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Bearkats Share Stories In Wake Of 9/11 Anniversary

Aug. 9, 2011
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt

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On Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans witnessed something that had never happened in their lifetimes: a large-scale attack by a foreign entity on American soil.

As the 10th anniversary of the attack that changed the country approaches, Sam Houston State University will commemorate the nearly 3,000 lives lost, including responders, in the four airplane crashes.

The event—which will include the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, the University Police Department, the Huntsville Police Department, the Huntsville Fire Department, Walker County Constable’s Office, Emergency Medical Services, and the Department of Public Safety—will be held on Friday, Sept. 9, from 9:45-10:10 a.m. in Bearkat Plaza.

“We wanted to host the event on Sept. 9 instead of the actual date because we want people to remember the event throughout their weekend and to give special recognition on Sept. 11,” said Maggie Collum, director for University Events. “This event has touched the lives of all Americans, and we don’t want to take away from the memorial services that will be held all over the nation on Sept. 11, but instead we want it to begin a weekend of remembrance.”

SHSU’s commemoration event will include performances by the SHSU band, a welcome and recognitions by university President Dana Gibson, the presentation of colors by the SHSU Army ROTC, and a city perspective by Huntsville Mayor Jay Turner.

In addition, cannons will be fired at the times when the World Trade Center Towers were hit (8:46 and 9:01 a.m., respectively), when the Pentagon was hit (9:45 a.m.), when the first tower fell (9:59 a.m.), when the airplane crashed in Pennsylvania (10:03 a.m.), and when the second tower fell (10:28 a.m.).

Commemorative bracelets also will be handed out throughout the week.

As with many events that strike a nation so profoundly, SHSU students, administrators, and faculty remember where they were when they heard about the attacks. When asked where they were, what their thoughts about the attacks were then and how they impacted their lives, many members of the SHSU community were quick to respond with stories of how, even though many were not directly impacted, the event has had resounding ramifications on their lives.

What we found was that what started out as initial confusion has become, 10 years later, something that has affected each individual in very unique ways, as seven Bearkats drew different conclusions from the experience, tying the event to their lives in an attempt to make sense of the tragedy.

In their own words, their stories are below.

See, also, the SHSU-produced 9/11 memorial video here.

Joseph Anderson
Senior double marketing and management major
From Houston

I was actually in middle school in class when I heard about the crashing of the planes into the Twin Towers. My initial thought when I heard about the occurrence was inquiring if the pilot had fallen asleep. After learning that it was a terrorist attack on America, I was honestly shocked that someone could really build the courage to fly a plane of innocent individuals and themselves into a building. I honestly was at a lost for words and didn't know what to do or think. A lot of kids actually left school early that day, but my parents told me I would be safer at school, which I didn't understand. The fact that I was so young when this tragedy took place, I couldn't do anything but pray for the families and their loved ones.

The impact that this event had on my life was that life is short, live each day to the fullest as if each day could be your last. It made me ask myself what legacy do I want to leave behind when my life has come to an end. Because God is such a major part of my life, it also let me know that he has a overall plan for me and my individual life.

(Today) Sept. 11 to me is just a mindset of constant and continuous prayer. What I really found interesting was the fact that America as a country came together, and everyone was singing "God Bless America." I haven't heard that song since, or seen the unity that occurred. Does it take for a tragedy to happen for everyone to become united is a major question that I always ask myself.

Kelli Arena
Dan Rather Endowed Chair
Currently resides in Washington, D.C.

I was on my way to work at CNN that morning when I received a call from the assignment desk telling me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I was confused—I covered terrorism, why would they be calling me about a plane crash? The assignment editor told me that the crash looked very odd, almost as if the pilot had crashed into the tower on purpose. I tried to navigate the traffic a bit faster, when I got another call. I was told that another plane crashed into the second tower. I immediately got on the phone with the FBI and was told the U.S. was under attack. I called CNN and without being told, I was patched into live coverage. I told my colleagues and the world that the FBI was trying to get personnel on the ground and that this was officially being declared a terrorist attack.

When I got to the bureau, our pentagon staff were on speakerphone telling the newsroom that the building had been hit and they were evacuating. It was very frightening. CNN had decided to park a truck outside our parking garage just in case someone decided to try to get in with a car bomb. As an international news organization, it was well within the realm of expectation that we might be a target. I was very pregnant at the time and remember worrying about whether I could run quickly if I needed to. Minute by minute the situation got worse. We got a call from our Capitol Hill reporters telling us they were headed to an undisclosed location; same from the White House and state department CNN personnel. Then, the most horrible thing happened. I got a call from someone telling me that the Solicitor General's wife was on a plane with hijackers. Apparently, Barbara Olson had telephoned her husband asking him for advice on what to do. The plane she was on ended up crashing in Pennsylvania. At the same time, I had friends and relatives who were first responders in New York City. It was hard to keep focused on the coverage and worry about them at the same time. I was one of the first reporters to read the names of the hijackers on the air. The Arabic names were difficult to pronounce, and attaching names to that kind of evil was profound.

More than most, I was submerged in a new world after 9-11. I quickly became a terrorism expert, with access to sensitive reports from around the world. It was hard not to be paranoid. I lost people I was close to in the attacks. I was born and raised in NYC, so to look at that skyline without the towers is still disorienting. Soon after 9-11, I covered the anthrax attacks. It was clear the world would never be the same. Living in Washington, D.C., was very different from living in Huntsville, Texas. Life is very different. It takes forever to get into a federal building, streets are permanently blocked, the police presence more visible. Plus, Washington, D.C., remains a top target. That is always in the back of my mind. I felt like I lived through the attacks again while I covered the Zaccarias Moussaoui trial. I heard gruesome testimony from people who worked at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Everyone in the courtroom relived that horror. What's more, I covered the terrorism hearings at Guantanamo bay and saw the alleged 9-11 mastermind up close.

I can't believe a decade has passed. I remember each moment so vividly. I guess if you live outside NY or D.C., it doesn't resonate as much. We lived it. We still live it. The anniversary is a reminder that our freedoms cannot be taken for granted. We can never let our guard down. Each time I fly to Texas and remove my shoes, or throw out my liquids, I am reminded of the shoe bomber or various plots to blow up airliners. But I will not stop traveling. I will continue to fly around the world. I will go to places that are considered dangerous. I will continue to shine a light on the issue and not allow the terrorists to win.

Wendy Hanks
English graduate student
From Houston

On Sept. 11th I was in a doctor's office taking the final test that would show that I can't have children. It was already a pretty stressful day. I had been trying for almost a year to get pregnant and this was the last chance. When the first plane hit, I was in the waiting room. We thought it was an accident—like a Cessna maybe hit the Trade Center accidentally. When the second plane hit, I was having the very unpleasant test done by a very nice doctor whose brother lived in NYC. As soon as that second plane hit, I thought we are at war. No idea with whom, but our country was under attack. We were all positive that other cities would be hit and glued ourselves to the TV. Watching everything that unfolded that day was surreal. My grandmother said it felt like Pearl Harbor. Good comparison, but we knew who attacked us back then. It took a while to find who crashed those planes and most of the people I knew had never heard of Al-Qaeda.

So, that day was the worst day of my life, both personally and as an American. Since then, I have often felt unsafe, and I am aware that there is nothing I can do to protect myself. I have adopted two children since then and they have never known a world without the threat of terror attacks. We weren't safe before Sept. 11th, but the illusion that we were was nice.
On the anniversary, I don't feel panicked like I did that day, but I have a deep feeling of sadness that the world has to be this way. Bin Laden is dead and nothing has changed. There are still a lot of people out there who work every day to destroy America, and that's disturbing.

Courtney Laskowski
Senior mass communications major, with an emphasis in broadcast journalism
From Poth, Texas

Just before the second plane crashed into the second tower, our school librarian, without knocking, came into Miss Liska’s sixth grade science class and whispered something into my teacher’s ear. Miss Liska grabbed her mouth in shock and swiftly ran over to the television and put on the news feed of what was happening in New York. Now for myself and the rest of the 11 and 12 year olds in the class, we had no idea what the Twin Towers were. No one in our class had been to New York City to see the vast skyscrapers. No one had any gasp of realization that they had a family member working there or knew a rescuer attending the attack. In a day before Google on cell phones, no one could pull up a picture of what they had even looked like before, all we could understand was this was an attack on our nation. In fact as a sixth grader, I was elated to not have to learn about the normal subjects that day and just watch television. Once I got home though, the news was still on and my parents would not let us change it. We heard over and over, “Kids, this is history. You’re watching history. You’re a part of it now.” My parents answered the questions I had that I had been to shy to ask at school, and I realized that I lived very close to a lot of military bases in San Antonio. This frightened me. I knew people in San Antonio. I had aunts, uncles, and cousins living in San Antonio. And if there was one message I kept hearing, whether from my parents or news anchors, was that this could happen again and fast. I was terrified, going over the bases in my head, wondering if whoever did it would think to strike there.

In the big picture of things, I think this event most negatively impacted my life. One day you’re invincible, the next totally vulnerable. The attacks made this country susceptible, and in turn made the citizens, including myself, afraid. Living with high terror alerts isn’t something that makes you sleep more soundly at night. I remember when my parents got home from work and turned on the news, I would go play outside. I didn’t want to see what else was happening. It made me feel helpless when I opened up my Teen Vogue the next July and read an article retelling this girl’s story from up north, about how her father, a firefighter, died rescuing people. Coming from a small town in Texas, I never was faced with Muslims or anyone from the Middle East, so it was easy for me to develop a stereotype and racist view of them. This carried with me to college, and I didn’t want to associate with people that even looked like a “terrorist.” Feelings of hopelessness, frightfulness, and hatred all stemmed from the attacks that September day.

With more education on the events and people involved, Sept. 11 holds a different meaning. It’s more of a feeling that my country won’t let something crazy ruin our American spirit. It has given me a better understanding of our federal government. It means even more now that we have captured and killed the mastermind to the attacks. It’s retribution for all the 3,000 lives lost that day, and the soldiers lost to fighting the battle in the Middle East. This anniversary is not a sad one, but a more victorious one, one where I can be proud and not feel vulnerable.

Will Oliver
Professor of criminal justice

I was in my office in the Department of Criminal Justice at Radford University, in Radford, Va., writing the first edition of my History of Crime and Criminal Justice in America book for Allyn & Bacon.

As I was writing I heard someone downstairs shouting that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center and I immediately went on line to see what information was available. There was little available—a short sentence that noted it was a tragic accident. I thought, how in the world does a pilot fly a plane accidentally into such as large building? Perhaps, I thought, there was some type of mechanical failure and the pilot could not control the plane. I went downstairs to the chair’s office as he had a television in his office hooked up to cable. When they reported the second plane had flown into another tower, I guess because of my military background, I blurted out, “Oh my God, we are at war.” I immediately called my wife to let her know, but she and the children were already watching the television. I began thinking about the strong possibility that I would be activated for service, but I had no idea where I might be sent.

Initially, my Army Reserve unit was put on alert, but I had to report to Idaho for Combine Arms Services Support School that weekend. My plane was redirected and greatly delayed. After finishing the school, I waited for a call up, but that did not come. The following year, I applied for a position as a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University and received a job offer. I accepted and then the next day I was told by my Battalion Commander that my unit was being activated. After going through the process to go on active duty, the military decided to only take soldiers in assigned positions and I was sent home; I was not assigned to a specific position. When I moved to SHSU, I took a reserve position with the 75th Training Division in Houston on Old Spanish Trail and very quickly I discovered that our job was to train and certify command staffs as being ready for deployment. We were very busy.

It also turned out that I became very busy in the criminal justice field as a new area of study and research began to grow—Homeland Security. As police officers and police chiefs were asking what their role was in Homeland Security, I ended up writing a book that wrestled with that particular issue, Homeland Security for Policing (Pearson 2007). In addition, I began teaching in the Incident Command program in LEMIT and I worked on several projects dealing with the same topic, one more recently being a special journal issue on Homeland Security and the police. This year, I also received a book contract to write a co-authored textbook on Homeland Security. So the events of Sept. 11 impacted me as both a military officer and a criminal justice professor.

I think the events of Sept. 11 demonstrate that America has not lost its ability to come together in a crisis and respond with honest altruistic behavior, as demonstrated by the police and firefighters who responded that day and by the many citizen volunteers who gave of their time and money to help New York City and all of America recover. I think it also reaffirmed my faith in the United States military, that it still stands as the best-trained and most-prepared military in the world, and when faced with so much adversity and complexity, still managed to accomplish its many missions. Finally, it demonstrated to me that America still has resolve, for President Bush made it clear on Sept. 11 in his speech: "Make no mistake: The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts." On May 2, 2011, under a different president, Seal Team VI carried out that very promise President Bush had made nearly 10 years before.

Stacy Ulbig,
Political Science
2011 Excellence in Teaching winner

In 2001, I was a graduate student at Rice University, studying political science and working in the department as a teaching/research assistant. On the morning of Sept. 11, I woke up like usual and flipped on the morning news as I ate breakfast. Immediately, I knew it wasn’t a normal day. At first, the reports were that a plane had accidently flown into a building in New York. I thought it was weird, but surely was an accident. I started watching the reports more closely, and that’s when the second plane hit the other building. I continued going to work like usual, listening to the reports on the radio as I drove. I stopped at a grocery store to pick up lunch and no one in the store seemed to act like anything unusual was happening—it was weird. When I got back into the car, the reports were that the building had collapsed. I thought they meant that pieces of the building had fallen off, but the more I listened the clearer it became. Shortly after that, the second tower collapsed.

By the time I got to campus and parked, there were media trucks all over the place; they were making their way to the building where the Baker Institute was housed (also where our department was located). I heard the reporters and camera crews talking about a third plane that went down in Pennsylvania, but at that time they didn’t even know if it was related. At that point, I had a thought that would run through my head for the rest of the day: “What’s next?” I had a very uneasy feeling that everything I knew was changing and that we all might be in immediate danger. Once I got to the office, we all watched the reports on television and as it became clear who was behind the attacks, conversations about the causes and consequences of the attacks started (true academics, always trying to answer questions). Within an hour or so, we got word that our building was being locked down for security purposes. I decided to head home, stopping by a classroom where a friend was teaching a class to let her know that she and her students should leave the building now if they planned on getting out of it at all that day. She quickly dismissed her class and they all said they were heading back to their rooms to watch the coverage.

I went home and spent the rest of the day watching the coverage, and thinking that our lives would never be the same. I wondered how anyone could get so angry that they would do something like this, I wondered who was to blame, I wondered how people in other parts of the world who had been dealing with terrorist attacks managed to go about their daily lives. I also wondered what I could do to help. Mostly, I just sat mesmerized by the images I was seeing.

The attacks have affected me in the ways most people have been affected—tighter security at many places, a new mindset about what it means to be “American” in today’s world, etc. More personally, it’s made my job quite a bit more interesting. I teach courses in political science, including the introductory American Government course (POLS2301). Before 9/11, students frequently had little interest in that course. Since 9/11, students have become much more interested in the decisions that our governmental actors make, how those decisions are made, and the consequences of those decisions. In the years since the attacks I have also seen countless students serve the country in different branches of the military—often being called to duty during the course of a semester. It always amazes me that these students can juggle school, family, and military obligations so well.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years already. To me, Sept. 11 is the day we, as Americans, quit getting to live such isolated lives. We have had to recognize the many challenges that other nations have been facing for years—security challenges, economic challenges, and lots of others.

LTC David Yebra
Sam Houston State University ROTC Bearkat Battalion Commander
Professor of military science, who served three tours in Iraq

I was at West Point on Sept. 11, about an hour north of NYC and the World Trade Center. I was the operations officer for the Corps of Cadets at West Point and was on my way in to a morning update with the commandant of cadets to review the week’s events. As I was reviewing my notes on the way to the meeting, my assistant mentioned to me as I passed his office that a “small plane just crashed into the WTC.” I continued on my way focused on my update. Our collective hearts sank when my assistant broke in on the update to let me know “we were under attack.” We continued with the update as our anger and frustration began to mount. It was logical to assume that we might be next given the magnitude of a symbolic attack on the United States Military Academy at West Point and the corresponding impact it would have on the American public. We quickly decided that the best thing to do was to allow the corps to continue its normal routine given the solid gray rock that formed our academic buildings and barracks. We obviously went to a heightened state of security. I returned to the screens in our headquarters and remember watching what I thought was the camera moving up the WTC Tower only to slowly and unbelievably realize the tower was actually collapsing.

The Corps of Cadets rose to the occasion, feeling a deep anger, yet expressing an intense desire to help those suffering trapped in the rubble and those working tirelessly to rescue those still alive. They were almost at the point of rebellion having to continue their routine there instead of moving the entire corps to NYC to provide support. We hurriedly worked to identify if any member of the corps had lost a loved one in the attacks on the Pentagon, the WTC, or the fields of Pennsylvania. We were all lost in a deep desire for revenge, but at that moment, were at a loss for a target until we uttered the words “Al-Qaeda” for the first time.

The most memorable moment I have in my mind is the night of the “Taps” vigil when the entire 4000+ Corps of Cadets came out of the barracks to pay tribute to the fallen and the heroes that gave their lives on that fateful day. The lone bugler off in the distant darkness played that solemn memorial tune as the corps looked out over the Hudson River with the sound of “Taps” echoing off the massive gray walls of West Point as the most powerful emotions moved off toward the river with each note played. At the conclusion of “Taps,” you could almost feel all members of the “Long Gray Line,” past and present, fall back in the barracks in complete silence and darkness. NBC captured the “Taps” vigil that night in a rare look into the corps and its long tradition of honoring our fallen. I can still remember the lone light of the camera and how it stood out like the sun in the darkness.

I could’ve never envisioned that my experience over the next eight years with the War on Terror would begin with the words, “a small plane just crashed into the WTC.” I spent the remainder of that year, the bicentennial year at West Point, executing ceremonies that included President Bush and Mayor Rudy Giuliani, along with countless other VIPs making visits up to West Point during that most dynamic year. By June of 2003, after a year at the command and general staff college at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, I was starting my first of 36 months I would eventually spend in Iraq.

As the 10th anniversary approaches, my thoughts will be on all our fallen. Their loss has only continued to fuel our desire to serve and provide the protection that we have taken an oath to provide. I’ve unfortunately had to experience the intense emotion evoked by the playing of “Taps” and the deep sense of sadness that comes with that ever familiar bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace” during my three years of combat in Iraq. Although each memorial and “Taps” vigil marks the beginning of the healing process, the depth of the pain remains the same at the moment we pause to reflect and the last note of “Taps” is played. It doesn’t take much for me to think back to Sept. 11, to remember the pain, followed quickly by a renewed desire and spirit to bring the fight to the terrorists—an untiring spirit.



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