“A plane flew into the World Trade Center,” I overheard someone say.
“What an idiot,” was his friend’s response, assuming, with the typical bravado of an Air Force Academy cadet, that it was an accident due to some careless civilian pilot.
I didn’t give the comment much thought as I walked to class. It was a clear autumn morning in Colorado, just as it was in New York City. I crossed the massive outdoor courtyard of the Air Force Academy, known as the terrazzo, passing fighter jets on permanent display and a polished black stone memorial to graduates killed in combat. In 2001 the memorial hadn’t been added to in a long time, most of the engraved names were from Vietnam, faded by time.
The faces of the people I passed along the way that morning offered no clue to the drama unfolding across the country. Most were staring blankly ahead, not unusual for cadets at the beginning of a new academic year; our minds filled with worry about homework, military inspections and fitness tests.
I walked into Fairchild Hall, the Air Force Academy’s academic building, and a few twists, turns and staircases later I was at the door to my 7:30 a.m. political science class.
I passed the threshold from the hall to the classroom. No more than three feet, just one step. But that step changed everything. By the time I lifted my foot off the ground and placed it on the floor inside the classroom,I had left behind the naïve dreams of youth and met for the first time the reality of the new world I would be living in, and the conflict that would dominate the next decade of my life. I took that step and was in the classroom, and on the TV were the burning towers. I knew it meant war.
The day prior, Sept. 10, 2001, I had visited a chaplain. I told him I wanted to quit the academy. I hated it, I confessed. I didn’t understand why I was there, getting yelled at every day for not shining my shoes correctly when my friends were back at the University of Florida wearing flip-flops. Why did I have to take 21 credit hours a semester and learn how to march when I could go to regular college and have a class or two a day and spend my free time by a pool or a beach? I was feeling really sorry for myself. The chaplain told me that maybe the military wasn’t for me. Maybe I was there for the wrong reasons. That night I went to my room and filled out an application to transfer to the University of Florida for the spring 2002 semester. That application was on my desk, completely filled out, when I walked to class the morning of Sept. 11.
“Whatever you thought your career in the Air Force would be,” my instructor said as we watched the towers fall, “let go of it.”
The crusty old fighter pilot who had bombed and killed Serbian soldiers in the Kosovo Campaign looked at us. “The world is going to change,” he said. “Every one of you will go to war. Some of you won’t come back.”
Heavy stuff for a 19-year-old. The words didn’t quite sink in though. I still felt detached. I was affected, angry, mesmerized by the scale of the disaster. But I still didn’t feel like I was yet a part of the story. That ended when I saw the president at Booker Elementary. I told the person sitting next to me that I was from Sarasota, and that’s where the president was.
“Wow,” she said. “Must bring it home for you.”
I thought about the president driving on the streets that I knew from memory. I thought about him loading onto Air Force One at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, the airport I knew so well from flying lessons in high school. I imagined he could see and hear and touch places with which I was familiar. It felt real now. I thought about my family, and that made me think about the families that had someone in the towers, at the Pentagon and, as I would later find out, on United Airlines Flight 93.
I was angry, and I wanted to do something about it. So I did.
When I got back to my room that afternoon, I sent a message to my family that I was OK. And then I picked up the transfer application to UF. It felt toxic in my fingers. I was embarrassed by it; an artifact of some place and time to which I could never return. The carefree life I had dreamt of and longed for was now a shattered illusion that could never be put back together. I crumpled the letter and was about to throw it away, when I hesitated. I spread it back flat on my desk and used a sharpie marker to write the word “remember” across the top. Then I locked it away.
I’m 31 years old now. My deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and my career as an Air Force special operations pilot are a memory. But I still have that transfer application to UF.
I had that old, wrinkled paper in my pocket when I went back to the Air Force Academy a few years ago as an Air Force captain, right before I went to Iraq. I had it in my pocket when I visited the polished black stone monument to the fallen. I felt the weight of that single old sheet of paper as I dragged my fingers across the 16 freshly carved names.
Nolan Peterson, news editor for the Sarasota Observer and Pelican Press, is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He was an Air Force special operations pilot with more than 250 hours of combat flight time. He is a Sarasota native.