I was sitting at my desk on Sunday night when I heard the familiar sweet “ding-dong” from my computer, notifying me I had a new email message. It happens all the time, and five or six times a day, I go through the mailbox to cull out the junk and things that are actually sent to me. I checked it right away and immediately started laughing and crying at the same time. The sender was KTMill, one of my friends in the Navy, the one who I did some stories with when he was stationed at Cecil Field, the one who’s kids went to school with mine, the one who I thought was dead.
Cmdr. Kevin Miller’s current assignment is at the Pentagon, located just inside the helipad, just a few yards away from where the direct attack happened. He was there, watching the attack on New York, thinking, “we’re next.” And he was right.
Sitting at his desk, he sensed, as much as heard or felt the shudder of the building and the rush of hot air through the office. Knowing just what had happened, he evacuated with what he hoped was the rest of his staff. It wasn’t long until he learned that a third of that staff was gone in an instant, an act of war on men and women in uniform and civilians serving their country. Kevin, or “Hozer” as he is known in the Navy, is an FA-18 pilot, a member of the Navy pilot Hall of Fame in Pensacola with more than 1,000 carrier landings. He’s the kind of guy we’re not counting on to restore our way of life.
On the front line of that battle is my friend Pat Rainey. Cmdr. Rainey is the Operations Officer on the USS Roosevelt. They shipped out on September 19th. It was a planned deployment, but now with a different purpose. I picked up the phone today and it was Pat, “Irish” as he’s known in the Navy, on the other end. “Hey Sam, Irish here,” he said in his usual pleasant demeanor. “Hey Pat!” I exclaimed, “Where are you?” I foolishly asked. “We’ve got a new plan,” he said, “we’re not talking about where we are.”
I felt pretty stupid, but quickly realized these are the new rules, the new way of life. We chatted for a few minutes before the line went dead, but not before I promised to hold up my end of the bargain here in exchange for the work he’ll be doing in the months ahead.
On the morning of September 11th, Pat and his wife Kim were on a small vacation, enjoying a few days together before Pat shipped out for six months. Pat has made Captain, so this deployment will be his final one as Commander; he gets “pinned” early next year.
I was up early and was following the events very closely. I got Pat on the phone before 10, knowing he and Kim would still be sleeping after a late night out. “Hello,” he answered in his best ‘I’m not really asleep” voice. “Pat, it’s Sam,” I said calmly. “Hey Bone, what’s up,” Pat responded, paying me a high compliment by using the “call sign” the Navy gave me during some tactical jet, back seat training I went through a few years ago.
“Look, Irish, some terrorists have attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,” I explained in as straightforward a manner as I could. I was trying not to be alarmist, knowing a military professional who’s about to be at the “tip of the sword” would want the facts, not something hysterical. To compound matters, Kim is a flight attendant, spending most of her time in the air. “You’re kidding right Bone?” Pat said as I’ve heard him say a hundred times before about things I was kidding about. “No, turn on the TV,” I told him.
Amid the fumbling for the remote control I heard the distinctive “thump” of the television coming on, then silence, then “Oh my God!” in an even tone. “Let me get my bearings and I’ll call you right back,” Irish said before he clicked off.
Over the next few hours, I talked with Pat about a half dozen times, as he got his life in order, drove to Norfolk and back twice, trying to coordinate things that were already difficult. His daughter in Houston didn’t get a chance to see him before he left as planned. His wife now sends him off, knowing full well he’s in harm’s way.
It’s guys like Kevin and Pat that give me strength, give me confidence that we’re following the right path and doing the right thing. They also give me confidence in one other important thing: