Guest Contribution by Thomas H. Parker
Michael Embrich is an American War Veteran and an advocate for Veterans’ rights. His story is a unique look at one of many 9/11 stories we will cover. The goal of this series is to explore the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the implications that they had on American life, culture, policy and values.
As a teenager from Bayonne, New Jersey, Michael Embrich found himself in a bit of a distinctive position: taking the oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies,” like his grandfather before him during World War II, and his great-grandfather before him, During World War I, in the United States Navy. Those last couple of weeks, at the very least, were slow and cold up in Great Lakes Illinois where Embrich was finishing up basic training. Then, just like that, everything changed when the USS Cole was crippled and nearly put to the bottom of the Gulf of Aden by Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen from a suicide attack. Seventeen of Embrich’s fellow Sailors were killed and many more were wounded. The Navy was put on high alert and Embrich was later recruited to join a new team of Sailors and Marines that would provide armed security for the Navy, and board vessels deemed threats by allied commands in the Middle East. “We were then briefed on that emerging threat in the Middle East,” Embrich recalled. Little did he know, he would soon see first-hand what that threat was and what it was capable of doing.
He woke up on that day and was anxious about his leave, and the summer ending.
“It was a great vacation,” Embrich remembered.
The summer was filled with him spending time at the Jersey Shore with his old Bayonne High School football teammates and classmates. Like any Sailor on leave, he was anxious and counting down the minutes that he would have to return to his ship, the super-carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) which was scheduled for a 6-month deployment later in September of 2001. Then the news reports started rolling in. Several miles from Embrich’s home in Bayonne, NJ, one plane hit the Twin Towers, then another and one also hit the Pentagon in Washington DC.
“My friends and I went over to the other part of our town which was within eye and earshot of lower Manhattan to get a better view of the towers. As we arrived on the shores of New York Harbor, I remember seeing a lot of smoke and I could only make out one tower, then the other tower disappeared. I heard about the attack on the Pentagon. That was when I knew that we were under attack and that I had to get back to my ship and my shipmates. But the events that were unfolding in front of me were unavoidable,” Embrich recalled.
There were thousands of people stranded in Bayonne NJ, shortly after the attacks. The island of Manhattan was locked down, the bridges and tunnels that attached Bayonne to New York City were closed, all flights were grounded and the lines of cars went for miles from Staten Island, New York through Bayonne, into Jersey City New Jersey.
First responders were all over attending to everything under the sun. Fighter jets were flying above, the news was reporting that more planes were missing and could be heading to Manhattan for other targets.
“I had to kind of step out of my own body for a minute and ask myself, what is happening here and what my role as a member of the military is? I knew I had to help those who I could, so that is what we did,” said Embrich.
Some of them still in high school, Embrich and his friends spent that day bringing water and food to those folks stuck in their cars, and directing others how to get around in Bayonne, what restaurants and stores were providing food and drink, and directing cars to the New Jersey Turnpike; in a direction away from the attacks or any potential further attacks. In an age before smartphones, they were providing people with whatever little information they had about what was happening and what to do.
“I learned a lot about my city that day, about its strength and resiliency. Bayonne is home to three Medal of Honor recipients and if you ever visit, you’ll easily see why,” Embrich added.
News began to trickle in and Embrich learned that both Twin Towers had collapsed. “So many emotions came over me, I grew up looking that those buildings in pure awe of their presence. Now they were gone,” Embrich recalled. “I still almost expect to see them every time I look over the New York Harbor. Like so many other Bayonne residents, they were my beacon home.”
Early on September 12th, Embrich decided to go to the former Military Ocean Terminal where some government offices still existed. It wasn’t far from his house and he wanted to see if he could get any information about how to get back to Virginia to rendezvous with his ship. By this time, the order was issued for them to head straight to the Indian Ocean to conduct strike operations against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
“That is where I saw a line of vans coming in, they were loaded with bodies from lower Manhattan.” said Embrich. “That is something I will never forget, the full gravity of the attacks and just how unconscionable they really were became very evident to me,” he added.
A few short weeks later, Embrich would find himself transiting the Suez Canal. He was manning a .50 caliber Browning machine gun as a part of a force protection team with the USS Theodore Roosevelt. He was guarding his ship and others in his battle group from the perils of the Middle Eastern transit, sniper fire or whatever else the Taliban and Al-Qaeda had planned to damage the U.S. Military force heading to Afghanistan.
“Obviously tensions were high after what happened to the USS Cole just months before,” Embrich stated.
The Navy had a few immediate missions: link-up with special operations commandos already on the ground somewhere in Afghanistan to provide air-support, take out any air defenses the terrorists would use against US forces, and stopping traffickers from moving supplies and people in and out of Afghanistan by sea.
“The fear was that Osama Bin Laden and other top-ranking Al-Qaeda operatives would try to escape justice, fleeing by sea, we weren’t going to allow that, or allow any aid or comfort to our enemies by sympathizers of Al-Qaeda,” Embrich added.
By November, the iconic flag from Ground Zero was flying on Embrich’s ship and planes from the Roosevelt were hitting targets all throughout Afghanistan in support of ground troops. Embrich’s battle group was called into action to intercept a frigate suspected of smuggling oil to aid the Taliban and Al-Qaida in their war efforts against the United States. General quarters was called, and Embrich manned his .50 caliber machine gun in order to defend his team and ship against possible threats or possible hostility by whoever was on board the ship his battle group was about to intercept. An eight-member team left the battle group, from the destroyer Peterson, to board the vessel Samra, a 250-foot cargo carrier registered with al-Aqabah.
In rough seas, a Navy sweep-team boarded the vessel and discovered 1,700 metric tons of Iraqi oil hidden beneath what appeared to be grain stores. That was why it was believed the Al-Qaida operatives and smugglers on board sabotaged and sunk their own ship. It was done to prevent the Navy from seizing their oil and capturing their ship. The Samra sunk within 3 minutes, trapping and killing two members of the sweep-team who were still on board. Engineman 1st Class Vincent Parker and Embrich’s friend, 21-year-old Electronics Technician, 3rd Class Benjamin Johnson. Four smugglers were also killed in the sinking.
“Nothing can prepare you for that. When you lose people you trained with and got to know on a personal level. When things happen that you didn’t train for, that you couldn’t train for, and there is nothing you can do about it,” Embrich said.
Embrich went on to serve on other force protection and sweep-missions, spending countless hours working with his shipmates in support of ground forces in Afghanistan. The crew took on the task of a harrowing 159 days at-sea record-breaking deployment and everything that came along with it.
Later in 2003, in support of operations in Iraq, Embrich was cited in a letter of commendation and his unit was commended for meritorious service in that war.
A New Fight
After two deployments, Embrich was ready to start a new chapter in his life. He declined a bonus offer and a promotion to stay on active duty in the Navy and decided to fall back to the Navy reserve and finally pursue the promise of his Montgomery G.I. Bill and attend college. But, to his surprise, the G.I. Bill would only cover Vietnam-era college costs since the last major legislative updates to the bill came during that time to assist Vietnam-era Veterans in their return into civilian life. The cost of college tuition/training, books and lodging in 2004-2005 was many tens-of-thousands of dollars higher than they were in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
“As one of the very first Veterans of the Post 9/11 wars, I felt an obligation to hold the government to their end of the deal of free college and job training for military service and that is what we did,” said Embrich. Embrich’s new fight would be in Washington with the United States Congress. “All over America, Veterans were coming home to unemployment and very few job prospects; they sacrificed too much not to have a fair shot at the American dream,” Embrich added.
Embrich travelled to Washington, met with key leaders in the Senate and Congress. He spoke to the media, appeared on TV, spoke at colleges and universities, worked with his local leaders and other Veterans and Veterans’ groups. All of this was done with one aim in mind – to spread awareness about their campaign and what it meant to so many.
“We went to all our local elected officials, the media, and the American public to plead our case, and they listened,” Embrich said.
Based on the input from Embrich and many other Veterans and groups, Congress and the Senate both drafted their own versions of a new bill that would cover all job training and college costs at public institutions, and most costs even at the most expensive private colleges, for Veterans. The bill would come to be known as the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008. With intense lobbying from Embrich and others, the bill passed both houses and was signed into law by President George W. Bush on June 30, 2008 and went into effect on August 1, 2009.
“It has been just over 10 years and I couldn’t be prouder of what we were able to accomplish for our comrades. The bill was life-changing for me, life-changing for many Veterans I know, and I’m sure it will be, life-changing for many Veterans who will never know our names,” Embrich added.
Since the bill was enacted, more than 377,000 Veterans have obtained a college degree. Currently, nearly 900,000 veterans are enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs using post 9/11 GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon programs. Many hundreds of thousands are getting job training for every profession from aircraft pilot, to police officer, firefighter, air-traffic-controller and many other fields.
Now, as the state commander of a major Veterans group in New Jersey, it is a part of Embrich’s duty to remember. However, it’s not like he could ever forget the path that led him here and all the lives he has changed since taking the oath to serve in the United States Military.
“It is sort of bitter-sweet. Hopefully, we can live good lives for those who didn’t come back from Afghanistan and other wars and operations. I’ve always tried to conduct myself to the standard that they set with their exemplary heroism and selflessness,” Embrich added.
When Embrich was asked, “what do you think about when you think about 9/11?”; his response was fitting of someone who lives up to that standard.
“It’s the love I remember, not the anger, not the fear, not the dreadful loss. It’s the love. The love of the Gold Star Families and 9/11 first responders, the love of my family and shipmates, and those fellow Veterans who lived through those struggles with me. The ones we gather with each year on this day, at this very spot to remember our loss and to rejoice in our love; a love that conquers all.”