I was very conflicted yesterday, just as I am on most anniversaries of 9/11 over the last twenty years. In some ways it feels like it was so recent–the memories and emotions are so vividly clear in my mind. Seeing the images, hearing the stories, and rewatching the news broadcasts from that day can bring me right back to that morning. I was a 23-year old recent college grad working in a manager-in-training program for Budget Rent a Car, planning to apply to the University of Virginia’s Master in Teaching program to hopefully become a high school history teacher and football coach. My emotions on 9/11 are not unlike most Americans who experienced the day, but it completely redirected my life.
For most of the evening of 9/11, I felt like I stared at a wall and thought about life. Was I on the right path? Do I have a role to play in the American response? I talked with my parents, I read my Bible, I prayed, and I researched joining the US Army.
The morning of September 12th, I called the Charlottesville Army recruiting center. I asked if they were busy. They replied they had received a lot of phone calls but nobody has come in to see them. I told them I could be there in 15 minutes. I had already made my decision, I was going to enlist in the US Army. I signed my initial paperwork that day and on Saturday, September 15th, I went to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Richmond, VA, and formally joined the Army with a scheduled basic training date of October 25, 2001.
The decision I made on September 12, 2001, defined who I would be as an adult. For the next seven years, I would beam with pride every morning as I looked in the mirror and saw US Army and Nelson on my uniform. I really believed I was where I supposed to be, even when I questioned how the Army operated and even when I couldn’t rationalize why I was being sent to Iraq multiple times. I believed in what I was doing when I had to leave my week-old, first child to board a plane for Mosul, Iraq, in 2003. I believed in what I was doing when I had to leave my two oldest children, both under 3 years old to return to Iraq for a year-long tour in Baghdad in 2005 to 2006.
My brothers and sisters to my right and left really meant everything to me. I still feel like I could run into any one I served with and spend hours catching up. In the past week alone, I’ve texted or talked on the phone with three soldiers I served in Iraq with while in the 101st Airborne Division and had dinner with my language school roommate and best friend from the Defense Language Institute, where I learned Korean from 2002–2003. Having this network of people I shared so much with helps me get through the aftermath.
Yesterday morning my 17-year old son’s first words were, “It’s the 20-year anniversary of 9/11.” I replied, if it weren’t for 9/11, you wouldn’t even be here! I was kind of joking, but that comment literally made me spend the next 15 minutes pondering how much my life was truly changed by 9/11 and the choice I made on 9/12. The decision I made on 9/12/01 led me to a 15-year career with the federal government and the US Intelligence Community. It led me to an 11-year marriage and three beautiful children, then contributed to ending the 11-year marriage after 5 deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and a long bout of depression and PTSD. It gave me the confidence to apply for and attend business school in my late 30s, and it drives one of my primary passions outside of work and family: supporting military veterans.
I saw multiple people on social media comment or repost the phrase, “I miss the America of September 12, 2001.” This was the day we came together, remembered the lost, showed up for the recovery, and criticized the President for his response (I guess that hasn’t changed). We have a lot of division in our country right now. We have a lot of pain and confusion about how the last 20 years of the Global War on Terrorism was executed and its costs in both money and personnel. But what keeps me optimistic about this country is that I really believe we will take care of each other in our times of need and plan to spend my next 20 serving my community, my neighbors, and my fellow Americans in whatever capacity I am able to.
I’d love to share some of the great, or just interesting, things the people I served with are doing today. A majority of them are still in the fight and I won’t mention them by name due to the nature of their work in the Intelligence Community, but just know that you’re on my mind today! I will, however, start with one of them just because his work is so important and he’s already all over the internet.
- I met Brian Drake virtually in 2010 and then had the pleasure of working together and becoming friends with him after 2012. Besides creating and serving in a unique role as the former Director of Artificial Intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency, he helped create and is now the chief executive of the Defense Intelligence Memorial Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit formed to raise scholarship funds for the dependents of fallen defense intelligence members.
- My former squad leader in the 101st, Brian Zacharias, was selected last week to the City of Clarksville, TN, city council. Brian was already in the Army serving as an Arabic linguist during the 9/11 attacks. Having previously served in Kosovo with the 101st prior to 9/11, he returned to the 101st in 2004 for the 05–06 deployment to Iraq where his Arabic skills were in high demand. He retired from the Army and is now a public school teacher. He has dedicated his life to the service of others as a soldier, teacher, and now a councilperson!
- Two of my 101st friends, Ryan Placchetti and Matt Saintsing run the Don’t Wreck Yourself podcast, where they dissect ridiculous claims breaking the internet for that week. Matt also continues to serve as the Assistant National Communications Director at Disabled American Veterans (DAV).
- I met Crystal Weeks during a six-month deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2012. We became instant friends, and she completed law school at Georgetown University while still working at the Pentagon and having a child. Today’s she’s a judicial clerk at the US District Court for the District of Columbia.
- I met Kayla Williams at the very tail-end of my first deployment to Iraq, actually during our redeployment from theater in Kuwait. She organized our unit outing to a Kuwait mall. We later became friends in the following years at Ft. Campbell. She went on to author two books, one about her experience in Iraq as a female soldier, Love My Rifle More Than You, and a second about post-war life and recovery with her husband and fellow veteran, Plenty of Time When We Get Home. Kayla has done so much amazing work since the Army. She completed her Masters in International Studies at American University (one of the nation’s top-ten programs), served as the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Director of the Center for Women Veterans, served as the Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), served on President Biden’s transition team for VA agency review, and was then appointed to serve as the Assistant Secretary, Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the VA, where she is currently still serving.
- John McGlothlin was in my company in the 506th RCT “Currahee” and a friend during our 2005–06 deployment to Baghdad. We continued our friendship while he attended law school at the University of Virginia, living just a few miles from me in Charlottesville. John left the 101st and became a paratrooper with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, with deployments to Afghanistan. He still serves in the National Guard and was deployed to the Capitol in January 2021. Earlier this month, he published a book called, How to Deal with Damn Near Anything: The Paratrooper’s Guide to Life.
The above is just small sampling of veterans or federal civilians I had the honor to serve with. I would imagine 9/11 changed their course of service and life much like it did for me.
I served in the active duty US Army from October 2001 through November 2008, as a Korean cryptologic linguist and signals intelligence collector/analyst, being medically retired as a Staff Sergeant (SSG). I served for four years at the 101st Airborne Division within the 311th Military Intelligence Battalion and the 506th Regimental Combat Team (4th Brigade). I later served as an instructor for the Korean cryptologic linguist course and the tactical signals intelligence course with the 344th Military Intelligence Battalion at Goodfellow Air Force Base, San Angelo, TX. After the Army, I spent time with the Army’s National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and National Security Agency (NSA) as a contracted intelligence analyst from late 2008 through mid-2011. I then served for nearly five years as a federal civilian, GS intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), with three tours to Afghanistan.
In 2015, I was accepted into an MBA program at the University of Virginia where I helped establish a veterans group for Executive MBA students, Veteran Executive Students At Darden (VESD) while also serving as an officer in the Darden Military Association (DMA). I left the DIA officially in February of 2016 and now work in commercial strategy with Fortive Corporation, where I serve as the co-lead for our veterans’ employee resource group, Veterans at Fortive. I’m also attending American University part-time in the School of Public Affair’s Master of Public Administration and Policy program and serve as an executive board member of the school’s military-connected club, AUMCC.