Army Vet Reflects On 9/11: 'Was It All For Nothing?'
Tabitha Nichols was sitting in her 10th grade algebra class when she first heard of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It was surreal,” she said. “It felt like someone had broken into our home. I was in shock just sitting there watching the TV.”
Sixteen months later, Nichols, just 17, signed up for the U.S. Army. Her mom and dad, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, had to sign a waiver because she was underage.
Nichols said 9/11 wasn’t her sole reason for joining, but it was “a big push.” She remembers talking to her dad about signing up for the Army.
“He asked me, ‘Are you sure, baby? Are you sure you know what war is?”
Fast forward to 2005. Nichols was deployed to Iraq. It wasn’t necessarily the war she thought she would be fighting, but no one asked questions, she said.
“The plan was Iraq first and then Afghanistan. Saddam (Hussein) was here and we were going to find him,” Nichols said.
On her third day in Iraq, Nichols volunteered to drive the Humvee (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle) for a mission. It was a dangerous offer, but she rationalized that whether she was in the camp or in the battlefield, it was all dangerous.
“We were in a red zone and getting hit three to four times a week,” she recalled. “I figured I could die at camp or on the mission and at least see some of the country.”
Before they left, she heard a loud explosion off in the distance. She went to look for her first sergeant, or “Top,” as he was called.
“Then my feet came off the ground and I was thrown back first against the bunker,” she said. “I was lying on the ground and I saw all these flashes from my life. My high school graduation, my prom, me at the club just a few weeks before. There was a ringing in my ear.”
Nichols didn’t realize how badly she was injured until she came to and took a step coming out of the bathroom. There was a “sharp, shooting pain” going up to her back. At the medical treatment tent, they found she fractured and dislocated several ribs, two cervical vertebrae, and two lumbar vertebrae. They gave her “a shit-ton” of pills. She had to walk with a cane for a week. She continued her tour and still went on missions.
“I was in so much pain and a deep depression,” she said. “But I had to power through and kind of mind-over-matter-it.”
Coming back home was a rough transition, to say the least. She felt alone and misunderstood.
In 2008, Nichols left active duty. Still, the war continued. She hated watching news coverage of the war on terrorism. It didn’t tell the whole story of what she saw.
“The news wasn’t saying what I needed to hear,” she said. “I feel like they didn’t properly cover all of the soldiers’ deaths.”
Since leaving the Army, Nichols has been an advocate for service members and their struggles, sharing her experiences in productions of “Telling: Pensacola” in 2015 and “She Went to War” in 2019, both productions of The Telling Project.
Nichols admits she doesn’t often think too much about the 9/11 anniversary when it rolls around. But this year “hits different,” she said. Watching the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent attack at the Kabul airport, which killed 13 U.S. service members, has been difficult to process.
“I was sad and disappointed, frustrated and angry,” she said of watching the withdrawal. “There’s also a little bit of confusion. A lot of veterans are thinking ‘was it all for nothing?’”
Nichols didn’t make it to Afghanistan but feels a kinship to those who have served in the past 20 years.
“They’re all my brothers and sisters,” she said. “Talking to them as they got back I learned a big difference in Afghanistan was that it had mountains. It was just the same war with mountains.”
This anniversary has caused Nichols to take time and reflect on the impact 9/11 had on the world — also on her life.
“It was a changing moment and it was a complete 180 for my life as I knew it,” she said. “After that I made the most major life change. It kind of raised me.”
On this 9/11 anniversary, and every day, Nichols wants citizens to understand the sacrifices made over the last 20 years — despite whatever opinions they have over the war and how it ended.
“I don’t even know how to explain to someone so they could fathom the amount of service and strength there was from firefighters to police to military,” she said. “It’s more than a cool uniform. We want to be proud of our service and have our service have a purpose. I don’t focus so much on 9/11 as a day, but what started happening that night. What America did after (the attacks). That’s my purpose.”