'Ein Tag des Ungluecks, ein Tag der Freundschaft' / 'A day of tragedy, a day of friendship'

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Joe W. McFadden
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Nearly everyone has their own 9/11 moment-- the exact time, place and what you were doing when you first found out about what happened that day.

For many, their minds go back to a breaking-news alert on TV or the radio. For some, it was a phone call from a loved one to see if they were safe. And sadly, there were those whose families would forever be disrupted during the events of that "day of fire."

My 9/11 moment occurred just outside our house in a German village in Bavaria in a language I hardly knew and among neighbors I'd hadn't yet met.

My younger sister, Megan, and I recently began high school at a Department of Defense Dependents School in Ansbach, Germany. My family had just moved there from Texas weeks earlier for my step-father's new job with the U.S. Army.

We and our fellow classmates didn't learn of the unfolding tragedy until after getting home from school, unlike our stateside peers who just arrived at school to tune into the news from New York City.

The difference in the time zones and geography only underscored our genuine shock for the loss of lives as well as our sense of homesickness for having recently left.

All Americans, no matter where we called home, knew the tragedy wasn't confined to state boundaries or regions. It affected us all. The same could be said for the world community as seen in the outpouring of compassion and prayers for the victims and their families.

Our house didn't have Armed Forces Network yet, so our TV only played local German channels. When Megan discovered the local afternoon programming changed to a live feed of New York City, we knew something had gone wrong. At that time, we didn't have the internet set up yet or carry cell phones -- a seemingly primitive concept now in the age of social media and interconnectedness.

Our desire to learn more of the situation and find answers came through live reports of the news anchors in German. We couldn't understand the words, but the need for interpretation gave way to the stronger emotions of reacting to another plane striking the second tower.

We needed a break from watching the TV reports and stepped outside. The local farm village of Brodswinden -- our new "home" of the past few weeks and soon-to-be for years -- could not have looked or felt more foreign to us as it did then. Having just left everything we knew in America, we couldn't get past the initial feeling of being out-of-place or a stranger in a strange land.

As we came to grips with these new realities, we noticed two of our German neighbors standing outside their doorway across the street. We exchanged a head nod from across the road, as if it symbolized the gulf between us regarding language and culture. The friendly gesture, however limited, was all we could afford.

Suddenly, one of them noticed my sister was on the verge of tears and, presumably, inquired as to why in German. I fumbled around with my fresh grasp of their language to convey our assessment of what was taking place. We pointed to our house and said "TV" a few times, hoping those two letters would bridge the barrier.

They nodded and went back into their house. Shortly, they came back to the doorway, and the solemn looks on their faces equaled our own.

In that moment, we wanted to express our concern, anger, confusion and despair but couldn't find the outlet. We knew our neighbors did, too -- but there was something very basic about that day. It was a day where no words could sum up how we felt. And even if we could find them, the raw moment alone would have sufficed.

I remember them saying something again in German to us. I feigned comprehension, but on a gut level, it felt as if they said they felt it, too, and expressed sorrow. We each returned to our houses to see the latest updates, while Megan and I awaited our parents return home.

I now realize that brief, pained moment in the street of our village not only represented my 9/11 moment, but my family's true introduction to the international community.

I never would have experienced this moment had it not been for the Department of Defense sending my family to Germany. I'm forever grateful for the opportunity, as well as to our German friends and neighbors for their understanding and comfort during the dawn of this new era.

Twelve years later, as I'm now stationed back in Germany as an Airman, I share my 9/11 moment knowing that understanding, peace and solidarity between our peoples is as strong and even stronger than it was when it was forged during that dark day - "Ein Tag des Ungluecks, ein Tag der Freundschaft," which translates to "A day of tragedy, a day of friendship."