September 11, 2011 marks the 10th anniversary of the devastating attacks that forever changed the course of American history. Our members reflect on the impact that day had on them both personally and professionally. Mark Whetstone was working at the Justice Department’s Immigration and Naturalization Service on that fateful day. As Congress stood up the Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of the attacks, disbanding the former INS, Whetstone transitioned to the new U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Currently he serves as president of AFGE National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council 119.
The day that became embedded in our minds as “9/11” started like any other day for me. I was at my work station adjudicating benefit cases for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. My phone rang and it was my wife calling to tell me that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. My thoughts immediately went to a small general aviation plane, like a Cessna. Maybe the pilot had a heart attack, but I didn’t have any thoughts of anything more sinister. I had to get back to work, so I told her I would call her later. Only minutes later my phone rang again and again, it was my wife. This time she said another plane crashed into the World Trade Center. As with many others, as soon as I heard of the second plane I knew it wasn’t something innocent. Something evil was taking place, but who knew what at that point.
I worked in a large area with hundreds of cubicle work spaces on that day. Phones started ringing, people started talking and mulling around. What was happening? People started moving to the break rooms to watch the televisions. We hung on every word from the newscasters. It was the advent of the crawl at the bottom of the television screen that we are all too accustom today. Only, we were desperate to know every detail of what was happening, so we didn’t mind the intrusion. After some time, our management came to the break room to speak with the employees. The facility director got up on a tabletop, said a few words, and then told us that the White House was looking for alien files that we may have at our facility. Suddenly, we had something to contribute – however small – to helping sift through the madness that was playing-out on the TV before us. I never saw before nor since that day a more dedicated reaction to any tasking – the employees scurried throughout each workstation looking for the alien files that may help put the pieces together in solving the puzzle. It was true emotion and dedication by Americans.
A lot has taken place since that day. Saddam Hussein is dead, Osama Bin Laden is dead, along with thousands of brave American soldiers. I remember the 24-hour news cycle that went on for weeks. Leno and Letterman tearing up when they resumed their late night shows. But, they weren’t the only ones with tears. It didn’t matter whether you were in lower Manhattan that day or in the heartland of our country, we came together as Americans; we hurt. Do you remember the members of Congress singing on the steps of the Capitol? Most of us weren’t around for Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The 9/11 I know was the Pearl Harbor of my generation. The shock, the outrage, the pain. And, I will always remember that the federal employees I worked with that day didn’t ask the politics of the President before they went looking for those files. They reacted as apolitical Americans. I was proud then as I am now of our federal workforce.