On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was awakened by my sister running out of her bedroom, crying out, “They’re attacking New York! They’re attacking New York!” I sprang from my bed and rushed to the living room to turn on the television. I saw the image of one of the towers an airplane had hit. The impact had made a crater on the side of the building. Dark smoke was pouring out of it. My mother, sister, brother, and I gathered around the television. We couldn’t understand what we were seeing. We were asking ourselves the same questions: Was this an accident? How could a plane fly into such a tall building by accident?
We watched the second airplane fly into the second tower of the World Trade Center. We gasped in disbelief. This wasn’t an accident; this was deliberate. In the following hour, news of two more hijacked commercial planes was confirmed. One had crashed in an empty field in Pennsylvania, and the other had been deliberately flown into the Pentagon.
I couldn’t stop watching the news, and by the evening, I had fallen into a mournful state from the tragic images of the day. The scenes of women fleeing from Ground Zero, with their high-heeled shoes in their hands, trying to outrun the smoke and ash from the collapsing towers, burned into my mind.
This country has given my family the opportunity for a better life. My mother had come to the United States from Mexico in 1976 as an illegal immigrant. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which gave amnesty to undocumented immigrants like my mother. She became an American citizen and for 43 years worked as a housekeeper in the affluent neighborhood of Montecito, California. Her employers treated her with respect and paid her above-average wages with benefits. The United States had given her the opportunity to make a living and seek her American dream.
Watching the images on the screen, I knew we were going to respond with force as a country. I also knew that I had to respond as a citizen. I needed to show my gratitude for the opportunities that this great country has given to my family. So, in April 2003, I enlisted in the U.S. Marines as a rifleman in the infantry. I was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, Golf Company, and I deployed to Ramadi, Iraq, in 2004 and 2007.
During firefights in Iraq, whenever I started to feel sorry for myself, I would conjure images from that terrible day, of people who had gotten stuck in the top floors of the towers because the floors below them were burning. These were innocent civilians who had gone to work that morning, as on any other day, never imagining that they would be faced with making the unthinkable choice of either jumping to their deaths or being burned alive.
Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11. The generations too young to have experienced the gut punch of that day may not be aware that the attacks were the reason we began a bombing campaign in Afghanistan. On August 31, 2021, the last U.S. service member left Afghanistan, signifying the end of America’s longest war. For me, as a veteran, Memorial Day and 9/11 are days of reflection. They are days when I remember the veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice and the innocent victims and first responders whose lives were lost that Tuesday morning. I will never forget 9/11 and its impact on my life.