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NEWS | Sept. 10, 2021

National Guard members reflect on 9/11 experiences

By Air Force Master Sgt. Erich B. Smith, National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va.  – On Sept. 4, 2001, then-Army Staff Sgt. Timothy Redmond was starting his first day as an assistant district attorney in New York City.

One week later, recalled the Green Beret with the Army National Guard's 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group, "all hell broke loose."  

From his office window, Redmond saw the second plane slam into the World Trade Center's South Tower.

"Then you knew it was a terrorist attack," he said. 

But then-Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Powell already knew. 

As a senior radar technician with the New York Air National Guard operating out of an air defense center in Rome, New York, he was the first military member to know the nation was under attack: Boston air traffic controllers called at 8:37 a.m. to alert him a plane had been hijacked.

Powell, who retired as an Air National Guard major, was already immersed in an exercise.

"Is this real-world or exercise?" Powell asked. 

"No, this is the real world. This is not an exercise, not a test," the controller answered back. 

From that point, Powell said, "time flew by."

"There was really no time to think about anything else except getting the next aircraft airborne," he said. "I sat in my seat for 17 hours before I finally got up and realized it's 11 o'clock at night. And then at 4 o'clock in the morning, I was right back at it again."

For the next couple of months, those long days would be the norm for Powell, as well as other Soldiers and Airmen and retirees whose personal experiences on 9/11 would shape them and the National Guard they served. 

"The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, reminded us of the true strength of our nation and our military," said Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau. "The investment in our manning, training, equipping since 9-11 has made us the most professional National Guard in history."

That investment, and over 1 million overseas deployments since 9/11, also accelerated the Guard's integration with the Army and Air Force, he added.   

Ground Zero

As the events of the day began to unfold, then-Maj. John Andonie, the operations officer with the New York Army National Guard's 42nd Infantry Division, was on a training mission at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. On that morning, he noticed the staff was missing from a routine planning session. Eventually, Andonie would find them all huddled around a TV, looking at live video that showed smoke spewing from near the top of the World Trade Center's North Tower.   

"They were all mesmerized by what was going on," he said. 

Then the second plane hit the South Tower, and everybody understood what was happening. 

"It was very difficult to focus the staff at that point, and we were all pretty much standing by waiting to hear what was going to happen or what we were going to do," Andonie said. "It didn't take long for us to find out."

By early evening, he and other Army Guard members were heading back to New York on buses.     

"I think I had the same thoughts that most other people were having during that time," Andonie recalled. "Many of the people I was with had friends and families in the towers."

After arriving home, his unit was sent to Ground Zero to help organize the recovery.

"We needed a command-and-control infrastructure to primarily manage the military response effort," said Andonie.

That entailed assisting local authorities on recovery efforts, debris removal, security, logistics and even managing donations. 

"Tons and tons of donations were arriving in New York City, and all of that inventory needed to be recorded and managed," as well as "determining where it needed to go," he said. 

It also meant credentialing, as the site was inundated with people wanting to help.

"We immediately found that, along with security, we needed to find a way to vet people coming into the site," he said. "And that wasn't necessarily [to determine] whether they were enemies or friendlies – it was really more about, 'Do you really need to be here?'"

Though Andonie said he leaned on "the culture of Army training that puts you through stressful situations," it was preparing for possible combat overseas that paved the way for his unit's domestic response success.

"We bring our warfighting skills to bear on these types of civil support operations," he said. "So that training that we had to manage complex tactical and operational warfighting environments translated into this type of situation."

But it was a love for New York that kept Andonie and others focused on the mission.

"That pride in knowing that we were New Yorkers taking care of New York City was probably the most significant thing that went through our unit and made us feel more cohesive and more determined," said Andonie, who would later ascend to the position of deputy director of the Army National Guard as a major general. 

Another New York National Guard member, Air Force Maj. Patrick Cordova, had just begun his civilian job as a court officer when the second plane hit.

"I realized something was wrong and immediately contacted my base," said Cordova, who at the time was a senior Airman and a telephone systems specialist with the New York Air National Guard's 105th Airlift Wing. "The person who picked up the phone told me that we were under attack, and they didn't have time to explain, and hung up the phone."

He called his unit every day until he was activated a week later. His office would be Ground Zero. 

"It was a bit chaotic," Cordova said upon arriving at the scene. "So many things were happening, and, as a senior Airman with no experience, you never knew if what you were doing was the right thing or not."

Eventually, Cordova said he got the necessary guidance to carry out his duties, which included providing security and information technology support to command centers on site.

Regardless of his duties, his time there is etched in his mind – especially remembering the sense of volunteerism among all the Guard members at the site.

"I'll never forget the grim determination and focus of all those who volunteered to go to New York City when no one knew what they were getting into and if additional attacks were imminent," he recalled.
 
Cordova, now in the Air Force Reserve, said Guard clichés were debunked as a result of 9/11.

"The most obvious change was the concept of the 'weekend warrior,'" he said. "What we were doing was no longer just learning a trade or getting money for college.  Now we were Soldiers and Airmen – first and foremost."

The Pentagon

Then-Air Force Master Sgt. Kevin Richardson, a protocol chief for the director of the Air National Guard's office in Crystal City, Virginia, had just dropped off a general officer at the Pentagon when a friend told him over the phone that a plane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.

In disbelief, he hurried to the director's office to see what was unfolding. Before he was even able to process anything, Richardson and the director's executive officer watched on television as the second plane hit. Then they looked at each other. 

"I'm on my way," Richardson said to his boss, meaning he was returning to the Pentagon to retrieve the general. He drove in haste.

"I got out of my car, ran into the building, made my way toward the Air Force Chief of Staff office to which [the general officer] was exiting himself at the same time," he explained.

Before Richardson was able to say anything, the general said: "I already know what's happening. Let's go." 

As they hurried out of the Pentagon, both men heard a "god-awful" sound they thought was construction noise, Richardson said.

After leaving the Pentagon, and pulling into the National Guard Bureau headquarters where the Air Guard director was housed, Richardson noticed uniformed personnel and others exiting the building.

"It was like salmon going upstream: We were trying to make our way into the building while everyone was coming out," he said.

When he looked up, Richardson saw smoke and debris from the Pentagon in the distance. At that point, he was told the Pentagon had just been hit. 
The noise he had heard was a plane crashing into the complex.  

The rest of the day, he said, was chaotic.

"Ironically, I remained calm," he said. "I don't know if it was because of my previous experience in Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the '90s, or just knowing that at some point in my career, I was going to face some type of activity of this nature."
  
It wouldn't be until the next morning that Richardson – when passing the Pentagon on his way to work – had the time to reflect on the surprise attack.

"You could still see the smoke from the smoldering fires," he said, adding the external lights at the scene made it even gloomier. "It hit home for me."

Richardson found himself in the Pentagon the next day, delivering documents to a senior leader. The smell of carnage inside, as well as the 9/11 attack itself, linger with him today.

"Sometimes I'm there, and it doesn't happen, and there are other days it comes and it overpowers me," said the retired senior master sergeant. 
Nevertheless, Richardson said commemorating 9/11 is important, as it honors those in uniform and those who perished.

"I'm thankful we served a country with such distinction," he said, "and I still remember some of the lives that were lost and those who were injured, and some of the lives that have been changed pretty much forever."

Shanksville

Then-2nd Lt. Keith Graham, a full-time helicopter pilot at a Pennsylvania Army National Guard aviation training site, had just returned from a morning jog when he saw on the news a second plane had hit one of the towers. 

He headed off to work earlier than usual, still in disbelief, wondering "like so many other people of what was going on, what it meant, and where things were heading."

When he arrived, he heard about the Pentagon, followed by another report that hit close to home: a plane went down somewhere in Pennsylvania. 

"Even though we didn't have any [information] at the moment, we just went out and started pre-flighting the aircraft and getting the emergency kits together," he said. "A lot of the energy and focus for us was being prepared to do whatever needed to be done to help support [the response]."

As other Guard members responded in different ways, his unit provided an overview of the crash site for local, state and federal authorities, including Pennsylvania's governor and the adjutant general of the Pennsylvania National Guard.

"At that point, the national airspace had been locked down," he said, which meant his unit had to coordinate with air traffic officials to get airborne. 

About five hours after the incident, the CH-47 Chinook Graham was piloting landed in a field near Shanksville where United Airlines Flight 93 slammed to the ground, killing all on board.

"It appeared to be a high angle impact, just a burnt area where the aircraft had gone and not a whole lot of large debris or anything like that," he said. 

Graham added that emotions were kept in check, as he and the crew were focused on conducting a safe flight.

"After we repositioned for fuel and shut down, we had a chance as a crew to kind of talk about what we had seen there," he said, adding that's when the gravity of "what just happened became more real."

Eventually, Graham, who, as a colonel, would later become chief of staff for the Pennsylvania National Guard, would serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those deployments, he said, signify the Guard's active role in overseas operations. 

"That level of preparedness, and then the resiliency to be able to adapt to changes, are imperative to what we do," he added.

'Because we're proud of what we do'

Powell, the retired radar technician who took that first call of a reported hijacking, said he and the thousands of other Guard members that day were simply fulfilling their duties. 

"I was doing my job," he said. "It was a very important job, but if you would have been in my shoes, you would've done the same exact thing."

Powell said just one word comes to mind when he shares his story.

Proud.    

"I think when the younger troops learn about Sept. 11th, I hope they learn about how proud I was of the men and women who executed the mission on the ground and in the air," he said. "We signed on the dotted line in this volunteer force for a reason, because we're proud of what we do." 

For Redmond, the Green Beret who would later be part of one of the first Special Forces units in Afghanistan, 9/11 would remind Guard members to be vigilant.  

"It goes to show you that things can flip on a dime," he said. "And on that day, they did."