The Moment My Life Changed Forever

Reflections on September 11th, 2001

Gym Husband is a term for men who exclusively work out together and form a bond over exercise. Most times, gym husbands are around the same age and have similar strength. My gym husband, however, is a 24-year-old athlete who ran decathlon for Louisville. In contrast, I’m former military and enjoy heavy weight and borderline exercise torture. Because of our age gap and athletic backgrounds, one of my favorite pastimes is to pull the same crap all older people do and raise hell about how we “had to walk ten miles in the snow” back in our day. One of my favorite topics to chastise him for is his age at the time of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. He was six and his memories of the event are fuzzy, whereas I was twenty and my flashbacks remain vivid.

Prior to September 11th, I was on a delayed entry program having already completed Basic Training at Ft. Benning’s School of Infantry. With my year long hiatus, I began attending college at Oklahoma State University to knock out core education requisites. The goal was to become a military officer and have the Army pay for my education. If your parents are Baby Boomers, they can probably tell you what they were doing when JFK was shot. If you’re my age, you can remember where you were when the attacks happened on 9/11. I was in college and sleeping off a hangover, trying to ignore repeated calls to my cell phone.

Once I answered, the voice on the other end had a frantic exasperation that drug me out of my slumber. “Benjamin! Turn on the TV! Turn it on now!” Recognizing the familiar voice, I kept my eyes shut and waved my hand in the air to dismiss my mother, though she couldn’t see the gesture.

“Mommmmmm,” I moaned. “It’s eight in the morning. What do you want?” My mother spoke with more force rambling about some plane, New York, and possible attacks. I climbed out of my loft while my roommate requested I politely, “shut the fuck up.” I waved a dismissive arm at him too, then turned on the TV. The image that appeared was of smoke pluming out of the side of World Trade Center’s North Tower and speculative headlines.

“Could have been pilot error, Mom. There are a ton of airports around NYC.” As I finished my sentence, another plane crept onto the edge of the screen and then slammed straight into the other tower, exploding in an orange ball of fire.

There’s a scene in the M. Night Shyamalan movie, Signs, where Joaquin Phoenix’s character leans in toward his television to glimpse an alien. When the news channel finally freeze frames the shot, he loses his mind. My reaction to the tower exploding was oddly on par. I watched a few more minutes in silence while my roommate crept down to ask what was happening. “I’ll have to call you back, Mom.” Then I hung up and ran down the hallway screaming for everyone to wake up and turn on the news.

By September 25th, 2001 I was on a plane headed to the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. Though I was an American soldier, the guards at the gate eyed my ID card and orders suspiciously. Once I got through the checkpoint and arrived at the barracks, the whole process of skepticism started over again. The night watch assigned me a room, and by 1am I was finally able to drag my travel weary body into a bed. Before settling in though, my new roommate woke.

“Oh damn bro. You have hair? Cadre are going to lose their mind in the morning.” After eyeing him warily and ignoring the comment, I introduced myself. He shook my hand, and we exchanged names. Then I asked what to expect.

“We’re at war, bro. They keep reminding us we’re not under TRADOC but Special Operations and not required to give us sleep. They’re training like we’re already overseas fighting the Taliban. Total assholes. And we’re going to be proper fucked in the morning with your high-and-tight haircut.”

He was right. The next morning I was doing push-ups till I puked while singing the ding ding ding di di ding ding’s from the song Ice, Ice Baby. Instructors claimed I looked like Vanilla Ice and even made passing female soldiers stop to admire my haircut.

“Isn’t he hot, ladies!? We have our very own Vanilla Ice! Keep singing, you! Belt it out for me!” The instructor danced around me while rapping the lyrics and acting like he was riding a pony. It didn’t fair well for the rest of my platoon once they started laughing. Soon we were all miserable and puking. I shaved my head later in the day.

Once I graduated, the Army assigned me a language slot at Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA. Upon graduation from language school, I spent three months home before receiving orders to Afghanistan. What began in a small dorm room in front of a TV had come full circle; the events of 9/11 forging a new future and altering my path forever. Nine years after the events of September 11th, 2001 I would finally leave the military, knowing only a decade of war or preparing for it.

A quote attributed to Plato and made famous by General Douglas MacArthur in his farewell address at Westpoint states, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Sometimes I callously wonder if the 2,996 people killed on September 11th got the easy end of the deal when thinking about the quote. Since that fateful day the United States has remained in a state of emergency. Fear, paranoia, and propaganda are now the currency of our culture. Every shoe in the airport is a bomb, and every sporting event is a potential target. Long gone are the days when children rode bikes carefree, miles away from home without their parents wondering if they’ve been snatched. At least the dead are frozen in a time before we succumbed to news cycles of fear mongering and government monitoring. At least their hands once knew a keyboard, pen, or hug in the days before the towers fell, whereas— try as I might to forget—my hands long for the touch of cold, black metal and brass; the curves of a rifle much like the memory of a long-lost lover.

Years before the National September 11th Memorial & Museum opened, my mom went to Ground Zero. She and my grandmother toured New York City and booked a guided tour near the wreckage of Ground Zero. While on the tour, the guide asked my mother a curious question, “What has September 11th cost you?” Puzzled, my mother responded that it had cost her nothing. The people of New York were the ones who felt the aftershock. The guide pressed responding that the events of that notorious day had cost everyone something — even delayed flights at the airport. My mom thought for a moment, and then her face fell.

“My son,” she told the guide. “It’s cost me my son.”

Storyteller | Combat wounded veteran | Metalhead | Designer | Bleeding on a page just makes it more authentic: https://benjaminsledge.com

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