Bracing: A military brat remembers 9/11/01


It’s a blue sky day and I’m looking out on an ocean of rolling green hills. All is calm, until suddenly I hear a  jet approaching from behind. The moment I sense the plane, I know that it is going to crash. I brace myself for the inevitable. The plane is careening toward the ground. I want to stop it. I want to scream. But I have no voice. I can’t move. I can only stand and watch as it smashes into the ground in front of me.

This is the nightmare that haunted my childhood. It began after my first grade classmate’s father was killed in a training crash while our dads were away on TDY, the Air Force equivalent of a business trip. Major Koster never came home. From that moment on, I knew that my father would never be safe as long as he was in uniform.

First and foremost, there were the accidents, which occurred so regularly that the names of my father’s fellow fighter pilots take up several lines on the memorial erected to honor Spangdahlem Air Base’s fallen airmen. And then there were the bad guys —communists, mostly — who wanted to kill my father and maybe me too. Situated as we were in West Germany, the Iron Curtain loomed large. Our air base held regular exercises, so we could practice what to do in an attack. When the base was on alert, the guards at the gate to the base would greet our school bus in gas masks.

Every so often, Dad pulled Victor Alert. He couldn’t change out of his flight suit, and he wasn’t allowed to come home. He had to stay within a short radius of his fighter jet, the one with bombs loaded in case the red ballon went up.

I learned to brace myself.


On September 11, 2001, my father was an airline pilot, long retired from his Air Force career. I awoke that morning in a small town in the middle of nowhere. My husband and I were vacationing, and we’d decided to stay an extra night in our little lodge. I walked over to the office to inform the proprietor.

“Have you been watching TV?” she asked. Her face was drained of color.
“No,” of course not. Who watched TV first thing in the morning?
“Go turn on your television,” she said. “Some planes crashed into the World Trade Center.”
“What kind of planes?” I asked.
“What airline?”
“I think one was United and the other was American.”
Time stopped. I told her my father was a pilot for American Airlines.
“Go to your room and call him.”

I staggered back to the room and switched on the television to the same sight that people across the planet were witnessing at that exact moment. The billowing smoke. The flash of fire and dark hole in the glass. The endless replays of the jumbo jet imploding into the tower. Bodies dangling out of windows. Television commentators rendered speechless.

The hotel owner, in full crisis mode, had instructed me to call my father. But I didn’t pick up the phone, not yet. If I’d been in a logical state of mind, I would have known that it was not my father’s airplane. He was an MD-80 captain, and the American Airlines plane that hit the World Trade Center was a 767.

But it’s emotions that rule in times like these and my emotional self took shelter by bracing. It was the pain I was used to, and I was not ready for certainty. I preferred the knowing and not knowing—my daddy is dead, my daddy is alive both equally possible.

I have heard people say that nothing prepared them for what happened that September morning. But for me, 9/11 was the kind of event I had been bracing for my whole life. It was the mass destruction I’d imagined during those air base exercises so long ago. It took an attack on American soil for my civilian friends to understand the ugly truth that had overshadowed my childhood. Even on a day as beautiful as this one, the world is not safe.

In the months that followed, people across the U.S. braced themselves for another attack. It’s difficult to live like that, so it was easy to convince the populace that it was better to “fight ‘em over there so we don’t have to fight ’em over here.” Let the military families do the bracing so the rest of us don’t have to.

This weekend, as we remember the attacks of ten years ago, my mind is on the many soldiers and their families who have served in our names since those attacks. My thoughts are especially with the children of the deployed. I didn’t need to see a study to know that they often suffer from depression, anxiety, insomnia and other stress disorders, but I’m glad that researchers are finally giving them the attention they deserve. More than 6,000 American troops have died in our post-9/11 wars. Nearly 50,000 troops remain in Iraq and more than 100,000 are still deployed in Afghanistan. That’s 150,000 families silently waiting, hoping that their loved ones will return home safely, and bracing themselves for the possibility that they won’t.


Photo credits: Spangdahlem Airman’s Memorial, Spangdahlem Air Base media gallery.

New York, NY, September 12, 2002. People stop to look at the memorials near Ground Zero. Photo by Lauren Hobart/FEMA News Photo.

An Airman visits military graves at the Luxembourg-American Cemetery. Spangdahlem Air Base media gallery.

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17 thoughts on “Bracing: A military brat remembers 9/11/01

  1. I always knew that daddy had a job, but I never realized how scary a job it could have been. I guess that comes from the luxury of being younger than you. Got a little choked up reading this. Nice work!

  2. In the months that followed, people across the U.S. braced themselves for another attack. It’s difficult to live like that…

    … but many people elsewhere have to. Since I grew up during the IRA campaigns against London, where my father then worked, I suppose it may help growing up with it. I still felt a bit targeted when the July bombs went off a block away from my then-university. But even in all this, science comforts: statistically, I was and am a damn sight more likely to be hurt every time I take my bicycle onto the road. That may not seem very positive but, since I’ve so far escaped serious harm, I find it helps.

    I’m glad your father was safe and sound. So was mine, every time. And as a child (or a cyclist) I guess that’s what one can internalise.

  3. From her writings in other venues, I conclude Ms. Aschwanden’s father and I are contemporaries, and our tours of duty in the Air Force overlapped. A medical service corps officer in the late ‘60‘s, I “flew” a desk for 18 months as registrar of the hospital at a training base in Arizona. In that time, I took charge of the effects and remains of 14 fighter pilots. Her childhood fears for her dad’s life were well founded. It’s good that he lives and saw his little girl become a talented and accomplished adult. His love and influence surely nurtured that talent and achievement. I too grew up in the Air Force. By my college graduation, military duty had separated my parents for a quarter of their married life. Therefore, kudos also to Christie’s long-suffering, often abandoned mother!!

  4. I have heard lots of mention of “military brat”ness lately. It’s people who are ALWAYS referring to themselves, and they are always smug. This is NAME DROPPING in a pure form. The people whose family could LEGITIMATELY name drop definitely DON’T. I’m sick of all these fake heroes. Yeah you’ve moved around a lot? That was tough? You didn’t have parents around or role models? I’ve undoubtedly moved around more in the last year than most of these “brats” have, and withstood SEVERE isolation. The military is strict, they can only pick up those who are faceless, and those are NOT the type of people who should be in contact with outsiders. The military should be removed from power, the time has come for a global awakening and it should NOT come in the form of bomb blasts. The point is that strong character trumps any situation and an army isn’t the answer. force is NEVER the answer: LOGIC is the answer.

  5. My God, I can really relate. My dad’s younger brother is in the army and my husband. Yes I understand the pain and the stress and all the mixing emotions that careens into my whole body when I hear news like these. It’s like we are living on the edge all the time.

  6. To Robert

    I have many friends scattered on hillsides around the world so that people like you can live in a “idealistic world.” Since you are free to express yourself, it means me that those of us who served and those who gave the ultimate were successful.

    What have you given?

  7. This is a great article. It reminds us what the cost of freedom really is.

    Robert, it looks to me like Christie shared the thoughts and memories that are meaningful to her. The problem I have is that you haven’t told us enough about yourself to warrant our attention. You should be thankful that people have sacrificed for your freedom so that you can be idealistic and judgmental.

  8. To Robert

    I don’t know what you’ve been smoking, but you don’t have a clue! It sounds like you have a some significant gaps in your education and life experiences. I too, lost many friends in combat and in peacetime training accidents in my Air Force days. The world isn’t perfect and never will be, but it’s a Hell of a lot better than it could have been if we had followed your misguided doctrine.

  9. Hey Robert, from your comment I am guessing that you never served in the United States Military! There have been military personnel giving up theirs lives so you and I can have the freedom that we have. I am guessing that some one will have to sit down and explain it to you in simple english.
    Get off the weed, and become a true AMERICAN!!!!

  10. Robert,

    Ever stop to think what the world would be like if we were NOT the most powerful country in the world(thanks to our military)?

    Can you speak German, Russian, or Arabic?

  11. Christie,

    Good letter and great to learn what a delightful American woman you’ve grown to be. I was with you , your father and your family thru those dark years at Spangdahlem when all of us learned life lessons wimps like Robert may never learn. It’s a cliche that …”Freedom isn’t free”… , but it’s the plain truth.

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