Essay: The Son of a First Responder Reflects on September 11th

Loyola sophomore Aidan Cahill reflects on his dad's experience as a first responder during the Sept. 11 attacks.

I’ll start with the story. The story I’ve known since I was a kid and the story that defined so much of my life to this point. Even though I wasn’t alive to see it written. 

On Sept. 11, 2001, my father was traveling between Maryland — where he was a National Guardsman — and Alexandria, VA where he was a paramedic. On his way there, he received a call from my mom telling him that two planes had impacted the World Trade Center. My mom thought it was an accident. My father didn’t.

While he was on the phone with my mother, he looked up and saw smoke coming from The Pentagon. He hung up the phone, drove towards the smoke, and ran to assist. 

From there the story becomes hazy. I know sometime on that day my mom got a call from my dad. He passed his phone around and had her take the phone numbers from the survivors, this way their families would know they made it out. My mom couldn’t find a piece of paper so she grabbed a vacuum cleaner bag and wrote on that instead.  

Aidan Cahill Aidan Cahill’s father’s medical bag that he used on Sept. 11.

I also know that he carried a stretcher with then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. My dad yelled for help carrying said stretcher, and didn’t even realize who it was until a family member saw the video.

There’s plenty I can’t tell as well. Stories that are just too heartbreaking to repeat. I didn’t understand them as a kid, but they now put me on the verge of tears. 

Sept. 11 is not something my generation knows first hand. We weren’t alive when the attack occurred. All we know is the aftermath. Even though I wasn’t born at the time, the scars still cut deep.

My father spent the majority of my first year of life bouncing between military bases in Maryland, his first deployment coming the day of the attacks. While this was going on, my family finished moving to Pennsylvania in October 2001, and had me in January 2002.

His brother soon faced deployments as a member of the New York National Guard. Their two brothers-in-law, one an airman and the other a soldier, would also be affected. Later on, my cousin would follow in his father’s footsteps and enlist. 

Like all service members at the time, their lives would be upended by the two wars the U.S. engaged in. They all saw service in the Middle East, my father going to Iraq when I was five. All of these deployments took a toll on me as I grew up — for 20 years there was always a chance one of my family members could get shipped off to war. 

During this time I’ve watched my father suffer. War and emergency response takes a toll on you, both physically and emotionally. It strains your family, forcing you to make tough decisions and miss important events. 

Aidan Cahill Aidan Cahill and his sibling with his father prior to his deployment to Iraq.

I don’t think a day goes by where he doesn’t feel a sense of guilt over this. I hear it every time he talks to me. Every time we talk about grades or the news, it’s there. I wish it wasn’t but I don’t know the words to make it go away. 

I don’t wish the pain my family has endured upon anyone. Even after all this time, it still weighs heavily. 

Every year, my family prepares for this day. We silently mark the date, knowing the day of the week and how our schedule fits into it. As it gets closer, it feels more like a looming cloud suffocating you and making everything dark and grey. Sometimes that feeling will pop up randomly —following  the death of Secretary Rumsfeld or during a particular training at the firehouse.  

I didn’t expect it to loom so heavily this year. After all, I’m in Chicago. Far away from my home state, which contains the crash site of United 93, and nowhere near the Pentagon. I thought I could get away with ignoring it. I told an editor that I couldn’t write a piece but after seeing a display at Lewis Library, I realized I had to. While it may be easy to hide the pain this anniversary is causing, saying it out loud is therapeutic. 

On that note, I encourage you to read the stories of the fallen. Read the stories of their families and the people they saved and inspired. Look at those who came after, the soldier and civilian alike. Their stories may be set in stone but don’t let them be forgotten. 

As for the living, there’s a bit of hope. The wars are over. We can now properly assess what happened and take time to heal and cope. That’s not to say the days ahead won’t be hard but at least we can take a deep breath and move forward. 

As for my family, things may be their usual brand of insanity, but for the first time no one will be in a position where they could be sent to war. Over time my family members left the military, the last one doing so this past July. 

Overall, I’m just grateful my family —and really this country — survived the last 20 years. Sept. 11 may have devastated this nation and caused much turmoil for many families, but at the end of the day we can push forward. That’s all I can really ask for. 

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