9-11… Ten Years Gone


It’s a little strange to be staring at that paragraph on the weekend of the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 terror attacks against the United States of America. I am what my friend Larry Correia calls, “a cake eating civilian,” at heart. I really am. I was a geek and a science fiction writer long before I joined the military. In fact I can plainly remember in my late teens and early 20s thinking that I’d never, ever wear a uniform. That ship had sailed. I had no interest. And at that particular time in my youth, I had the usual youthful political pretensions that made the military seem unpalatable.

Then four airliners were turned into cruise missiles by Islamist scumbags — who think their greatest service to God is to slaughter innocent men, women, and children — and the world changed forever. Or, at least, my world changed forever. I can still clearly remember that Tuesday when the Towers imploded, the Pentagon burned, and I sat watching TV with my mouth open and saying to myself, how is this possible?

Up until that event, I’d more or less absorbed the cotton candy conceit that with the Iron Curtain down, and the so-called End of History upon us, there would be no more wars of the sort we’d seen in the past. All that mattered was uplifting the rest of the world to America’s socioeconomic level, and things would be peachy keen. No more fighting, no more men shedding each others’ blood on the sands of foreign countries. Everyone everywhere would more or less get along and if there was competition, it would be like we were just fans of rival football teams: whatever ill will we harbored between us, it wouldn’t go much farther than jerseys and slogans and having a beer together after the big game.

Sadly, no. History was not at an end. And there were men in the world still dead-set on slaughtering people like me, and my wife, and my daughter. For no other reason than that we weren’t of the Islamists’ particular tribe, their particular strident and bloodthirsty monotheistic code. It wasn’t about economics or freedom. It was about evil. Pure, determined evil. The sort of stuff that left mass graves in Cambodia and sent Jews to the gas chambers at Auschwitz and Sobibor.

9-11-2001 left me something of a mess. Cherished presumptions I’d harbored since my late teens, began to unravel before my eyes. How to grapple with a world that is not, in fact, the warm’n’fuzzy multicultural melting pot that I’d been told it was? That not all societies and their ethics and morals could be made to coexist peacefully? That my society in particular was under threat from a fanatical enemy prepared to do anything and everything possible to reduce America to ashes?

It took me a few months, wandering in the ideological and emotional wilderness, before I realized what I should do. I was sitting at my desk in Seattle — not too different from the desk where I now sit in Utah writing this — and it occurred to me that I needed to become more than just some guy who gets pissed off on the internet.

I knew I wasn’t Rambo material. I was and still am a, “cake eating civilian.” But I was able-bodied and smart, and I had technical skills. Surely the United States military could use a chap like me? After a brief conversation with my spouse — whose only response to my (shocker) of an announcement that I wanted to join up, was, “So how many years do you have to be in before you can retire with a pension and benefits?” — I dialed up the United States Air Force. My Dad had been an officer in the Air Force Reserve shortly after he graduated from college in the early 1960s. The Air Force needed technical guys, right?

Unfortunately I discovered that the Air Force had medical standards I couldn’t meet. I’ve got an old abdominal surgery from infancy that flagged me on the Air Force’s entry test, and so I went back to my desk at work deflated: no service for me. It had been something of a longshot anyway, with that surgery in my history. And if the USAF didn’t want me, surely none of the other “tough” branches of the service would, either.

Then a chance acquaintance through the Utah Jazz ESPN sports forums informed me that the US Army would happily take me. He was an active-duty Army medic. We conferred a bit on how best to ‘tactically’ answer the exhaustive entry questionnaire, and face the touch-your-junk humiliation of the medical exam. Reinvigorated, I phoned up the local Army recruiting station in Seattle and said, “Does the Army Reserve have room for one more patriot?” Yes, they did.

In hindsight, it was a nutty proposition. I am a laid-back guy. I like to take it easy. I am not an exercise nut nor am I into physical combatives. An old martial arts injury to my left knee had ended my budding karate aspirations, and my bad eyes and poor reflexes would prove — in the fullness of time — to be a tremendous stumbling block in the marksmanship department. What kind of soldier can’t run, can’t shoot, and doesn’t like to pump iron in the gym?

Well, this kind of soldier, apparently.

Basict Combat Training was hell. Pure. Hell. And amazingly, at that time, Advanced Individual Training proved worse. More crazy punishment from the Drill Sergeants, less overall cohesion and discipline among the Privates. There were many times during those months at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, when I laid in my bunk at night and asked myself why I’d ever thought it was a good idea to put on a uniform. BCT and AIT were the closest I’d ever come to experiencing something akin to prison. I still have bad dreams about both of them.

I probably could have quit if I’d wanted to. I watched other men do it. But I was too terrified of slinking back home, defeated. I knew it would be a terrible failure of mettle and I’d never, ever be able to forgive myself. Much less look my wife or father in the eye. I’d committed myself before God and country. I’d told myself that cake eater or no cake eater, I wanted to contribute to the defense of these United States — in some way more meaningful than running a blog. And so I toughed it out, and I barely made my run times on the APFT, and I lived for those letters and occasional packages from home — mail call, every bit the sanity lifeline any war movie has ever made it out to be.

And when I got back to my pregnant wife — my scalp buzzed; a lighter, leaner, tougher, meaner version of the self that had departed Seattle MEPS — I realized that 9-11 had changed me far more than I could have ever suspected when it happened.

Since then I’ve gone through three different Army Reserve units in two states. I’ve moved up through the junior-enlisted ranks, gone to the NCO Academy and become a Sergeant, and eventually transitioned into the Warrant Officer program when my dear mentor CW3 (ret) Michelle Niesen called me in 2008 and said, “Sergeant Torgersen, now it’s your turn!” I said, “Yes ma’am,” and in September 2009, my successor mentor CW3 Michelle Hartley — whose skill and guidance as my TAC officer can never be fully appreciated — pinned my WO1 bars on my shoulders and said, “I expect you to do good things with these, Mr. Torgersen.” Again, the only response possible was, “Yes, ma’am!”

So now I’m making CW2, the rank at which all Army Warrant Officers become officially commissioned by the President of the United States. I joined under Bush, and will be commissioned under Obama, and will doubtless serve through several more presidencies before I retire. One thing about Chiefs: we can stay in the service longer than just about anyone else. If ever you see some ancient dude sitting around in an Army uniform with white (or no) hair, wrinkles on his face, thick glasses, and a bit of a shake in his hands, chances are very good he’s a Warrant Officer. Probably a CW5 who was appointed to the job in the Vietnam era, or shortly afterward, when they didn’t even have an entry school for us yet.

Warrant Officers are the “geeks” of the US Army: we are ‘subject matter experts’ charged with maintaining all of the Army’s technical systems, as well as flying much of the Army’s rotor-wing and auxiliary fixed-wing aircraft. In my own case — true to cake eater form — I am what’s called a Personnel Technician. I’m trained to know my way around the Army’s equivalent of HR. It’s not a glamorous nor macho job. But it’s portable, and it’s allowed me to do what I think I do best: help other soldiers get their jobs done without having to worry that their paperwork and records and other necessary vitals aren’t being taken care of. Additionally, because Warrant Officers are generally smart people, whose rank affords us respect up and down the chain, I’ve been able to jack-of-all-trades my way through various support missions that have kept me far, far more occupied than the requisite one weekend a month, two weeks a year.

In 2010 alone I was away from home for over four months. And that’s not even being deployed.

Something, by the way, that’s yet to happen to me, for reasons I can’t quite discern, and yet which I am in no hurry to question. As one old chaplain put it to me once, “Son, I was in for 23 years before they sent me to Iraq. My first war. For you, if not this war, the next one. If not now, eventually. Don’t rush for it. It will find you when it finds you.”

Which works for my wife and daughter, who are happy to have me around as long as they can have me around.

Meanwhile, how’s the world doing ten years on? What’s going to become of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Libya, and Iran, and everywhere else in the Islamosphere that’s problematic or in which the United States has inserted itself? I fully supported both the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, but even I am wondering how much longer Americans are going to be expected to expend blood and treasure in those lands. Some of my friends have gone over multiple times. Iraq and Afghanistan are not like Germany or Korea. They are not fun. And they are, even ten years later, still quite dangerous. Depending on where a person gets sent and what job he’s expected to do.

We got Osama bin Laden. That feels pretty damned good. And even though it’s un-Christian of me to relish another man’s demise, I have a smile on my face knowing that Binny sleeps with the fishes. Bada-bing-bada-boom. Serves him right. We can’t kill enough al-Qaeda for what happened on 9-11-2001. These are not men to be empathized with, nor understood, nor reasoned with. They are killers of women and children, with evil in their hearts — so black they make the devil’s look pale. You can’t do anything more for them than to put a bullet between their eyes and let God sort them out. And if that makes me a moral monster in the eyes of some people with more refined sensibilities than I have, well, I am prepared to live with a few contradictions. And not care if some lifer civilian somewhere thinks less of me for it.

Because I’m in a brotherhood now. A brotherhood of arms. I have been and will continue to meet current and prior service members of all ages, across many wars and many eras, and I have discovered that there is a near-instant bond: no words need be said, the bond is tacit. I am not sure it’s easily explained for those who haven’t had to go through what you go through when you serve, whether deployed or doing time state-side. I’ve also learned that the best soldiers — the ones who have seen the craziest things and fought in the craziest places — are the quiet and unassuming people who look and act as ordinary and humble as anyone, taken out of uniform and placed on the street. They have gone above and beyond, and yet they absolutely do not brag or make a show of it. That’s considered gauche, and is simply not done.

I am humbled and privileged to be able to stand in the ranks with these men and women at formation and answer, when the Commander or the First sergeant calls my name, “I am here!” For I am nobody’s hero. I eat cake, remember? And yet I am permitted to be in the company of heroes who eat bullets and face death. And while the terrible atrocity of 9-11 can never and must never be forgotten, I am actually grateful that this event forced me to stop playing the boy, and made me man up in a way I’d never thought possible.

For my daughter, 9-11 is liable to never be much more than a fascinating historical event. She was born after it and it won’t be a mark on her heart the way it’s been a mark on mine. In many ways I think that’s good. Because 9-11 ripped the world away from me in a fashion that nothing else probably could have. It made me more cautious and more cynical about a lot of things than I’d ever been before. Watching how some so-called ‘liberal’ Americans carried on after the event — disgracing themselves, disgracing the country, disgracing the flag, disgracing the proud accomplishment of these great United States — made me a political orphan. I couldn’t identify with that group anymore. If ever I’d identified with them. Which I sometimes question, as I get older and even less inclined to buy some of the shit I’m fed by my intellectual betters.

Appropriately, I have drill this weekend. Or what they call these days in the newfangled Reserve, Battle Assembly. Horse piss. It’s freakin’ drill. Always has been, always will be. Maybe now that they gave us back our patrol caps, we can get the word ‘drill’ back too. I’m just glad it’s getting cooler outside. Not like the six weeks I spent at Ft. Dix earlier in the summer, where the heat and humidity threatened to slow-cook my Mountain West ass. I honestly don’t know how people east of the Mississippi do it. Ft. Dix made Ft. Jackson look good, and that’s not easy. Though 90-degrees and 90-percent saturation is a cakewalk compared to Kuwait and southern Iraq, where you can get 2nd-degree burns if you leave your wrench sitting for more than a few seconds in direct mid-day sunlight. Now that’s gottdamned hot.

But this article isn’t about the weather. It’s about how an awful day left its teeth-marks in the ass of everyone who experienced it, across an entire nation. I don’t know why some people want us to forget it. I don’t know why the media has spent the last ten years keeping footage of the carnage safely off our televisions. Why do we sanitize? For my money, it would be right and proper to make every school child sit and watch the Towers fall and the Pentagon burn, every 9-11 anniversary going forward. To try and remind them, and the rest of us, that our freedoms and our culture and our way of life cannot be taken for granted. That we are not free without cost. That all of us are hated by someone somewhere in the world, and that liberty’s price truly is eternal vigilance. We forgot that once. And it cost us dearly. I pray we never forget it again. Ever.


20 thoughts on “9-11… Ten Years Gone

  1. What an eloquent view, not only into your motivations, but into history. I hadn’t known your military service was prompted by 9-11. Thank you for answering that wake-up call, and taking the responsibility to do something about the condition of the world.

  2. I really envy you. I got a call out of the blue from a JAG recruiter for the Reserves some years back and thought, what the heck, why not? (The staff sargeant helping me fill out my final paperwork looked at the grade I was coming in at, gave that special Oh My God A Brand New Lieutenant eye-roll, and said “Filling these out is the most work you’re gonna do in the Army”.) Sadly, the MEPS folks at that particular installation are extremely picky and determined that my lungs were not up to milspec – a couple years later when standards were dropped they might have taken me, but at that time no go.

  3. That’s a drag, as the Army definitely needs good officers — especially in the technical areas where education and experience from the civilian sector are vitally important. Military law — so far as I understand it — is a bit of a different animal from civilian law, but I am sure you’d have scythed your way to excellence regardless.

  4. Thank you for your service, Brad.
    Mythago, your heart’s in the right place. Some of us don’t get normal tours of duty; I was tossed on the beach with an Honorable/Medical discharge two weeks after becoming a Marine (a bit more than nine months after standing on the yellow footprints.) Watch out for the survivor’s guilt.

  5. I’ve had a few old servicemembers from the Vietnam warn me about survivor’s guilt. I think my father has a bit of that, because he had friends who died in Vietnam and he never had to face the jungle the way they did. He literally wasn’t ever in the hemisphere.

    My plan is for the long haul, so I think my chaplain is correct: the war will find me, some time. I hope I can perform my duty when it happens. If it happens? And thank you, sir, for *YOUR* service. You were a Marine. You passed through the crucible and wore the globe and anchor. Not your fault about the medical discharge. Service is service is service.

  6. Loved this post. I never knew the story behind your service, and this made my respect for you rise immensely. I hope you don’t mind if I link back to you for my post tomorrow.

    Thanks for serving Brad – you’re the real deal

  7. Wow, I had no idea 9/11 is what spurred you to join the military. What a story. I’m glad you stood up and did something.

    I was driving in my carpool to junior high when I found out about the attack. I didn’t even know what the World Trade Center was. Reading about it now still saddens me.

  8. I think the paragraph that most spoke out to me was how you described 9-11 as ‘ripping the world away from me’. I felt the exact same way. In a way I still think we are still in shock.

    Even as closure comes in, the damage is done and it just leaves me feeling impotent and frustrated, like the world’s gone mad. We still reel from the damage. The economy’s a mess, western civilization is more reviled, and our ambitions have been hopelessly diverted. Our hopes for a world that can get along seems more impossible than ever. And I wonder… how can I make it stop?

    I’m glad you found certainty in service with your nation. Me, I’m still stumbling in the wilderness trying to figure out what I should be doing.

  9. Dallas, I think your thoughs are almost excaclty where I am. I could not even watch any of the programs Sunday, and I purposly kept away from any TV in the house all day. For some reason emotionaly, I could not deal with it this year. A lot of it for me is trying to explain to my 14 year old daughter who just got through reading Lord of the Flies for school and her feelings that mankind is doomed by our own stupidity and greed. How can you argue with that with what History shows? Granted for those who have a religious upbriging, we know that is what the world is going forward and that it will get worse before it gets better, but not easy to show your kids calm when inside your heart is wrenched by the pain you see and feel.

  10. Brad – I came accross this article, not out of vanity but out of a requirement in my Staff Course. During our class on Social Media; we were asked… “have you ever googled yourself?”.. what a surprise.
    Your article spoke to me in so many ways; your patriotism is far above most of the so-called steely eyed killers I’ve met through my own 20 + too many years of service.
    I am proud to be involved in your career as a Warrant Officer, the not-so-quiet professional. The one soldier who is always first to tell the Boss “No Sir, I wouldn’t recommend that”. The soldier who doesn’t say “nice shot Sir” but more likely to say “should’ve used the 7-iron”.

    Keep up the hard work, Kiss your wife, hug your kids, and always know you make a difference to soldiers.


  11. Michelle, thank you so much for dropping me a note! In my brief time in the Army I’ve relied on a very select number of people who have guided me in important ways; often without their even knowing it. WOCS intimidated me a great deal, and yourself and Mr. Wise were the best part about the whole experience. I think what stuck with me — above all — is how you challenged each of us Candidates in the Class to step beyond the stripes and to hold ourselves accountable to a higher standard. To rise above the “no excuse” excuse and become the kind of officer who can be creative, adaptive, and ‘own’ problems in ways others either cannot, or will not. I respected your TAC skills and came away from WOCS honored to have passed through your hands. You will forever live in my personal history for this reason, regardless of where each of us goes or where we are in the world. I am grateful for the effort you made on my behalf, to help me become a better soldier, and a better person too.

  12. Charlie, 9/11 really did change my life forever. Ironically, it’s been in thoroughly positive ways so far. Some people say Osama bin-Laden won that day — based on decisions America made afterward, about the war — but if Binny’s goal was to ‘prove’ that America was a land populated by Paper Tigers, I like to think this is one cat who sat up and roared.

  13. Thank you for saying ‘thank you,’ Tom. I don’t anyone in uniform, either part-time or full-time, who doesn’t appreciate it a heck of a lot when someone does that.

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