VOICES: I regret that I was retired from the military when 9/11 happened

Stephen Marsh/Contributed
Stephen Marsh/Contributed

It seems so long ago when the terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. I can never forget the enormous loss of life in the Pentagon, where I worked at the time, the Twin Towers in New York and on the airplanes. I will always honor the courage and sacrifices of the police, firefighters and other first responders who responded to this tragedy.

It had been nine years, 11 months and 16 days since I retired from the U. S. Army and became a civil servant in 1991 when 9/11 occurred. I was hired as a government employee in October 1991, and worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. My responsibilities included departmental oversight of Special Operations Combatting Terrorism requirements and resources.

On September 11, I’d travelled to Tampa, Florida, for a meeting. That morning, an officer ran into the room and said, “turn on the TV.” We did, and saw the second plane crash into the Twin Towers in New York city. Since it was a clear day in New York, we assumed that it had to be a terrorist attack.

We were convinced it was an act of terrorism because it followed the pattern of previous terrorists attacks over the previous 18 years on Americans.

We all knew war was eminent. We were angry and wanted the terrorists responsible, including those who aided them, to pay the ultimate price. Many of us were also upset because we were retired and no longer in field operational units. Several of us wanted to return to active duty, but our bosses were explicit and said no. We believed President Bush had to retaliate as soon as possible, and the United States had to do everything in its power to stop any future attacks against our citizens or military personnel worldwide. In short, our government needed to demonstrate backbone. We wanted serious action from our government, not talk or a few missiles lobbed over the horizon.

I immediately called my boss and asked what he wanted me to do. He asked me to return to the Pentagon. While we were still on the phone, I heard a loud explosion in the background, and asked what was that noise? “I think we just got hit with a truck bomb, I got to go,” he responded. I later learned that American Airlines Flight 77. In all, 189 people, including 64 aboard the plane, died.

Our group immediately returned to our hotel, picked up our luggage and drove to the airport. Since all flights were cancelled, we drove through the night and arrived at the Pentagon at 6 the next morning. Smoke was still rising from the building, and my office was destroyed. I did not return to a permanent office until eight months later after.

Looking back on 9/11, the lesson for all Americans should be that we were vulnerable to terrorist attacks then and continue to be now. There are people in this world who hate our way of life. They want our nation destroyed. We must always prevent any terrorist attack. The terrorist only needs to be occasionally successful to kill Americans. Freedom is not free; we must continue to want it and defend it. Freedom will only last as long as the next generation is willing to defend it. It cannot be taken for granted. I truly wonder at times if they are since approximately 1% of the population is willing to serve?

Stephen Marsh retired as lieutenant colonel from the United State Army. He currently lives in Beavercreek.