By GREG SCELLIN
I’m sure many can remember what they were doing and where they were when the first hijacked American Airlines Boeing 767 smashed into one of the World Trade Center towers 20 years ago.
One Geneva man felt the effects of the terror attacks in New York City and the subsequent Operation Enduring Freedom even though he was serving his country 7,000 miles away from home.
Geneva High School graduate Martin Seward (Class of 1998) was in charge of U.S. Marine Corps Barracks 217 at Camp Fisher in Okinawa Japan when al-Qaeda became a household word in America on September 11, 2001. Seward joined the U.S. Marine Corps shortly after graduation. He signed up for four years in December of 1998 and received his basic training at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He reported for duty in Okinawa Japan in July of 1999.
He quickly moved up the ranks and was Sergeant in charge of the 130-150 Marines in Barracks 217 from November 2000 until November 2001. The U.S. military returned to Japan in July of 1957 to replace the Far East Command. There are six American military bases on the island of Okinawa including the combat airbase Seward was assigned to. Currently, there are 26,000 U.S. military personnel stationed on Okinawa.
When interviewed by The Signal, Seward said his base had been on alert for about a week before 9-11 due to the heightened possibility of terrorist attacks. The statement included unconfirmed information of ‘terroristic actions’ against U.S. military facilities or against establishments frequented by U.S. military personnel.
“We were on a heightened alert, which means you couldn’t leave the base,” said Seward from his insurance office in downtown Geneva last week. “They would let us know when you could leave again…that happens a lot. It wasn’t unusual. It happens a lot during that season (typhoon season in Japan). You know you’re going to be at base for one to two weeks.”
He said besides the typhoons that were common in the area—in fact the Category 3 typhoon named Nari hit the island and the Japan mainland killing 104 people three days after 9-11, something could have happened in town or something occur at the large neighboring U.S. Air Force base to cause for the heightened alert to be in place.
“I don’t think a whole lot of people were concerned about it at the time,” Seward said.
Then, the unthinkable happened in New York City, the Pentagon and in upstate Pennsylvania.
“We were in formation…everyone reported for work,” Seward said. “Then, information was coming in and things were getting confirmed. When the Pentagon got attacked, we started grouping together in the commons area. We were getting the same info as any U.S. citizen was getting.”
Seward said, the military TV on the base airs segments from CNN, other news outlets, in random order and that information, along with official information, was being passed along.
“It seemed the more you knew, the worse it got,” Seward said. “And on a large base like that, you had a lot of people from New York, and other places.”
One of those people was a Marine in Seward’s unit from New York City whose parents worked at the World Trade Center and who also knew his little sister probably would’ve been at daycare in the building at the time of the plane crashes. Seward said, the Marine tried frantically to get in touch with family back in the States, but was unsuccessful.
Because of his post as unit leader, Seward had two rooms for personal use. He had the Marine move into one of his rooms.
“He stayed in my second room for the rest of the month,” Seward said. “My job was to make sure he was okay…he was pretty much silent the whole time. He couldn’t get a hold of anyone back home. I got him phone cards and let him use the phone whenever. I would ask him if he wanted to go to the chow hall a lot…he basically watched military TV the whole time.”
The Marine eventually found out he had lost his whole family on 9-11. Seward said, another Marine in another unit found out similar horrible news.
“They were both pretty much comatose,” Seward said.
Seward noted that for the next two to three weeks, two to three Marines were on “fire (suicide) watch” in each barracks 24 hours a day. The airport on the base didn’t open back up until the end of the month. And when it did, there was a long list of military personnel who wanted to leave the base. One of those was Seward whose tour in Okinawa had already expired.
“We had lots of people who wanted to go home, but couldn’t,” Seward said.
Seward remembers driving the New York City Marine to the airport on September 28.
“I was concerned for his mental, personal safety,” Seward said. “He couldn’t get a hold of anyone…no one would confirm things.”
Seward took the other Marine, who had family involved in 9-11, to the airport the next day.
Seward said there was some talk immediately after 9-11 that the U.S. Navy would send ships and Marine Force Recon. from Camp Schwab to the Middle East. His unit wouldn’t be the first to ride with the Navy from the island, but easily some from his Squadron would be involved.
“They had plans to get us ready for deployment,” he said.
Seward returned to the States just over a month later.
He still had several years of commitment left to the Marines and wanted to go back overseas to serve it out. The Marines had different plans for Seward and he agreed to go to different bases stateside and get Marine Force Reserves ready for deployment in Operation Enduring Freedom. Seward’s first duty station was in New Orleans.
“Small arms training…paper work….power of attorneys…anything that was needed,” Seward said. “I went all over the U.S. before they were mobilized to get deployed…Georgia, New York, Washington state. I ended up in Waterloo, Iowa.”
While in Iowa, Seward was part of the Red Cross team and checked daily for Red Cross messages. Six times in Iowa, Seward had to put on his dress Blues and go to homes and tell the family their loved one had been killed. He said those servicemen who died in action ranged from 19 years old to a married soldier who left behind a wife and five kids.
“That was probably the worst job I had in the Marine Corps,” Seward said.
He had an option to make the military a career, but he still desired a post overseas. He was offered positions of a drill instructor or recruiter in the States.
“I didn’t want to do either,” Seward said.
He ended up serving five years and six months in the Marines.
Seward went on to finish college at Northern Iowa and came back to his hometown in 2007. He worked in the community until 2013 when he bought All American Insurance from his dad and his partner. Seward lives with his wife, Holly, in Geneva and the couple has three young children