Spradlin: 9/11 attacks changed the course of my life

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

Part of what makes an event last so long in someone’s heart is, I believe, the personal connection they feel to it. The stronger the connection, the longer that event is remembered.

I lost no one close to me on Sept. 11, 2001. Still, the date changed the course of my life.

As a Private First Class at Fort Riley, Kan., I applied for a Green-to-Gold Scholarship. The process included going before a board of superiors — first sergeants and sergeants major —in my Class A uniform. My platoon sergeant was ticked the day this photo was made, however; he said I needed a haircut. He was right.

As a Private First Class at Fort Riley, Kan., I applied for a Green-to-Gold Scholarship. The process included going before a board of superiors — first sergeants and sergeants major —in my Class A uniform. My platoon sergeant was ticked the day this photo was made, however; he said I needed a haircut. He was right.

It started with a quiet morning drive, a simple 3-mile commute to Western Maryland College in Westminster, Md. I was attending on a Green-to-Gold Scholarship. While on active duty in the Army in 2000 and the spring of 2001, I had applied for the scholarship that would pay for all four years of college.

Upon graduation, I’d be an officer in the Army — a dream of mine — and have to repay the college money by way of six years of military service. It was a trade I was only too willing to make. So in August 2001, I left Fort Riley, Kan., after only 16 months of active duty. During that time I’d gone from E-1 to E-3 (Private First Class) and I thought I knew everything. Of course I was ready to lead a platoon as a lieutenant!

That morning, I had the radio on and instead of sports talk, there seemed to be a replaying of the War of the Worlds. It was 8:46 a.m. when the first hijacked passenger plane was driven into the World Trade Center.

I happened to have my 3-year-old son, Noah, with me. I wasn’t supposed to take him to class but I was hopeful the professor wouldn’t mind.

I arrived on campus shortly before 9 a.m. The quad, normally full of of students at this time of day doing whatever they can to stretch a few more minutes into the start of their morning and delay the start of classes, was empty. No one. Not a soul. I had several minutes before class was scheduled to begin so I went to the cafe to get an orange juice and something for Noah to snack on.

The cafe is normally busy at this point — every college student who had a few extra quarters would be in line, hoping for one last dose of caffeine to stay away through sometimes mind-numbing courses. This particular morning, though, it was nearly standing room only.

And it was quiet. Not a peep. I knew something was wrong, and my eyes quickly scanned the room — tears, hugs, friends and strangers alike standing close to each other, holding hands.

My son and I were fortunate enough to find an open table. As the cafe was open but not serving food — the workers there also were watching the television — I grabbed a bag of Doritos from my backpack and gave them to Noah. I positioned him so his back was to the TV. My eyes were glued to it. Just in time to see the second plane crash into the World Trade Center.

Classes, of course, were cancelled that day. The next day, too.

While in Al Taji, Iraq, I was able to run — sometimes nothing more than the 336-meter loop I had measured out for use during times when we were confined within the perimeter of our area for safety reasons  — but still, I was in pretty good shape. In fact, it was there that I ran the fastest 2 miles of my life. I was midway through my run one afternoon shortly after arriving in Iraq and it was the first time I was outside the perimeter of our camp by myself. Suddenly I heard two giant explosions. The right thing to do, of course, was to find cover. I didn't. Instead, I took off to head back to my unit to report in. Don't worry, there wasn't any danger - it was only a controlled explosion of unexploded ordinance, but I didn't know that at the time.

While in Al Taji, Iraq, I was able to run — sometimes nothing more than the 336-meter loop I had measured out for use during times when we were confined within the perimeter of our area for safety reasons — but still, I was in pretty good shape. In fact, it was there that I ran the fastest 2 miles of my life. I was midway through my run one afternoon shortly after arriving in Iraq and it was the first time I was outside the perimeter of our camp by myself. Suddenly I heard two giant explosions. The right thing to do, of course, was to find cover. I didn’t. Instead, I took off to head back to my unit to report in. Don’t worry, there wasn’t any danger – it was only a controlled explosion of unexploded ordinance, but I didn’t know that at the time.

And the day after that, I was in my battalion commander’s office. So was another man who happened to be at Western Maryland College also on a Green-to-Gold Scholarship. He’d been a staff sergeant in the Army, a medic. We didn’t plan it, but we were there for the exact same reason. We both volunteered to return to active duty.

I won’t speak for the other soldier, but for me … well, I felt that while I belonged on campus — Western Maryland College, known today as McDaniel College, is as friendly a college campus as anywhere on earth — I felt I was needed, or supposed to be, somewhere else. That pull was stronger than the one trying to keep me in Westminster. Explaining that to my young wife at the time was more difficult than writing it here, so many years removed.

So I signed the papers. It wasn’t a completely noble gesture. I was struggling academically — raising a young child, with one on the way and working full-time isn’t the easiest way to set oneself up for success so early in life — and this would be a regular paycheck with what would likely be fewer hours, or at least a more stable routine.

I wasn’t ordered immediately to Iraq. In fact, I didn’t get there until April 2004. Instead, I was assigned to Fort Jackson, S.C., for a few months. My temporary assignment was to work at the airport in Cayce, S.C., and ensure recruits headed to Jackson for Basic Training arrived, came to sit in a designated room and board a bus to the post. Not exactly the way I’d envisioned my contribution to the war effort, but there was not much use in arguing with the federal government.

Finally, orders came through. I thought I’d be attached to a unit already in Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead, I was sent to Uijongbu, South Korea. I spent 15 months there — three longer than usual, as there were three different three-month extensions due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I re-enlisted while in Korea to extend my service, returned to Fort Jackson for additional training and then was assigned to Fort Lewis. There came one more opportunity to volunteer. I raised my hand.

There had been a non-commissioned officer in Iraq who’d gotten in trouble. She was a paralegal NCO. I was now an E-5 (sergeant). The brigade sergeant major requested volunteers by email. I returned to my desk and sent him an email. I’m the least qualified, I said. I know it’ll be difficult because I have the least experience as the newest NCO, I wrote. I hadn’t even yet been to PLDC — a leadership training course for new non-commissioned officers — but I wanted to step up and do what I could.

Turns out I was the only one who volunteered, so I was sent to go. Breaking the news to my wife was difficult. She was upset; after being in Korea for so long, she was finally looking forward to being with me and resuming our attempt to raise a family. By then Noah was almost 5 and MacKenzie was 2. As we talked in the kitchen of our home on Fort Lewis, I didn’t have the heart to tell her I volunteered; she figured it out, though, shortly before I deployed.

The deployment went well enough. I did my job. I traveled by air and land a lot — one of the more dangerous things the average soldier could do over there at that time, as IEDs were always a hazard and you just never knew when you’d get shot it.

Thankfully I was several. The closest I came to being attacked was in the Green Zone. I was sleeping at about midnight on the tarmac of the Baghdad airport waiting for my plane to land and pick me up to take me back to my post. It arrived around 2 a.m. or so. About four hours later, all hell broke loose in the Green Zone, but I was safely back at Al Taji.

So I never fulfilled my dream of becoming an Army officer. I was in Iraq for only four months until the unit returned in August 2004 and a year later my time was up; I was out of the Army and headed 3,000 miles back to Maryland — what an adventure of a drive — to begin life again.

While I had frustrating days in the Army, I’ll share with you that I sometimes regret not re-enlisting again and getting out instead. Even being sent to Korea and Iraq … both locations offered something that’s difficult to describe but easy to be missed.

So what’s all this mean? Today, my 3.5 children (three plus a stepson, Lucas) barely know I ever served in the military, what I did or where I went. My oldest son remembers mostly that we moved. A lot. And other than a small box of keepsakes — medals earned, some unit patches taken off the sleeves of my BDUs or Class A jacket — there’s not much left except my DD 214.

For me, Sept. 11, 2001, will always be a very important day in my life. It might sound pretty lame to the thousands of people impacted by the loss of loved ones, but it’s my personal connection to a terrible event. And because I have that connection, the fact that our country suffered such an attack, and the people lost to it, won’t soon be forgotten.

Filed in: Latest Headlines, Opinion

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  • Pine Laker

    Thank you for your service Sir….Thank you.

  • Jackie McAuley

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Jay Hudson

    Thanks for sharing. Enjoyed reading it!
    Wish the font was a little larger for older eyes.
    Jay

    • http://www.wheels4paws.org Pat Webb

      You can also hold the CTRL key (bottom left) down and tap the + sign to enlarge.. – sign to make smaller!

  • peedeepost

    Thank you, Jay. Keep in mind the user of each computer is largely in charge of how large the print appears on his/her screen.

    On your web browser menu bar, you can go to “view” then “zoom in” and the font will appear larger – resting those weary eyes.

    – Kevin

  • Kirk Hasenmueller

    Never knew this, Kevin, thank you for your service.

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