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Before and After: An Air Force Veteran’s 9/11 Reflection

By Paul Bright
Posted Aug 22, 2011 in World
9/11 affected my career aspirations of becoming a therapist in the most unexpected way. After completing my undergrad degree, I enlisted as an Air Force jet engine mechanic in 1997 because I wanted a chance to see the world while I maintained my service to get my GI Bill. A jet engine mechanic isn’t exactly in the path to becoming a therapist, but the Air Force officer program was only looking for nurses and navigators at the time. I was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina but spent a little bit of time in Germany to support NATO operations in Kosovo. I had also gotten married, had one child and another on the way.
On the morning of September 11th I was coming off of a midnight shift on the flight line. We were fairly busy launching and maintaining C-17s that supported the No-Fly zone enforcement over Iraq. I was off a little early because my unborn son had an appointment at the nearby Navy hospital. After loading up my wife and daughter in the car, we drove to the hospital, only to find out the appointment had been rescheduled for the following week. They gave us an option to stay and try to get into another appointment, but I was already tired from a long night’s work. It wasn’t a critical appointment so we went back to our house on the Air Force base instead.
As I tried to sleep while listening to a radio talk show, one of the producers announced that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. The host thought it was probably a small plane flown by a drunken pilot, but 10 minutes later the producer said the fire was pretty large and it was all over the news.
I turned on my TV and it wasn’t long until I saw a large jet liner hit the second tower. Like some of the newscasters, I first thought it was a replay of the original plane crash. When they announced that it was a second plane, I ran down the hallway and told my wife to turn on the television. We watched for about five minutes together before I went to the back room and started packing my bags. In the military, tragedies like 9/11 often meant it wasn’t long before you were on a plane headed somewhere. I also thought about what the Navy Hospital was going through and how we could still be on there.
The rest of my Air Force life changed considerably. I didn’t immediately go overseas to support the war on terrorism, but staying on station pretty much kept me away from home anyway. The base was on lockdown, making it hard to get in and out freely. 12 hour shifts with one or two days off in between was normal. But my mindset had changed as well. Whereas I was going to finish my first enlistment and leave, I ended up staying for another enlistment plus two more years. I wasn’t completely “ate up”, a term military members use to affectionately describe fellow servicemen who are constantly engaged with military culture and pride. But I was no longer in just for school and world travel.
5 years after 9/11 I did tours in several countries and even throughout the United States, doing scheduled and emergency C-17 jet engine repairs. Many missions were to either bring supplies or ground troops closer to the battle without getting directly in the way. Since the C-17 was a large yet agile plane, it was tasked heavily to perform these missions. The closer it could land a large load to the fight, the easier a convoy could avoid IEDs. I often left in the middle of the night after getting a call just as I got home from a 12-hour shift.
Those sacrifices are nothing to some of the bigger sacrifices made by families. Such as the family of coworker TSgt Joseph Gardner, who died while examining a broken aircraft wing. He was a handful of days from leaving Charleston to be stationed overseas when they called him in for his expertise. His family spends every day mourning his loss and honoring his service. I wasn’t on the flight line when it happened because I was serving as a leadership class instructor at the time. But one of my students was his trainee and he was present when it happened. He was still shaken up a few months later.
After I separated from the active duty military in 2006 I still kept my Air Force ties. I still serve as a civilian on an Air Force base. I am also pursuing my masters in counseling degree, using my Post 9/11 GI Bill. Currently I’m doing my internship at a homeless shelter by providing counseling to veterans. Although most of my vets are from the Vietnam era, a handful joined the service after 9/11. It’s sad that even today our newer veterans still struggle to find life after service. I consider myself very blessed and I’m proud of my sacrifices, though they pale in comparison to the guys I see every day and two nights a week. Looking back, it was almost meant to be that I didn’t become a counselor right after college. 10 years of active duty service and 9/11 prepared me to be where I am now. As long as I'm looking fellow vets in the eye, I can't forget 9/11.
This blog is part of Digital Journal's project to remember September 11. If you have a story to tell, join us on Facebook and Twitter, and post your memories to Digital Journal. Full details on how to participate can be found here.

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