This feature, title was originally published on Sept. 9, 2011, in remembrence of the September 11 attacks.
This weekend, communities across our nation will gather to remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and mourn those lives lost in the attack. Most adults can recall the events of that morning and while we may have dealt with the experience in different ways, few can say that the effects have not been profound for our nation.
Folks from all walks of life across our country felt the emotional shockwaves from the devastation – even right here in Norristown.
Tom Myers and Jeremy Benjamin have been best friends for over 30 years. The pair grew up next door to one another on Swede St. While the two 36-year-old men have led parallel lives in many ways – marrying, sons and daughters, good careers, happy lives – those parallel lives are far from identical.
While Myers has a job like many others – as an operations manager for a local company, Staff Sergeant Jeremy Benjamin trains Army recruits to be helicopter electricians. While Tom has punched a clock and paid his taxes, Jeremy has gone to war.
Though both men experienced the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 miles from one another, their experiences echoed those of many that day.
Benjamin had only just arrived at his new post – Hunter Airfield in Savannah, Georgia.
“We were standing outside of our shop where we reported for duty,” said Benjamin. “One of our pilots came up and said, ‘Have you guys been listening to the radio? Someone has been flying planes into New York.’ I immediately called [my wife]. ‘Turn on the news,’ I said, ‘and after you absorb all that, call me back.’ After an hour she called me back and and I told her, ‘Get ready for me to be gone, because that’s what we do.’ She had the normal response anyone would have – she started crying."
Myers was at his office in Conshohocken.
“I was at work,” he said. “I had just signed into the Internet; back then we had AOL dial up. On the AOL homepage, the front headline was ‘Plane Hits World Trade Center.’ I didn’t think anything of it. I thought it was something small, a Cessna or something, hit the tower. I go and do my stuff. When I come back to the homepage it says another plane hit. I thought, ‘That’s not coincidence. Something’s going on.’
Like his best friend, his first concern was his family.
“My first thought was [my wife] is at the hospital. She’s a nurse. They locked her down; she couldn’t leave. My second was to get [my son]. He was six months at the time. I left work to grab him and brought him home.”
Tom’s wife had just finished a twelve-hour shift at a downtown hospital, but stayed another six hours, in the event any calamity should befall the city. Tom spent the rest of that day worrying for his wife and caring for his newborn son. Jeremy and his unit secured their base and prepared for the possibility of attack.
"Soon after it happened, they raised the force protection level," said Benjamin. "They shut the gates to post and no one could get in or out. We immediately started doing 100% vehicle inspections and different types of guard duty. We were anticipating an attack there."
In the following weeks, life changed dramatically for the soldier.
"First, it took two hours to get to work instead of five minutes," said Benjamin. "I lived two miles away from the post and on Sept. 12, I pulled out of the apartment complex and got in line to get on post."
"[This was primarily] because of 100% vehicle inspections – mirrors and everything. It’s, 'Pull over here, open the glove box, open the hood, everything.' They put the dogs through every little corner of it."
"Second, civilian vendors and things could not enter post. If you were on post and wanted to eat at the pizza joint, you couldn’t because no one was working there or they were out of food because they couldn’t bring anything onto post."
Things were different back in the civilian world as well.
"The thing I most remember is two weeks later," said Myers. "They cancelled that Sunday’s football games. We had Eagles tickets and the games were cancelled. We went to the following Sunday’s game and everyone was nervous. You had 70,000 people at the stadium. At some point they stopped the game and George Bush made the announcement that they had bombed the shit out of Afghanistan. The whole stadium went nuts and cheered for about 10 minutes. It took them 10 minutes to get back to playing the game."
But soon life found it's way back to a routine for Myers.
"[Life was] business as usual – going to work, talking to friends," he said. "Nothing changed for us. The only thing we were nervous for was for Jeremy, Angie and Shawn [the couple's son]."
"A week or two later you sorta forget about it," he explained. "Not forget, but don’t think about it as you were the first week or two. They stop showing those images and people jumping out of buildings."
While civilians struggled to forget the traumatic images, our nation's soldiers are thrust into a new horrible scene. Within months, Benjamin was deployed to Kuwait to help fight the war in Iraq.
"[My division] initially deployed to Iraq, in the initial push," said Benjamin. "The Third Infantry Division was a mechanized unit with tanks and they pushed forward and fought the battle up close and personal. We were with the helicopters bringing what they needed right behind the line from Kuwait. [We were there] for two months, then we convoyed to move our operation to Central Iraq to hit more places to distribute. We were distributing all the essentials you need for a combat unit and at the same time all the things for the people."
While Benjamin's chief responsibility was delivering supplies, he was hardly out of danger.
"We were in 47s, which are bullet magnets, so we tend to fly as high as possible. [I was] shot at a few times but no bullets passing my head. [There were] many mortar attacks."
While Benjamin fought a war in Iraq, Myers could only worry for his friend and talk to him any chance he got.
"I remember talking to him once while he was there," said Myers. "He said, 'If you want know what Iraq is like, go into your house in the middle of July, turn your heat on and throw sand into a fan.' That stuck with me."
While the events of 9/11 changed the men's lives, it also changed their minds and their perceptions of the world around them.
"I have a little less tolerance for things that go on in the news, in the media today," said Benjamin. "It seems that a lot of times you're watching TV and they’re worried about Lindsay Lohan’s titty falling out of her dress. I’m thinking about six of my brothers that died last month. They aren’t talking about that. Nobody cares about that. It’s not sensational enough I guess."
"I pay attention to what’s happening in the United States, the world, locally," Benjamin added. "I pay attention more to what’s going on around me. If they talk about some guy getting shot downtown now, I think, 'Holy cow, what can we do to fix this thing.'"
Myers found himself more alert and fearful of what dangers the post-9/11 world held.
"I used to fly a lot," he said. "And if I saw any kind of Muslim, I watched them. I watched them like a hawk. Before 9/11 I didn’t care."
But his concerns weren't confined to air travel.
"[I remember] driving back from Baltimore going through the tunnel, the harbor, and we see a kid driving through the tunnel and videotaping it. Who drives through a tunnel and videotapes it? We were suspicious, so we called 911 and they sent state police after him. We wouldn’t have done that prior to 9/11."
Benjamin found himself similarly vigilant, with images of a war bleeding into life in back home.
"I definitely have a bit more of a alert system for things of that nature, he said. "To this day, if I go driving anywhere. Normally it would be nothing to me to see a pizza box and run it over. Now, there's no way in hell I’m gonna run the box over."
Fast forward to today. Over the last ten years, both men’s families have grown. They talk regularly, take their families on vacation together and regularly visit. Tom’s career has brought him new opportunities, while Jeremy has gone to war, serving two deployments in Iraq. They both still remember that day, but their experiences have left them with different perspectives on the lessons learned from the attacks.
“It’s a good thing I wasn’t president [that day],’ said Tom. “I would’ve nuked that f***ing country to a parking lot. I still feel that way today. We’d have a $2 trillion surplus, we’d have 30,000 soldiers back alive and we’d have gas at 2 cents a gallon. Oh, and plenty of parking space in the Middle East.”
“I used to feel that way,” said Jeremy. “But after being there, in my experience in going over and being near these people… I realized we do need to be there. We do need to get this done. As ugly as it is and as ugly as the things are that go on. We need to help these people.”
[Editorial Note: Tom Myers is the author's brother and Jeremy Benjamin is one of the author's oldest friends. He's tremendously proud of both of them.]