After a dozen years, I still remember it as though it were yesterday. I got up at 6:45 a.m. that Tuesday morning as usual. I got the kids ready and took them to school. Then Joey Rufino called from Manila.
Joey was my neighbor but he was also secretary of Political Affairs for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. It was 10:30 p.m. in the evening there and he was watching television. Two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. At the World Trade Center, people were jumping out of windows from the 70th or 80th floor to escape the flames.
I put on the car radio. Gradually, the whole truth of what had happened became clear. United Airlines Flight 175 took off from Boston en route to Los Angeles and had crashed into the World Trade Center north tower. American Airlines Flight 11 was also en route to Los Angeles and it had crashed into the south tower. American Airlines Flight 77 took off from Washington Dulles Airport en route to Los Angeles. It had crashed into the Pentagon. Another scheduled flight, United Airlines Flight 93, took off from Newark, N.J., en route to San Francisco. It was missing over Pennsylvania.
Does this mean war? Joey asked. The president wanted to know but her aides could not get through to Washington. I told him I would have to make some calls and call him back, that it did not look good.
For the next five or six hours, I remained glued to the television set. The South and North Towers had collapsed. Casualty estimates were in the thousands. All flights all over the United States were canceled.
My phone rang off the hook. A half dozen were army buddies, friends I had served with in Special Forces in Vietnam. We were of one mind. Somebody had to pay for this. What could we do to help?
I called Art in Washington. He was head of a firm that provided security to state departments abroad. He was on the way to the Pentagon on business and saw the jetliner hit. He made a U-turn and broke quite a few laws speeding home. He knew it was terrorists and that the next target was probably the nuclear plant near his house. Art was no pessimist. The first sergeant major in Delta, he was not the excitable kind. He said he knew he was going to die and he wanted to be with his family when that happened. Fortunately, that did not happen.
We had a long conversation that day, which was odd in itself. We don’t get to talk much. But that day was different. “Do you think they get it now?” he asked. I knew what he meant.
We didn’t serve together in Vietnam but we both had seen friends die in horrible ways. One second everything is OK; the next, everything is terribly wrong and people are dead and dying. He had seen a lot more than me. He got shot quite a few times from what I can remember. But this wasn’t a contest. When we got back to the real world, nobody wanted to hear about Vietnam.
To this day, I am aware of enfilade and defilade; I check the shadows to find the sun and make sure it cannot get in my eyes if I have to return fire; I am aware of which way the wind blows because the enemy can smell me downwind; and I still jump if I hear the wrong noise. I know it’s far-fetched but, even in San Francisco, things can happen and then it’s too late. We are dead. People in the normal world did not understand this.
“Yes,” I told Art. “I think they get it now.”
Those words caught in my throat and my eyes misted. I made some excuse and rang off. I needed to be alone and think about that. For years, I had hoped everybody would wake up and realize how fragile all of this is, that it can blow up, literally, in our faces. And now that it had happened, I would have given anything to be able to prevent this terrible tragedy from happening, to protect their innocence. I would do anything if they didn’t have to “get it.”
After 9/11, just about everyone reevaluated his life in the context of how precious it is and how meaningful he can make it. That Sunday at Cornerstone Church, all the services were full to overflowing. I did not get to sit in my regular place. The ushers looked at me and pleaded with their eyes that it wasn’t their fault. I knew that and tried to comfort them. Everybody needed a little more assurance, a little more comforting.
Chuck McDougald headed the Veterans Coalition, first for California, then for the Western Region, when Sen. John McCain ran for president in 2008. In 2010, he served as Statewide Volunteer Chair for Carly Fiorina’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. He is currently the Western Region director for ConcernedVeteransforAmerica.org. He lives in South San Francisco with his wife and two kids.