The Soldier Becomes The Witness

GD, BAI, Pentagon attack, 010911
by CBS News Military Consultant Col. Mitch Mitchell (Ret.)

I served in the Army for 27 years, during which time I had three combat tours. In all of them, the fighting was close and personal. I saw both the enemy and our soldiers torn to pieces by bullets, bombs and shell fragments. Several times I came close to losing my life. That was combat. We were fighting a war, and in war, people die. Casualties were expected, and, though the scenes of death and destruction were horrible, they could be understood as something which combat produces. As much hatred as I had for my enemies at the time, I do not feel my life or my personality changed from that combat. The passage of time has resolved the hatred, and I have put the wars in which I fought largely behind me, examining them now only in scholarly endeavors.

Yet, I am angrier than I have ever been in my life, and a new hatred has welled up from the depths of my soul. I hate those who attacked us and those who directed the attack. I’ve been this way since 9/11, the day my wife and I watched the final seven seconds of American Airlines Flight 77. The plane’s wing passed directly in front of us, twenty feet above our car. We looked in the windows but saw no faces looking back. Two seconds later, we felt the searing heat from the explosion’s fireball as Flight 77 smashed into the Pentagon.

For days we couldn’t sleep. We had hundreds of flashbacks a day for the first few weeks. Mercifully they have subsided to a more manageable number. We also felt guilty that all we could do was watch those final moments of Flight 77, unable to warn or help the passengers or workers in the Pentagon who were about to die. Time heals, and I’m thankful that we have returned to a fairly normal life, though both of us know that, for the rest of our lives, we will carry with us the vivid details of what we saw that day. Compared to those who lost their lives or were injured, we are lucky. Our problems are insignificant. But, we are victims nonetheless. The scars will be with us forever.

There are certain events so important in a person’s life that they become indelibly etched in the mind. Total recall is an unfortunate by-product. In my lifetime thus far, the two events that have affected me that way are the assassination of President Kennedy and the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. I can recall the details of what I was doing during both tragedies in the most minute detail. Kennedy’s death shocked me terribly, but it didn’t affect my life much. The 9/11 attacks have changed my life forever. The world as I knew it before the attacks will never be the same. I suppose those who witnessed the Pearl Harbor attacks on December 7, 1941 would understand completely.

I get a funny feeling in my stomach when I see a plane flying at a low altitude, especially if it’s close to me. Whenever I fly somewhere, I look at my fellow passengers in the terminals and on the plane to see if any are behaving strangely. A thousand times, I have played out a scenario in which I follow someone dashing for the cockpit and do whatever it takes to stop him. The noble example of the heroic actions of the passengers on United Air Lines Flight 93 inspires me. Tonight I watched a documentary of that flight. I felt all the sadness and the anger come rushing back as, once again, I followed the horrible sequence of events.

There are many triggers beyond those involving airplanes and passengers that make me think about the disasters of 9/11. Since I live and work in the Washington area, every day I see the Pentagon and the exact place on the highway where we first noticed Flight 77 bearing down on us. The memories rush back and are not easily dismissed. Several days ago, a colleague showed me a video spoof involving an American Airlines passenger plane landing on an interstate highway and using a car for its nose landing gear. It was supposed to be very funny, but it wasn’t for me. All I felt was the same gripping tension and fear I felt on 9/11 when I saw the plane coming directly toward our car.

September 11th has made me appreciate the value of freedom as never before. I take nothing for granted anymore. I’m fortunate to be living a wonderful life, but life can never again be as it was. I didn’t know it at the time, but the period before 9/11 really was the age of innocence for me. The attacks on America on 9/11 and, particularly, the one on the Pentagon forced me to wear an albatross of terrorism around my neck. I feel the weight, but, fortunately, as an American, I take it as a challenge rather than a defeat.