By the time I reached my room in Eisenhower Barracks, the sweat-soaked cotton t-shirt beneath my uniform clung to my back. I had just run from one class in the bowels of Mahan Hall, a long granite structure along West Point’s southeast rim that houses the Department of Civil Engineering. I was late for my next class, which was held at the farthest possible point away on the campus. I only had a few seconds to dump the Structural Steel Design books on my bed and gather up those for Surveying before dashing out again.
In my fourth and final year as a cadet, this was my Tuesday morning routine.
But on that particular Tuesday, when I burst through the door of my room, I was surprised to see Scott Smiley, my friend and neighbor in the barracks, hushed and leaning over my desk. The room was dim in the soft morning light. Scott’s face was inches from the glowing computer screen. He was watching the news – and he didn’t look up.
“Shh,” Scott said, before I even uttered a sound. “My TV card died so I came over here. A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”
“What? What kind of plane?” I said, as I threw down Steel and tipped Surveying from the shelf above Scott’s head, not even giving myself time to glance at the screen.
“I don’t know. They didn’t say,” Scott said, as if in a trance. “A plane. There’s a fire.”
“Damn,” I said, imagining a small collision by a wooden-winged prop plane, the kind King Kong swatted away like mosquitoes. Then I looked at my watch. “Shit!”
Panting and sweating, I barely made it to the classroom in time. It didn’t matter, though. Class had been canceled, something that at West Point just wasn’t done. That’s when I knew it was serious.
On hearing the first reports of an attack in New York, my Surveying professor, an Army major and a New Yorker, had flipped on the classroom projector and turned to CNN. Although my classmates and I were free to go, no one budged. In the three minutes since I’d seen Scott, another plane had hit the second tower. The major leaned forward on a drafting table facing the screen, his arms supported by white-knuckled fists. A few minutes later, we all watched stunned as the towers crumbled onto lower Manhattan.
“They got the fucking towers!” the major shrieked in his characteristic Brooklyn accent. He seemed angry or scared or both. His loss of composure scared me, too.
For the first time since I’d begun at West Point in 1998, the academy went into lock-down. No one was allowed in or out. As the most important military base in the vicinity of New York – only 50 miles down the Hudson River – it seemed reasonable to academy brass that the 4,400 Army officers-in-training might have made an appealing target to would be attackers. The rest of the day was filled with anxiety over what might come next.
“This is gonna be our Pearl Harbor,” was a typical remark heard on campus that day. Other cadets noted it might turn out to be the greatest loss of American life since Antietam. And whether it was said or not, all of us were thinking the same thing: “This is going to mean war.” In our first three years at school, that was a thought none of us had had to seriously confront. Now it was a certainty.
A couple of days later, academy officials held a Taps Vigil for the still-unknown number of victims in New York. Until September 11, these somber ceremonies were reserved exclusively for members of the Corps of Cadets who died while enrolled. It was the highest honor a cadet could receive.
At 11:30 on Thursday night, thousands of us cadets quietly filed onto the pitch-black apron facing Constitution Island across the broad Hudson River. We stood at attention in our Dress Gray uniforms and stared out into the blackness as the ghostly sound of Taps echoed across the plain. Then a lone set of bagpipes played the longing notes of Amazing Grace before we joined together to sing the West Point alma mater.
…And when our work is done,
Our course on earth is run,
May it be said, “Well done,
Be thou at peace”…
Every year, on the anniversary of 9/11, I reflect on that episode in my life. It was a period when the naïve prism through which I viewed the world and my future was shattered all at once by an act of barbarism I still cannot grasp.
This year, observing the eighth anniversary of the attacks from Afghanistan – within kilometers of where Bin Laden and Al Qaeda hatched their evil plan – my memories of that day and my subsequent experiences are particularly lucid. For the rest of my time at West Point, I had lamented that my classmates and I would miss our chance at war. I thought that the vengeance exacted by the U.S. Army on Al Qaeda would be over long before we graduated the next June.
I was wrong.
Over the next decade, my life would be inexorably connected to the events of that day. I have spent most of my twenties either at war or preparing for it. Eighteen months after graduation, I invaded Iraq at the “tip of the spear” with the 3rd Infantry Division. For the next year I would take part in “support and stability operations” there. Later in 2005 I deployed for another year to Ar Ramadi, which by the summer of 2006 had become a cauldron of violence so deadly it was considered the most dangerous place on earth. I was only 21 years old on 9/11, and I’ll turn 30 here in Afghanistan. It’s difficult for me to fathom that this cursed war will ever end.
But my travails are nothing compared to the sacrifices of many of my West Point classmates and comrades. To date, my class has lost nine officers fighting in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The most recent notification came to me just a week after I was recalled to duty. In February, Brian “Bubba” Bunting, a fellow civil engineer who was in my Steel Design class on the morning of Sept. 11, was killed by a roadside bomb in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Like me, Bubba had been recalled from the Individual Ready Reserve to serve another tour of duty. Buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Bubba left behind a wife and infant son.
Drew Jensen was paralyzed from the neck down when in May 2007 a sniper shot him in the neck in Baqubah, Iraq. He had been trying to save one of his soldiers who was pinned behind a Humvee after a bomb exploded. From his hospital bed in Fort Lewis, Washington, Drew donated $10,000 to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to establish a fund to help families cover expenses while visiting their wounded loved ones. Then on Sept. 7, 2007, honoring his final request, Drew’s wife and mother took him off life support. He was 27.
On March 10, 2008, just before I finished up graduate school, Torre Mallard was killed when a roadside bomb struck his vehicle outside Balad, Iraq. I didn’t know Torre personally, but his is the only funeral of a service member I have attended. It was something I had to do. I suppose it was my way of paying respects to all the veterans who in this war have made the ultimate sacrifice.
On that cold, windy day at the end of winter, Molly and I made the hour-long drive to West Point from Manhattan. The simple service was held in the Old Cadet Chapel. A larger one with Torre’s family had been held back in Alabama days before. This was just one final farewell before Torre was buried among other members of the Long Gray Line.
The cemetery at West Point is an open air museum featuring some of America’s great historical characters. Indian fighters, Civil War generals, architects and astronauts make up some of the 7,000 graduates interred on the sleepy promontory overlooking the Hudson. George Custer, Winfield Scott and Ed White all occupy plots, which have been carefully groomed for decades. But the majority of those buried there are not giants of American lore.
In the northeast section of the cemetery, discolored patches of grass stretch from gravestones of every style, from soft white marble to mirrored granite. Freshly laid wreaths, bright American flags and potted flowers give the impression that those buried in this section arrived recently and all at once. Here lay the members of modern West Point classes killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. This exposed fringe of the cemetery overlooks a parking lot, a gas station and a small strip mall with a Subway and a coffee shop. It’s as if West Point expanded the burial ground in haste, unprepared for the sudden return of its sons and daughters in flag-draped coffins.
Just before Torre was laid to rest, I held Molly’s hand tightly as seven rifles barked three times in unison. Then the familiar sound of Taps filled the air. Standing there, I thought about the terrible price America has paid in avenging the deaths of the 3,000 lost in the towers. Today, the wars’ toll is more than 5,000 dead and counting. Tens of thousands more have been wounded – my friend, Scott Smiley, among them.
The last time I saw Scott was graduation day in 2002. A member of the class of 2003, Scott had one more year to go, so I shook his hand and wished him well. I lost touch with Scott after that and heard nothing more about him until one day in 2007 when I came across his name in the news. He’d been named “Soldier of the Year” by the Army Times.
In April 2005, while leading his platoon on a patrol in Mosul, Iraq, a suspicious truck approached Scott’s vehicle. The truck got to within 30 yards of the formation, and Scott fired two warning shots to ward the driver off. But it was too late. A suicide bomber was the last thing Scott ever saw. Shrapnel from the blast sliced through his eyes, blinding him for life.
Scott was one of the finer men I had met in my years in the service. He was the kind of officer destined for greatness, cut from the very fabric of which generals are made. Focused and driven, he would spend hours in the gym at West Point, fine-tuning his intimidating frame. Devoutly Christian, Scott derived his self-discipline from God, he said. He was kind and thoughtful, even to plebes. And I imagine he was the same way with his men. Even before he graduated, Scott was eager to join the infantry. His ultimate goal was to eventually become a Green Beret like his older brother before him.
That would, of course, never happen. Yet despite his wounds, Scott surprised even those who knew him best. He petitioned the Army to let him stay in uniform, and with the help of a general, Scott’s unlikely wish was granted. Since then, he’s toured the Army giving motivational speeches about leadership, faith and perseverance in the face of tremendous adversity. He continues to run, surf and ski. In 2006, he even climbed Mount Rainier. Scott eventually went on to earn an MBA from Duke University and is now teaching a course on leadership at West Point.
“I started to understand that there is something greater than me and there is something better than me,” Scott told a reporter in 2007. “A lot of times, when someone goes through trials and adversities and still manages to have a positive outlook on life and still worships God like I did before, it motivates people.”
That was the Scott I knew. At a time in America when there are few heroes – indeed, few good leaders – people like Scott and Bubba and Drew and Torre remind me that although it was devastating, all was not lost when the towers came down on 9/11. No matter what your stance on the war may be, the fact is that almost a decade since that horrifying day, American men and women continue to fight and sometimes die for ideals greater than themselves.
I am humbled to serve among them.
To the fallen members of the West Point Class of 2002: "Well done. Be thou at peace."