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9/11: Local Retired Marine Colonel Remembers

Aired 9/7/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

9/11: A local retired Marine colonel remembers and continues helping San Diego military families.

Marines at Camp Pendleton
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Above: Marines at Camp Pendleton

San Diego is far removed geographically from the 9/11 attacks - but as a key hub for the US military. Our involvement in the response was intense and immediate. Colonel Jay Anderson, retired from the US Marine Corps, remembers his assessment of attacks, his bittersweet retirement from the corp just months after 9/11 and now, his involvement in a organization which helps service members and wounded warriors.

GUEST

Colonel Jay Anderson, retired from the U.S. Marine Corps and president, Operation Homefront - Southern California

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition am I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. San Diego is far removed geographically from the 911 attacks, but as a key hub for the U.S. military, our involvement in the response was intense and immediate. Colonel jay Anderson retired from the U.S. Marine Corps remembers his assess ment of the attacks. His bittersweet retirement from the corp just nine months before the attacks of 911. It's a pleasure to welcome U.S. marine colonel Jay Anderson. Hello.

ANDERSON: Good day, Maureen, how are you doing today?

CAVANAUGH: Very well. Thank you for being with us.

ANDERSON: It's my pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: We invite our listeners, especially those in the military, to share your experiences of 911. Was this the reason you joined the service? Have you been deployed over seas? What has your family gone through? Give us a call. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Colonel Anderson, you were still part of the active military when the events of September†11th unfolded. Explain to us where you were and what you were doing.

ANDERSON: At that time, I was assigned to the Marine Corps recruit depot here in San Diego and worked up at the naval medical center in San Diego as a member of the physical evaluation board. As I was walking to the office that morning, one of the enlisted people in the building called out and said, hey, colonel, a plane flew into a building in New York. And I walked in, they had it on TV, and just moments after I walked in the room, I saw the second aircraft hit the second tower. And spontaneously remarked terrorists. I'm concluding after a few years of reflection that that probably came about because one of my assignments included a stint working in the office of the assistant Secretary of Defense for special ops in low intensity conflict there in the Pentagon. And I had been exposed to counter terrorism, and antiterrorism issues through that assignment.

CAVANAUGH: And so that's why you think you immediately went to that idea that it was terrorists that attacked the twin towers?

ANDERSON: Yeah, absolutely. One aircraft -- I think anybody could come up with a rational explanation. But two? No, it obviously to me was a terrorist attack. Then like all of us, we were mesmerized by what we saw in the days and hours or hours and days rather that followed the televised attacks.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you had a very personal sidebar experience on that day. I understand your daughter called you from her honeymoon --

ANDERSON: Yeah, our daughter had been married on September†8th. And it was probably within an hour of the attacks, she called me from her honeymoon, and her first question was when are you leaving? It's the daughter of a marine, she knew that somebody attacks our nation, marines are going to be deployed.

CAVANAUGH: But you were too close to retirement it to deploy, right?

ANDERSON: Unfortunately, the calendar conspired against me. And my 30-year, which was the statutory limitation at the time for active duty of officers, and on the ninth of February, 2002.

RIH2: Went to my retirement ceremony.

CAVANAUGH: Colonel Anderson, I know that you can remember back to that day, and think about the immediate concerns for the San Diego region. Because we are a military hub, there must have been a lot of act activity and a lot of thought given to what was going to happen here because we do not really know whether the attacks were over.

ANDERSON: Absolutely. Nobody knew what was in the mind of our enemies, were this other attacks manned? We have so many symbolic targets here. They could have been lucrative for the bad guys. As we saw in the hours, days, and weeks that followed, we had a plethora of military security, the bridge over to Coronado, the access points at the military bases are all under heavy, heavy security. As we also saw, we ended up having armed military personnel at our airport. My mother, who was a World†War†II -- or a child during World†War†II, she came down to visit, said it reminded her of the second world war right after the attacks on pearl harbor how the military jumped out to provide security to civilian locales.

CAVANAUGH: You began to realize, of course, that the military, especially marines would be deploying to respond to this attack in some way. I wonder if you would share with us what insight you might have had into the operation early on that a civilian might not have had.

ANDERSON: Well, 30†years gives you a little bit of preparation for the Marines in particular. We're very proud of one of our tag lines of being the first to fight. We are the force in readiness. And I was absolutely convinced that the Marines would be some of the first forces to deploy wherever and whenever the national command authorities decided. And that was born out by the facts as we know today. Marines went in under general Mattis into Afghanistan to take on the Taliban. So my personal concerns were hey, how can I get into the fight? And that's what marines do. A war begins or somebody threatens our country, marines deploy and engage that enemy. I tried to work to get in with the deploying forces but couldn't. The next best thing I could do was start working to see if there's any help I could provide from the background. At first, I used to say, hey, I'm on the side line, ready, suited up, throw me in the game, coach. But after my retirement, I final he realizes, no, Jay, you're actually up in the stands watching upon it's a young man's game. So I was concerned. Did the forces have the equipment? Were they properly trained? A very stark visualization is the picture I have here in the office that shows me saluting recruit graduation, which was my final act on active duty over at the Marine Corps recruit depot. You hear all the platoons online, and we're all exchanging salutes with the national flag flying behind us. Every day when I look at that picture upon arriving in the office, I wonder how many of these young men may have gone on to fight in the war either in Afghanistan or in Iraq, or both, and how many of them may have paid the ultimate price in defending our freedoms and way of life.

CAVANAUGH: You sound as if you have a great deal of regret in not being able to deploy with them.

ANDERSON: Most definitely. Every single day, I wish I could be over seas standing alongside, working alongside my fellow marines. I've had relatives who were marines who have deployed. I've had countless friends, obviously, I've worked with. Some served under me, that picked up and deployed, many of them multiple times over the last ten years. And candidly, if I could flip a switch and be over there, that's where I'd be. That was my chosen profession for 30†years.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with retired marine colonel Jay Anderson, and we're talking about not only his memories of the 911 attacks, but also about the new organization that he is associated with, called operation home front. We are asking our listeners to call in and tell us their experiences of 911, especially those in the military. The number is 1-888-895-5727. And colonel Anderson, tell us how you became associated with Operation Homefront.

ANDERSON: As we've covered, Maureen, I retired in 2002, and worked in public education fair number of years, but always felt something was missing. The war kept going on, my friends kept deploy, and I felt I wasn't doing enough. And this position with operation home front Southern California opened up, and about 16†months okay, I came on board as the chapter president. It's a nonprofit oh, that provides emergency financial and other assistance to the families of our service members. Flew out of the first deployments in response to and shortly after the attacks on 911. It started here in Southern California with some media businessmen, military families getting together and deciding who they wanted to help the troops. And as they discussed what could be done, they found that the response was a little surprising. The individuals indicated, hey, we're trained up, we know what to do. When we're gone, we need somebody back here that can help watch out after our gentlemen. And what started as a small chapter here in Southern California has now grown to a national organization with 25 chapters nationwide.

CAVANAUGH: Colonel Anderson, I think a lot of people just assume a lot of people in the civilian world just assume that when you're a member of the military, the military takes care of all of your needs and all of the needs of your family. I think a lot of people might not be aware of some of the needs that he are main unmet. Can you explain that to us?

ANDERSON: Certainly. As we know, the junior enlisted personnels don't get paid a lot. I'm not saying that they're under paid, but they're not going to get well paid. When the service members over sea, particularly in a combat situation, and something happens that provides a financial stress on the family, it can be overwhelming. Try to imagine the scene. We had a young ahead come into the office one day with her two toddlers, seeking assistance. I went out -- any time a family comes in, I go out to talk to them. The reason she was here besides seeking assistance, is she had not heard from her husband in a couple 2, 3†days in this electronic world we have, she was accustomed to getting e-mails from her husband almost every night. She had woken up this morning and heard five Camp Pendleton marines kill indeed Afghanistan. And she was scared spitless because she knew that there was only one of two likely reasons she hadn't heard from her husband. Possibly some electronic problems with the communications because it's an austere environment or she knew and all the wives know that the military locks down the communications in the event of a casualty so that a proper formal notification can be made to the next of kin. And she got out of her house, took her kids, because she knew if she wasn't there, nobody could notify her if her husband had become a casualty. Fortunately, in this case, it ended up being that there were electronic problems at the other end, and he stayed in touch with her, and she was able to reestablish contact with her husband. Imagine that stress up and down, all day, ever day, during the months and months of these deployments. Now you throw on top of that, the car breaks down. Something of that nature, a financial crisis. Most often, and I hope this doesn't come across wrong, but most often, it's the guy that takes care of the cars, and the other aspects of the home. Well, now, you have this young wife, husband's over seas fighting, and all of a sudden the car breaks down, maybe she doesn't have the $4,000 to replace a transmission like we did recently. So they're able to apply to us, we can take that little bit of that financial stress off their shoulders by paying the bill. When we do that, it's always a grant, it's never a loan. We never pay the family directly. We'll pay that automobile repair facility. We've paid rents. We've paid mortgage payments, we've paid for eye glasses for the service members' spouse and children because all the military will give the spouse and children free eye exams. They won't buy the actual glasses. We'll step upright now as school is starting to buy the glasses for the family.

CAVANAUGH: I would imagine that with the multiple deployments that a lot of marines and their families of the to deal with since 911, that only increases the need that the families have, and the kind of assistance that your organization can offer? Definitely, Maureen. We see it all the time. But over the last couple of years with the surge, our growth here was over 30% in emergency, financial, and morale needs met between 2009 and 2010. And the numbers are still? The straight vertical here for 2011. We have families that even before the service member returns, they already understand when he's going to go back over seas. And it's not always just the guys, we have a lot of women deployed. We have families we've helped where it's both the husband and wife are both concurrently deployed. So the need for the assistance is considerable. We're also seeing a baby boom, believe it or not. And I think back to my day, and the guys I served with, when we went over seas for the first time together and came backing all of us had kids about the same age.

CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. Yeah. Colonel Anderson, it's been said that this war has been fought by a very small percentage of the American people that most of America remains untouched by these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is there a feeling among the people that you coo deal with in the Marines and other branches of the military that maybe the larger community of America isn't really pitching in as much as it should?

ANDERSON: Great question. I know when we have our larger events, our morale events, one of the comments I get from the families is they didn't realize that people really do care. And we had some events down recently when we were giving out back packs full of school supply, and we had hundreds of volunteers assisting, and this is overwhelming sometimes for a young military wife to come through with her child and see all these people who are willing to give of their time. And we're fortunate here in San Diego because we get to see our soldiers and sailors quite often. You can't basically go to work and come home every Kay without seeing either a car with a military decal or a service member in uniform. But broadly, the greater war, ten years on, I think that's what's led the first lady and second lady of the U.S. to start an initiative called joining on forces where they've reached out to the private sector to see what it can do to help military families. There's a lot of assistance that's needed, not just here but nationwide.

CAVANAUGH: As we move toward the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 911 this weekend, colonel Anderson, what are your thoughts for those who served and who are continuing to serve?

ANDERSON: Admiration. We have young men and women who in the last ten years have joined the military with a certainty that they would be deploying to combat zones. They have been ready to step up as did the World†War†II generation, to stand tall in the if uniforms of the military branches to serve their country. It wasn't like in the interwar years where it was join the service, see the world, earn trade. It was join the service and help defend your country. So I have undying and unwavering admiration for these young men and women. Their families are undergoing a tremendous amount of stress, military life is stressful, and now with the economy unfortunately and the stresses it provides, my admiration extends to them as well. With people that have had multiple deployments, the challenges of raising children, the challenges of meeting their financial obligations, these are just outstanding young Americans. And with less than one% of America serving in the armed forces, all of us owe them a tremendous amount of gratitude for what they're doing for us.

CAVANAUGH: Even speaking with retired marine colonel, Jay Anderson, president of Operation Homefront. Thank you so much.

ANDERSON: Thank you, Maureen. I appreciate the time.

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