By BILL WAGNERCAPITAL GAZETTE |SEP 11, 2021 AT 9:00 AM
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On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Ed Malinowski was walking to his second period class when he began hearing chatter among passing midshipmen about some sort of incident involving the World Trade Center.
Upon arrival, Malinowski noticed that English professor Neil Berman had the television tuned to CNN. Projected onto a large screen was an image of the north tower of the World Trade Center billowing
“While we were sitting there, we saw the second plane hit the other tower,” Malinowski recalled.
Moments later, there was an announcement ordering all midshipmen to return to Bancroft Hall and remain there — that all classes and activities had been canceled indefinitely. While returning to his dormitory room, Malinowski encountered a midshipman who was crying.
It was varsity swimmer Joe Donohue, who had just learned that a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon. Donohue’s father was a Navy officer stationed at the Pentagon.
Brian Stann was getting a haircut at the campus barber shop when he heard the announcement ordering midshipmen back to Bancroft Hall. He walked into the room of company mate Ryan Curry, who was watching CNN on a computer.
There were 10 midshipmen in the room, and they were watching repeated replays of American Airlines Flight 11 crashing into the north tower.
“I thought to myself: They must be watching some terrible Nicholas Cage action movie,” Stann recalled. “It didn’t seem real.”
Moments later, the group watched live as United Airlines Flight 175 plowed through the south tower. “Everyone was speechless. We could not believe what we had just seen,” Stann said.
Within hours, the Naval Academy leadership and entire Brigade of Midshipmen knew America had been brutally attacked by terrorists. By the next day, sandbags had been piled high in front of all the Naval Academy gates and armed Marines were on station. Visitor access was severely restricted and all midshipmen had to stand watch more often.
“I remember the threat posture at the Naval Academy escalated immensely. There was an absolute defining line in terms of life before 9/11 and life after. Everything changed from that point on, and the Naval Academy was never the same,” Stann said.
Colonel John Allen, the first Marine Corps officer to serve as Commandant of Midshipmen at the Naval Academy, ordered classes to resume on Sept. 12. Allen, who would rise to the rank of four-star general and commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, made it clear that terrorists were not going to dictate how the Naval Academy went about business.
Allen also repeatedly told the midshipmen that America was now a nation at war due to the events of 9/11.
“There suddenly was a tremendous amount of perspective among the mids. We were no longer signed up to a peacetime military,” Stann said. “It was such an unreal event that made everything else in the world so small. You just don’t ever conceive that is the way you’re going to get attacked.”
Malinowski and Stann were both members of the 2001 Navy football team, which carried on through a miserable season in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Malinowski was the backup quarterback but had started two games to open the season because, both lopsided losses to Temple (45-26) and Georgia Tech (70-7).
Navy’s next game, at Northwestern, was going to be Malinowski’s last start before Brian Madden returned from a suspension. Madden had been the starter the previous season before suffering a severe knee injury that required surgery.
That fateful Sept. 11th of 20 years ago came on a Tuesday and by Wednesday the Navy football team had resumed practicing. Stann, who was a backup linebacker and standout member of multiple special teams, remembers not knowing whether the midshipmen would wind up traveling to Evanston, Illinois for the Northwestern game.
That answer came during Wednesday’s practice when head coach Charlie Weatherbie came down from the scaffolding from which he oversaw practice and yelled: “Get ready for Boston College.”
“We lost out on an opportunity to play a game, which was disappointing because you only get so many in your career,” Malinowski said. “I was bummed because that was pretty much the end of my time as a quarterback.”
Navy football would return to action on Saturday, Sept. 22 against Boston College, one of the stronger programs in the Big East Conference. It was an emotional day at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on the first day of college football since the terrorist attacks.
Madden provided a spark to the offense by rushing for 106 yards and a touchdown as Navy gave the heavily favored visitors all they could handle before falling 38-21. Afterward, both teams joined together at midfield and faced the flag as the entire stadium sang “God Bless America.”
Navy would go winless during the 2001 season, although it played respectable football at times. Five of the 10 losses came by eight points or less, including those to service academy rivals Air Force (24-18) and Army (26-17).
Weatherbie was fired by first-year athletic director Chet Gladchuk following the seventh game, a 21-20 loss at Toledo. Defensive coordinator Rick Lantz, in his first season at Navy following a distinguished 36-year collegiate career, took over as interim coach for the final three games.
“The uncertainty of that time period could not be overstated. It was uncertain times for everyone in America and definitely uncertain times for Navy football,” Malinowski said. “Navy football was in bad sorts at that point. Then 9/11 happens and we’re in a bad program in a bad world.”
Stann will never forget the West Point Cadets at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia chanting “0-10, 0-10, 0-10” after Army beat Navy. “It was sickening, and I remember being heartbroken for the seniors,” Stann said.[More from sports] Navy football assistant Billy Ray Stutzmann not working in a coaching capacity this preseason | NOTES »
In retrospect, the 2001 football season was insignificant within the context of the United States launching a war in Afghanistan designed to root out the al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.
For all the members of the 2001 Navy football team, there was a growing realization their military service was going to be dramatically different than they initially envisioned.
“By the time I graduated the march to Baghdad had begun. It was apparent this wasn’t going to be fast, and we were going to deploy to combat,” Stann said.
James Patrick Blecksmith had football scholarship offers from Stanford and several other major conference schools coming out of Flintridge Prep. Not surprising since he was named a Blue Chip All-American as a junior and senior.
Blecksmith surprised all the recruiters by committing to the Naval Academy. It seemed a curious choice considering he was a passing quarterback in a prostyle offense in high school and Navy employed a triple-option rushing attack.
It made perfect sense to Blecksmith, who was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a Marine Corps officer.
Ed Blecksmith, a three-year varsity football player at USC who was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, enlisted in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. He reached the rank of first lieutenant while serving just over three years, seeing serious combat against the Viet Cong and the People’s Army of Vietnam.
Last Saturday, marked the 54th anniversary of Operation Swift, a bloody conflict fought in the Que Son Valley. Blecksmith had 16 of his Marines killed and 12 wounded during the battle that began on Sept. 4, 1967.
“That was the worst day of my life until J.P. was killed,” Ed Blecksmith said.
J.P. Blecksmith remains the only member of the 2001 Navy football team to be killed in action during the wars that resulted from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He was the first American military officer killed during Operation Phantom Fury, which recaptured Fallujah from Iraqi insurgents.
Blecksmith died on Nov. 11, 2004 at age of 24 during a firefight with insurgents carrying M-16 rifles. He was a rifle platoon commander with India Company, which was the first to enter the city and begin a house-to-house search in the Jolan District.
Blecksmith was on the roof of a building and leaning over to point out the location of enemy fighters when a bullet entered his left shoulder and deflected down to his heart.
Before his son was even deployed, Ed Blecksmith started having a recurring nightmare in which two Marines knock on the door of his home in San Marino, California. That is exactly what happened as he returned on the night of Nov. 11 to find two Marines in dress blues sitting in the kitchen.
“They tell you the news you never want to hear, and it’s just devastating. You’re just numb,” the elder Blecksmith said. “I had put J.P. on every prayer list I could think of in hopes of providing him some protection.”
J.P. Blecksmith, who was 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, was not a good fit as an option quarterback and wound up playing five different positions for Navy football. He was switched to wide receiver as a junior and caught a pass in the 2001 Army-Navy game.
Shortly after 9/11, Blecksmith did an interview with a sports writer for the Glenn Dale Free Press and stated he was prepared to do his part in the war on terror. “After watching what happened to all those people at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I’m willing to go fight for them,” he said.
Blecksmith graduated from the Naval Academy on May 23, 2003 and within a year had graduated from both The Basic School and Infantry Officer School. He reported to Camp Pendleton then was deployed to Iraq on Sept. 10, 2004.
Ed Blecksmith organized a farewell dinner party at Billy’s at the Beach in Newport Beach. J.P. Blecksmith projected an eerie demeanor that night as he dined with his parents, grandparents sister and brother-in-law along with fiancee Emily Tate.
On Veterans Day, exactly two years after Blecksmith’s death, the Pasadena Marine Corps Reserve Center was renamed in his memory. The San Marino Tribune announced that proceeds from their annual 5K Run and Walk would benefit the J.P. Blecksmith Leadership Foundation at Flintridge Preparatory.
“I’m proud that people still honor J.P. and that he continues to touch lives,” said Ed Blecksmith, adding that Memorial Day, Veterans Day and the 9/11 anniversary all take on special meaning now.
Stann was offered the opportunity to remain at the Naval Academy on temporary assignment duty following graduation in May 2003. He would have served as a graduate assistant for the Navy football team, a coveted position.
“I turned that down because I was afraid I would miss my turn to serve. I would forever feel guilty if my classmates had to see combat and by the time I got out of The Basic School it was over,” Stann said.
Stann had thought long and hard about what role he should seek within the military and knew he needed to be on the ground. He would become a Marine Corps infantry officer and was initially deployed to Al-Qa’im, Iraq in February 2005.
While there, he was able to spend time with Marines who had served alongside former Navy football player Ron Winchester. 1st Lieutenant Winchester was a platoon commander killed Sept. 3, 2004 by enemy action in Anbar province, Iraq.
“Hearing what an amazing warrior Ronnie was from the men he commanded was very powerful,” Stann said.
Stann would return to Iraq in July, 2005 and served alongside members of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment that included Blecksmith.
“That was really impactful because J.P. was a guy I competed with every day at The Basic School,” Stann said. “He was just so steadfast in his desire to serve our country.”
Stann, who served a total of five years in the Marine Corps and reached the rank of captain, eventually found himself in Habbaniyah. When the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines arrived in that city in central Iraq, it was arguably the most violence place in the world.
Teachers would be shot in public if suspected of practicing their profession. American Marines would clear the entire city of insurgents and by the time they left children were freely able to attend school.
“You come away forever changed and with a profound appreciation for these young men and women who are willing to lay their lives on the line for the person next to them,” said Stann, who received the Silver Star Medal for valor in combat.
“When we lost our brothers, there was no time to grieve. You have to evacuate that Marine then move on. There was no halftime. The mental stress we put on these young men and women is incredible.”
Malinowski graduated in May, 2002 with a different mindset than either Blecksmith or Stann. He thought the United States would run roughshod over Afghanistan, rout the al-Qaida terrorists and be out in no time.
“I think many of us had this notion this would all be over before we got involved. We won’t ever see foreign soil, more than likely,” Malinowski said.
All of Malinowski’s best friends from the football team — such as slotback Donnie Fricks and defensive lineman and fellow captain Josh Brindel — were going Marine Corps Ground.
“I had some reservations because my parents were so concerned, but in the end I really liked the culture of the Marine Corps,” he said.
Malinowski was correct that he would never go to Afghanistan. Instead, he was deployed to Iraq. “Things changed overnight. When we started The Basic School, none of us could have ever foreseen fighting in Iraq,” he said.
Malinowski served just over six years in the Marine Corps as a logistics officer. He spent a total of 15 months over two tours in Iraq and was involved with the Battle of Fallujah. He was a member of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines and was part of the same mission as Blecksmith.
“We were all among the first soldiers inside a cordon created by the Army. My battalion would clear the city then J.P.’s battalion would later do back-clearing,” Malinowski said.
The Battle of Fallujah in November 2004 was one of the biggest involving the Marine Corps in years. Malinowski, who oversaw resupply convoys in and out of the city, would not learn until several days later that Blecksmith had been killed.
“It all began with 9/11. That day changed the lives of everyone’s in this country, but for those of us in the military it made an extraordinary impact,” Malinowski said. “I entered the Naval Academy during a time of peace and graduated during a time of war.”
Bill Wagner has worked for Capital Gazette Newspapers for 30 years. He served as beat writer for Navy athletics and general assignment sports reporter. He is also the sailing editor.