Nimitz Sailors Remember 9/11
Reflections on one of America's most tragic days
History is a collection of single events, like puzzle pieces, which, when pieced together, paint a picture of a group of people, a nation, or a culture. School children learn about various pieces of their personal, cultural, global and national puzzle; history teachers lecture on how those pieces fit together to make one giant picture.
Occasionally, though, there are single pieces that are so big, so significant, they can entirely change the shape of the puzzle, or the picture being constructed. These events leave individual fingerprints on the pages of the history books of a nation, a generation, or even a global community.
Our grandparents could recite an impressive list: the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; the attack on Pearl Harbor; the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr; the fall of the Berlin Wall. Of this list, only one event is comparable to the single most significant event of the 21st Century: Pearl Harbor.
Sixty years after the last violent attack by an outside group on American soil, Americans watched as terrorists flew two hijacked airplanes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Another plane flew into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a final plane crashed in Pennsylvania, as passengers battled the hijackers for control of the jet.
"I turned on the TV to watch 'The Today Show' and I was watching the TV with our five-year-old daughter when the second plane hit," said Capt. John J. Cummings, executive officer of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68).
Nearly everyone in America, if they are old enough, can recall where they were and what they were doing on 9/11. Not everyone had the same initial reaction as Cummings.
"It was clear at that point that we were attacked," he said. "We knew that our ship would be a major player in the events to follow. It was obviously not an accident, and I knew that we were at war."
Cummings was an aviator in the Diamondbacks of Strike Fighter Squadron (VF) 102 on board the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) at the time. A scheduled deployment was seven days away for Cummings and the crew when the tragic events on 9/11 took place.
"We started flying over Afghanistan Oct. 25, 2001, and we went all the way through March," said Cummings. "We did 159 days straight at sea - didn't pull in. We'd do two weeks straight of flying, then take two days off."
For Cummings, flying over Afghanistan brought many new experiences and challenges.
"I remember doing things over the skies of Afghanistan thinking it was something I would never do," he said. "I thought I would never do talk-ons with a guy on the ground delivering weapons in close proximity to friendlies. There we were, [in the] middle of November doing that."
Flying over the skies of Afghanistan was also the first time Cummings had to think about being shot down.
"On the first mission we dropped four weapons, but before we dropped that fourth I looked over at my wingman, and still to this day I remember looking out and seeing what looked like small, red balloons right behind him as he was flying," Cummings recounted. "I asked him if he was putting out flares, and he said 'no.' That's when it dawned on me: they're trying to kill us, these folks on the ground. I kind of got a little nervous because I hadn't really thought about that before that point."
For Cummings, that flight ended in a unique and meaningful landing.
"I remember looking up on the bridge of the ship and seeing the flag that had been there at the World Trade Center, flying from the yardarm," Cummings said.
The American flag flying on the Roosevelt had been photographed in an iconic image of 9/11. The photograph shows three firemen standing in the rubble of the twin towers, hoisting an American flag up a flagpole.
"It was hanging right there on the island of the ship," said Cummings. "I remember looking up and starting to get choked up and thinking, 'wow.' I mean, the first mission is complete, we just dropped 8,000 pounds of weapons in support of the guys on the ground. Then coming back, that flag staring you in the face kind of brought it all home. This is why we are here. I finally got my chance to pay back the loss of American lives with that mission and it just made me feel incredibly proud."
Two of his personal friends were on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to crash into the twin towers. As a way to honor his friends, he wrote the names of each on two 500-pound laser guided weapons. On his second night of flight operations, Cummings dropped a bomb for his college classmate Peter Goodrich, and one for Brian "Moose" Sweeney, a fellow aviator from Strike Fighter Squadron (VF) 211.
Before dropping the bombs, Cummings took a photo of each to send to the families of his friends. According to Cummings, this was a fairly common practice among the pilots in his squadron.
"It gave some of those families a bit of closure," he said. "They got to know their guys were giving a little bit of pay back to the bad guys."
Cummings and his crew were responsible for ensuring the safety of troops on the ground, as well as taking out targets to allow ground forces to maneuver.
"Throughout the next three or four months you start recognizing individual call signs," said Cummings. "You would recognize voices like Tiger2A, for example. He was a guy we worked with extensively around Kandahar. Every day we'd watch him on the chart. He'd get a little closer and closer to an objective. We would support him the whole way by dropping weapons and destroying targets for him."
That particular mission ended up having a personal impact on Cummings when the Roosevelt, after 159 days at sea, finally pulled into Bahrain for a port visit. While at a bar with some of his friends, Cummings heard a voice he recognized.
"This young Air Force guy - a young E-5 - was the ground FAC [forward air controller]," Cummings said. "We met him and the whole air wing just jumped him. To get to physically look at the guy you talked to on the radio for four months in a very dangerous environment was pretty unbelievable. He didn't pay for many drinks that night."
Cummings has done three other deployments since his time on board the Roosevelt. Each deployment has been a little different for him - different ships, different crews, different roles in which he serves. None of his other deployments have been as influential as his tour flying over Afghanistan.
"That was the best deployment I've ever been on," Cummings said. "I still think about it. Every couple days I remember those missions and think they were very exciting, very rewarding to do something directly in support of our country as we were attacked."
CONTINUING TO FIGHT
"My mother has told me that there are people out there who will do whatever it takes to harm those whom they do not like," said Aviation Ordnanceman Airman Bryan Perry. "Despite differences and human nature, they will go to extreme lengths to harm them, and that's exactly what these people did."
Perry speaks gently as he recollects where he was on the day America stood still. He is a baby-faced man, who looks much younger than his 20 years. Though quiet, there is an earnest and sincere tone in his voice. Perry understands the impact his craft has on the War on Terrorism.
"I am an aviation ordnanceman," Perry said. "We assemble bombs, man the magazines and perform maintenance on all weapons in the armory. We load, build and store all munitions that have anything to do with the aircraft and the carrier itself. We put warheads on foreheads."
Perry chose his job in the military, and does it with a purpose.
"As the years went by, and the anniversary of 9/11 kept coming, I kept thinking 'What can I do to help?' and 'what could I have done to improve the situation?'" Perry said. "Now, I feel that it's another reason I serve in the military because I wanted to make a difference."
Perry, of course, is not alone among his shipmates. Others of Nimitz' crew have devoted themselves to lifestyle which commits itself to excellence and the fair treatment of all.
"There's not a complete day when I don't think about what happened or all the steps that we've taken as service members to get to this point," said Seaman Wallace Garlington, of Nimitz' Deck Department.
Garlington lost an aunt and a cousin in the 9/11 attacks.
"I asked my dad, what was going to happen to all of the people who were on that plane," Garlington said. "He told me they all had died, and I remember it was a really big deal. We later found out that my cousin and my aunt were on that plane."
"My mom was bawling her eyes out while she was explaining it to me, and I didn't realize it until a couple of days later when they actually started giving the body counts and getting the families to try to identify the bodies," Garlington said. "That was my family that was in there."
Garlington's grandfather had been a Navy SEAL before they were known as SEALs. He passed away very shortly after 9/11, but not before he could give Garlington some advice.
"He said, 'I think you'd be great for the teams. Remember how I told you about all the running and gunning I did with my buddies? Well they have that out there, and it's in the Navy,'" Garlington recounted. "Now they are called SEALs, and I'm currently working on my package to try to become one."
Like Pearl Harbor before it, the attacks of 9/11 changed the face of our nation - even of the globe. It set into motion a war that has been going on for over a decade, the longest war in American history. It impacted the lives of children who grew up to serve in the military, and it changed the way the military functions on a day-to-day basis. For some, 9/11 served as a reminder for why our country needs a strong military. For others, it gave a pronounced reason to remain vigilant in the fight for freedom and democracy.
"Most kids, when they tell their parents that they want to join the military, their parents would try to dissuade them from it," Perry said. "Growing up during the war made it harder for me to convince my parents that I wanted to join the military and seek their approval, but it never dropped my determination. If anything, it inspired me to work harder for it."