On September 11, 2001 I was a Captain assigned to U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT) at Shaw AFB, South Carolina. I was the Aide to the Lieutenant General who commanded AFCENT and we had recently returned from a trip in early September to engage with his Air Chief counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. That morning we were visiting the Pentagon when the New York attacks occurred and were in the building when it was struck. I can recall in vivid detail the events of the day. I will never forget how I felt, the smell of burning jet fuel, black oily smoke marring the sky, and the physical panic and pandemonium that swept the city. That day has shaped the last 13 years of my military career and will shape the remainder of my time left in uniform. It is largely why I chose to stay in the military and fight, with the hope of preventing another 9/11 from ever occurring again.
My 9/11 perspective actually begins in late August 2001 with a trip to Pakistan. During this trip, we had the opportunity to visit the Khyber Pass along the Afghanistan and Pakistan border. Looking into Afghanistan on August 26, 2001 little did I know how an act of terror born in this region was going to shake the world and shape the remainder of my Air Force career. Our trip was also very fortuitous from an engagement perspective given the critical role Pakistan would come to play in the aftermath of 9/11. After a visit to Saudi Arabia we returned to the United States on September 3, 2001. On September 10, I accompanied my boss and a small AFCENT team up to Washington for meetings with the Lieutenant General who was scheduled to take command of AFCENT in the coming months.
The morning of September 11 we drove to the Pentagon for the meetings, which occurred in an outer E-ring office. I was going in and out of the office to make phone calls about an operational issue that occurred in Iraq overnight as part of Operation SOUTHERN WATCH and watched in horror as the attacks on the World Trade Center towers began to unfold. At some point I sat down in the room to listen to the Generals discuss the implications of the attacks. At 0937 I felt a distinct shudder in the building that stopped the meeting mid-conversation. Initial reports indicated there had been some sort of explosion on the roof of the Pentagon. I recall opening the door into the main corridor and saw people running down the hall to get out of the building. A General Officer directing the evacuation in the corridor yelled at me to evacuate the office. We didn’t know at the time that American Airlines Flight 77 had struck the Pentagon on the opposite side of the building. We decided to head back to Bolling AFB where we were staying and begin figuring out the next steps which we knew would likely involve a military response in our area of responsibility.
Shortly after arrival my boss was able to speak with the Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) responsible for the entire Middle East and the region where the attacks originated. After the call ended, my boss briefed us on what he learned. He said we knew who was responsible for the attacks and the planning for military response options was already underway. The CENTCOM Commander had asked him to quickly return to South Carolina to lead planning efforts for an air campaign and to prepare to move forward to our Air Operations Center located in the Middle East. Due to the urgency of the situation and since all other aircraft were grounded my boss arranged for an F-16 aircraft to come to Andrews AFB and fly him back to South Carolina so he could personally lead the planning effort.
While waiting for the F-16 to arrive at Andrews, I watched senior congressional leadership depart on individual helicopters presumably as part of the continuity of government plan. I was struck at the magnitude and significance of what I was seeing and wondered if more attacks were coming. Upon arrival the F-16 pilot commented he had not heard or seen another aircraft during his entire flight from South Carolina. His comments were remarkable considering the normal congestion of the airspace on the Eastern seaboard. The General departed in the F-16 and the remaining team drove back to South Carolina.
I reported to work on September 12 expecting to leave for Saudi Arabia directly. I dropped off my deployment bags and told my wife good-bye. With that act my focus shifted away from what had happened the previous day and to the military task at hand specifically what airpower would be called upon to do in response. A KC-10 aircraft was on the ramp ready to go but we did not yet have all the required diplomatic clearances for the trip to Saudi Arabia. We relived the bag drop and good-bye process every morning for the next 4 days until we finally departed and arrived in Saudi Arabia on September 18. In the coming weeks we traveled extensively in the region to consult with allies, secure critical basing and conduct planning with operational units in the theater. On October 7, 2001 the U.S.-led coalition commenced Operation ENDURING FREEDOM with air strikes against Al Qaida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Standing on the operations floor of the Air Operations Center running the air campaign, I did feel my first sense of satisfaction that justice was being delivered to those who had attacked us and my role, while small, was part of the larger effort.
Every 9/11 anniversary I take pause and reflect but I have never written about my experience on that day. My perspective is not unique; many people have firsthand accounts with far greater consequence, direct impact and/or loss than I experienced. So, why write something now? The 13th anniversary of 9/11 coincides with the meteoric rise of a new terrorist threat to the world, one that has defied expectations for success. Through their barbaric acts and brutal ideology, ISIS has demonstrated their hatred of America, what we stand for and what we value. Given the opportunity and space to metastasize further, ISIS will eventually bring the fight to our doorstep or die trying if left unchecked. What we do about ISIS is a long term, costly and complicated problem to solve and requires more than just a military component. I do not envy the tough decisions our leaders must contemplate to disrupt and destroy them. As this important debate continues we must all be mindful of the consequences of inaction or half measures. The threat is real. That is why as 9/11 memories may fade for some; I will never forget what it felt like on that day. I don’t want to ever feel that way again. It is imperative we get this right.
Lieutenant Colonel James C. Mock is the Air Force Fellow at CNAS. His views do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense.