At 0200 on September 11, 2001, I was outside smoking during my break at Helsuppron Two, a helicopter squadron located in Norfolk, Virginia. I was working the graveyard shift fixing and inspecting helicopters in preparation for the early morning schedule, which on this Tuesday would be a hectic day. Two helicopters were scheduled to go to the Pentagon and had to be thoroughly inspected.
While on break, a fellow shipmate of mine was chatting. This young man had just completed basic training in July and was asking about his status once he began his four years of reserve time.
“Once you finish your four years active duty, you have to complete your four years of reserve time. The only way your reserve time becomes active duty time is if the United States engages in war or a national disaster occurs,” I told the Seaman Recruit.
I explained that in all likelihood, a war of some sort will occur due to the fact that the Gulf War occurred in 1991 and the country has rarely went more than 15 years between wars. I left at my normal time of 0730, went to the commissary, then back to my barracks, where I was going to shower, take a nap and head back to my command for my noon to 2000 watch on the quarterdeck, where my duties consisted of checking I.D’s and bags.
At 0845, I had just finished my shower and had my T.V. on ESPN and they had an image of a plane hitting what looked like the Twin Towers and my first thought was the cable channels were mixed up because it looked like a scene from a movie, so I kept changing channels and it was showing the same thing. It was 0903 when the second plane hit that I realized something was going on that was not quite right.
It was at that point I heard people running up and down the hallway of my barracks screaming and crying and yet it still hadn’t sunk in what happened. It wasn’t until I walked outside to go to my command that it hit me like a slap in the face. During the noon hour on base, traffic is extremely heavy due to lunch. Walking outside this day, you could hear a pin drop as the Virginia National Guard lined each and every building on base.
When I arrived for watch, the first person I saw was the same Seaman Recruit I spoke with at 0200 and we gave each other this eerie look as to say, “Are you kidding me.” That eight hour watch turned into a 13 hour watch due to the fact that nobody was allowed on base, even if you had watch. As a result the command coordinated a phone check in at each gate so personnel could properly get through and assume watches from those who had stood all day.
The world as we knew it would never be the same. Innocent lives would be lost. Our innocence was gone. For the next few months, the great people of the United States became one. There was no Democrat or Republican, Black or White, Latino or Irish, just Americans. It’s amazing to believe it’s been 16 years and our youth have never known what it is like to go through an airport without going through a security checkpoint.
For me, Reginald Prather, it was one of THE defining moments of my naval career and my life, considering that almost a year leading up to 9/11, I witnessed another terrorist act, the USS COLE on October 17, 2000, which claimed the life of 17 sailors including SN Cherone Gunn who graduated with me only six months earlier. So as we reflect on the anniversary of 9/11, pay homage to those who lost their lives that day as well as those who made the ultimate sacrifice.