The events that transpired on September 11, 2001 changed America forever. Thousands of people lost their lives that day. We all lost our innocence.

I will never forget that day. I didn’t have family or friends or otherwise personally knew anyone affected by the attacks that day. My life still changed forever.

The first plane flew into the North World Trade Tower at 8:46 am EST. At that time, I was standing watch as Engine Room Supervisor (ERS) on the USS Key West SSN 722. I had just been promoted to E-6 after five and a half years of service as a nuclear mechanical operator.

It was like any other mid-watch (0000-0600). We changed lube oil strainers and performed other daily preventative maintenance. Mid-Watch is usually a busy watch for engine room lower level and boring for everyone else. As ERS, I spent most of my mid-watches supervising the cleaning and shifting of lube oil strainers. A mishap by Engine Room Lower Level (the most junior watchstander) could easily result in dropping half of the electric plant or in a worst case scenario, all propulsion. During super secret squirrel ops, such a loss of capability could significantly impact the boat’s mission. However, we were transiting to Bahrain for a port visit, a little maintenance, and to take on stores (supplies).

We had no idea thousands of people were dead. We had no idea what we were about to do. We had no idea the history we were about to make.

We got off watch and ate on the mess decks. After breakfast (dinner for us), we did our after-watch clean up. We reported to the mess decks for the port brief, led by the Chief of the Boat (COB).

A port brief is a short instructional meeting on the dos and don’ts concerning an upcoming stop. The COB tells us about the local customs. He lets us know what we can do to be good ambassadors and how we can upset the locals (so we don’t). He tells us where are and aren’t allowed to go. I had never been to Bahrain and was looking forward to the stop.

Captain Chuck Merkel, our skipper, came over the 1MC (the general announcing circuit) and interrupted the brief with the news. We all sat in shock as he said that the two planes flew into the World Trade Towers and there had been reports of attacks on the White House and Pentagon. He said that we had been re-tasked. Our orders were to report to a new operation area and wait further instructions. Few of us knew what to believe. Most of us, especially those of us with time on the pond like me, thought it was a drill or part of some war games or multi-group training exercise.

Unlike most of you reading this, we didn’t get to see the events unfold on CNN. We weren’t told to stay home over security concerns. We didn’t spend the next two days wondering if the world was ending. We went on about our business wondering how long our port call would be delayed over this “drill.”

The COB ended the port brief with, “Well, I guess that concludes the port brief.” We then dove deep and opened the throttles to answer all ahead flank, full speed. We ran that way for about 12 hours. We came to periscope depth to download messages and wait further instruction. We had no clue we were one of the first US forces engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom. We were the first US warship in the area after 9/11 (official Key West page).

And we waited.

At that time, we were able to email our families and friends. Submarines could download email just like radio messages. The radiomen screened them for OPSEC and delivered the ones that weren’t fishy to our emails. I really enjoyed getting updates from home and my family. But that day, emails stopped.

I was married at the time and my wife was back at our home in Honolulu, Hawai’i. The wives met and were told under no circumstance were they to discuss the events of that day with us. They were not allowed to tell us how US fighter planes were conducting war patrols over the beaches of Hawai’i. Any attempt to do so, would result in the email being delayed until it was cleaned up or not delivered at all. They complied and in a few days we started getting messages from our families again. Of course, we were never allowed to discuss ship’s operations. I don’t remember ever discussing 9/11 via email until we completed our mission.

So now days had gone by and we were still “playing war games.” We had a news service that gave us sports scores and other AP Wire updates. We were seeing reports of the attacks, but they were in the news the ship was feeding us. For many of us, we thought it was all part of the drill.

It wasn’t until we started running out of food that we began to question reality. We began to wonder how long we would be playing this game if we were running out of supplies. It all became real very soon.

One of our pressure regulating valves on a turbine generator began to fail. We could override it, but that was only when absolutely necessary to maintain ship’s capabilities. We were directed to “make it work.” When it wouldn’t work and we had to absolutely fix it, we were directed to “immediately repair the valve.”

We always affected repairs immediately. But we did it by the book. We wrote a work package. We undertook any maintenance like that with extensive controls.

Not this time. We shut down half the plant and replaced that valve while the work package was in progress. Instead of documenting the work as we did it, we would document it after the fact. We only did this when OPSEC required. Repairing the plant in this hurried manner was rare. We began to accept that the attacks had really happened.

And then the spooks came on board.

“Spook” is our affectionate term for the super secret squirrel intelligence guys. These guys could speak multiple languages. They had clearances only obtained by very few people.

The spooks came on board during first of our many at sea replenishments. We were running out of food and supplies. We had run out of laundry detergent. Some of us were gifting toiletries to our junior shipmates who had limited personal space because they were hot-racking.

They brought with them the reality of 9/11. We saw in newspapers and videos what you saw weeks prior. Nobody doubted the news reports anymore. I remember seeing that for the first time and wondering how such a thing could happen. My primary job was to defend the borders of my country. I couldn’t help but feel like we failed. This was the first attack on US soil since World War II.

Our mission was real. We had purpose. We were actively defending our homeland.

As Engine Room Supervisor, I would be called to control to help plot missile launches. My secondary duty was to support missile control in this role. I looked at a big map detailing where friendly and unfriendly ships were in relation to own ship. My job was to calculate trajectories such that our missiles didn’t fly over friendly ships or unfriendly ships with the capability to take them down. Once the missile reached the beach, TYCOM took over. When it came time to launch, some of the calculations and trajectories I calculated were used to plot the missiles. I didn’t “push the button,” but I did help tell them where to go once the button was pushed.

We spent nearly two months straight at sea. We collected intelligence. We launched our entire payload of Tomahawk cruise missiles. We did our job.

We made history.

The USS Key West was the first US warship engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom. We returned as heroes. Our reward was a return home in time for Christmas.

The USS Key West would later become the first US warship to complete back-to-back war patrols. Captain Merkel would go on to take the USS Key West into battle during Operation Iraqi Freedom, making her one of few US warships to engage in two conflicts one after the other. Her place in history was firmly established in the months that came after 9/11 and solidified in the years that followed fighting terrorism.

I went on to serve on the USS Louisiana Blue SSBN 743 homeported in Kings Bay, Georgia before I separated from the Navy after nine years of service. I will always look back on my service with pride. Most importantly, I will never forget.

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