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The Pentagon Memorial in Washington, D.C., featuring 184 empty benches

Twenty Years Later: Dolphin Heroes Reflect on 9/11

There once was a time when airline passengers could board their flights without first removing their shoes, and carry-on liquids were not limited to 3.4 ounces, and families could wait at the gate for loved ones to depart and to arrive. There was a time when crowds and corporate penthouses were nothing to fear, and buildings were prized for being tall, and everyone coveted the top floor. There was a time once when America was more naïve and more secure on its own soil, and when the Manhattan skyline was a modern marvel instead of the bullseye of a terrorist attack.

In an instant, all of that changed.

Twenty years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001, the nation was transformed as planes were hijacked and then crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, the south tower of the World Trade Center, the west side of the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pa., southeast of Pittsburgh.

The United States was under attack. The targets symbols of power and prestige. The casualties overwhelmingly civilian, normal everyday people doing normal everyday things, who had left their homes that morning not knowing it would be their last.

There were heroes made that day — “Let’s Roll,” Todd Beamer said before he and his fellow passengers sacrificed themselves to down the Shanksville plane before it could reach the U.S. Capitol. – and for many years after as American servicemen and servicewomen entered the war on terrorism, a massive, multidimensional campaign involving major wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.

Fred Blaz in his Marine Uniform
Double Dolphin and Marine Veteran Fred Blaz, ’18 and ’19

The war in Afghanistan would become America’s longest and would call upon service members from every state and station in the country, including many of Jacksonville University’s own alumni and student veterans. They are uniquely tied to the link between 9/11 and the military response.

Double Dolphin and Marine veteran Fred Blaz, ’18 and ‘19, was only 10 years old when the attacks occurred. “I was in 5th grade watching the morning news, a daily routine because my teacher believed there was no better way to learn history than to watch it happen, when the news switched over, and we watched the second plane crash into the tower live. I will never forget my teacher standing up and saying that we were under attack and that he was pretty sure it was Osama bin Laden, who was behind the recent USS Cole bombing. I remember a sense of fear, anxiety and sadness in the community. For me, that was the moment that I knew I had to join the Marines.”

Ray Meyers, a Navy student veteran currently pursuing an accelerated Bachelor of Science in nursing, was under the Atlantic Ocean aboard a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine as the events of 9/11 unfolded. “The crew of the submarine had manned battle stations, and we were at maximum readiness for battle and strategic defense. The mood of the crew was a combination of unbelief, fear and anger. We had started initiating protocols and authenticating orders that put us in a posture to be the first strike and/or last defense of our nation.”

Army student veteran Tornald Hall, currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration, was driving to work at the Camp Blanding Joint Training Center in Starke, Fla., when the news broke on the radio. “After arriving to work, my comrades and I were all surprised as we watched the heartbreaking video images of the carnage and aftermath of the countless number of victims lost during the terrorist attacks. Our units were all placed on high alert as we waited for additional instructions from higher headquarters on our mission to deploy wherever our commanders directed us to go.”

Ray Meyers Navy Uniform Photo
Navy Student Veteran Ray Meyers

In the wake of 9/11, a darker day dawned over the armed forces, and missions pivoted quickly to address new threats and strengthen security. For the Marine Corps that meant focusing more on land-based desert and urban operations. “During my time on active duty, I was one of the few Marines in my peer group who actually went to sea on a Navy ship,” Blaz said.

The Navy poured additional resources into special warfare technology designed to assist SEAL teams and marine reconnaissance units conducting counterterrorism and localized conflict operations in remote areas around the world. “In 2006, I was assigned to the USS New Hampshire whose mission and purpose was submarine counterterrorism,” Meyers said. “It was only fitting and appropriate that the ship’s sponsor was Cheryl McGuinness of Portsmouth, N.H., the widow of Thomas McGuinness, co-pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, who died in the September 11, 2001, attacks when the jet was flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center.”

The Army trained additional reserve units in skills including mine probing, personnel and vehicle searching techniques, and other mission-critical tasks. “After 9/11, I completed two combat supporting OIF-1 and Enduring Freedom tours spanning over two and a half years on foreign soil,” Hall said. “My Soldiers and I completed countless deadly missions by ground and air to support the United States and its national interest.”

Tornald Hall in his Army Uniform
Army Student Veteran Tornald Hall

On Aug. 30, 2021, as the last soldier left Afghanistan, Blaz, Meyers and Hall had mixed emotions. Like so many of their fellow service members, they had not only witnessed the beginning of the War on Terrorism but had been a part of it.

“I watched the Garmsir District, where I deployed, fall to the Taliban on July 23rd. It is roughly 438 miles to the Kabul Airport with no public transit and few personally owned vehicles. It is hard to believe our allies and their families safely evacuated past the Taliban,” Blaz said, adding that, “Afghans paid a heavy price for their freedom that is seldom talked about. 66,000 Afghan National Army/Police and 47,245 civilians lost their lives in this war.”

Hall and Meyers also have sympathy for the Afghans who assisted the United States as well as for anyone who has paid the ultimate sacrifice for the country. However, on one point all three men are especially clear:

Service members do not start wars, and they do not end them, but every single one is bound by the same oath – to support and defend the Constitution of the United States; to bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and to obey the orders of the president and of senior officers according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

For service members in every branch of the armed forces, these are not just words. They are a way of life for them and for their families, and while the war in Afghanistan may have ended, America’s fight against terrorism wages on. There is no end date in sight, but the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, of the senseless killing of innocent civilians, serves as a steadfast reminder of how and why that fight began.

By Jacqueline Palsha
Director of Communications