Romper

I Deployed After 9/11 & It Changed My Life

Courtesy of Stephanie Baroni Cook

"We're in peace time right now, this next four years will be a breeze!" my recruiter said to me just before I enlisted in the Navy. It was a hot July in California and the summer before my senior year of high school. Neither of us could have known that it would be the last summer we'd be in "peace time" for many, many years to come. Less than two months later, everything changed — not just for me, but the whole world. I would've never guessed that I'd deploy in the military after 9/11.

I was one of those kids who used to get to school super early, and on September 11, 2001, I arrived to my class early enough to witness the second plane hit the Twin Towers on live TV. There was a little old television outside of the locker rooms, and as my classmates and I watched it happen, it felt like everything was moving in slow motion. As the plane and the building burst into flames, I felt as if the movie Independence Day had suddenly become our real life. Who, I wondered, had invaded our country? Who could do this?

In my 32 years of life, September 11 will always remain the most somber day. My parents' generation talks of remembering exactly where they were and what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. They remember the details so vividly. For me, 9/11 changed so many things. And the details of the pain of that day will burn brightly, vividly, for those of us who were old enough to know that our world would never be the same in the aftermath, and for those of us in the service community who knew "peace time" would soon be a distant memory.

Courtesy of Stephanie Baroni Cook
A fear built up inside of me that I'd never known before then. What would happen to me after I joined the Navy? Where would I go? What would war look like in the 21 century?

I'll never forget the eery quietness that followed the remainder of that day. Everyone was humbled and united in their grief. I went home and sat in the darkness of my father's office where I felt I could let my tears flow free. Crying hard, I knew that my time in service would no longer be peaceful. I was 17, and I had a whole year to go before I left for bootcamp. A year was enough to be understand our country as it came to terms with the who, what, why, and how of this terrible massacre, and it was long enough to seriously think about what I was getting myself into and why I was getting myself into it.

Looking back, I realize my tears were a mix of grief and of fear. As an American in the service community, I felt like the peace of our country had been violated. Like a thief in the night, 9/11 took from us the once-secure feeling we had as a nation. As a teenager, a fear built up inside of me that I'd never known before then. What would happen to me after I joined the Navy? Where would I go? What would war look like in the 21 century?

Courtesy of Stephanie Baroni Cook
One year after the 9/11 attack, I passed my final Battle Stations test in bootcamp, and when the sun rose over the sky on September 11, 2012, I was officially a Sailor.

The fear turned into doubt, and it was a rollercoaster of emotions for the remainder of my senior year. Somedays I'd convince myself not to go, other days I told myself that I had to. Back and forth, back and forth — what was I thinking? After many talks with my parents, my recruiter, and friends, my fear turned into courage, and my indecisive behavior turned into commitment. Afraid or not, I was going to go to bootcamp after I graduated high school.

It's no small irony to me that exactly one year after the 9/11 attack, I passed my final Battle Stations test in bootcamp, and when the sun rose over the sky on September 11, 2012, I was officially a Sailor. There was not one dry eye in my division as we took off our "Recruit" hats and put on our "Navy" covers. I think I can speak for the entirety of Division 359 when I say that we'd never felt a stronger pride than we did together in that moment.

Courtesy of Stephanie Baroni Cook

By December of 2002, I flew all the way to Bahrain to meet my new command and embarked onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln was nearing the end of its six-month deployment, but rumors had been circulating for months that our deployment would not be coming to an end any time soon, not with the ever-increasings tension between the U.S. and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The fact that we were already perfectly located in the Arabian Gulf didn't help either. And sure enough, by the time New Years rolled around, our deepest fear had been confirmed: our service had been extended "indefinitely."

The Commanding Officer of the ship came over the 1MC telling us we were "officially at war with Iraq," and as I washed my face and attempted to put on my makeup, hot tears flowed down my cheeks even when I didn't want them to. Everything was changing again.

There is nothing more irritating and hopeless to someone in the military than the word "indefinitely." Seriously. When we go on deployments, the countdown to when we return home starts before the ship even leaves the pier. On March 20, 2003, America officially invaded Iraq, and our battle group would be headed there on the front lines for the Navy. I'll never forget waking up that morning, sensing both the purpose and the sorrow in the air. The Commanding Officer of the ship came over the 1MC telling us we were "officially at war with Iraq," and as I washed my face and attempted to put on my makeup, hot tears flowed down my cheeks even when I didn't want them to. Everything was changing again.  

Courtesy of Stephanie Baroni Cook

As scary as going to war was, there was also a sense of relief. Finally, it felt like we were answering the call that had been forced upon us on 9/11. We were going to make the perpetrators, and whoever supported them, pay for the 2,996 lives they took from us.

While my friends at home struggled with what college major they should pursue, I struggled with learning and practicing to get my gas mask on and secured within eight seconds in case of a biological chemical attack. While they drank and partied under the moonlight, I'd watch the after-burn of F-14s planes flying off the deck dissipate into the night sky.

It's been 15 years since 9/11. Some years I can write about it, some I can't. Some years I try not to think about it, and some I do. I can't watch movies about 9/11 — in fact, I don't know how anyone can. Sometimes, the events of that day and that time in my life just play in my mind like a loop, so I suppose I don't even need to watch a movie. I've already seen it all. September 11 changed everything in my life and in the lives of so many, and going to war after it happened will forever be a part of my life story and who I am today. After only a year being in the military, I no longer felt like I could identify with anyone at home when I went to visit on leave. While my friends at home struggled with what college major they should pursue, I struggled with learning and practicing to get my gas mask on and secured within eight seconds in case of a biological chemical attack. While they drank and partied under the moonlight, I'd watch the after-burn of F-14s planes flying off the deck dissipate into the night sky.

One year at war has changed me so much, and the six years I served changed me forever. That first deployment after 9/11 will always be an anchor for me. It'll always be the time in my life when I felt more alive than I ever had, and knew that what we were doing would one day be apart of the history books. People often ask me and my partner, who is also a member of the service community, "Why did you do it? Knowing the things you'd have to sacrifice: birthdays, births, anniversaries, memories — why'd you still pick this life? The truth is, on 9/11, I made a choice. I committed to a life of service. Both my husband and I have seen things we won't ever be able to unsee, and in seeing that, we've learned that defending and protecting our country, and the children we're now raising in it, is one of the most important things.