Stolen Innocence

Studio portrait of LTC Karen Wagener in uniform
American Flag being draped over the edge of the Pentagon

I will never look at another perfect blue sky for the rest of my life without drifting back to the morning of September 11, 2001. Everything about that morning, the late Summer / early Fall weather might have represented any other Indian Summer weather. People going about their early morning routines busily. I worked at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC back then. Was taking a packet of information to the Department of Medicine in the main lobby near the Pharmacy. The Today Show was showing on the televisions and it was 20 minutes to 9AM. Plenty of time to get whatever else I needed to have done before noon, but I was so wrong. There wasn't enough time that day and there will never be enough time again. I glanced up to see this beautiful pre-Fall NYC skyline on the TV, a scene that I've seen a thousand times and a minute later I watched as the first plane crashed into the North Tower. From there it was more of Hollywood design than reality.

At first all was quiet; people no doubt in shock and trying to digest what had just happened. This was America after all and only things like this happen in a movie, right?

9:03AM - the South Tower is hit and like a southpaw boxer all of what played out came to a panic. This was real. America, it's people, it's land, it's businesses and it's innocence was all under attack. We never saw it coming, but we should have. We thought we were insulated, but we weren't. That day changed the way we did everything from how we could no longer see loved ones off at the airport gates to how we looked at foreigners that dressed like the terrorists that murdered all those people.

A friend of mine, LTC Karen Wagner had left Walter Reed Army Medical Center a few months perhaps earlier. She had been the Medical Center Brigade Executive Officer and a wonderful mentor and career US Army Officer. When the Pentagon fell under attack, I began calling her direct office line and cell to no avail. Lines were busy. I hadn't thought I could never get through - this was America. We have the best of everything. As the day turned into late morning, evacuation plans were implemented, mass casualty and triage teams were formed onto long white busses bound for the Pentagon.

We were at war and it was chaos. Rumors from the media as reports were handed down were that the Capital area was on fire and that the mall area had been attacked as well. To imagine our history being erased was too much to bare. I tried calling again to LTC Wagner; direct to voicemail. Frantically begging her to call me, not thinking that she would have her own emergency on her hands at the Pentagon. I just wanted to know that she was ok. That she was handling the chaos like we all were. My request to have her call would never come and I never had a chance to say goodbye or to tell her how much she meant to me as a person. I had run out of time as did so many more that day.

I left work to pick up my daughter at daycare. She was near the NSA back in those days and I decided that the risk to her was greater and my paranoia even greater that something might happen to her if the terrorists had targeted the Pentagon and the Twin Towers - perhaps they would try the NSA as well. My daughter, Ashley, was safe. I pulled into a Walmart parking lot, dazed. My wife who was active duty was pulled from her station at Walter Reed's OB/Gyn clinic for the mass casualty response and we had never owned cell phones. No communication. I had to trust that she would be alright. I had to be there for our daughter. I bought a cell phone that day and waited in a Walmart parking lot crying for everything that had happened and what this meant for a generation of Americans. Ft. Meade, where we were living on base housing, was shut completely down. I was like a citizen of a nation that had no home. Our freedoms were tested. We were hurt, but we would fight. We would honor our fallen, We would rebuild our homes, businesses and dreams. We took stock of what was taken from us that day. We were Americans for the first time in decades. Not Catholic or Protestant, not Democrat or Republican - we joined together to pray, cry and support one another We were Americans and we had forgotten for a time.

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