Memories of 9/11: A Military Member’s Perspective

Soldiers from the US Army 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan have a moment of silence in honor of the 9/11 victims on the 5th anniversary of the event. Photo by Flickr user Morgan-Family, via CC.

Note: GeekMom originally published this article on 9/11/2012. We’re running it today in memory of those lost on 9/11/2001. 

Where we were on 9/11 have become such fixtures in our memories. Relating what you were doing has become as commonplace as remembering what we were doing when when the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia accidents occurred. Or in the case of my parents’ generation, remembering where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. My story shares what it was like for a military member in a very non-military assignment.

September 10, 2001

I had been serving on active duty in the Air Force for about six and a half years on 9/11/01. I was serving during a time of relative peace, although on 9/10/01, the American military was certainly busy with assorted peacekeeping missions around the world: Operation NORTHERN WATCH and SOUTHERN WATCH in Iraq, Operation JOINT FORGE in Bosnia, Operations ALLIED FORCE and JOINT GUARDIAN in Kosovo, Joint Task Force – Bravo in South America, and we always counted the “cease fire” operations in South Korea. There were other missions but I might not have been privy to them. In my mind, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Korea were some of the most dangerous places to serve. And it wasn’t that bad.

I had served tours in Bosnia and Korea by this point, and in September 2001 I was in the final stretches of my Master’s Degree work at the Air Force Institute of Technology, which is their accredited graduate school at Wright-Patterson AFB, near Dayton, Ohio. Between about Labor Day and the end of September, the students have a 3-week “fall break.” New students are having a review session — since most of us active duty students hadn’t cracked open a textbook in 5-8 years — while those of us who weren’t new could take a much-needed break.

I was in a class with 11 other weather officers, all of us working on our meteorology Masters degrees. Some of my classmates had taken leave (i.e., vacation days) to go home and visit family, or take vacations. Three members of my class, my husband among them, had traveled to Seattle, Washington on September 10th for a conference on lightning research. Their advisor was flying out to join them on September 11th.

Whenever there was an academic break, our class of 12 had to identify the “senior ranking officer” who planned to remain in the local area. With about hafl of our classmates gone, including the two highest ranking officers in our class, that job fell on me. As of September 10th, this position didn’t really require much. He/she is just supposed to know where everybody is in case of an emergency.

Business as Usual

On the morning of September 11th, I went into my office at school to work on my thesis. Even though it was a break, several of us were using the peace and quiet to catch up on data analysis and writing. We have a television in our computer lab, one of the few rooms on the 2nd floor of our building to have one. It was usually on either the Weather Channel (go figure!) or one of the news networks. Several of us had our preferences between Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC, and whomever got to the remote control first got to choose the network. Usually the volume was very low, or muted altogether.

We remember taking note of the smoke pouring from the first aircraft hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I distinctly remember thinking it was a Cessna or other single engine small plane causing it, because of the Twin Towers being so big. I remember the our computer lab had started with just 4-5 of us, and quickly filled up as those without TVs in their offices came in to see what was going on. I won’t go through the timeline here, but when we received word of the progressive grounding of flights, from the NYC area, to the entire northeast, to all of the United States—just an hour after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, we knew something very, very bad was happening.

The Fog of War: Processing Rumors, Finding Our Loved Ones

I have vague memories of being glued to a TV set for the rest of the morning. I remember flipping channels between the major networks and cable news networks as they were all processing information from several directions, all varying. The rumors were flying. Major city centers were evacuating and reports were coming in of additional crashes and fires, many of which were unfounded.

I called my husband at around 10 am. He was three time zones behind on the west coast, so he was just preparing for his day at the lightning conference and hadn’t yet turned on the TV. We spoke briefly and then hung up. He says he turned on the TV just before the live shot of the second World Trade Center tower collapsing. I remember him calling me back within the hour very very upset about it all. He’s a native New Yorker, and like GeekMom Kristen said at the end of her remembrance, you don’t mess with New Yorkers and their city!

Also heavy on my husband’s mind was that we had just been to New York the week prior, for Labor Day weekend with his family on Long Island. We had just driven across the George Washington Bridge, enjoying one last glimpse of that skyline that included the Twin Towers.

As the news was coming in, we, like everyone else in America, checked in with all of their friends near the impact areas. I called my closest friend who lived inside the Washington Beltway at the time. She worked at an elementary school and told me about all the parents coming in to get their kids. Her in-laws were near New York, including a sister-in-law in lower Manhattan! She was trying to get in touch, but it wasn’t easy. As for Dave’s parents on Long Island? Forget it. The collapsing Twin Towers severed the major trunk cables that connected Long Island land lines with the rest of the country. It would be several days before we could talk to them on the phone.

After lunchtime, all U.S. military installations were put in Force Protection Condition DELTA. In other words, highest alert. Nobody goes in. Nobody comes out. When this happens, you know things aren’t going well. Panic went through my mind.

When you don’t know how long this is going to last, you start thinking about things like “What about my children in child care?” and “What about that dinner in the Crock Pot?” In my case, I was in a panic about my dog Howie. Howie was used to one of us coming home to let him out by mid-afternoon, if we didn’t come home for a lunch break. I had planned to head home pretty early, but that plan was shot. There was only one hope: My friend Bill was stuck outside the base gate and everybody in my lab asked him to perform a number of tasks, mainly checking on pets. Imagine not knowing how long you might be confined to the base…Bill came through for us and I’m still grateful to him for popping the screen on a window to get into the house to let our dog out.

Go Home, You’re Of No Use To Us Here

Since we were in student status, we weren’t really useful for combatting terrorists and were released from the base by dinnertime. We wouldn’t be allowed back on the base for the rest of the week.

Remember when I said I was the “Senior Ranking Officer” for my class? That meant contacting everyone in my class and ensuring they were okay. I did that without incident, but one of our advisors was airborne in the middle of all this and we were all very worried about him. It didn’t take authorities long to realize that cross-country flights were being used to hit the buildings, and we wondered if a Chicago-to-Seattle plane might have been hijacked. It wasn’t my responsibility to contact this officer for his whereabouts, but I made some phone calls and learned that his flight had been put down somewhere in the Dakotas and he got a rental car and drove home.

Sonic Boom

A couple friends and I hung out at my house that first night. We had been in “let’s get the job done” mode for most of the day, but as the family members started begging on the news networks for information about their loved ones, the tears really started flowing. It was an emotional first night. When we parted ways, I was afraid to sleep; I was in the house by myself (well, my dog Howie was with me, but he was hardly a guard dog).

At about 2 am a loud BOOM overhead awakened me and to this day that was the most scared I had ever been in my entire life. The airways were empty, right?

What was that BOOM? It turned out it was from a couple of Air Force fighter jets patrolling the skies, performing a mission known as “Combat Air Patrol”, or CAP. The local news outlets were quick to report on what it was, since our entire community was in a pretty fearful state.

Trying to Be Useful

Our base remained closed for the next three days. On Thursday, September 13th, a small group of us decided to heed some advice on the news and pay a visit to our local blood bank. Even if we weren’t in a position to be mobilized for war like many of our peers, we would be useful this way.

The line was so long! I believe we waited nearly three hours outside on the morning of the 13th.

Of the four of us who attempted to donate blood…none of us were qualified. Three of us had been to locations that prohibit us from donating blood for one or more years. One of us had been to Europe, one of us to Africa, one of us (me) to Korea, and one of us was on a prescription medication that prohibited him from donating.

Boy did we feel incredibly useless.

The Long Road Home

In the meantime, my husband was still in Seattle. The air routes were shut down until further notice, and the the conference they were attending was canceled, a large number of attendees were planning to fly on September 11th and never made it to Seattle due to cancellations and reroutes. They—and most Americans—had no idea when the air would be open for flying again. On Thursday morning, September 13th, he and his group got in their rental car and began driving eastward.

They drove straight through, with stops only for meals and a shower somewhere in Minnesota. About 46 hours after they left Seattle, Dave made it home. It was early Saturday morning, September 15th, 2001.

The emotion of that week was incredible. Writing it all down like this has been very interesting for me. Like dredging up deep dark memories…although my memories aren’t really that deep and dark. Those who were actually in lower Manhattan, Arlington, Virginia, or on those four aircraft would have much darker stories to tell.

Please take a moment today to remember the 2700+ innocent people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when terrorists executed a plan that was seven years in the making.

I remember the spirit and unity the United States felt after the attacks. I’m saddened that we don’t have that emotion anymore, and that it took something as tragic as 9/11 to make it happen. American flags everywhere, impromptu singing of “God Bless America,” and something that reminded me of the spirit Americans probably had during the Revolution.

How will you #NeverForget911??

Product Review: Cuddle Clones Custom Stuffed Animals

Cuddle Clones make great gifts for those who miss their pets, whether due to the pets moving on to the Rainbow Bridge, or if the owners are having to spend extended periods away from their loved ones. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
My sons with their “Howies.” Cuddle Clones make great gifts for those who miss their pets, whether due to the pets moving on to the Rainbow Bridge, or if the owners are having to spend extended periods away from their loved ones. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Earlier this year, our family lost our beloved pet, Howie. You can read more about him on my website. During our mourning, we learned of a company called Cuddle Clones. My husband and I thought this would be a great gift for our 11- and 9-year-old sons to help them remember Howie.

The company was founded in 2009, when Jennifer Graham lost her own beloved pet, Rufus. While she had been mulling the idea while her pet was still alive, it wasn’t until his death that she decided to go forward in starting up a company that specialized in completely customized stuffed pets.

Pay a visit to the Cuddle Clones website. You will instantly be greeted with a slideshow of incredibly cute stuffed pets, with the photos of the real pets alongside the replicas. You will see the accuracy and quality right away. In addition to the stuffed animals, Cuddle Clones offers cast resin figurines and ornaments. It also offers gifts and supplies for your living pets, such as shirts, beds, and collars.

The website is easy to navigate, and in just a couple of clicks, you can start designing a custom pet replica of your very own.

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 10.42.42 AM
The Cuddle Clones website makes it easy to upload photos of your favorite pet and design a “clone” for you or your loved ones. Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.

For the classic stuffed Cuddle Clone, you will go through a step-by-step process that includes uploading numerous photos of your pet. The more photos you have available, the better. Howie had a distinctive curly, fluffy tail (he was part Chow Chow), so I made a point to let the company know on the order form to make sure the tail is right.

Cuddle Clones aren’t inexpensive. Expect to invest $199 for a dog or cat, or $129 for smaller pets such as guinea pigs and rabbits. Don’t forget tax and shipping, which is approximately $10 per pet. I assure you, based on what we’ve seen with our own new pets, the attention to detail is worth every penny.

Also, Cuddle Clones take a while to make. Each pet is individually handcrafted, and that takes time. As of this writing, expect to wait 8 to 10 weeks for your completed replica. Ours took about 9 weeks.

Cuddle Clones will arrive in custom boxes wrapped in tissue paper. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Cuddle Clones will arrive in a custom box wrapped in tissue paper. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

When the replicas arrive, prepare to be dazzled. I was certainly shocked at how big the clones actually are. Each one was about 12 to 14 inches long, and about 10 inches tall. A tag with your pet’s name is sewn onto the back of the animal.

Check out these comparison photos and see for yourself:

The left side is Howie from 2006. I thought they had amazing detail in Howie’s face, from the pink in the ears to the grey around his mouth. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The top photo is from fall 2007. They did a fine job with capturing Howie’s curly, fluffy tail. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Our sons absolutely loved them…at first. The boys toted them all over the house, had their “Howies” ride in the car with us, and slept with them at night. However, our oldest son began to have dreams about Howie again and that worried us. So he (for now, he insists) has put Howie away for a little bit. Our youngest son continues to love his “Howie.” Based on their cost, however, we’ve discussed whether the clone should be placed in a nice location just for viewing, or if we should just let the kids hug and love them to death the way they do their other favorite stuffed animals.

I have to admit, we were worried about whether such an accurate likeness would creep out our sons. We decided to go forward, but some families might not be comfortable with it. You know your kids well; consider their reactions to a gift such as this.

While having the replica as a memory of a passed-on pet is a great way to enjoy a Cuddle Clone, consider other ways to make them great gifts. How about a gift for your son/daughter going away to college? Is your favorite military member taking a deployment and might miss his/her pet? Consider Cuddle Clones.

Join the company’s mailing list for coupon codes, such as $30 off a clone.

GeekMom received a discount on this product for review purposes.

Heather E. Schwartz Inspires Young Girls to Serve Their Nation

Heather Schwartz’s books about women in the armed forces inspire elementary school-aged girls. Images:

Earlier this year, GeekMom Kathy recommended I contact one of her colleagues, children’s author Heather E. Schwartz, about reviewing her two books about women in the U.S. armed forces that were published earlier this year.  She thought I’d be an appropriate candidate, not only as a military member myself, but because I have elementary-school aged children of the appropriate age-level for the books — even if they aren’t girls.

Ms. Schwartz graciously sent me her two books and my sons read them this summer with enthusiasm.  They especially enjoyed Women of the U.S. Air Force: Aiming High, since they live in an Air Force family in an Air Force community.  They were less interested in the Marine Corps version, Women of the U.S. Marine Corps: Breaking Barriers. That’s certainly no fault of the author.  My oldest son read it anyway to help with his Accelerated Reader goals for his 3rd grade class.

These are perfect non-fiction books for elementary-aged children who are on the cusp between picture books and chapter books.  Both books are similarly laid out.  Aiming High and Breaking Barriers both have 32 pages in 4 chapters, plus a glossary, timeline, internet sites and an index.

The first chapters feature recent notable military women, who have worked hard and both had opportunities to to be the first women to perform high-visibility roles.  In Aiming High, Ms. Schwartz interviewed Major Nicole Malachowski, the Air Force’s first female pilot for The Thunderbirds, the service’s aerial demonstration team.  In Breaking Barriers, chapter one featured Major Jennifer Greives, the first-ever Marine One VH-3D pilot.  I enjoyed these particular choices of role models for the books because in both cases, these are women who could excel and break gender barriers in a more reasonable point in their careers, rather than as General officers.  Kudos to Ms. Schwartz to giving girls a more of a goal than “I want to be a General in the armed forces.”  I know that sounds rather odd, that we should always tell our girls to be whatever they can be, but I think to be a pilot is a very attainable goal with very clear intermediate objectives.

The second chapters feature histories of women in their respective services.  The histories are brief and are written to a 4th-5th grade level, which means that although much detail is omitted, there’s no doubt that a child will learn a lot here, thanks to the age-appropriate word choices.  Definitions of several military jargon words, such as “deployment”, are defined as breakout-boxes on the same pages.  Ms. Schwartz did a great job pulling historical images; I especially like the “Lady Leatherneck” cartoon about Lucy Brewer she found for Breaking Barriers on page 11.

The third chapter discusses the current process by which a young woman can join the service, attend training, and learn a skill from pilot training to engineering to even serving in the astronaut corps!

Finally, the fourth chapters cover the future of women serving and provides gems of inspiration for how girls can themselves serve in the armed forces.  It provides some statistics about women serving, some insights into women in combat, and some other inspirational role models in the Air Force .  Great inspiration for no matter what she wants to be when she grows up — it’s just as applicable to the armed forces.  At the end of Chapter 4 in both books are a “Fast Facts” section and a timeline.

In summary, if you see a future Zoomie or Jarhead in your daughter or other young lady in your life, these books would make great gifts!

P.S.: It’s a coincidence that the day I wrote this review, the U.S. Air Force press service published this article about an all-female cargo aircraft crew flying in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.  This now happens more often than one might think, and to the girls on board, they barely even notice they’re all-women.  To them they’re all Airmen!