I walked away from the morning muster that day as a twenty year old kid who had been in the Navy for 2 years, and already seen two deployments to Iraq. All I could think about was turning twenty-one two days later on the 13th. The Cardinals had just throttled Kentucky in Lexington on the strength of a brilliant performance from Dave Ragone, they smashed Western Carolina, and were 3-0 heading into a bye week prior to a big game in Champagne against Illinois. All I had to do was finish the day, pick up my leave papers, and drive over the Appalachians to my old Kentucky home where I would soon be celebrating my 21st birthday with family and friends. Life was good.......
My bags were packed and tucked away in the trunk of my car. My ship, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, was in the Newport News ship yards being gutted and refurbished top to bottom. Sometime around 9am my best friend and I decided to sneak off to the FAF (basically a floating barracks/ mess hall on a barge) and grab a cup of coffee. As we walked side by side saluting several officers along the way, we both noticed that everyone seemed to be in a big hurry to get to where ever it was they were going. So much so that I can actually remember most of the officers we passed didn't even notice us, or return our salutes. It was weird.
When we walked into the mess hall there were people gathered around every television in the room. I could see Katie Couric on all the screens, with an image behind her that almost seemed too outrageous to be real. Then, at 9:03 am I saw what millions of Americans around the world saw. At 9:03 am EST I knew what millions of other Americans knew, that our country was (for the first time since 1941) under attack. The rest of the day was surreal to say the least.
Another muster with the entire chain of command and word came down from on high that the ship was locked down until further notice. Without even asking I knew that I would not be going to Kentucky any time soon. It didn't take long for the proverbial shit to get heavy. Rumors were running rampant over the next few weeks about what would be done in response to the attack. Training operations immediately started to crank up throughout the Atlantic Fleet, in preparation for what would come to be known as, "Operation Enduring Freedom." I can honestly say that I don't remember watching another Louisville football game that year.
I do remember watching the Louisville vs. Tennessee game. You know, the one where the Cards scored nine points in the last 36 seconds (FOR THE WIN! I miss Reece too). I remember watching it and going crazy with a bunch of friends at a Newport News Sports Bar called RJ's. Not long after that we received word that the USS John F Kennedy, a ship which had been inactive for several years, would soon be re-manned to deploy in the Spring of 2002. They needed volunteers, with flight deck experience, to help train a young crew before the deployment, and then help them with their mission. On February 16th 2002, I deployed for the 3rd time in my short military career. We pulled away from the pier in Mayport Florida and got underway just after the kickoff of Superbowl XXXVI. I can remember watching Adam Vinatieri's kick sail through the uprights, while playing a game of spades, and thinking "one year wonders." I had deployed twice before, yet somehow this deployment seemed different, almost personal. I had always seen my enlistment as a means to an end, and not much more than a way to get money for my education; but not this time.
I came into the Navy in 2000 and immediately took part in NATO air missions over Kosavo, to stop the genocides being perpetrated by the forces of Slobodan Milosevic. I had been a part of Operation Southern Watch, patrolling the Iraq/ Kuwaiti border; but this was different. This was not some other country's mess we were policing. This was a mission to bring the bad guys to justice, real American Hero stuff. Over the course of those six months, we judiciously delivered 31,000 tons of ordinance from the deck of the USS John F. Kennedy to Taliban forces. We were the tip of the spear, putting war heads-on-foreheads in support of the men on the ground, and it was something I took pride in doing every day. Feeling like I was actually doing something in defense of my country was motivating beyond belief. That deployment was tough; 16 hour days on the flight deck, in the Persian Gulf heat, is not for the faint of heart; and, 145 consecutive days out to sea without seeing land will make anyone go crazy.
We pulled into Norfolk on August 17th to unload Air Wing 7, but we were short one man, and one F-14 Tomcat. LCDR Chris "Basher" Blaschum, was killed in the Mediterranean Sea on March 2, 2002 when his F-14 Tomcat's launch bar malfunctioned upon launch from one of the catapults.
I, along with everyone else from the Eisenhower, was allowed to leave the Kennedy with the rest of the Air Wing before the JFK continued on to her home port. I left the ship and walked into the open arms of my Mother, Grandmother, five of my aunts, and once again,..... life was good. I came home on leave for two weeks and went to the Louisville vs. Kentucky football game in PJCS, only to then see poor Dave Ragone get beaten senseless for four quarters in a 22-17 loss.
A few weeks later I was back in Newport News when Florida State rolled into Louisville for a football game, then a swim meet broke out. I declined to watch the game with any of my friends because the Cards hadn't looked so "hot-hot" in their losses to Kentucky and Colorado State; and, if I couldn't be with Cardinal fans, then I just wanted to watch it by myself. I made so much noise in my room that night that the guys on watch had to come up and threaten me three times before Henry Miller's final run to glory. As pandemonium ensued at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, and I saw Cardinal Fans streaming onto the field to scale the goal posts, I briefly lost my mind. I ran out the back door of the barracks and took a couple of victory laps around the basketball court, clapping my hands while screaming "C-A-R-D-S-CARDS!!!!"
For all intents and purposes, I must have appeared to be man possessed. Windows flew open and people told me to shut up, I did no such thing. I ran to one of the baskets and pulled myself up to the rim by the net, I used to be in pretty good shape. I pulled on that rim with bad intentions until the guys on watch came outside and ordered me to come down. I'm pretty sure I would have pulled that rim off the backboard if they hadn't stopped me. I trotted back to my room laughing with hysterical glee. I laid on my bed and thought about the game. Then, I started to think back over the blur that had been the last year of my life. Those who had hoped we would live timidly, and in fear, had failed. I took some measure of solace in knowing that I had taken part in that fight. Someone once told me that sports are "the toy box of life for Americans." They couldn't take that from us with fear and terrorism then, and eleven years later that has not changed.
Your 9/11 memories/ thoughts are welcomed in the comments, if you want to share.....