September 9, 2011
A handful of moments in history forever remind those who lived through them of where they were and what they were doing at the time. The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, provided one of those enduring moments.
The terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., on that late-summer day, in which nearly 3,000 people died, remain etched in the minds of most Americans, including military members and civilians who work at Natick Soldier Systems Center. Some have spent a good part of their lives in a post-9/11 world.
As the 10-year anniversary of the event approached, NSSC personnel paused to share their memories of 9/11 and of the necessary, and often heroic, Americans have made since that day.
Command Sergeant Major Brian Warren, Natick garrison command sergeant major, easily recalled where he was that day.
"I was flying to Texas to the Sergeants Major Academy to attend the First Sergeant Course there," said Warren, "so I was actually in the air when the planes were hitting."
His trip ended prematurely in Chicago.
"All the connecting flights were canceled," Warren said. "Of course, we didn't know why."
Ben Cooper, now a footwear project engineer in the Footwear Performance Laboratory at NSSC, was a high school senior in Warwick, R.I. He was in homeroom when American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston hit the north tower of the World Trade Center.
"And then I went to physics class," Cooper recalled. "My physics teacher had the TV on in the classroom. And we see this plane go directly into the building. We watched it live, right there, and we just could not believe what was going on."
Watching the events unfold, Cooper thought back to a recent trip two of his family members had taken.
"My brother and my mom had just gone to the World Trade Center two weeks earlier," Cooper said. "Two weeks earlier, they were on top of that building."
Word of plane crashes in the nation's capital and in Shanksville, Pa., only increased the confusion and anxiety.
"Planes are dropping out of the sky everywhere," Cooper said. "Is it coming to Rhode Island? Is it coming here? You don't know, in that chaotic situation, who's next. It seemed random. There was so much going on."
Cooper remembered approaching one of his teachers, a Vietnam veteran who had survived two helicopter crashes during that war.
"I asked him, 'Are we going to be OK?'" Cooper said. "He was like, 'I don't know.' He didn't know. I'll tell you, I will never forget that for the rest of my life."
After school that day, Cooper went to cross-country practice.
"I remember just my coach being extremely upset," said Cooper, who discovered that one of that coach's former athletes had been on one of the planes that hit the WTC. He and his new wife were bound for Hawaii on their honeymoon.
Cooper and his teammates eventually went to the young man's memorial service to support their coach.
"There was no casket," Cooper said. "They had a wreath, and that was all that there was. It made me appreciate what I have and to make sure I go for what I really want, because none of us know when it's really going to happen."
Cooper went to the weight room after practice that day and then drove home. He parked the car and sat outside his house in the dark for a while.
"I lived about maybe three miles from the airport," said Cooper, "so there's always air traffic over my house."
Not this night, when that air traffic had been grounded.
"It was completely quiet, and it was so foreign," Cooper said. "It's never been like that, and I hope it never will be like that again. I remember how powerful that moment was."
Now a human research volunteer at Natick, Pfc. Chris McConnell was a high school sophomore in Dallas on 9/11. As he rushed to get ready for school, the TV was on at his home.
"I remember watching the second plane fly into the trade center," McConnell said. "Getting older, I've … been able to understand more and more about what exactly happened and how horrible it really was."
McConnell gained an even more profound appreciation for the event when he traveled to New York City last weekend to visit the WTC site.
"There (were) 90 different countries represented in the towers when they fell," McConnell pointed out. "So it's almost like the strike against America wasn't really just a strike against America. It was almost a strike against the entire world."
Private 1st Class Katie Sullivan, another HRV at Natick, remembered being at a high school field hockey practice in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., that day when a mother came to take pull her daughter out of that practice.
"She was definitely scared, which was understandable after hearing what was going on," Sullivan said of that mother. "It was kind of a wake-up call (for me). It made me more aware of the news."
Ten years after that tragic day, Cooper helps develop footwear that service members use to negotiate the difficult terrain of Afghanistan in a war that began just weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
"It is kind of ironic," Cooper said. "I was in physics class when it all really happened, and now I'm a physical scientist here supporting our armed forces in the same conflict.
"I just can't believe it's been 10 years. It seems like literally … yesterday."
Warren said that 9/11 changed his intensity level as an NCO.
"I realized the challenges that lay ahead," Warren added. "That event, I think, developed me as that leader in that position and gave me a lot of focus. It changed my entire paradigm."
That focus carried Warren through three deployments to Afghanistan, memories of which came back to him as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approached.
"That's really what my mind goes back to," Warren said. "The anniversary helps with that. It helps me stay focused on where we still need to go and what we need to do in the days ahead."