Somehow this sneaks up on me every year, then hits like a ton of bricks.
I woke up on that morning, with a sense of confusion. It was late. Normally we would have been woken up at 6 am, Pacific, but we groggily rolled out of our racks at around 6:15, exhausted from the previous day's training.
I was seventeen years old, a Marine Recruit at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
Our drill instructors were nowhere to be found. We didn't know what to do, so we got dressed in our cammies and sat at the feet of our beds. There was an odd feeling in the air, a kind of silence that we couldn't put our fingers on.
After maybe 15 minutes, a drill instructor we didn't know came running through the barracks. He was obviously going through every squad bay. He quickly told us that our drill instructors had reported for security duty, that we were under attack, and that we were to remain where we were. He was wearing a flack jacket and a helmet over his neatly pressed button-up uniform shirt. He was carrying a loaded M-16.
After perhaps an hour, our Senior Drill Instructor returned. He too was wearing body armor and carrying a rifle over his immaculate uniform. He explained that the country was under attack. At first, most of us didn't believe him. The Marine Corps has been known to perform fake simulated attacks, to get recruits to think they were "going to war."
Without us saying anything about it, he acknowledged that this probably seemed like a joke, or a drill. He said it wasn't a joke. He asked us, "when is the last time you heard a plane taking off or landing at San Diego International (right next door to the Depot)?" It was then that we identified the strange silence - the airport was dead silent.
"Gents, we can't shut down San Diego International just to fuck with you. This is for real."
The rest of the day is a bit of a blur. I remember seeing our drill instructors putting up crash barriers at the gates of the depot. I remember how confused everyone was, as rumors flew around about a missile launch, about Afghanistan, about war. Yes, even on that first day I remember we were talking about Afghanistan.
Later that night, our Senior brought in a tiny, 12" television set, and a VCR. He put in a tape, the news from that morning, recorded by his wife. 116 of us, mostly kids really, sat around, in cross legged silence, and watched our world change. It felt like the beginning of something, and we knew most of us in that room would be getting involved long before it was over.