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Looking Back: My personal memories of 9/11

  • Published
  • By Warren Ward, Colonel, USAF Retired
  • Air Force Global Strike Command

America’s dwindling ranks of the “Greatest Generation” vividly recall what they were doing when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Once Japan had “awakened the sleeping giant,” this patriotic generation rose to the challenge and defeated tyranny in World War II. What about the generation which witnessed America’s first major crisis of the twenty-first century?

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was assigned to United States Strategic Command, Offutt AFB, Nebraska. On the morning of 9/11, I was “under the front lawn” in office spaces about 50 feet underground where my team had gathered for a staff meeting. As we awaited supervisor’s arrival, the intelligence troops next door were watching an emerging report on CNN of an apparent hijacking. With a loud cry of “oh no!” from next door, my team rushed to the TV to see the first fireball erupting as an airliner hit the World Trade Center.

We were spellbound. With plans and intelligence troops gathered in the same room, we wondered what roles we’d play in the unfolding drama. Watching the news, we saw both the second tower and the Pentagon attacked. We called our spouses to see how they were doing. Relieved to hear my voice, my wife indicated she was pulling the kids from school and bringing them home.

STRATCOM was in the midst of its biggest world-wide exercise at the time of the terror attacks. With American strategic forces on high alert, our teams got back to our assigned tasks. Late that morning, one of our supervisors informed us that Air Force One would be arriving at Offutt AFB after it departed Barksdale. Later in the day, one of our colonels entered the room and said that he’d just passed President Bush in the stairwell. We asked if he had said anything to the President; “No,” he replied, “he did not look very happy!” 

Following the attacks on 9/11 and through the remainder of that week, Offutt AFB was in Threat Condition DELTA security posture making access to the base very difficult. In fact, I lived about five miles off base. On Sept. 12, I departed home and found myself in a huge traffic jam of folks trying access the base. Working toward the center median, I whipped a U-turn to return home. There, I repaired a flat tire on a bicycle, mounted said vehicle and passed hundreds of cars waiting in the base entry line. I peddled the bicycle along the highway’s shoulder and up to the heavily guarded gate. Having proper identification and looking non-threatening in a flight suit and riding a bicycle, the security troops allowed me onto the base. I continued bicycling to work that entire week to prevent sitting in the ridiculous traffic jam.

Sept. 11, 2001, changed America. My generation wondered how we would protect our children. My parents, who remembered the Pearl Harbor attack, were shocked that once again, America had been caught sleeping.

Now fifteen years later, many teens were not even born when terror struck the homeland and many young adults do not remember that day. We must never forget!  Americans died that day just doing what they do…business men and women, travelers on airliners and heroic first responders. They did not arise that morning expecting to die. Terrorists cleverly thwarted our outwardly focused defensives and attacked not our military, but our citizens. We must be undeterred by these cowardly terrorist acts and destroy any enemy which seeks to harm our nation, our citizens and our freedoms. God bless America!