Never forget

By Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras
Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul

QALAT CITY, Afghanistan — It was a day like any other, but one I’ll never forget; it was beautiful, with the sun rising behind the New York City skyline. I was a seventh grader sitting in class waiting for my teacher to call attendance.

Nothing seemed different from the day prior. Children were in the corner rushing to finish last night’s homework as the teacher was walking in with her bag full of books in her right hand and coffee in her left.

“One of my students says he just saw a plane go in the twin towers,” says Michele Mortoral with worry in her voice as she is rushing into my class.

“Tell him to stop kidding around,” jokingly says Jane Lynch, my seventh grade teacher.

My classmates are rushing to the windows to see one of the twin towers on fire, with dark smoke rising into the beautiful blue sky. The sky is beginning to turn gray, as if it is about to rain. My friends are beginning to panic and the teachers are trying to calm us to the best of their ability. There is fear and worry in the room. I am staring out the window wondering; “Why is this happening…Did the pilot fall asleep…Isn’t there a co-pilot?”

We are starting to wonder where our families are. I’m worrying about where my father could be. He is a messenger and does trips between North Jersey and New York City daily. There are days where he has to go in and out of New York City about six times a day. My mother is at her restaurant taking orders, like every other morning.

The teachers at Lincoln School are working really hard trying to continue class to keep it off our minds, but there is no way that is possible. I switch classes, from homeroom to math class. Ms. Rachel Mullane is teaching in front of the class.

Some of my classmates are staring out the window, looking at one of the twin towers burning the sky with smoke like a lit cigar. Some of them are actually paying attention in class, not understanding how big and historical this is. The rest, like me, are sitting at our desks worrying about our families.

“There is the other one,” someone yells, while pointing out the window. His pointing finger freezes in mid-air while his arm slowly shifts from left to right. He is following the plane like a sniper following a target. The class is in complete shock and very quiet, just watching.

At 9:03 a.m., I am watching a Boeing 767 hit tower two in front of my eyes. I am 12-years-old and my eyes are completely dry and focused, but at least ten other pairs of eyes are tearing. My classmates begin to panic. They feel like running out of the classroom, but Mullane is blocking the classroom door so no one can leave class. Safety is a teacher’s responsibility so it’s understandable.

“Attention!” says a familiar voice over the loudspeaker, “We are under attack but we need to remain calm.”

The voice is Michael Ventolo, my principal and a very happy person, but in his tone, I know this is too serious to think of him as a happy person behind the microphone. Fear and worry have just thickened the air. I can smell it.

“Grovert Fuentes” says Mullane, “Your mother is downstairs. Pack your books, you can go home.” I am relieved to know that my mother is well and I can go home with my mother and little brothers. One of my brothers is five and in kindergarten, in the same school as me. My two-year-old brother is at home with the babysitter.

The look my mother has on her face, I have never seen before. She is a brave woman with lots of courage. Her face reassures me that this is a serious situation.

On the ride home, my mother is telling me how worried she is about my father. She can’t get in touch with him. She’s taking red lights and breaking the speed limit. We arrive home and continue calling my father, but no answer. The cell phone towers are down and we can’t get through. The calls that can get through are giving us the busy tone.

For the next few hours, my mother and I are glued to the television, waiting to hear details. At 9:37 a.m., we find out that the Pentagon is also hit. We do not know what to do, nor what to expect, but we do know that the president is about to come on TV and make a speech.

“Today we’ve had a national tragedy,” says the President of the United States, George W. Bush. “Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.”

Finally, around 11 a.m., my father calls to tell us he is safe, and has just exited the Lincoln Tunnel, but is stuck in New York City. He is also telling us that traffic is frozen and many people are abandoning their vehicles to run through the tunnel, to the New Jersey side.

5 p.m. comes around and my father comes home. Our family is united and we are happy to see each other again.

A decade later, I am away from my family again.

I am a combat photographer standing on Afghan soil with plenty of Taliban around me. Some ask me why I volunteered for this deployment. On Feb. 21, 2010, shortly after my return from Iraq, U.S. Army Sgt. Marcos Antonio Gorra died in the line of combat. He was a hometown friend, who died on this same soil I stand on today. He died for freedom and for those towers.

I’ve been exposed to explosives, rockets, and gunfire, yet, I’m still glad to be where I am now; I’m defending what I saw 10 years ago and trying to keep the fight on their soil instead of ours.

Many ask me my reason for joining and I say, “My biggest reason is because of 9/11. It is a day that I will never forget.”

Photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras, a combat photographer assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul, stands on top of Alexander’s Castle in Qalat City, Afghanistan, July 17, 2011. (Courtesy photo)

19 thoughts on “Never forget”

  1. SrA Fuentes-Contreras, thank you for sharing your personal story.  To some extent, I know exactly you how you felt that day.  When i was a 7th grader, I lived at Ramstein Air Base and attended Ramstein Junior High School.  One morning, terrorists detonated a car bomb at USAFE headquarters, a few blocks from my home and my school.  To this day, I can remember the sound of the explosion, the view of smoke rising over the trees, and kids waiting at school for our parents to pick us up, with our teachers and principal trying to keep us calm.  To experience a terrorist attack so close to home at that impressionable age is a very profound experience.
    Thank you for your service and for what you are doing w/ the PRT in Afghanistan to make the world a better place.  Godspeed and come home safe.Amber Cargile, Lt. Col. (ret), USAFR

  2. I’m proud of you,reading your story really touch my heart. I’m sorry of the lost of the united states of america. My name is Bouchra i’m from FL but originally moroccan from Casablanca when i used to be in high school we had a terrorist attack in my city during the evening of a 05/16. I am muslim and proud to be one and I’m sure that the person who did that in NY and in my city are not muslims because in my religion killing a person is really something that never god gonna forgive for it’s like you killed all the people. this year too we had an other attack in other city in my country it’s really bad that there is people with such a bad heart like this 🙁

  3. My greast friend and brother Major Jay Parsons(U.S. Air Force S.F.) what a great day it is….You are no longer in the feilds of fire on the front line training forces so others may live….Glade you are not at F.E. Warren as Commanding Officer…..After 20+ years I geuss it just aint in you to retier….but as I said you are no longer being targeted by bullets and bombs….See you soon so we can fish that river there

  4. Hooah from a fellow ‘DINFOs trained killer!’ Thank you for sharing your story. Like you, I was in 7th grade on 9/11. As young as I was though, I realized the gravity of the situation. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family during your deployment. Stay safe!

  5. I also vividly remember that morning at Lincoln School.  I remember where every student was seated and how they reacted.  I am so proud of you!  Stay safe.     Mrs. Martoral

  6. Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras- Thank you for your service and thank you for not only sharing your personal story with us but shedding light on why service members willingly sign up to serve our great country. Stay safe on your deployment. Keep doing great things and and keep telling the Air Force story!

  7. Mr.Fuentes-Contreras: Thanks for sharing your toughts and experience about past events. Since that tragic day our world it seem not to be the same. We realized that some human being are acting like wild animals and they do because hate has consumed and perverted the human soul.I hope fot the next generations people can learn by each other and learn to respect all the human beings as they are.

  8. With rememberance day in the UK recently it’s important to reflect and think about the people that have lost their lives to keep us all safe. Our world hasn’t been the same since those horrific events.


  10. Hi everyone, my name is Russ, the CEO and Founder of Evertalk. Evertalk is an app on Facebook for creating social tribute and memorial pages. On Veterans Day and the rest of the month of November, we are providing Veterans and enlisted servicemen and women with free tribute pages on Evertalk.  They can create a moving tribute like this one created for Pat Tillman:

    With each new tribute page created, we are building the social tribute and memorial wall on Evertalk within Facebook. I personally hope you will create a nice tribute page for this brave individual.

    Thank and regards,

    Russ HearlCEO & FounderEvertalk

  11. I remember watching TV  with my father at 11  years old. my mother was working on the 92nd floor of the South Tower. Not knowing if my mother was alive or not as i watched the aircraft crash into her tower. she ran down 92 flights of stairs. i am extremely lucky to still have her with me today. Which is why i serve today.

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