Fort Gordon Capt. Abel Tavarez was in Atlanta waiting for a cross-country flight when terrorists slammed jetliners into the World Trade Center towers.
Twelve years later, Tavarez and 100 of his peers from the 63rd and 67th expeditionary signal battalions returned home to Augusta on Wednesday after their latest deployment fighting the battles that spawned from the smoldering rubble of ground zero.
As in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, families and friends in Augusta cried, embraced and reflected on how the soldiers’ service offered a reminder that the effects of Sept. 11, 2001, are still being felt worldwide.
“Reuniting with my family on the anniversary of 9/11 holds great meaning to me,” Tavarez said while holding his daughter, Annabelle, who is 1 month old today. “Roughly a month after the attacks, I was deployed to Afghanistan from Fort Lewis, Wash., uncertain about what the future might hold. Today, I know the country is stronger, because we never forgot.”
Tavarez’s thoughts were shared Wednesday across Fort Gordon, where the anniversary ceremony took on a familiar ritual.
At 8:46 a.m. – the time the first plane struck the north tower – a police siren sounded to simulate the initial attack on the World Trade Center.
Traffic stopped and employees froze. A military bugler played taps before soldiers and civilians resumed work. The American flag remained at half-staff until 5 p.m.
About 9:03 a.m. – the moment the second plane hit the south tower – silence turned into celebration at Fort Gordon as more than 300 people in a cramped, muggy gymnasium a mile away, welcomed home the expeditionary signal battalions after a nine-month deployment to the Middle East. Those in attendance said the ceremony showed that Operation Enduring Freedom – the mission the soldiers had supported – had been fulfilled.
“On behalf of Fort Gordon, the state of Georgia and the 35th Signal Brigade, I would like to congratulate you on a job very well done that spanned eight nations and hundreds of thousands of miles,” said Col. Robert Edmonson II, the leader of the 35th Signal Brigade, the battalions’ commanding unit. “From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for your service and your families for doing a great job holding things together on the homefront.”
Among the first to reach the soldiers was Rachel Allen, snapping pictures of her husband, Staff Sgt. Cole Allen, as he held his son, Gentry, for the first time since the child turned 2 last month.
“Even though I am hot and sweaty, I still got chills,” Rachel Allen said.
The family said the realization that the calendars on their phones read 9/11 made the day more emotional.
“The emotions I’m feeling, it’s indescribable,” her husband said. “We are coming back from really the reason why we were overseas. It’s a day of happiness and joy mixed with remembrance and honor.”
The Tavarezes and Allens said their plans for the weekend include relaxing and readjusting to each other’s company after nine months of communicating by video chat and social media.
“There are no words to express what I am experiencing,” said Tavarez’s wife, Carrie, who also cared for the couple’s 10-month-old son, Malakai, and 3-year-old daughter, Zoey, during the deployment. “I was ready for him to come home the day he left.”