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Navy sailor saw 9/11 attack from ship

Mike Roberson said the almost decade-old attack on the World Trade Center buildings changed his outlook on his work and his friends.

Editor’s note: It’s been almost a full 10 years since the 9/11 tragedy forever changed the world we live in. Smyrna-Vinings Patch wants to hear from readers about how the events of that day possibly changed your life's viewpoint. We present here the first such story.

Like many from his generation, Mike Roberson remembers Sept. 11, 2001, as the day he grew up.

Roberson works as project manager of Operation: Soldier at Ease, an outreach program through Conflict Resolution Academy in Smyrna that aims to outfit America’s military men and women with conflict resolution skills.

But a decade ago, the then 22-year-old Roberson was stationed on the U.S.S. Detroit, a fast combat support ship whose homeport was the Earle Naval Weapons Station in New Jersey, about 60 miles south of Manhattan.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Roberson was onboard the ship when his friend came to him and said he thought the World Trade Center was on fire. Roberson and his crewmate went to the top of the ship to see if they could get a look at the towers with the ship’s binoculars. It was then that he saw United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower shortly after 9 a.m.

“It was, I don’t know, kind of just shock and awe,” he said. “I don’t think I believed what I saw at first. We were looking through, then we kind of looked at each other like, ‘Did that just happen?’ I couldn’t tell you. It was a brief moment before bells went off for general quarters. We switched over to emergency response mentality: knowing where to go, what to do and how to do it. That’s what we did. We did what were trained to do.”

Roberson joined the Navy in 1999 as an alternative to college. He explained that in his first few years in the service his assignment didn’t feel like work, but all that changed after 9/11.

“When I joined the military there weren’t any wars going on,” he said. “The Gulf War was well over. We had a couple incidences in ’99 that we responded to, but it wasn’t really war-sized thing. I went from having a job that was ‘Yeah, you guys get to play with weapons and fire things.’ We get to have fun with our jobs because we get to blow things up and do things like that, but we always thought, ‘Aw, there’s not going to be a war for a few more years.’ Just by the trend of wars we didn’t think there was going to be one anytime soon. And it went from that to we are doing our job. We’re on mark.”

Immediately after the second plane hit the tower, Roberson and his crewmates began loading artillery and getting the ship ready to deploy. He said that a procedure that normally took four days took them about five hours to complete.

For the first five days following the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S.S. Detroit supplied other vessels in the fleet and patrolled the coast, and on Sept. 16, they were allowed to come back into port, though it hardly felt like coming home.

“When we used to pull out and pull in, the towers were one of the first things you’d see of New York,” Roberson said. “We’d pull right in at Sandy Hook, which is below New York on the New Jersey side, and that was one of our mile-markers. Once you see that it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re almost there. It’s time to get ready to go on liberty.’ But, not seeing that and knowing we weren’t going anywhere, it wasn’t like we were coming home anymore—something missing, something gone.”

Roberson said that 9/11 not only changed his attitude about his job, but also his relationships with some of his friends.

“After 9/11 it just changed,” he said. “It changed everything. There are a lot of people that I just don’t even talk to now, that I used to be good friends with before then. I just can’t relate to them. I couldn’t relate to them anymore. It’s just change.

Almost 10 years after the attacks, Roberson has honorably separated from the Navy, but he will always carry his time in the armed forces with him.

“I don’t even look back at my civilian life prior to that and think without military thoughts and combat thoughts,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t see the world through those eyes anymore.”

Schitzngrins September 05, 2011 at 07:17 PM
(Part 3) I did not have the luxury of watching the recent tragic events unfold on tv., I got to SEE it, HEAR it and SMELL it in real time, in real life, up CLOSE and VERY PERSONAL. This was not some surreal horror unfolding on a screen in front of me; there was no changing the channel. I now do not have the luxury of being able to sit in the comfort of some secure location, far removed from the devastation, the full weight and horror of which manifests itself more within my soul with each passing day, and opine as to why this attack was launched. But rest assured, as someone who has stood in the line of fire, to say that this is not an attack on U.S. citizens but an attack on U.S. foreign policy, is both laughable and insulting. I would suggest that those that feel this way should walk home with me tonight, and see as I have for the past several days the dozens of parked tractor trailers that line the West Side Highway, ghostly machines that await an unimaginable cargo. To the casual observer, they probably do not stand out, appearing very much like the myriad machines that seemingly incessantly come and go from the former site of the WTC to support the clean up efforts there. These trucks aren't moving however; they just sit there, dozens of them.
Schitzngrins September 05, 2011 at 07:17 PM
(Part 4) Yet to the trained eye, they do stand out. They are refrigerated tractor-trailers. And they are waiting. Waiting to haul the corpses of more than 6,000 citizens whose only crime was that they showed up to work on Tuesday to earn a living and support their families. Waiting because the extent of the structural damage caused by these horrific acts so gruesomely mangled the remains of these murdered innocents that, at least on the periphery, they may be indistinguishable or inseparable from the rubble. And when these trucks are eventually filled, it will likely be with remains so traumatized that they will be unidentifiable even by their most intimate beloved. These are just a small sample of the images that I witnessed last week, and which now accompany me to and from work everyday. This is my new reality. So to those that say, "This is not an attack on U.S. citizens but an attack on U.S. foreign policy," let me say this. My name is XXXXXXX XXXX. I am a citizen of the United States of America, and I was attacked last week. Let us stand tall, let us stand proud, and let us stand free. But above all else, let us stand together."
Schitzngrins September 05, 2011 at 07:19 PM
NOTE: @ the time he wrote this, the reports of deceased victims were still quite high. Thus the 6000 figure.
Rio September 06, 2011 at 01:03 AM
Chris, thank you so much for sharing.
Hunt Archbold September 06, 2011 at 02:14 PM
Chris, those are some powerful words your cousin wrote. Thanks to you both for sharing.

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