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Forever Changed: 9/11 Memories

It’s been 15 years since the attacks transformed our nation, and Guard troops who responded will never forget what they witnessed and contributed. Here are reflections from Soldiers who served in New York, Washington and Shanksville.

A police officer.
A college student.
A private investigator.
A marketing executive.
A helicopter pilot. 

The men and women of the Army National Guard who witnessed the terror of 9/11 and assisted in recovery efforts came from all walks of life. And while they arrived on the scene with disparate backgrounds, they brought with them a shared dedication to service.

Some were close enough to feel the force of a plane crash and started serving while the fire still burned hot and out of control. Others endured weeks of anxious waiting before being allowed to do their part. Many eventually went to war in pursuit of those responsible. And all of their lives were transformed, both in an instant and in the hours, days, weeks, months and years of service that followed.

For many, the anger of that day has never diminished. “I don’t like talking about some of the details,” says CW5 (Ret.) Steve Mueck, who flew sorties from the Pentagon to Walter Reed Army Medical Center on 9/11 as a member of the District of Columbia Army National Guard. “But I will be blunt about this: Our country was attacked. Three thousand people who did nothing wrong other than get up and go to work were murdered. If you want strong language, that’s something I’m happy to say.”

Amid the anger and mourning, there was also resolve—to protect Americans, lift them up and fight for them. Some 50,000 Guard troops responded to 9/11. Collectively and individually, those who served adopted “never forget” as their rallying cry. And they never have.  

Below, several Guard Soldiers share their memories … of horror and fear, of history and camaraderie, and ultimately, of hope and determination.


Within three hours of the Pentagon attack, National Guard helicopter pilots began ferrying casualties from, and medical personnel to, the crash site. In the following days, 600 District of Columbia Guard Soldiers were mobilized to provide security in the city.

ALONE IN THE SKY

CW5 (Ret.) Steve Mueck
Retired Ready Reserve
A master Army aviator, Mueck worked at the District of Columbia National Guard's Joint Force Headquarters on 9/11.

I was on my way to work at Davison Army Airfield in Fairfax County, VA, when the first plane hit in New York City. By the time I got to the office, we were at war. 

I knew chaos was coming. I had deployed twice to the Sinai Peninsula (in 1984 and 1985) and flew medevac missions there. I had thousands of hours flying helicopters. But this was different. Flying in combat circumstances over American soil was unprecedented. 

I knew I couldn’t perform to the best of my ability if I was worried about my wife and our son, who was in first grade then. So after the Pentagon attack, I called my wife, who worked from home, told her to drive to the school, get our son and call me when they got home. She said, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s next. But I can’t do my job and worry about you guys, so please, just do that.”

Maybe that was me pushing the panic button. But knowing they were as safe as they could be took a load off my mind. I didn’t have to worry about them being in another public place that got hit.

About two hours later, we took off toward the Pentagon, about 15 miles away. As soon as we were in the air, I could see a huge plume of smoke.

We landed at the Pentagon, found a Navy commander who was as close to a guy in charge as we could find, and offered our services. About half an hour after that, he took us up on it, and we started flying victims from the Pentagon to Walter Reed hospital near DC.

There was nobody else in the sky. It was strange to be the only aircraft talking to the air traffic controller at Reagan National Airport. He became my new best friend. He kept me abreast of information. Because of him, I was confident in our ability to do what we’d come to do. He had eyes on us, and his radar screen was blank. He knew there were no other planes on the way, and even if there were, he had the ability to tell us.

When we took off from the crash site, we had the Pentagon in front of us and Arlington National Cemetery behind us. I will never forget looking down and seeing that the Honor Guard members were not at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They’re normally there 24/7. But the Honor Guard has a contingency emergency mission that involves providing escorts to people who have to be evacuated from the city. They were doing that.

We flew back and forth to Walter Reed maybe 10 times, taking victims there and bringing back doctors and medical supplies. We flew for a full tank of gas—about 2.5 hours.

On Sept. 12, I switched gears. Several generals from the Pentagon and Fort Myer, VA, wanted to go see the troops at the World Trade Center. We loaded them on a Black Hawk and flew to the Wall Street Heliport, which is like a floating pier on the southern tip of New York City.

There was a command center being run out of a three-story firehouse on the periphery of the damage. Everything in front of it was gone. It was the first building that didn’t get crushed.

We mistakenly went into the wrong stairwell and ended up on the second floor. There were doors standing wide open leading into an apartment. Breakfast was on the table—biscuits, cereal bowls and coffee cups. Dust covered everything. I left immediately. I felt like I was violating the privacy of whoever left that breakfast behind when they ran for their lives.

I had never been to New York City before that. I didn’t know the enormity of the Twin Towers. At ground zero, the pile of debris was sobering—15 stories of rubble. The firefighters were talking to me in that New York accent: “You’ve never been here? Let me tell you something about how big that was! That’s why they came after us—because we do everything bigger, better.” Despite the circumstances, they cracked me up. Even under all that stress, those New Yorkers were still just guys being guys.

Just before I retired in October 2015, I got a nice plaque because I’d reached 10,000 hours of flight time. On the plaque, it says that less than 5 percent of Army aviators attain that number. 

That plaque makes me think about 9/11—the hours I flew that day and in the days afterward. It seemed like everything in my career up to that point had come together to put me there to do that job. On that day, I was glad it was my turn to help.


Some 3,000 New York Guard Soldiers responded at ground zero within a day of the attacks. Initial recovery efforts gave way to a monthslong homeland mission that included guarding bridges, tunnels, train stations, airports and federal installations throughout the state.

CHAOS AND CAMARADERIE

MAJ Frank Quintana
101st Expeditionary Signal Battalion, New York National Guard
At the time of the attacks, Quintana was a corporal with New York’s 107th Corps Support Group, 7th Regiment.

There’s an old saying in the military: If you’re not sure what to do, run toward the danger. That’s what Frank Quintana did on 9/11.

As a civilian private investigator, Quintana was working a case in New Jersey, not far from Manhattan, when the towers were hit. Everything was fragmented, chaotic. Information was scarce, unreliable and ever-changing. Cellphones didn’t work. Quintana decided to head to his armory in Manhattan. Traffic was a nightmare. Streets were blocked. He used his military ID to get through makeshift checkpoints and eventually joined a convoy of emergency vehicles.

By early afternoon, he’d reached the city. “People were just walking, trying to get places,” he says. “Doctors were asking for rides. I filled up my car with as many people as I could fit in it and dropped them off at one of the hospitals.”

Quintana, who had recently joined the Guard after four years of Active Duty, arrived at his armory, pulled on his uniform and headed for ground zero. “Regular folks, civilians, were running away,” he says. “But anyone in a uniform or anyone in some kind of government, law enforcement or military role went toward it.”

The next few days are a haze of menial tasks, security, digging through rubble and searching for survivors. “I subconsciously blocked out the specifics,” Quintana says. “It’s all a blur. What I remember, personally, is the camaraderie, the banding of brothers, everybody coming together.”

After a few days, Quintana was assigned as a backup aide to Brigadier General Edward Klein (then-commander of the New York Army National Guard’s 53rd Troop Command). He accompanied Klein to meetings around the city and saw up close the cooperation among various organizations. “I remember all these different letter agencies working together,” he says. “There was no, This is my turf, this is my jurisdiction. Everyone was an equal partner—to the point that almost too much support was coming in. I remember lines and lines of dump trucks. I was at a checkpoint, and it was like, ‘Hey man, there’s no more room for you.’ ”

Quintana worked at and around ground zero until November, then was assigned to a security post at the New York–Canada border. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2012–13. Now a major, Quintana embodies the “never forget” ethos that permeates the New York National Guard. 

“I spent a lot of time at ground zero after that period—2004 through 2008. I used to go to the base [of the Freedom Tower] before the monument was built,” Quintana says. “I’ve been there on Sept. 11 when they read the names. It’s a day of remembrance. It’s a sad day, of course. But it’s also a day that honors how our country came together and showed the best it has to offer. We pulled together and overcame. And now our country is moving forward. We’re as strong as we’ve ever been.”


THE HEAVIEST SACRIFICE

COL David E. Wood
Chief of Staff, 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania National Guard
On 9/11, then-Major Wood served as commander of G Company, 2/104th Aviation Regiment.

I had just gotten to my office at a marketing and distribution company. Everyone was gathered around the radio. When the second plane hit, I knew it was more than an accident. I went home, put on my uniform and drove to Muir Army Airfield at Fort Indiantown Gap, where my unit HQ was located.

On the 50-minute drive there, I heard about the fourth aircraft crashing in Pennsylvania. But I didn’t have any details other than what the media were saying.

When I got to the airfield, everyone was running around—a flurry of activity. Ground crews were making sure aircraft were ready. Our Joint Force Headquarters and the adjutant general were checking on availability of traditional Soldiers to respond.

Pennsylvania [then-]Gov. Tom Ridge—who would later become the first secretary of homeland security—wanted to visit the crash site as soon as he could, and he drove from the Capitol in Harrisburg to Muir so we could fly him to Shanksville. There were all sorts of issues—security and clearances—and we still weren’t sure that everything was over. It was about three hours after the attacks before we flew the mission.

I was the governor’s escort. We made small talk—it was too loud on the helicopter to really talk. But to me, what left a more lasting memory was not the people on board, it was how eerily quiet the flight was.

It should have been a busy morning of commercial air traffic; federal air traffic controllers usually have a hundred blips on their screens. But the only voice coming through my headset was Cleveland Control acknowledging our flight. Other than the Air Force fighter jets that were flying close-air patrol missions, it was just our big, lumbering helicopter flying for an hour over Pennsylvania farmland.

On 9/11, COL David Wood escorted then-Gov. Tom Ridge (above center, with other officials) to the Flight 93 crash site. “The scene I expected didn’t exist,” says Ridge. “There was no fuselage, no tail wing … just a big smoldering hole surrounded by scores of men and women … hoping to help.”

The crash scene is still razor-sharp in my mind. The plane hit the corner of a field edged by forest. The sun was shining. It was a beautiful day. The aircraft debris had slashed through the tree line, leaving smoking holes of sunlight in what should have been a dense forest.

I was on Active Duty orders for a week or so afterward. I flew about a dozen missions to Washington, New York City and Stewart International Airport near Poughkeepsie, NY. We took supplies like blankets, cases of MREs and generators to support consequence management. We also transported emergency responders and healthcare professionals.

At Stewart, it struck me that the big C-5 hangars had no aircraft in them. Instead, they were full of cots and blankets because they’d been turned into casualty evacuation stations. We were prepared to evacuate people from metro New York.

As I looked at all those cots lined up, I realized the enormity of the emergency response, of the efforts undertaken by so many. Everywhere you looked, there were people trying to make a difference.

My wife, Lisa, and I went to Shanksville a few years ago. There’s a national memorial there now with a big marble wall where you can look out on the field. A stone marks the point of impact. 

It’s a beautiful field. But you realize it wasn’t long ago that all those lives were lost there. The people on that plane were trying to defend themselves, our country, what we stand for. They were willing to take that plane down so it wouldn’t kill other people. That’s heavy stuff. It’s real heroism. Real hallowed ground.


This photo of 1SG Kenneth Nichols’ Sept. 12 encounter with President George W. Bush hung in the office of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon for five years.

SOUL-SHAKING IMPACT

1SG Kenneth Nichols
273rd Military Police Company, District of Columbia National Guard
Nichols was a sergeant with the DC Guard’s 274th Military Police Company in September 2001.

Kenneth Nichols and his fellow Pentagon police officers had just finished an early workout at the gym when they learned about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center from news reports playing on the locker room TV.

“We all said, ‘How can you hit a tower with a plane? That’s a helluva mistake to make,’ ” says Nichols, who had only recently started his job. “When the second plane hit, we were thinking, Man, the Capitol, the White House or the Pentagon is going to be next.

They piled into a van and started driving across the Pentagon campus to start their shifts. They were still talking about the Pentagon being a potential target when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into it. They were close enough that the force of the crash shook their vehicle—a moment Nichols describes as “instant terror.”

The heat was so intense, Nichols could feel it through the closed window of the van. He saw a ball of fire over the Pentagon and lighted jet fuel falling from the sky. Black smoke billowed into the air. Nichols thought if there was one plane, there might be two. He yelled at the driver to get them out of the danger zone. “I was slapping that dashboard like, ‘Hey dude, let’s get the hell out of here!’ My buddy who was driving is a high-ranking official over at Homeland Security now. Every year [on the 9/11 anniversary], we talk about the same thing. He’s like, ‘Man, you were going to break that dashboard.’ And I’m like, ‘Hell, yeah.’ ”

Left: Rumsfeld and Bush survey the damage at the Pentagon. Right: Heat from the attack scorched the Pentagon’s flagpole finial and fused together commemorative coins found among the debris.

Once the van reached safety, Nichols and the other officers met with their boss. Nichols then moved to a service station adjacent to the Pentagon, where he provided traffic control for the rest of the day, allowing only emergency personnel onto the Pentagon’s grounds.

On Sept. 12, President Bush arrived to tour the site. Nichols was second in line after Bush exited his vehicle. “He walked up to me. I said, ‘Welcome, Mr. President.’ He gave a deep sigh and shook my hand.”

Nichols went back to work. “We were the guards for ground zero,” he says. “We were there for all of it—the recovery missions, when they went in to pick up the bodies, when they were picking up pieces of the plane. They would grab parts of the plane and take them to the north parking lot to piece the scene together. It was a heavy day.”

Nichols never gave much thought to his brief encounter with the president. Shortly after 9/11, he served a stateside deployment for the District of Columbia Army National Guard as an MP at Fort Detrick, MD, where chemical and biological testing is conducted. Later, he deployed to Afghanistan, where a few of his comrades teased him about the interaction with Bush. “The guys were like, ‘Dude, you’re a celebrity. Your picture with the president is in [then–Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld’s office.’ I said, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ ”

When Nichols returned to work at the Pentagon following that deployment, he found himself near Rumsfeld’s office one day. The door was open, so he peeked in. And sure enough, above the sofa was a framed photograph of Nichols shaking the president’s hand. It remained in Rumsfeld’s office until he left the position in 2006.

The attack still shapes Nichols’ life. “The explosion … I can’t put words to it,” he says. “It shook my soul.” 

Though he worked at the Pentagon for years afterward, he never wanted a position that would require him to stay exclusively inside the building or be out of touch with loved ones for long. In the moments after the crash, he and his then-wife frantically tried to reach each other by phone. Fifteen years later, that feeling of disconnect sticks with him. “At the end of the day, I want to go home safely and see my family,” he says. “That became a lot more important to me.”


ANSWERING A HIGHER CALL

WO1 Jennifer Roshong
Headquarters & Headquarters Company, 42nd Combat Aviation Brigade, New York National Guard
On 9/11, then-Specialist Ernst (Roshong's maiden name) served with the New York Guard's A Company, 427th Forward Support Battalion.

I was a college student working at Sherwin-Williams. The news was on, and as soon as the second plane hit, my boss said, “This is a terrorist attack.”

Within two hours, I got a call from my squad leader to report to my armory in Utica. I drove to my house, got my gear and met up with a friend who was also in the Guard, Elisa Caputo, and we drove to Utica together. We thought we were going to go straight to [ground zero]. But we didn’t.

They sent us home after a few days. We were disappointed. I was scared to see dead bodies; I wasn’t ready for that. We were all scared, but we still wanted to go. We all had that urge to serve.

When I got home, I was glued to the TV. It consumed me. Two weeks later, my unit asked for volunteers. That’s how Caputo and I found ourselves at ground zero.

It looked like time had stopped. In the parking garages, there were cars with dust on them. Bikes were still chained up. There wasn’t any movement. I remember seeing “Morgue” spray-painted on a wall, with arrows pointing where to go. I also remember seeing a bakery, and there were still bagels in there, covered in dust.

For the first week, I pulled the night shift, working security at ground zero. We checked the IDs of people who lived nearby, granting them access to their apartments. We also kept people who had no reason to be there from entering.

The second week I was there, I worked security at the Queensboro Bridge [connecting Queens and Manhattan], helping the police search for materials that could be used to make bombs. The cops stopped one truck because it was carrying fertilizer.

WO1 Jennifer Roshong keeps mementos from her time at ground zero in a prayer box (right). “I put a handful of rubble in there, that I now show my kids,” she says. “There was a chaplain handing out wooden crosses; I put that and a flag pin from the Red Cross in the box, too. I knew that this was history.”

We ate in a hotel ballroom. I remember a firefighter, sitting by himself. He was dirty and exhausted. He looked like he’d given everything he had. It was almost like he was lifeless. But you could see the emotion in his eyes. You could feel it.

I cried for that guy. I cried watching the news. I cried on the way to my shifts at ground zero. I felt weak and vulnerable. But when I had to be strong, I was strong.

After I got home, I had a bigger desire to serve. I was there for only two weeks, but life as it had been didn’t make sense to me anymore. I felt like I hadn’t done enough. Serving a little made me want to serve a lot. 

So I put everything on hold, including college, and in March 2002, I signed up for Active Duty. I’m glad I did. I deployed to Iraq in 2004–05. After serving for five years, I returned to the Guard. The whole experience has become part of who I am.


COL Carlton Cleveland
53rd Troop Command, New York National Guard
On 9/11, Cleveland was a major with New York’s 1/105th Infantry Regiment.

On his most vivid memory of ground zero:
We were in the basement of 5 World Trade Center, looking for survivors and making sure there was nobody down there who shouldn’t have been. We were using flashlights because there was no power. And there were these lines on the walls, traced into the dust that coated everything. We couldn’t figure out where those lines came from. Then it hit us: They were from people who had been trapped down there and escaped. The lines were their fingers on the wall, feeling their way out in the dark. They were working toward an opening—or what they hoped would be an opening. It sent a chill up my spine when I realized what it was.


LTC (Ret.) Doug Compton
1/103rd Armor Regiment, Pennsylvania National Guard
Following the attacks, Compton, a chaplain, ministered to Soldiers and other aid workers in Shanksville, PA, where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed.

On the shock of first responders:
It was tense. There were a lot of frightened people. There was a Red Cross worker, a young lady, who had gotten called up to help, dropped everything and run. Once she got to the crash site, she started crying. One of the other Red Cross workers came over and put an arm around her. I was beside her, too. I said, "Are you OK?" She said, "Oh, I have this orchid at my house, and nobody’s going to water it." She was crying and crying. I think it just crashed in on her. We held hands and prayed. Two days later, I ran into her and asked how she was doing. She said, "I’m OK." I said, "What about that flower you were worried about?" And she said, "I can always get another flower." That was symbolic of all that was going on there.


SFC Melissa Guckian
53rd Troop Command, New York National Guard
In September 2001, Guckian was a specialist with the New York Guard’s 156th Field Artillery Battalion.

On still being in the Guard, 15 years later:
At that point, I don’t think I was going to be a careerist. I don’t necessarily know that [9/11] made it a career. It’s just that, once you get into the military, those people become your family. And if you experience something that dramatic together, it brings you even closer.


THE MONTH AFTER 9.11

Tuesday, Sept. 11
New York Gov. George Pataki mobilizes more than 8,000 members of the New York Army National Guard. In New York City, the 1,500 troops who assemble immediately would grow to 3,000 within 24 hours. Nationwide, the number of Guard members called to duty reaches 50,000.

Operation Noble Eagle, a joint program between the U.S. and Canada, begins in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Guard members provide security at military installations, airports and other potential targets.

Wednesday, Sept. 12
Genelle Guzman-McMillan is pulled from the rubble at the World Trade Center. Trapped for 27 hours, she is the last person to be rescued at ground zero.

Soldiers from the Pennsylvania Army Guard’s 1/103rd Armor Regiment set up tents and communication links in Shanksville, PA, crash site of United Airlines Flight 93. An armory in nearby Friedens is converted into a temporary morgue and operations base for the FBI, Red Cross and other agencies.

Thursday, Sept. 13
Civilian air traffic is allowed to resume, with stricter airport security checks in place.

Friday, Sept. 14
Congress grants President George W. Bush the authority to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those whom he determined “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the attacks.

Thursday, Sept. 20
Bush announces the new cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security, precursor to the Department of Homeland Security, which would be established March 1, 2003.

Friday, Oct. 5
Photojournalist Bob Stevens, 63, dies in Florida of anthrax poisoning. He is the first journalist killed in a series of attacks in which letters containing the deadly bacteria were mailed to media outlets across the U.S. Response units, including the Guard’s 3rd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team from Fort Indiantown Gap, PA, would stay busy for weeks addressing similar calls. Nationwide, anthrax exposure would kill five people and infect 17 others in the months following 9/11.

Sunday, Oct. 7
The U.S. air campaign against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan begins—the birth of Operation Enduring Freedom.