9-11 Impact: One Family’s Call to Serve

Renee NickellBy Renee Nickell7 Minutes

Book Excerpt Taken from Always My Hero: The Road to Hope and Healing Following My Brother’s Death in Afghanistan by Renee Nickell


Renee Nickell’s brother, Major Samuel Griffith of the United States Marine Corps, was an F-18 aviator before transitioning to a Forward Air Controller, deploying to Afghanistan with the 4th ANGLICO. Sam tragically lost his life in combat on December 14, 2011.

Sam and Robin always emailed me their pictures of their Halloween costumes each year (before social media). I admired both their sense of adventure and zest to live in the moment … and so they did. What else should you do when tragedy strikes like that of 9/11?

I’ll never forget that day. How could I? How could anyone who was old enough to remember? It was just around 8 am. and I was sitting on the edge of our bed when the phone rang. “Renee, turn on the TV, a plane just hit a tower in New York,” my mom almost yelled through the phone. I turned on the TV as I hung up the phone. Horrified, Gentry and I began discussing how an accident like this could happen. All those people injured. All those lives lost.

Wide eyed, we were glued to the screen. Just then, right before our eyes, we saw it happen again … another plane flew into the second tower at exactly 8:03 am. The explosion was nothing I had ever seen before. I couldn’t believe it was happening. That moment, I and every other American knew … the first one could have been an accident, but the second … this was no accident. The United States was under attack.

Following suit, the Pentagon was struck at 8:37. We waited and watched with the rest of the world as screaming people ran for their lives. It was like watching a horror movie. How could this be real? At precisely 8:59, the first tower collapsed. We knew there were thousands of people who would burn to death and lose their lives prematurely. People jumped out of buildings and fell to their deaths on live TV; moms and dads who would never return home to their families. A fourth plane headed for the Capitol in Washington, D.C. for the same destructive purpose, but due to the heroic actions of its passengers, crashed in a Pennsylvania field near Shanksville. Reports came in with recordings of the heroic passengers calling their loved ones to tell them goodbye. The second tower collapsed at 9:28.

I’ll never forget how Gentry looked at me that fateful morning. “Renee, we’re going to war. I have to serve my country.” As tears ran down my face, I raced to our mom’s house just a few miles away. I pulled in quickly, leaving slight skid marks on her drive as I braked the car to a screeching halt. I ran up her porch stairs. As I flung the porch door open, she met me there. We just grabbed one another and cried. “Mom, Gentry’s joining the military,” I stuttered through my tears.

“Sam … I just know he’ll be going too. He’s been training …” she replied. That moment was repeated all over the country that day and became real to thousands of military families. Many families I know today had sons and daughters who made the heroic decision that day to serve their country and paid the ultimate sacrifice. Everyone can recall where they were and what they were doing on 9/11. It wouldn’t be until later down the road that I learned that Sam’s college friend, Brian, was at ground zero that day. He recently shared with me his harrowing experience on 9/11.

Brian had taken the PATH (Port Authority) train from Newark, New Jersey to the World Trade Center to attend a business meeting. He was approximately ten feet from the lobby when he heard a loud explosive crash. He thought it must have been an elevator accident. Unbeknownst to him, it was the first plane hitting the tower. Not knowing what happened, he followed others to the Trinity Church grounds. As he stood there, the second plane hit and exploded over their heads. He quickly ran to Gracie Mansion as the first building began to collapse. People were screaming and running through clouds of ash billowing from the building. When the debris cloud caught him in under a minute, he stood in a complete blackout. Once he could see, he continued to walk a few more blocks and stood in front of the federal building when the second building collapsed. Narrowly escaping with his life, he walked 70 more blocks to a hotel in which he settled for the night as he and the rest of the country mourned in shock.

Brian miraculously survived that day but will never forget his experience. He went on to marry the love of his life, and they now have two beautiful children.

I had only been married two years when I drove Gentry to the train station to ship him off to basic training. When our toddler, Kylee, wrapped her arms around his neck to kiss her daddy goodbye, I had no idea how much harder life would become for us. Not only was our future uncertain as a new family, but it was even more uncertain as a new military family who had just experienced a terrorist attack on our country. What would become of our future or the future for so many other families that shipped out that day?

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Used with permission.