phone or to our email as soon as possible to try to contact our families who might be in NYC or elsewhere so they knew that we were safe and to see if they were ok. I remember a pit in my stomach and that uneasy feeling of a surreal moment. I knew none of my family were NYC or anywhere near New York so I went straight to my room and turned on the TV to see the live stream of what had transpired. I remember putting a VHS tape in my VCR and pushing record. I think the second plane had just hit the other tower when I started recording and they were replaying both back and forth on the screen. The ticker at the bottom of the screen was rolling. There was a sense of despair and uncertainty on the faces of the news anchors. I let that tape run for the better part of 10 hours. I still have the tape to this day.
Within the next 30 minutes another formation was called and the big question was who knows how to run guard duty. I am no expert at it but I had done it in Bosnia and also in my Army training over the years. My hand instinctively went up. Looking around, and it may have been the pure shock of what was going on, I really didn’t see anyone else’s hand in the air. The First Sergeant or my Platoon Sergeant (not sure at this point) said, “You’re it SGT McConnell, get a team of Soldiers together and get some supplies to build up guard shacks around the housing area (something to that effect)”. Little did I know that I would be in charge of a lot more than a few Soldiers and guard shacks. We gathered empty sandbags, wood, rope, radios, weapons, and ammunition and headed down to the housing area to start setting up. The makeshift guard shacks that we set up would later transform into permanent inspection points for guards until the day they finally closed down the Army assets in Darmstadt.
Let me digress for just a moment to explain the openness of that base until that point. The gates were open and anyone and everyone was able to casually walk through from one end to the other. German school kids, Germans going to their gardens, normal pedestrians, civilians, and Military personnel walked freely through the post. It was for the most part an open post. Not to say there were not times when the gates were closed for security training or some kind of threat but for the most part it was open and everyone was able to move about freely.
So here we all were myself and a bunch of Soldiers from my unit, filling sandbags and piecing together some sort of check point. We had to figure out rosters for the shifts, figure out the logistics for food and water and ammo. We came up with the radio protocols and ROI (Rules of Engagement). We were doing this all from scratch and from memory of doctrine that had not been changed in well over a couple decades if not longer. That initial push of 30-40 hours straight without much rest and basically running off adrenaline and deep rooted fear was one of those moments in life where you have to step back a little in order to see the all encompassing meaning of everything going on around you. One moment we are about to head home for the day, the next we are in our full gear with loaded weapons mindful of every single noise and movement. We didn’t know if there was some broad scale attack on America or what was going on. No one did. Hyper-vigilance is the word I like to use to describe this type of situation. Being completely awake, alert and aware of your surroundings. This is something I tell my kids all the time so they understand that it doesn’t matter what you are doing or where you are at. You don’t have to be paranoid but you do have to be cognizant of what is happening all around you. That is how you stay safe in most all situations. In the midst of all of the mixed emotions and lack of understanding a strange thing started to happen. Germans from all around the city were coming to the gates and guard stands. There was no threat from them but rather an immense solidarity and empathy. They were in as much awe as we were. They were saddened just as much as we were. We had been a staple of their community since the end of Nazi Germany, well over 50 years at that point, and they came to show their condolences for our entire nation. The brought candles and flowers and cards and tears to our barricades and laid them right in front of us. They sobbed and sang songs and offered up every ounce of gratitude because we were there in case something like this happened on their soil and because of our recent losses. This was one of those moments where you see true human compassion and comfort. One of those moments where, as a Soldier with a loaded rifle pointed in their general direction, you just wanted to walk up to them and say thank you and hug them and cry with them.
I was not in the United States when 9/11 happened but I did get to witness the recoil of a shot truly heard around the world. I got to witness raw human compassion. That day I got to truly understand and embrace what being a human being is about. In my humble opinion it is about being kind to people. Its about understanding that life is short and things happen in a moment. Its about understanding that up to that moment when life ends there is time to make decisions that will better yourself, your friends and family, the world around you. Its about seeing life go on despite hardship and grief. Its not about blame or justice. Mother nature doesn’t blame anyone when she destroys life. Mother nature is not just in her actions. She is however indiscriminate. Its about rebuilding… not being afraid…not being sad…mourning but not spiraling into self pity. Being human is about living the most productive and fulfilling life you can because tomorrow… everything could change.