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All Points West: Nation at a crossroads after 9-11
September 16, 2016 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
Everybody remembers where they were on September 11, 2001.

Except for a lot of kids who just started their sophomore year in high school this year, and quite possibly all of the kids in high school today. When you think about it, they were toddlers, and probably have no real insight or detailed knowledge of what took place that day.

I was living in Torrance, California, a copy editor and page designer for the Daily Breeze, a family newspaper. I got off shift at about 1 a.m. So, I was asleep in my apartment when the first plane hit. At approximately 5:46 a.m., California time, Mohamed Atta and other hijackers flew American Airlines Flight 11 into floors 93-99 of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Almost 15 minutes later, at 6:03 a.m., hijackers flew United Airlines Flight 175 into floors 75-85 of the South Tower. In between time, my brother Jason, a teacher living in Long Beach, California, at the time, must have called me at just before 6 a.m.

Jason told me to switch on my TV, and something to the effect “you’re not going to believe this.” At the time, news reporters had speculated that maybe a small plane had veered off course, flying too low, or there was something that caused an explosion from inside the building. We watched as live reports captured the second aircraft flying into the South Tower. It was like a special effects scene in a movie. We had very quickly realized just like everyone else that we were under attack, and for the first time since the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, war had come to our shores.

My brother and I couldn’t believe it. The conversation deteriorated into expletive, expletive, expletive. We were angry, befuddled at how this could be happening.

About a year later, I had changed jobs. Offered a position by a close associate in October of 2002 to serve as an On-the-Job Assessor for Advanced Interactive Systems, I travelled to some of the busiest airports in the nation, O’Hare and Midway in Chicago, and Dulles in Washington, D.C. There were hundreds of us. As an instructor, I was contracted to teach thousands of new employees hired by the Transportation Security Administration within a matter of months after the agency had been set up on November 19, 2001, seemingly overnight.

Meanwhile, on October 7, 2001, nearly a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the failed attack of hijacked United Flight 93, in which passengers fought back, causing the plane to crash into a rural field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, U.S. and British military forces headed to Afghanistan in pursuit of terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden, and others identified as being involved in the planning of the attack.

By 2003, I had gone to live with my oldest brother Tom in Las Vegas. Shortly thereafter, I had joined the Transportation Security Administration. At the same time, I had dusted off my Army uniform to reenlist, this time with the Nevada Army National Guard.

In joining both organizations, I had encountered thousands of patriots who were taking action or mobilizing. I listened to their stories. Like me, they felt it was important to do something, anything that might help them feel less vulnerable. One woman related her story of being employed by the Port Authority of New York at the time of the attacks. She didn’t remember all the details of the day, except that by the end of it, she ended up at home in a hospital gown, not knowing how she got there. She was still covered in dust from the debris. She said she would never forget the bodies falling out of the towers and the sound they made when they landed, one of the reasons she felt compelled to join TSA, putting off any thought of retirement. She was in her mid-70s. I still remember the hundreds of stories like hers, of all the others, and why they joined.

Of course, we felt the impact in the military as well. Anywhere we went, being in uniform made us a target, especially overseas. My preparations for trips to South Korea and Indonesia involved hours-long online courses on how to survive a terrorist attack and how to develop situational awareness. Sadly, our physical bearing, clothes, and short hair gave us away. There was no way we could shed the appearance of being American, for better or worse.

As a member of the Nevada Guard attached to a history unit from Raleigh, North Carolina, I eventually took my turn in Afghanistan in 2011, officially, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Several things happened that year, including some of the most vicious attacks by the Taliban on U.S. and NATO soldiers during what was called the fighting season. Then came a big moral victory, the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011. I was sitting in makeshift offices on Bagram Airfield, staring at the plywood walls, and watching the news reports on television, thinking about the impact of one man, while we suffered a day-long communications blackout.

What strikes me today, is the aftermath. TSA battles an image problem, and its employees among federal agencies stand out as suffering low morale, while my brothers and sisters in arms come home coping with a range of maladies, the worst of which has caused a suicide epidemic to the tune of 22 service members a day.

In 2009, I left TSA with memories of a toxic management, and the complaints of the travelling American public which persistently asked, “Why do you need to search my bag? Do I look like a terrorist?” During the five years and three months I was with TSA, I was spit at, yelled at, kicked, had luggage shoved into my shins, and told “thank you” only a handful of times. As a soldier, I returned home with post traumatic syndrome, seeing my fair share of atrocities, and listening to the ugly stories of glorified death from nearly 200 participants in the war. After a year, landing at Dulles, large crowds welcomed us soldiers home with banners, pats on the back, and handshakes. And yes, they even called me a hero.

My compatriots have suffered through divorces, lost homes and jobs, feelings of hopelessness and survivors’ guilt. Meanwhile, mental health treatment is below par. The Veterans Administration remains ill-equipped to deal with the thousands of soldiers still trying to make it home. The war extends. U.S. troops continue to deploy to Afghanistan, even after 15 long years.

Contrary to what others believe about not telling their war stories, I think it’s important to share them, especially with those high school kids on the verge of becoming adults and making decisions, some as leaders. Maybe those stories can teach us something about how to avoid the possibility of another 9-11.
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