This piece represents the views of the author and not U.S. Customs and Border Protection or the Department of Homeland Security
It was midafternoon on September 11, 2001. Time in Germany is about seven hours ahead of the East Coast time in the United States. I was working on some maintenance reports for the motor pool in my office when the phone rang. It was my company commander.
“Sergeant Tinoco, how long will it take you to activate the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) and shut down this base?”
Still not knowing what for: “Should only take me about an hour, Sir.”
“Okay. The United States is under attack. I’ll give you 30 minutes to shut this place down and then report to our conference room for a meeting.”
“Roger that, Sir.”
By this time, I thought I had seen and done a lot in my Army career. I was wrong… so wrong.
Without hesitating, I began calling all the soldiers of the QRF. The message was simple: “Drop what you’re doing, gear up, draw your weapons, and link up with me in front of the company headquarters.” I closed the message by telling them all with a stern voice, “This is not a drill!” I needed them to know that every second was crucial.
After notifying the entire team, I called the Military Police office and coordinated our efforts with them so that neither team spent time doing something that had already been done by the other. I closed the shop up and quickly made my way to the company headquarters. Half of the team was already there; the other half made it to our rally point a minute or two later.
The company executive officer (XO), First Lieutenant (LT) Tingley, and I had a good team of soldiers for the QRF. I quickly gave them all the same statement that had been given to me: that the United States was under attack. I broke them into four teams and gave each team a set of instructions and responsibilities. Several minutes had already passed.
“We have less than 20 minutes to shut this place down and ensure everyone in here is secure! Nobody comes into this base without our say-so! Nobody leaves this base without our say-so! I will be standing by the radio and waiting for you all to report back to me and let me know that your areas are secure! Any questions?”
In that moment, none of us knew what was going on. All we needed to know was that America was under attack, we needed to act on that and nothing else mattered. It’s what we do as soldiers, it’s what’s required of us, demanded of us… expected of us.
The entire team did everything they had been trained for. The LT and I had drilled them to death in preparation for any emergency response the base might require of us should the need ever arise. The fact that the Bad Aibling, Germany, base was considered a spy station of sorts meant we had to prepare for anything and everything. Yet it’s safe to say that the LT and I had never imagined needing the QRF for something like what was taking place on that day.
Hard to believe this was 20 years ago. I had just completed a deployment to Bosnia and had already dealt with death in a way no person should ever have to experience. Trust me when I tell you that cleaning up a mass grave site is no easy task and not one easily forgotten.
And yet, this was different. My home was under attack. This wasn’t happening inside a foreign country. This was personal and it demanded that I hold true to the oath I had taken. This… I had never experienced.
As we worked incessantly to secure the installation, thousands of brothers and sisters I had never met were more vigilant than ever as they listened to the news on the radio that day. These amazing men and women were already doing what they could to safeguard our borders and our ports of entry. It’s important to note that smartphones didn’t exist back then and there were no streaming services available. No, the brave men and women of Border Patrol and Customs could only listen intently as panic, fear and shock flowed through the speakers of their service vehicles.
It didn’t matter what your profession was at the time nor where you were in the world, the news of the September 11 attacks spread quickly and it paralyzed the entire globe. The shock of hearing about and witnessing the devastating images of such an attack was something none of us had ever experienced before.
And what about those individuals who were at Ground Zero: the countless first responders rushing to make a difference and save lives without hesitating nor pausing for one moment to consider their own safety. Through the years we’ve all seen the coverage of that day and the crushing aftermath of having so many loved ones lost.
Whether you were in the military, in law enforcement, working for Customs, Border Patrol, or if you were a firefighter or a medical professional, one raw emotion flowed through all of us: the desire to do what we could no matter how small or insignificant it might all seem now. Our homeland was under attack and many of our people were suffering because of it. We could pray and wish to be able to help some way, to somehow reach out and let New York know that our hearts and desires to protect them stretched across the land of our beloved country and from nations across the world.
And yet… we were probably all saddened and frustrated by the fact that we were too far away to help. See, it takes a special person to run toward danger in complete disregard for your own safety in order to protect complete strangers. First responders, soldiers and law enforcement officers willingly do this daily. That day, though, not a single person in New York was a stranger. No, they were all our friends, our co-workers, our brethren… our family… OUR AMERICAN FAMILY and if you’re truly honest with yourself, we were ALL New York. Something else that we can’t deny is how this horrible attack impacted people from all walks of life. It didn’t matter what nationality you were, what religion you practiced, what profession you held at the time nor the color of your skin. We were all impacted in one way or another. We all shared the pain and the shock of it all. And most importantly, WE ALL CAME TOGETHER AS ONE.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) didn’t exist on September 11, 2001. The agency wasn’t established until nearly two years later on March 1, 2003. I left the United States Army in December 2003 and was once again taking an oath of office in November 2005. Something about wanting to continue serving my country made me want to don another green uniform and do whatever I could to serve the community around me and my country in general.
In these past 20 years, we’ve all evolved in one way or another. We’ve had to. Times change, our circumstances change and we have the choice to evolve into someone who can deal with all these changes and still do good for ourselves, our loved ones and our surroundings.
This is what I love about our first responders whether they be doctors, nurses, EMTs, police officers, our fire departments and of course the men and women of CBP along with our amazing military. They all come from ALL WALKS OF LIFE and yet so many of them share surprisingly similar stories in upbringing and life experiences. But to me, it’s their many differences that make everything they do so amazing and deserving of my respect and admiration.
They are all heroes. Their uniforms, badges and scrubs don’t define them as such. No, one must look further into their hearts and souls to see the hero that lives inside them. I say inside because on the surface they’re all just regular folks like you and me. They have issues just like everyone else does. Life has placed many challenges in front of them just as it has done to us all. The trials and tribulations of family life along with the many struggles and sacrifices that their chosen careers entail are just as difficult for them as it is for anyone else who walks this earth. The major difference is that they’ve all made a public announcement… a promise… an oath to protect us.
Who does this? Why would they? They don’t owe us anything and yet they volunteer to take a bullet for us if necessary. They promise to run into a burning building to try to save us. They willingly walk down the darkest alleys of humanity to try to keep our communities safe. So many others have vowed to work day and night in an attempt to keep us alive and risk a bit of their own humanity with each life that is lost. If that isn’t sacrifice, then I don’t know what is.
Aren’t they deserving of such title? A title we all grow up with as kids when we first gaze at our own parents as heroes. A title that carries the weight of the world with it. These individuals see and experience things that most people can only read about and still not fully grasp the gravity of it all. How can we? We only hear of the tragedies on the radio or see the images on our smartphones and televisions. We don’t get to witness it all firsthand as they do. We don’t spend 10 to 12 hours inside hell, then go back home and pretend everything is okay.
Some days these amazing men and women go home and hug their loved ones a little tighter than usual. They hold on to their spouses and kids a few moments longer. In those moments, they’re happy and relieved to still have something pure in their lives. A reason to keep doing what they do. A reason to fight for and to continue having hope. Some days these courageous men and women actually reach home and sit inside their vehicles a while longer. They struggle to suppress what they’ve just witnessed. They struggle to keep those things away from their own homes, from the people who mean so much to them.
They do these things because their promise to protect, defend and to save lives is not something they only do while on shift at work. No, that is a promise that lasts 24 hours a day – all year round. Did I mention their strength? How strong must these incredible men and women be to work through that promise… that oath, every second and every moment of their lives? It isn’t something they can just turn on and off at will. Their desire to fulfill that promise burns inside them constantly. It’s in their blood. How could it not be? They were raised by heroes themselves.
So, on this day, the 20-year anniversary of September 11, 2001, I have a few favors to ask of you: Let’s remember and honor all the people we lost during those attacks. They should never be forgotten. Let’s also give thanks to the many courageous souls who gave their all trying to save the people of New York and who fought against terrorism afterwards. They answered the call when no one else would.
Lastly, let’s come together and give our heartfelt gratitude to all the men and women who have made that promise to protect us and save us from the many dangers that exist in this world. They are the strongest human beings on this earth, but it’s our gratitude and our love that grants them the strength they need to keep walking down those dark alleys of the world and our own communities. Let’s make sure they know we’re here for them as well should they ever need someone to talk to or simply need us to listen.
When they come home, be cognizant of that longer embrace and return the favor. Look out for that solitary, uncomfortable moment and talk to them. Bring them back to a place where they feel appreciated and grant them the strength to pin on that badge again, to don those scrubs or uniform once more and go face the world knowing that what they’re doing matters to us all. Remember that although they may never have this conversation with us, they walk out our doors on their way to work not knowing if they’re coming back.
God bless them all. God bless America.