Student vet recalls army?s reactions to Sept. 11

Brad Wilcox

When the idea of writing an article on the aftermath of 9/11 was initially batted around the newsroom, I balked. I felt that writing an article on the seventh anniversary of 9/11 might be forcing it a bit. At first glance, seven years just didn’t seem to carry much reverence.

However, the more I wrestled with the idea, the more I began to realize how flawed and callous this way of thinking might be. I had minimalized a moment in our nation’s history so powerful, that even seven years later, the images of that day are like fresh paint in our minds.

Perhaps it’s okay to write about it annually, if in doing so we are able to collectively heal as a nation. Still, the thought of hearing different people tell similar stories from congruent perspectives made my neck start snapping. So in an effort to distinguish this account, and hopefully submit a different vantage point, I offer up a story that doesn’t begin with, ‘I woke up’hellip;’

It was around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and I had just finished Emergency Medical Technician training in the upper wing of the Heidelberg Hospital. At the time I was in the Army, a Medic and stationed in Germany. I was headed downstairs to check-in with my superiors, hoping I would be released early for the day.

Rounding the corner on the way to my supervisors’ office, my stride was halted as I ran into a waiting room full of patients standing and staring at a burning building on television. Without so much as a word spoken, I soon found myself captivated by the same fiery images being projected on the screen. Initial reports were that a plane had accidentally careened into the side of the World Trade Center, but as we watched a second plane hit the adjacent tower, the feeling of bewilderment permeating the room quickly shifted to fear.

Within an hour of the second crash, every army base was on lockdown, and tactical teams had been assembled. The term used to describe these assemblies was, ‘reactionary guard,’ and I was one of the members for the Heidelberg team. In Germany, the bases were gated off, but ironically the housing for soldiers and their families was not. Donning 70 pounds of gear, guard teams drew weapons and were dispatched to the surrounding areas to provide a secure perimeter. It made perfect sense. Unlike America, Germany’s borders are wide open and most of the people living there weren’t super fond of us to begin with. This realization was amplified when it was clear our country was under attack.

Everyday we would show up at 3 p.m. to draw weapons and be transported to our post. We’d work until 4 a.m. and be done checking our gear back in by 5 a.m. While on duty, we’d search every vehicle that drove past with flashlights and mirrors. The drivers were instructed to step away from their vehicles and two armed soldiers kept watch while two others ‘tore’ the driver’s vehicles apart. Initially, we were doing this to every single car that came on base. In addition, we had two-man roving teams that literally walked the perimeter non-stop for 12 hours. Believe it or not, roving was my favorite. Winters in Germany were cold to begin with, and living outside during the night only intensified it. Roving at least kept you warm.

We spent 51 straight days out there before being relieved. During that time a group of people that planned to bomb the Heidelberg shopping center had been arrested, gates were being erected around the army housing and the threat level was beginning to subside. Even so, not much changed in our routine, and soon the reactionary guard force became a permanent fixture of everyday operations. Sept. 11 not only changed the way Americans viewed the world, it also changed the way everyday operations would be run in the military forever. Despite the unpleasantness of what we were doing, I felt fortunate to be contributing to the safety of Americans overseas.