ARLINGTON, Va. – Will you ever forget where you were, or what you were doing on Sept. 11, 2001, when two hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center in New York, another crashed into the Pentagon, and yet another crashed in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania?
For most Guard members and future members who lived through that day, much like those before them when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded or when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the answer is no – there is a story to tell.
These are but a few of those countless stories.
He spent a year not talking about what he saw in the halls of the Pentagon after a commercial passenger jet crashed through the walls, but eventually Chief Warrant Officer 4 Clifford Bauman began to share his story.
“There was stuff floating everywhere,” Bauman said in a 2013 interview, describing his journey through knee-deep water into the Pentagon’s E-corridor. “We made our way back around between C- and B-corridor and saw where the nose of the aircraft detached and shot through the building.”
His team then stepped outside to set up equipment designed to locate active cell phones, and went to work searching for survivors.
“Once we started pinging I reentered the building, crawling,” he said. “We were there all day and into the night, looking for people – eighteen hours and no survivors – not one.”
When he returned home, Bauman would only discuss general details, but nothing about the bodies he saw or the sights, sounds and smells that burrowed deep into his mind.
“I felt guilty,” he said. “I wasn’t able to find anyone alive. When I would go to sleep at night I would have vivid dreams about what I saw – what I crawled through.”
This guilt would eventually lead to Bauman attempting to take his own life.
“I didn’t want to live with the guilt of not finding anyone alive,” he said.
As Bauman lay in the hospital recovering, he began to feel like a weight had been lifted off of him and that he needed to make a change to fix what was bothering him.
At first, Bauman said sharing his pain did not come naturally, but he pushed forward and felt his world begin to change immediately. And opening up to his therapist led to a proper diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress.
“My life changed from night to day,” he said. “It’s still a process … but you learn how to control the triggers that lead you down negative paths.”
Bauman still proudly wears the uniform, is a changed man and a huge advocate for the Army Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program, a program designed to build resilience of Soldiers, their families and Army civilians.
“I understand what it’s like when you don’t want to deal with the family anymore, to deal with the stress of trying to explain what you’re going through, but suicide is not the answer,” he said.
An interesting first day
A 10-year veteran of the regular Air Force at the time, Air Force Col. Mark Valentine was getting a tour of the District of Columbia Air National Guard’s 113th Wing when the events of Sept. 11 began to unfold.
It was his first day in the Air Guard.
“As a group of pilots, we all looked at one another and thought it might have been someone improperly trained or caught in bad weather,” Valentine said in a 2011 interview.
“I will never forget that when I looked at the television that the hairs on the back of my neck stood up – that is ingrained in my memory – and it was not because of the big burning hole in the side of the Trade Center … it was because of the fact that it was a blue, clear day.”
He knew then that it was no accident, and as he stood there in front of the television he watched the second plane hit.
“From there it was like time dilated,” he said. “We stood there for what seemed (like) an hour … and then everyone just scattered and started doing their jobs.”
Even though air defense was not a specific mission for the unit at the time, Valentine said the capability was there and the Airmen of the 113th knew what to do and how to execute their roles.
As part of Operation Noble Eagle, an ongoing NORAD mission started in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to protect the continental United States from further airborne aggression, the unit has been providing air defense capabilities ever since.
In 2013, the unit responded to its 4,000th alert since 9/11. An alert event is designated by the unit’s F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft being alerted to the runway or beyond to respond to a possible airborne threat.
Valentine said he does not believe anyone could go through the events of that blue-skies, clear day in 2001 and not be affected in some way.
“We would hope that it makes us wiser, but it does definitely change your outlook,” he said.
A possible fifth plane
Running late for work due to the traffic on her commute, Air Force Brig. Gen. Carol A. Timmons, a Delaware Air National Guard member, would never have thought that that day would be the last time she’d ever see the towers of the World Trade Center as she crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
As a pilot for a major airline, Timmons said she was scheduled to take off that morning from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, headed for Los Angeles.
“We’d gotten clearance to push off the gate and clearance to taxi, and literally at 9:03 is when we released the brakes,” she said in a 2011 interview. “We turned right so our tail was facing the city and we couldn’t see the city.”
As they sat there, Timmons said news of what was happening began to come over her and the pilot’s radio, including an order from the ground controller for every plane to stop where they were and another to barricade the door to the cockpit.
“It was a very difficult thing to do,” she said, adding that she regretted leaving the flight attendants in the rear of the plane to deal with whatever might occur.
Timmons was able to tune into a local AM station on one of the radios and play it over the PA system so passengers would know what was going on as well. Then at approximately 9:20, the traffic control tower announced that the airport was being evacuated and all planes were left to figure out how to get back to their departure gates.
“When we turned to taxi back to the gate, I could see that the Twin Towers were on fire – I can still see that pretty clearly,” she said.
It was shortly after arriving at the gate that a flight attendant alerted the pilots that a few of the passengers were unusually agitated that the plane was not taking off after all.
As soon as we opened the doors, those guys were off, she said.
“It was total chaos at the airport and they just disappeared,” Timmons said of the two men. Investigators would later find evidence of links to al-Qaida in their abandoned bags aboard the aircraft.
“The whole world has changed since that day, and we must always remember that loss,” she said.
A better National Guard
“We have evolved and we have changed,” said then-Air Force Maj. Gen. William Etter, the acting director of domestic operations at the National Guard Bureau, during an interview in 2010.
Today, Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey Larrabee, a historian with the National Guard Bureau, says the focus should not be on how the Guard changed, but rather how it was made better.
“It’s not a question of how the Guard changed, it’s a question of how the Guard responded and was made better because the Guard didn’t really change,” Larrabee said. “What happened was we got more equipment, the force structure of the Army Guard aligned with the active component, and we got the funding to do training.”
Larrabee added that that ability to respond wherever needed, with the equipment, and the reliance placed upon the Guard since can be directly related to 9/11.
“We were already geared towards responding, it just made us better,” he said.
“As a community-based volunteer force of people who want to serve their state and the nation, we’re able to do it better now because we have more tools and there is more recognition placed on the Guard’s ability,” he said.
Editor’s note: Air Force Staff Sgt. Jared A. Denton contributed to this story.