2005

A Plebe's Perspective on the Day that Changed the Military

By Captain A.M. Boyle, USMC '05

We were freshman then, but at the Naval Academy they called us “plebes”. The term was a deviation from a Latin root referencing our “low order” in the service academy chain of command. The term was a reminder that we’re the lowest in the leadership hierarchy. With that, however, is the expectation that during the year we’d grow into leadership roles; bonding as a class through our experiences. This particular morning I wasn’t thinking about the end of the year, but just hoping to make it to the end of the week. It was first period and I was in the first row, first seat in my Calculus class with Lieutenant Commander Fontana. He was an extremely fair teacher who taught me as much about calculus as he did leadership. The class was ending as he passed back quizzes from the previous week. I held my breath as he handed me mine.

“Midshipmen Boyle, what happened?” LCDR Fontana asked me as he placed my quiz on my desk. Next to each problem was the acronym “DTMS”. I didn’t recognize the acronym, and was too embarrassed to ask what it meant. Feeling deflated, I sunk a little lower in my seat thinking this was only the 3rd week of the academic year. I approached him as the period ended and asked about the four letter word. “ ‘Does this make sense’ – let’s do some extra instruction when you’re free”. I would see this acronym throughout the semester, and rarely had time for “E.I.”. I was putting in long hours, and still getting very poor grades. This wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last, time I questioned, “Am I at the right school?” Six week grades would soon be out, and my academic performance was pretty abysmal.

Disenfranchised with my quiz score, I packed my bag and hustled out the door toward my next class. Due to the brief conversation with my teacher, I was running late for Naval Leadership. Life was designed to be a little more difficult that year. Because I was a plebe, I was only allowed to take certain walkways to class. Again, the thought was these “stressors” would build resilience and other valuable traits that would be needed to confront myriad challenges as a commissioned officer in the Navy or Marine Corps.

 At face value, becoming an officer and leading sailors and Marines didn’t seem so “challenging”. In my former civilian life, I held leadership positions in school, on the athletic field, and in the community. How could leadership be hard? Furthermore, the last major war was over 30 years ago. I was going to be late, and decided I would ignore the rules and take the most direct route; briskly walking towards the building in the distance.

“BOYLE!” – I cringed and turned, certain I was busted for taking this path. It was one of my buddies on the football team. “A plane crashed into a building in New York City,” he said. It didn’t register, but suddenly I noticed a buzz in the air and became keenly aware of the various midshipmen all interacting with each other and talking nervously back and forth. This shocking news coupled with the failed quiz in my bag, being late for class and questioning my own academic abilities contributed to an overwhelmingly desperate feeling. I began running across “the yard” to my next class; weaving between the pockets of midshipmen slowly gathering to discuss this tragedy.

I burst through the class door and saw the projection screen pulled down; a smoldering high-rise building was split open; smoke billowing out between the tangled steel of the crater left behind. The reporter was saying something about a plane, but it sounded more confusing against the backdrop of chaos in the streets. The entire class was standing awestruck; eyes glued to the images on the screen of faces smeared with ash and covered in debris. I distractedly listened as one of my classmates tried explaining to me what happened. Suddenly another plane came into view. It appeared it also was destined for the same building and would certainly crash if it didn’t alter its course. What the hell was happening? 

More smoke and flames poured from the World Trade Center, as people fell to their death, then news that something similar happened about 30 miles from us at the Pentagon. The officer in charge of class instructed us to report back to our rooms and standby for further guidance. I walked back to Bancroft Hall to the isolated silence of my room on 8-4. I stared out at the bay and noticed that no one was out running or doing pull-ups on the field; an anamoly. All midshipmen were in their rooms awaiting directions to be passed over the 1MC. I oscillated between a state of acute clarity in sensing that this must’ve been coordinated and yet completely befuddled as to the uncertainty this applied not only in my life, but what it meant for America. The cornerstone of our defense institution had been attacked in conjunction with what occurred in New York. The only feeling I could sense was a fear of the unknown.

The next few days evaded me. The mood was sullen and it was even more challenging to stay focused in school. My grades further declined. I couldn’t help but feel useless. I spoke to LCDR Fontana and told him that I thought I was wasting my time. He listened to my concerns and urged me to stay focused. I remember calling my dad and saying I wanted to drop out and enlist in the Marine Corps. That weekend, my brothers visited me at my sponsor’s house.

 By now we had all learned what happened that day. We were all so angry and upset, and I didn’t know how to channel it. One of my brothers said, “What are we going to do about this?” I was struggling enough in school and academia seemed so trivial compared to everything else going on in the world. Over the phone, my dad reinforced the sentiments of LCDR Fontana and my other professors. He told me to be patient and kept reassuring me that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing; training to be an officer in the military. He urged me to keep studying and working hard. Later, the Commandant (then Colonel) John Allen spoke to the Brigade in Alumni Hall telling us we were “a nation at war”, and that we the audience, would be leading on the front lines of this war. This was a powerful sentiment (and unbeknownst to everyone, he would be right there with us at the epicenter of both conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; continuing to lead and inspire ).

The next week, one of the Brigade chaplains, LTJG Muldowney, visited me. I didn’t think much of it. He had been a confidant throughout the better part of Plebe Summer, and like me, was also from Pennsylvania. He and the other chaplains had been busy making rounds inquiring how everyone was coping. We spoke briefly about seemingly mundane topics. Then, right before leaving, he asked me if I would escort the wife of a recently deceased alumna to the Academy chapel on campus that Sunday. I probably agreed before I really understood what he was asking. As I responded “Yes sir”, the gravity of what he just asked me set in. I would be escorting the wife of a junior officer who had been killed in the attacks. His name was Lieutenant Jonas Panik, and he was killed at the Pentagon on 9/11. As chaplain Muldowney left, I felt humbled, and honored that he would consider me up for this task. It was the least I could do. I won’t ever forget that morning.

I met his wife and family early Sunday morning. I was amazed that she appeared no older than my sisters.  She seemed tired, yet somehow completely stoic. It was hard to believe someone so young was now a widow. Throughout the morning I was struck by her resolve. I led her and her other family members, around the yard before going to the chapel. I escorted them down the aisle as the organ played, and couldn’t help but think that the last time she may have walked down the aisle with someone in uniform it was a completely different scenario. I took my seat behind her family and thought how her life, like so many others, had forever changed.

It was a solemn memorial honoring Lieutenant Panik and the lives of so many others lost in the attacks.  It seemed like the entire Brigade, to include company officers, staff, professors, coaches, custodians, and the town of Annapolis was in that chapel. There wasn’t a set of dry eyes in the group. At one particular point, tears started streaming down my face. Embarrassed, I stepped to the back of the chapel to compose myself. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was an older gentlemen, a Navy Captain whom I recognized, but did not know. His eyes assured me that we all felt this pain, but like Mrs Panik, we were a strong nation and would overcome this tragedy together. It was so reassuring, and for whatever reason in that moment it seemed possible. Afterwards, I walked Mrs. Panik to the gate where we said our goodbyes. I felt so hollow as I stood there at a loss for words, yet oddly overwhelmed with a sense of inspiration.

I walked back to my room on 8-4 with a brewing sense of urgency, sat down at my desk, and with a permanent marker wrote the name “Lieutenant Jonas M. Panik” inside my military cover, the uniformed hat all servicemen wear. I now understood why I was here; to lead and to serve in the military. I looked at the name and felt a deep sense of purpose.

Thinking back on this, it’s almost as if it were another life ago. Yet tomorrow, I will begin the morning like I did on September 10th and September 12th. I will put on my military uniform as I have since I entered and graduated from the Naval Academy. I will wear my desert camouflage utilities - the same type of cammies I wore on my deployments to Iraq, or when I went to India after the Mumbai attacks. I will go to work in Bethesda, Maryland and walk around the hospital at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Invariably, I will talk to the young sailors and Marines; excited to hear about the strides they are making with their new prosthetics, and how their life is continuing forward even though they have incurred severe wounds fighting this “global war on terror”. This “battlefield” is the other side of combat, where our young warriors return from the fighting in Afghanistan; bringing peace to the same terrain where the 9.11 attacks were planned.  I will work with the rest of the staff to help mentor, guide, and lead these men as they continue their fight, forging ahead with their new lives, learning to walk again, and continuing to live with their new normal. They are a microcosm of our great nation. In unison these wounded veterans, my plebe class, and our nation’s actions manifest the fortitude displayed on 12 September showing the world we will not quit, we will not yield, we will not tolerate those imposing harm on others.

Interacting with these young heroes reminds me of the events that transpired on 9/11: 2,753 lives lost on a seemingly normal morning at ground zero, 1221 victims still unidentified, 246 passengers thinking they would land, 343 courageous firefighters striving to save others, 60 dutiful police officers, numerous first responders and port authority personnel, and since approximately 6,000 veterans who honored their commitment to defend the constitution against all enemies. These heroes, and the men and women serving overseas, knew the course of their life journey had altered that day. They stand willing; ever vigilant knowing that we are a nation at war and willing to risk their lives so that others don’t have to live in fear. This sense of courage and duty continues to inspire, humble, and guide me in my life.

During the fall, winter, and spring of 2001, our plebe class grew stronger. We had to. In the same way, our nation also became unified in our resolve. This courage is embedded in our culture and captured in our teachers, firefighters, statesmen, police officers, veterans and myriad other leaders. It can be witnessed on any given day at the hospital where I work as young men and women relentlessly push themselves during their recovery, rehab, and reintegration. I learned many leadership lessons at the academy and over the years in the fleet. The one that rings most true is that America’s great strength is in her people and in times of duress, we will support and strengthen each other. Remember 9.11, and how you felt then – committed to make a difference. Live your life honoring those who gave their tomorrow for your today. “Let’s roll”.

Captain Boyle is a Company Commander/Wounded Warrior Battalion East, Marine Liaison Office located in Bethesda, Maryland.

 

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