Credit: Peter Kuper,

On the morning of Sept 11, 2001 I was getting ready for work when my wife called me to come see the World Trade Center burning on the news. After watching the second plane slam into the South Tower, I knew instantly it was terrorism and worried it could be a chemical attack. Frantically, I called home to my mother in NYC and found all circuits busy. At the time, I was getting my pilot’s licence and thought I could get home in a rented Cessna, but all flights were grounded and I was stuck in California. Weeks later, I learned my childhood friend, firefighter Angel Juarbe, was killed when the towers came down as he ushered people out of Ground Zero.

I did what many others had done and enlisted in the Army Reserve, looking to be part of the first wave of America’s response for the devastation done to the city I grew up in. This wasn’t my first time in uniform; it was my third. My military career began when I was 18, guarding an Air Force underground nuclear missile launch facility in the midwest during the Cold War. From inside a silo armed with 10 Minuteman III ICBMs pointed at the Kremlin, on Dec 26, 1991, I saw the fall of our greatest enemy, the Soviet Union. I let out a sigh of relief, thinking the world was safe from Communism, World War III, and the potential end of all humanity. My commander’s cynical words that day never left me: “This isn’t over. They’ll be back.”

These days I’m reminded of Nikita Khruschev’s chilling prediction: “We will take America without firing a shot. We do not have to invade the U.S. We will destroy you from within.” The Republican Party suddenly forgot that Putin is ex-KGB and is trained to take down governments through disinformation and conspiracy. When neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville and chanted, “Russia is our friend … The South will rise again,” I realize now what Khruschev meant.

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After my enlistment in the Air Force was over in ’96, I ran to a Coast Guard recruiting station and signed up to get back to the ocean. A kid like me from NYC doesn’t belong landlocked in the middle of nowhere. I spent four years at sea, patrolling the coast from Alaska to Mexico and the Virgin Islands for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. Two weeks before my contract was up, my ship was part of the search and rescue team that responded to Alaska Airlines flight 261 in 2000, when she crashed into the ocean near Anacapa Island. After seeing the horrific aftermath of a commercial airliner up close, I never thought I’d get into a plane again. I started taking flying lessons to get over the fear but never got my license. Instead, 9/11 happened. I became a helicopter mechanic in the Army Reserve, getting helos ready for the first wave into Iraq. I got over the fear real quick because I was in the air every day.

As a Puerto Rican growing up in an Italian neighborhood, I remember my friend Angel protecting me at school from being bullied for being brown. He was older than me and took me under his wing, teaching me that we were American and had every right to be here, no matter how much they told us to “go back over the border.” I joined the service to show the racists in my neighborhood that I loved America just as much as they did.

On this 9/11 anniversary, I always wonder what he would have said about Trump, who calls Hispanics rapists and murderers. We both knew Trump was bad news long ago when the Justice Department sued him and his father for rental discrimination.

Angel and I knew families of color like us who were shunned from living in areas he had property in. I remember how Trump bragged that he now had the tallest building in NYC after the towers came down on my friend that day. Now, he turns a blind eye to Russian interference in our elections because it benefits him.

I know Angel would’ve been angry and resisted the rhetoric of a man who says low-income housing is killing the American dream, because people like us who grew up in low income housing also defend that American dream.

I wonder when Trump’s sons will wear a uniform and prove their patriotism like we have, but that day will never come because they’re all talk and no action, just like bone spurs daddy. Us “losers” know the score, and November 3, we’ll be ready to show you at the ballots.

I know now when I hear right wingers have the nerve to tell me I’m a Communist for my political leanings and tell me if I don’t like America, I should leave, that Angel would have wanted me to dig in and honor his death by letting people know people like us exist and die for this country, too.

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