“At times like this you stop and think about just how good we have it, what kind of system we live in, and the freedoms we are allowed. A lot of my family has gone and fought in wars and I really haven’t done a damn thing.” – Pat Tillman, September 12, 2001
September 11, 2001 left a lasting impact on the world. The events of that day inspired Pat Tillman to enlist in the Army, ultimately choosing service beyond self.
As we honor the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Tillman Scholars – many of whom, like Pat, were inspired to serve following the events of that day – shared their reflections and memories.
My family and I had just flown to the Midwest from my home state of Hawaii to drop my brother off for his second year of school and then take me to my freshman year of college at Northwestern University. I remember coming downstairs and seeing our hostess sitting in shock as she watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center towers. To process what was going on, I ended up heading upstairs alone to journal. Writing has always been the best way for me to think something through. It ended up being a surreal start to college once I made it to campus. If we hadn’t flown up early to take my brother to his university, which started before mine, I’d have been grounded in Hawaii for weeks and missed the beginning of college. Two years later, when I interned at a magazine in New York City, I lived in the financial district near the WTC site. I remember stopping by the church nearest to the still boarded-up site, going around the area, and reflecting on how surreal it was to be there. So many Tillman Scholars came of age around 9/11, and I think it’s made us realize how quickly things change. I know it’s made me never forget how fragile life is. After 9/11, I also thought back to a few months prior when I had a chance to visit the Rose Garden with a Veterans of Foreign Wars student audio essay contest group. I remember President George W. Bush writing a large W in sharpie on the back of one of my fellow winners’ jackets. After 9/11, I wondered how much President Bush’s confident, jovial attitude had changed in the wake of the huge responsibility he now faced.
I had been separated from the US Air Force for six years on 9/11/2001. We lived near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania at the time, and I regularly went to “the city” for meetings. My company had a small apartment in Tribeca that I often stayed in. That day, my wife and I had spent the morning with a lawyer and an accountant setting up a new small business. We completed our meetings and on heading home, turned on the radio to hear about “a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers.” Infrequently, small airplanes hit buildings so my first thought went there. When we arrived home we turned on the TV to see the conflagration, dumbfounded at the destruction and the fire. As we watched, the second plane hit the other tower and it was immediately clear that an attack was in progress. For days we sat in front of the TV in grief and despair. Life halted. Manhattan, was closed and all my meetings were cancelled for many days. Finally, Manhattan reopened and I traveled in for the first time. Dense smoke filled the financial district and people stood staring blankly, crying, down the alleys and roads that led to the destruction. Strangers stood hugging each other. Faces of lost people were everywhere. Mothers, fathers, children — not seen or heard from since that day. People — real people were just gone and hearts of others were broken everywhere I went. As I walked the city streets going to and from meetings, I stopped to hug a few solitary people who were crying. That is not a typical New York thing. All things were surreal.
I was a cadet at West Point with plans to go to medical school and become an Army doctor after graduation. 9/11 occurred my second year there, and it changed my life trajectory. Spending the next few years at West Point, seeing service members and friends, including my fiancé, deploy in harm’s way made me not want to miss out on an opportunity to lead soldiers for a noble mission. I chose to defer medical school and went on active duty service in the Army as a medical service corps officer: leading and training medics, running field clinics, deploying to Iraq twice, and becoming a hospital administrator. After 11 years, I chose to leave the Army life behind and finally go to medical school. Becoming a doctor now, with these innumerable life experiences, responsibilities, and relationships, make me a better, more relatable, empathetic, and confident emergency medicine physician than I ever would have been if I went straight to medical school directly from college.