September 10, 2021
I was a cadet in my senior year at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) trying to survive a tough Hispanic literature class on September 11, 20 years ago. Halfway through, a third-year cadet, short of breath, charged into our room with news that a plane had hit a tower of the World Trade Center. The professor attempted to continue teaching amid our concerns, but the noise of pattering feet in the hall continued to rise so the instructor dismissed us early.
With the free time given to us, I decided to head back to my room and go over a paper due that day. The cadet barbershop had one of two cadet-accessible televisions on post, so I made my way using a shortcut to the Old Barrack’s Sally Port for a glimpse of what was being reported. Many older cadets took pride in expressing a rebellious nature when it came to the Institute’s strict grooming standards, so I knew the situation was serious when I arrived to find only standing room available. A minute after I started watching, I was among the many who witnessed Flight 175 hit the second World Trade Center tower at 9:02 a.m. Charles Mathers, VMI Class of 1962, was killed.
It was hard to fathom how or why such events occurred, and most of my thoughts turned to what it must have been like to be among the passengers. We all watched the news intently in awestruck silence. After witnessing the breaking reports of Flight 77 crashing into the Pentagon 36 minutes later, our fear and concern turned into anger. Lt. Cmdr. David Williams, VMI Class of 1991, was killed.
Institution officials quickly caught on to the distress and canceled most classes. Two of my rifle teammates were brothers whose father worked at the Pentagon, so I shared their concern for his safety. We found out that afternoon that his office had been destroyed. Unbelievably, he had called in sick.
Cadets were instructed to stay on post, and those of us who were either in the National Guard or Marine Corps Reserves were told to contact our chain of command for possible deployment orders. My unit’s Inspector-Instructor staff said that I would be contacted if necessary. I spent the rest of the day helping to manage freshmen who came together to sew 100-plus twin-size bedsheets in the Old Barrack’s courtyard. It would later serve as a four-story projector screen so that the entire Corps of Cadets could watch President Bush’s address to the nation.
In the days that followed, some cadets tried to organize a volunteer crew to go and help in the recovery and cleanup. Authorities in New York and Washington D.C. declined VMI’s offer of assistance leaving many of us feeling helpless. It wasn’t long before we coped by hanging a massive Garrison flag for display on the outside of barracks.
I graduated VMI in May 2002 and remained enlisted. Less than a year later, I was part of the Iraq invasion. I wasn’t alone; the number of graduates who joined the military increased to more than 50 percent.
Like many, the War on Terror had a real face for me. My “Brother Rat” Lt. Joshua Hurley, Class of 2001, was my first friend killed in Iraq on November 1, 2003. Next, fellow classmate Sgt. Ryan Doltz, Class of 2000, was killed in Iraq on June 6, 2004. The tough and bright Capt. Luke Wullenwaber, Class of 2002, was killed in Iraq on November 16, 2004. Sgt. Dale Griffin, Class of 2003 was killed in Afghanistan on October 27, 2009, and Class Vice President Charles Ransom, Class of 2001, was murdered in Afghanistan on April 27, 2011. Capt. Michael Newton, Class of 2003, was killed on June 11, 2011. Mike was a great guy, unusually cheerful, who I enjoyed mentoring while on the rifle team. Fifteen fellow alumni have died due to this war.
I lost another rifle teammate, and good friend, CW2 Howard Cook, Class of 2001. He was a fellow Marine reservist while attending VMI who later served in Iraq in 2005. A police officer for the Federal Reserve Bank, he was also a Blackhawk pilot for the Texas Army National Guard. Gearing up for a deployment to Afghanistan, he was killed by a vehicle driving the wrong way on July 7, 2011.
After 20 years, the War on Terror continues.
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