We Remember -God Bless America, the Home of the Brave

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imageAndrew Baker learned about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for the first time in a middle school history class when he was 12 years old. The pictures and videos of smoke filling the sky above the rubble that was once the World Trade Center were so powerful that he knew it was more than just another history lesson.

He went home to his parents that day and asked them where they were when the terrorists attacked. The story he heard about their experience is burned into his memory.

Andrew is a 14-year-old freshman at First Coast High enrolled in the Navy JROTC program. Lt. Cmdr. James Rachal is working to mold Andrew and other freshmen into productive members of society — whether it’s in the military or in a civilian capacity — but now there is a new challenge.

The students don’t remember 9/ 11, Rachal said. They were too young or not born yet.

He said there are usually between 100 and 130 freshmen enrolled in the JROTC program at First Coast, but this is the first year he’s had a crop of cadets who weren’t alive 15 years ago when the attacks happened.

“The freshmen, they are like a blank page,” Rachal said.

Rachal told cadets about his memory of 9/ 11 Friday afternoon before they all headed to a football pep rally.

He talked about how quickly plans changed that morning, how before he knew it he was on a ship headed north to defend the waters surrounding New York. The instructions were to shoot down anything in the airspace that wasn’t cleared to be there, and the unexpected mission lasted for weeks on end, Rachal said.

Andrew wasn’t alive 15 years ago, but he said Friday that stories like Rachal’s are inspiring to young people and need to be told over and over to future generations.

“They’ve [people too young to remember] got to understand that a lot of people died and they didn’t do anything wrong,” Andrew said of the victims.

Most men and women serving today remember where they were no matter how young they were.

Airman Tobias Scott is based at Fleet Readiness Center Southeast in Jacksonville, but he was 6 years old when the World Trade Center fell.

His mother was stationed at Kitsap-Bremerton Naval Base in Washington where Scott was in day care when the base went on lockdown. His memories are of taking cover with teachers without any idea why he was so scared.

“I was a 6-year-old not knowing why I’m under a table, in a dark building, locked down on the naval base,” Scott said Thursday. “We are supposed to be good guys beating people, not scared.”

Both of his parents were in the military, and he joined the military when he was 18 years old. Scott said this is the first year he hasn’t been with his parents on 9/ 11, so a phone call will have to suffice to relive their memory.

Airman Jazmin Velez is serving with Scott in Jacksonville. She is also 21 years old, but in 2001 she lived much closer to the attacks.

She lived in the Bronx, but she remembers her mother was in Manhattan and her aunt was stuck at the airport. Neither had any way of contacting the young girl.

“I remember smelling ashes off of her, that’s how bad it was,” she said of the moment she was finally reunited with her mother.

Velez remembers a lot of confusion and chaos, but her father was stoic. She said she will never forget how calm he was and now she hopes she would respond in a similar way if tragedy strikes again.

Lt. Cmdr. Trent Arnold is ranked higher than Scott and Valez, but they all share a similar reverence for 9/ 11.

Arnold started his Navy career in 1993, and in 2001 he was a student at Hampton University. He was being paid to go to school so that one day he could lead others on days like 9/ 11, he said.

He remembers getting his hair cut on Langley Air Force Base the morning of the attacks, but afterward there was something different about the way the jets were racing into the sky.

“It looked to me like they might have had some kind of armament,” Arnold recalled Thursday.

By the time he made it to class it was clear what was going on.

Arnold said his classmates knew he was in the military and his instructor told him he was excused if there was someone else he needed to be.

Arnold said in his mind he felt like there was somewhere else he should be, but he knew it was more important for him to be in class at the time.

“Obviously, I was like ‘No sir, my job is to be here right now,’” Arnold said Thursday.

Now Arnold is the assistant officer in charge at Fleet Readiness Center Southeast, and he knows the future of the military lies in the hands of people like Andrew — men and women who weren’t alive to remember the tragedy that took place.

“I have the unique opportunity to speak to every single new sailor that comes into this command,” Arnold said.

He said each time he asks the group to raise their hands if they were born after 1993 — the year he joined the Navy. More and more hands go up each time he asks the question, and he said he knows there will be a time when someone asks the same thing about 9/ 11.

People like Andrew, the freshman at First Coast, will raise their hands. Andrew wants to be a professional soccer player, but he said Friday his backup plan is to join the military.

He will never be able to tell the story of where he was the morning of the terrorist attacks, but the look in his grandparents’ eyes when they told him where they were will always stick with him.

“It was emotional for them because they could have died,” Andrew said.

It turns out his parents were in Jamaica on their honeymoon, but his grandparents were on vacation in Manhattan — a couple of blocks from the twin towers.

“It catches your attention and there’s a lot of video of it,” Andrew said of the way students are taught about 9/ 11.

He said more than the videos and the pages in history books, the look in the eyes of people who tell their stories make the event seem much more real, and much more horrific.