EXETER, R.I. – Jason Bernier was finishing his rotation as a US Navy Sonar Technician Second Class on Sept. 11, 2001. He was walking topside on a submarine docked for maintenance at the submarine base in Groton, Connecticut, when another submariner told him “some idiot just flew a plane into a tower of the World Trade Center.”
Small planes had struck New York City high rises before.
“I thought it must be some weekend flyer who just got his pilot’s license with a Cessna,” said 43-year-old Bernier, who went down below to the mess hall see if the crash was on the news.
In front of the television was a man who had been replacing tiles, who appeared frozen in place. His pail of sticky cement sat next to him, and a trowel in his right hand was dripping on the floor.
“He had been standing there so long with his eyes glued on the TV that all the thin-set had run off his trowel and made a stalagmite on the floor next to his feet,” Bernier said.
A couple of other people came through the mess hall, but there weren’t many people watching the news with Bernier, who said he recalls thinking, “I hope everyone is OK.”
Then he saw the second plane strike the second tower.
“It was a very surreal moment,” Bernier said. “But the training I had kicked in. I immediately walked away from the television and went to the duty officer and said, ‘We’re being attacked.’”
The duty officer saw the same thing on a TV from the officer’s ward room. Small arms were passed out and more watches were issued. An hour later, Bernier was above deck on the topsail of the submarine with an M-60 machine gun.
“I was so focused on what my job was I didn’t have time to have feelings,” he said. “Everybody was shocked but we were trained very well. You do a job and have emotions later.”
Bernier said he volunteered to go to Ground Zero, but he was ordered to remain on the submarine because he was considered essential.
In the days and weeks that followed, Bernier would sit atop his submarine and watch as other submarines and ships went overseas for the first stage of the “war on terrorism” announced by President George W. Bush.
Bernier, then 23, said his crewmates the night of the attack asked, “When are we going to sea to pay it back?” A little more than a year later, on Sept. 12, 2002, they left in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. And from the Red Sea, they were one of the first submarines to send a full payload of tomahawk missiles into Baghdad.
Now, two decades later, Bernier is considering his actions.
“We were all proud to do our service at the time,” Bernier said. “I’ll be honest with you, we didn’t think about the ramifications of what we were doing. Now that it’s been quite a few years, you start to wonder about what we hit. Who we hit.”
He says he’s no longer a stoic soldier.
“As you age, you get questions that come to your mind and feelings that you never had before,” said Bernier. “Emotions.”
Bernier lights a candle at 8:46 a.m., the approximate time the first Boeing 767 hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. It burns until it goes out.
Bernier says he tells his wife where he was and what he was doing every year on Sept. 11, 2001, and he says his wife “dutifully says nothing.”
But he’s afraid other people are forgetting the 9/11 attacks on the US.
“That really bothers me the most,” said Bernier, who is now a civilian employee at the Department of Defense. “It seems like everybody goes about their business. Even where I work, people don’t say anything. The only time I get a reaction is when they come to my office. I have a 40-inch computer monitor and every year I have it set up so on Sept. 10 it changes the desktop to a picture of the twin towers.”
“Why do you look at that,” his colleagues ask?
“The answer I give them is: ‘Because I don’t want to forget,’” Bernier says.
Bernier left military service in 2006. He spent eight-and-a-half months in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He’s never been to Ground Zero in New York, but he says everyone should take time on Saturday to remember those who lost their lives in the attacks.
“All of us need to take some time, even five minutes out of our day,” he said. “Take time to think of all the people lost and say something for them. Even if it’s just for yourself.”