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Lessons, virtues of 9/11 reflected in RTC values and training

10 September 2021

From Alan Nunn, Recruit Training Command Public Affairs

Sharing the lessons of 9/11 – honoring the lives of those lost and the courage and bravery of the first responders who tirelessly worked to save lives – is a critical part of training at Recruit Training Command. Learning about the resilience and fortitude shown by Americans allows future Sailors to understand the virtues of service, sacrifice, and selflessness that have been the source of America’s strength.

GREAT LAKES (NNS) — The sun broke over the Recruit Training Command (RTC) horizon at 0627 on a warm September day.

A buzz of daily activity rose to a familiar hum at the Navy’s only boot camp. Recruits made their racks, filed into the galleys for their morning meal, and marched off to the day’s first training evolutions and appointments.

Seaman Recruit Anthony Frey stood in ranks outside a building that housed the confidence course. Seaman Recruit Michelle Dojan waited at the Recruit Dental Treatment Clinic. In the moments, hours, and days that followed, their lives and the lives of every other American would be shaped by what came next.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, 19 terrorists from the Islamist extremist group al Qaeda hijacked four commercial aircraft and crashed two of them into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center complex in New York City.

A third plane crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.

After learning of the other attacks, passengers on the fourth hijacked plane, Flight 93, fought back, and the plane crashed into an empty field in western Pennsylvania about 20 minutes by air from Washington, D.C.

The Twin Towers in New York City ultimately collapsed due to the damage from the impact at the World Trade Center and subsequent fires. Nearly 3,000 people, from 93 different countries perished. Most of the fatalities were from the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Of the 184 lives lost at the Pentagon, 42 military, civilian, and contractors served the Navy. All 40 passengers on Flight 93 were killed.

It was the worst attack on American soil since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941.

The events of 9/11 serve as both defining and dividing moments.

An entire generation, nearly 30 percent of Americans according to U.S. Census data, was born after Sept. 11, 2001. That generational split is magnified at RTC, where 46 percent of graduates in the last fiscal year were born into a post 9/11 world.

For older Americans and Sailors, 9/11 remains a vivid memory. For younger Americans and Sailors, it is a history lesson.

Sharing that lesson – honoring the lives of those lost and the courage and bravery of the first responders who tirelessly worked to save lives – is a critical part of training at RTC. Learning about the resilience and fortitude shown by Americans allows future Sailors to understand the virtues of service, sacrifice, and selflessness that have been the source of America’s strength.

The Navy careers of both Frey and Dojan have come full circle on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Each has returned to RTC as a staff member helping to forge the next generation of Sailors.

Chief Operations Specialist Frey is assigned to the USS Indianapolis Combat Training Pool. Chief Sonar Technician (Surface) Dojan is a Recruit Division Commander.

They are among seven current RTC staff members who agreed to share their 9/11 stories. Each of them were either at RTC on 9/11 or began their Navy careers in the months immediately following.  

Chief Operations Specialist Anthony Frey

Standing outside of Building 1414, SR Frey looked forward to the indoor confidence course that awaited and to his upcoming boot camp graduation just nine days away.

“You couldn’t look up because there was too much sunlight,” Frey said. “Our RDC said, ‘we don’t know how to tell you this, so we’re just going to turn on the radio.’ We went in and we got to hear a summary through some radio station that the two towers had been hit and it was bad. They knew it was an attack. The radio continued to play while we ran the confidence course.”

Recruits had many of the same questions as other Americans.

Who attacked? Why did this happen? What does it mean?

The answers would have to wait as training continued on Sept. 12 under tight security.

“There were Humvees with .50 cal. mounts and helicopters flying overhead,” Frey said. “I don’t think anyone in my division was scared, but it was more realistic for us. You’re thinking, ‘Hey, we are going to war.’ My RPOC [Recruit Chief Petty Officer] was saying, ‘The RDCs want to go back to the fleet now more than ever.’”

Frey said the mood at graduation was subdued in the wake of the attacks.

“But as recruits just becoming Sailors, we were excited to graduate. It was just a weird, weird time,” he said.

Following graduation, Frey transferred to the main side of Naval Station Great Lakes as an undesignated Sailor and received two weeks of seamanship training before departing for Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), in San Diego.

“We left for deployment within two weeks,” Frey said. “This is a month after I graduated and we did 106 straight days. No port visits. We went straight to Hong Kong, then we were the first ones over in the Gulf of Oman doing air operations over Afghanistan. I’m new, and I’m assuming this is normal, you know. Less than six months before, I ran away from home and joined the Navy, and then there I was.”

Frey, who plans to end what will be a 22-year Navy career when he completes his tour at Great Lakes, said 9/11 was a pivotal point in his life.

“It was the first time in my memory that a life-changing thing happened to the country,” he said. “Now, I’m back here at boot camp as an instructor and I see these 18-, 19-, 20-year old recruits who don’t know about it. They have no memory of it, so they don’t know life before that.”  

Chief Sonar Technician (Surface) Michelle Dojan

As a teenager from a small town in western Wisconsin, Dojan says she didn’t know what she signed up for when she arrived at Navy boot camp.

“I didn’t really know about the military or even the Navy,” Dojan said. “My grandfather – Gunner’s Mate Dewey Hill – was in the Navy in the ’60s. For me, it was more, ‘this is what I have to do to get where I want to in college and life.’ It was just what I had to do.”

Less than three weeks into training, she viewed the 9/11 attacks on television.

“Our division was at dental that day,” Dojan said. “I remember there were two small TVs and, at first, we thought it was a movie, but then we realized it was the news.”

Five days after the 9/11 attacks, she turned 20.

“Even though I didn’t sign up for it, and I didn’t join because of 9/11, I knew that’s the way the nation was going and that we were going to end up in a war,” Dojan said.

Dojan remembers a sense of unease and concern throughout her division.

“The rumors were flying,” she said. “We’re going to get shipped early … we’re not even going to graduate … They’re just going to put us on buses and send us to war. Of course, that wasn’t the case. There was just this anxiety on base. At that time, all the cars were parked between the ships and the buildings. The next day, there were no cars, anywhere. We’re all just wondering ‘what happened?’”

Dojan spent a year at sonar school and was assigned to her first command aboard USS Milius (DDG 69), an Arleigh Burke-class Aegis guided missile destroyer.

“Five months later was the start of the Iraq War,” Dojan said. “We shot like 36 Tomahawks into Iraq. I felt proud to serve and to be doing something that was worthwhile and something for the country.”

Following that tour, Dojan volunteered to return in to Iraq in 2008 and was assigned to work with an Army unit.

“I operated a C-RAM gun – a counter rocket artillery mortar gun,” she said.

She recently marked her 20th anniversary in the Navy in a recruit ship, just as she had her 20th birthday. This time she wore an RDC red rope and shared her experiences.

“I grew up in such a small town, so everything I’ve learned has been in the Navy,” Dojan said. “I left just after high school. My view was just small town, with a whole world that I had never experienced. And now, I have. I’ve done that in the Navy.”

Those experiences include being at boot camp during 9/11.

“I might use it as a teaching point,” she said. “Recruits might be struggling with whatever, and I let them know it could be worse. I went to boot camp and 9/11 happened. As a recruit, you’re here and worried about college money or an extra phone call. You signed up to join a warfighting organization. I want to make sure that they’re prepared, so however I can help them in that process, that’s what I’m concerned about. It’s not about me.”

John Andrews, Water Survival Instructor

Andrews did the only thing only thing he could do on the morning of 9/11.

“I needed to get to work. I got here just as they were shutting everything down,” Andrews said. “They locked it down and I was one of the last people to make it on board. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do, but I knew I was going to be able to do more here than sitting at my apartment watching the news.”

Staff were already busy securing the building and contacting other staff members when he arrived at the combat training pool. On the pool deck, watching it all, were four recruits assigned to the combat training pool during what was then known as ‘Service Week.’”

“We would get the ones that hadn’t yet passed their swim test,” Andrews said. “We would get them in the water for some extra training and we would keep them busy, keeping them tasked. But I could remember everyone scrambling and I could see these four guys just standing against the bulkhead, nobody was telling them anything, they were just watching it go down.”

As he recalls that day and those four anxious recruits, Andrews pauses and his voice cracks.

“It was not my place to say, but I went over and told them, ‘someone has attacked the United States. A lot of people have died.’ I get teared up just talking about it, because I didn’t know what else to tell those guys.”

Following active duty from 1991-95, Andrews went to college and was a Navy reservist. In 1998, a two-week active duty annual drilling stint as a rescue swimmer at the combat training pool transitioned into a nine-month extension. He has continued in the position, first as a contractor and then as part of RTC civilian staff.

The only interruption during the last 23 years was when his reservist unit was activated in 2006.

“I was a gunner’s mate,” Andrews said. “We did small boat operations and security in the United Arab Emirates.”

On 9/11, once everything at the pool was secured and all staff had been accounted for, personnel turned their attention to developments on TV.

“It was just silence,” Andrews said. “Nobody said anything. We were just staring in disbelief. Some took it better than others. Some people broke down … I do, just talking about it. It was an emotional day, yeah. I’m pretty sure I got teary-eyed more than once.”

Machinery Repairman 1st Class Richard Sanchez

On 9/11, two weeks before his 22nd birthday, Sanchez lined up to receive shots at the Military Entrance Processing Center (MEPS) in San Diego.

“Across from me was a TV and I asked the guy in front of me if it was a commercial for a new Die Hard movie,” Sanchez said. “He said, ‘No man, it’s actually real. It’s a real event going on.’ I was just really in shock.”

Sanchez attentively listened to radio updates on the ride home with his recruiter.

“I was nervous, excited, just feeling all kinds of emotions,” he said. “I was actually really set as soon as we left MEPS to get to boot camp and see what I could do to help out.”

Born in Guam, Sanchez and his family moved to California when he was 9 years old. His father, retired Chief Boatswain’s Mate Joselito Sanchez, who served as an RDC at Naval Training Center San Diego, was always an inspiration.

“When I joined, I made it personal that I was going to be in for 20 years, just like my dad,” Sanchez said. “I’ve done a lot of the same duty stations. Without even realizing it, I was actually following his footsteps and became an RDC.”

The years since 9/11 have been a learning experience for Sanchez.

“It’s made me more humble,” he said. “I’m more concerned. It’s broadened my horizon of what is going on in the world because, when you’re young, everything’s going on and you have that tunnel vision where you believe everything around you is safe. When 9/11 happened, that brought everything into a different view. You start looking and realize there’s more things going on in the world.”

His focus on those world events sharpens each anniversary of 9/11.

“I reference back to it every year,” Sanchez said. “There’s always a threat out there. And we, as Sailors, are on the front lines. You are keeping the country safe. You should be proud to serve and proud that you’re in the greatest force in the whole world.”

Chief Gunner’s Mate Tyler McCoy

Four months before 9/11, McCoy entered the Navy’s Delayed Entry Program as a high school senior.

He arrived at RTC more committed and determined to serve in November 2001.

“I was at a dental appointment, so I wasn’t in school when the attack happened,” said McCoy, an RDC who is assigned to scheduling in the Military Training Department during his recruit training period. “So I watched it happen on the news. My thought was, I’m going to go defend the country. I’m going to possibly do something good for this country.”

Like many others stunned by the sudden and violent events, McCoy initially struggled to come to terms with 9/11.

“Looking back, I don’t think I really knew the bigger picture of what it was or what it meant,” he said. “Just knowing that we had been attacked by terrorists was a big thing because nothing like that had happened in my lifetime.”

McCoy said world events, beginning with 9/11, have shaped his 20-year Navy career.

“It’s helped me get ready for where I am today,” he said. “That day, and all the other tragedies that have happened since, you learn from them and move on with the knowledge that things can happen. Today might be the last because you never know what is given.”

It is that lesson and knowledge McCoy shares with recruits.

“Every push, it’s something that’s brought up as a way to bring them together and refocus the division through Navy history and the knowledge that it can happen again,” McCoy said. “The passengers who brought the jet down in Pennsylvania worked as a team so that plane didn’t hurt anyone else. To have that courage to stand up to terrorists and the commitment to follow it through, even though they knew what it meant, it plays into our core attributes of honor, courage and commitment.”

Senior Chief Cryptologic Technician (Collections) Johann Tonnessen

Tonnessen was born in Brooklyn, raised in Staten Island and lived in Manhattan’s West Village, just a few train stops north of Ground Zero.

On the morning of 9/11, he finished an overnight shift at the Fulton Fish Market and had slept for a few hours when his girlfriend woke him to say a plane had just hit the North Tower. Shortly after, a friend who worked at a nearby airport in Newark, New Jersey, called to tell him the impact was intentional.

“I had a clear view of everything going on and I realized that I was 22-, 23-years old and that would have been a terrible way to end,” Tonnessen said. “I was just sitting on the couch, doing nothing with my life and realized that the Navy was a good way to just do something about what had happened. So it was a nice combination of being angry about what happened and having a way to get my life in order at the same time.”

Tonnessen was at the recruiter’s office in Times Square several weeks after 9/11 and arrived at boot camp in January 2002.

He remembers graduating with a large number of recruits from New York and surrounding states.

“Back then, it wasn’t just ‘be prepared,’” Tonnessen said. “You knew you were going to sail over there and be in this, so that was kind of different. It was definitely talked about a lot because everyone knew we’re going to go do something.”

His Navy career includes a six-month ground tour in Afghanistan in 2008 and three aircraft carrier deployments to the Persian Gulf.

What started as a coming-of-age course correction has become a 20-year Navy career.

“I thought I’d get some real-world experience and maybe some discipline, things like that,” Tonnessen said. “But then I found that I just started enjoying it, and it all just kept lining up and I kept having another reason to stay in. There’s been a lot of reflection – coming in and how long ago that feels, but how fast it went.”

As an RDC, Tonnessen shares a bit of his personal experience with recruits.

“In the beginning, you try to tell them only so much,” he said. “But as they progress and they’re closer to graduation, we can open up a little more and I might share where I was and what I saw on 9/11. I saw all the chaos. I never thought I was the type of person who could be the one going into that mess to help others and now I am because of the training I got here and what the Navy has done for me.”

Senior Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) Michael Steinbeck

“9/11 was the reason I joined the Navy.”

On the morning of 9/11, an 18-year-old Steinbeck walked into his college freshman literature class and there, on a big screen, was an image of the North Tower in flames. Before he could sit down, the South Tower was struck.

“I was like, all right, I want to fight,” Steinbeck said. “I immediately turned around, got in my car and went straight to the recruiter. I signed up on Sept. 11 and on Oct. 17, I went to boot camp.”

Returning to RTC 20 years later to train recruits was an important career point for Steinbeck, who is on his final tour.

“I wanted to end where I started,” he said. “It was just a personal thing for me. I volunteered to come here. I wanted to try to make a difference, put some of my legacy into the recruits so hopefully, they can have as good of a career as I have.”

Steinbeck said it’s important that recruits understand their reason for joining the Navy.

“Why are you here? My story is a little bit unique and I try to make them understand there’s a reason you’re here,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s kind of hard to relate to kids who weren’t even born yet. They’re coming here for education or whatever, and at some point somebody says, ‘You’re a warfighter.’”

Steinbeck served on Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) during the start of the Iraq War. He returned to Iraq in 2009 for a ground tour attached to the U.S. Army, and more recently completed a deployment to the Persian Gulf before his return to RTC.

“We’ve got to keep 9/11 alive. We can’t forget about it,” Steinbeck said. “We can’t forget about something so tragic that hit our country. We have to keep teaching it in schools and the military and let everyone know the importance of 9/11. We can’t let that piece of history disappear.”

Boot camp is approximately eight weeks and all enlistees into the U.S. Navy begin their careers at the command. Training includes physical fitness, seamanship, firearms, firefighting and shipboard damage control along with lessons in Navy heritage and core values, teamwork and discipline. More than 40,000 recruits train annually at the Navy’s only boot camp.

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