Many people, and especially my veteran contacts, have been posting and commenting about where they were on this day in 2001. In military circles, I have become an old-timer. Many of the combat veterans’ posts that I have seen mention being in high school or even middle school at the time. There are always a couple of old guys in the group, like me, who were already soldiers on September 11th, 2001.
Like most people, I remember exactly where I was, and I remember a bartender saying to me, “You’re in the army? You’re going to war.”
It was Tuesday morning, and I was on a temporary duty assignment in Boston with a handful of other soldiers.
I didn’t think much about the old bartender’s comment, but I wondered if we would be heading to Ground Zero to help search the rubble and to assist with clean up efforts.
By Sunday night, the 16th, we were on Blackhawk helicopters flying through the darkness, locked and loaded with live rounds and no clue as to where we were going.
When we landed, after making a fuel stop in Pennsylvania, we were welcomed to a small army base in Maryland, and we were told that we would be helping protect certain facilities on the base in the event of a follow-on attack.
We sat for almost 2 months, watching the Chesapeake Bay and other areas, waiting for an attack that never came. We would get our chance though, and it is sad to think of how many of those young soldiers, who were bored in Maryland, have since been killed.
Once the National Guard had been mobilized and prepared, we were relieved of our guard duties and returned to Ft. Drum.
When I think about September 11th, 2001, I remember where I was, but I also think about where I have been since. By Christmas, 2001, I was knee-deep in snow and mud, looking over the sites of a machine gun in Uzbekistan. By March, I was climbing Takur Ghar, in the Shah-i-kot Valley of Afghanistan. Bombs and rockets were exploding on every ridge around us, machine guns in the clouds above us, firing at our aircraft every time they made a pass.
A command sergeant major from 101st told us to pack light because of the elevation and difficult terrain. “See you in three days,” he had said, when we were climbing into the back of 160th SOAR Chinook helicopters.
On about day 5, the weather changed. I sat atop a cliff behind my machine gun in the darkness looking through night vision goggles at the valley floor thousands of feet below. As I sat there, cold, hungry, and tired. Out of nowhere, my face started to sting, like I was being swarmed by angry bees or fire ants. I reached up to take off my helmet and realized that it was snow and sleet that was causing my face to hurt. I was so cold, and I was so exhausted that I hadn’t noticed that I was completely soaked, and it was snowing.
The next morning, the ground was blanketed in snow, and visibility was low. The bombers and attack helicopters were grounded, and we were alone. We were also dangerously low on food. We had started our three-day operation with six MREs per man. Some guys were out after the second or third day, and it was now day six. We were sharing, of course, but everyone was running out. It was probably the first and last time that I was thankful that I had never been thin. Fortunately, there was a stream nearby, where were able to get water. Some guys just packed snow into their canteens and did whatever they could to get it to melt.
That day, our objective was to climb to the top of the mountain. I’d never been mountain climbing before, and this was an extreme introductory course. Most of the platoon dropped their rucksacks and walked up the ridge. Our lieutenant decided he wanted to walk around the side of the mountain and scale its face. My assistant gunner and I had to carry our rucksacks because we needed to carry our ammunition with us. I remember being out of breath from the elevation and the hand-over-hand climbing, and I was glad to finally sit down for a few minutes when our lieutenant stopped us for a break just short of the summit. I did what is called a rucksack flop. I fell backwards onto my thick rucksack, and it felt good to have the weight of the pack off of my shoulders.
“Oh shit! Taylor, you just sat on a grenade,” another soldier exclaimed.
I was so tired that I didn’t bother to move. The guys around me looked like they weren’t sure what to do. “Well, it didn’t go off,” I said. “If it’s going to blow up when I stand up, what’s the difference if it’s now or in five minutes when I’ve rested?” I asked.
We sat. I wasn’t the only one who was exhausted, as no one bothered to move out of the kill zone of that grenade when I got to my feet to move out again. Sure enough, it was an old Russian grenade, and thankfully it was a dud. The pin had been pulled, and it had been thrown at some point during the fighting up there. It just didn’t go off. It reminded me of an old tin toy, like a top or a toy truck, that was pressed in a mold somewhere. I remember thinking that it seemed so cheap, and I was glad that my weapons seemed to be much higher quality.
We climbed higher until we could see over the mountains on the opposite side of the valley. The view went on forever. What an odd thing, to stand on top of a mountain and take in nature’s beauty while the dead bodies of your enemies, twisted and distorted, are scattered around the mountaintop. At one point, I had photos of my friends with the bodies. They were flipping the bird at the corpses or had the barrels of their rifles pointed at their dead faces. I don’t know what happened to the pictures, and I’ve lost contact with some of the friends. A few of them are dead now.
The charred remains of an American helicopter sat atop that mountain, and weapons and first aid equipment were scattered around the wreckage. We weren’t the first Americans to make it to the top.
To be continued…