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This is the final piece in a five-part series, recalling, from a personal perspective, the days of September 2001 and following.

Continued from Part IV, “Faruq“.

– – –

It was two or three weeks later, maybe more, that I was again listening to National Public Radio on the way home from work. The news was still dominated by the tragedy and what was probably coming next. By this time, the stories were beginning to drill down to the second and third levels – some of the secondary events and background personalities that were beginning to surface. It was then that I heard a report that began with something like, “And now for another story of several individuals the FBI is continuing to try to locate . . .”

They named him precisely.

And it went from there: A pilot based in Nashville . . . disappeared days after the attacks . . . . no trace . . . one of many suspects . . . unaccounted for . . . wanted for questioning . . . the 20th hijacker . . . others not yet identified . . . . . . and on and on.

Man-Silhouette

If there were ever a time when I actually did need to pull my car off to the side of the road, this was it. The problem was, I was sitting in a left turn lane in afternoon rush hour traffic, waiting my turn to get on the highway. There was nowhere I could go. But I felt like I had to go somewhere. I had a rush of emotion, of confusion, of fury. Just like that very day, again I was stunned. But this time there was a new feeling that hit me. I felt betrayed. He talked to me about what now seemed to be this very thing. I was the one he talked to. Me. It was nearly as powerful for me as everything that had happen on September 11th.

The FBI Special Agent-in-Charge who came to Jeppesen to interview me turned out to be a friend and former colleague of mine. In the first year I lived in Denver and while I attended graduate school, I worked an assignment (I was an Air Force Reserve intelligence officer) for the FBI as an intelligence analyst with the Metro Gang Task Force, doing our small part to combat the drug war as it came into the Denver suburbs from California and Mexico. “Carl” was now working in a different division, still in the Denver office, but had clearly performed well and had built on his already high reputation. He was now in white-collar crime but was asked to head up the Denver-area investigation in this global terrorism case. We had not seen each other since the spring of 1995 and it was a bittersweet reunion.

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Because I had an active security clearance, he and I were eventually able to discuss things on a level that others in my position could not. That I happened to be in sales at Jeppesen, knew “Carl”, and had a clearance was altogether coincidental but fortuitous. It was agreed that I would, for a few days, be off my normal sales work at Jeppesen and would put my analyst skills to work on reviewing records, conducting link-analysis and try to come up with some useful conclusions with the advantages of both my previous experience and my knowledge and understanding of Jeppesen database tools. This was a brief task, and investigators moved on quickly; it appeared as though nothing really developed from those efforts. I’ll never know.

In the end, Faruq was deemed to be by all accounts innocent.

As far as the Authorities could determine, he was as so many during those terrible, tragic, and chaotic days. It looked bad for him, but apparently, he was simply just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was reported many weeks later and repeatedly in a type of “where are they now?” report that spanned the national new media outlets in various versions. In all likelihood, he did what many did – he fled the country as fast as he could, not wanting to take a chance at getting caught up in something he was not part of in the first place. I do not know how he did it.

As for me, I have to admit I still harbor my doubts about him.

It was all too close as far as I was concerned, too coincidental to be unrelated. I remain uncertain either way now, and cannot quite say exactly what I believe is true about him. But he is gone now, by all accounts, and that day is past. But not ever completely.

– – –

In these intervening years I have realized I am quite alone it seems, in my perspective on the term “9-11.” This realization was furthered this week when my wife and I watched a wonderfully produced and powerful special program by Fox News, Freedom Rising that attempts to encompass September 11th in its entirety, its centerpiece being the rebuilding in New York.

There are many names now, including the “9/11 Foundation” and the “9/11 Memorial”. The general reference “9/11” has been commonly adopted and is essentially universal.

1WTC_Viewfrom8SpruceStreet_Medium

So, these years later I find myself not quite as committed in my rejection of the term; perhaps even a bit more accepting of it. What results for me is the awareness of a slight sense of disappointment in myself because of it. I know that so much of that is – and was – driven by how I felt at the time, and for the most part, I have not changed in that regard.

It is clear that our feelings – emotions – while incredibly important and so should be given due respect and attention, are real and important, but they must not drive our judgment or decisions. Reality and responsibility must dictate those, regardless of our ever-changing feelings.

The truth remains, and duty remains, regardless of how we feel or what we think.

And so they do, even these eternal years after.

– – –

On May 10th, 2013, the final component to the One World Trade Center spire was placed, and at a height of exactly 1,776 feet, made it the tallest structure in the western hemisphere. Here is a video of that historic event.

World Trade Center

The United States of America has always been about new beginnings – starting over, trying again, creating, building up, and going on. It has been a central part of the fabric of our nation. Every one of us has wanted it or perhaps needed to do that at some point in our lives. Certainly I have.

Each of us individually makes up that fabric. But not just us, but all those who came before us; from those family and friends we know now, who have come here to join us during our own lifetime, to our ancestors who forsook Leiden in the 17th century to embark on a most hazardous journey and yet one full of promise.

Promise – fully the reason they came here. The promise of a new future.

– – –

You may select this link to read the original piece, September 11th, published in September 2009.

More reading about One World Trade Center, here.

You may find information about the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum here.

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You may read about the National Park Service Flight 93 Memorial site here, and support here.

You may read about the official Pentagon 9/11 Memorial here, and support here.

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This is the third in a five part series, published weekly through September 11th.

– – –

Andy’s and Ralph’s deaths were an accident.

Everyone who either flies or lives in that world will eventually know someone who is killed in that dangerous course. Sadly, terribly, it’s part of it. But what happened at Columbine High School was no accident, and the terrorist attacks of September 11th were not an accident.

And now here was another component that added to my broader perspective on what had happened to all of us:

A month shy of one year before – October 2000 – I was in Germany to participate in an Air Force exercise, Trailblazer 01, just weeks after the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

mec & cst

My lifelong friend – also a close friend to Andy and Ralph – Cliff Thomas, was also there. He went as part of a contingent of the Syracuse (New York) Air National Guard unit. We had wanted to travel to Germany together since we were small boys, and now here we were.

We spent time with his grandmother and other family members in Oberursel, outside Frankfurt, then drove south and west to Ramstein and Landstuhl for our work. That was the good part. But the sobering part was also there.

Barely a month before, the injured – and dead – sailors from the terrorist attack against the USS Cole had been brought to Landstuhl Medical Center, just one hundred-some yards from where I was staying. Situated in the deep, beautiful woods above the picturesque town of Landstuhl, the US Army’s Regional Medical Center was where all our casualties from the Middle East and Europe were brought. Most of the injured Cole sailors were still there when Cliff and I arrived, and some of them died there.

2009_12_24_Daniel

In the spring of 2011, it was again to Landstuhl that a soldier I had a connection to was taken with life-threatening injuries. My niece was dating a young man from Littleton, Colorado whose brother, Daniel – both of whom had attended Columbine High School – was serving with a Marine unit in Afghanistan.

While on a dismounted patrol somewhere in the Helmand Province, an IED – and Improvised Explosive Device – detonated, and when it did he lost both legs and a portion of his left hand, including fingers. After more than two intensive and tenuous months in hospital, Daniel had recovered sufficiently to travel and with his parents at his side, winged his way home.

I was privileged and humbled to be at Denver International Airport to see Daniel arrive to a huge and awe-struck, yet cheering crowd of family, friends, television cameras and supportive and thankful admirers.

Suffice it to say he is a remarkable and inspiring guy. See and hear more of his story here, from Denver’s 9News.

Today, with the help of an amazing family, dedicated friends, and a true-to-their-word US Marine Corps, he is well into discovering and developing a new life. Be sure to take a few minutes to visit his blog. Click on James Nachtwey’s photo, below to see his piece in TIME.

James Nachtwey for TIME

And so I was reminded once again that although I had at that time been retired from the Air Force for almost three years, the war still raged, then almost ten years on.

Those few weeks I spent at Ramstein’s Warrior Preparation Center – the WPC – just outside Landstuhl in October of 2000, were more than an exercise for me, as it turned out.

The month before had been the USS Cole attack and during the same period my friends in the Colorado fighter squadron were leaving Incirlik, Turkey, having completed their latest turn flying the Northern No Fly Zone in Iraq and were being replaced by my former squadron mates and friends of the Terre Haute unit.

Greg, Chris, mec, Savannah, 1994

All these people I knew, from such far-flung places and this place I was in now in the midst of world events – it all seemed in some way to be centering here. The total experience was powerful and acute, as though I was staring into the convergence of globally significant events with a personal connection to it all.

The personal intensity was compounded, too, because my wife was home and very pregnant with our son, Jace and our sixth anniversary passed during my time away. It was not the best time to volunteer for an exercise overseas, but it was nothing compared to what so many others had committed to. (I had roses sent to her to deliver at work – I thought quite a feat to pull off from half way across the world.)

kkc, jwc, mec, home, 2002 002

The experience manifest itself in a peculiar emotion that, even now, when I think of my time there, generates a unique feeling reserved for that time and place.

– – –

Photo Credits:
USS Cole, DoD photo
Cpl. Daniel C. W. Riley, USMC, Daniel Riley
Landstuhl, inaz4sun, Wonderunderground.com
Cpl DCW Riley wounded, UH-60 crew, James Nachtwey for TIME
Others, Michael Conner
– – –

Next week- Part IV – “Faruq”

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CO F-16 2002

In those weeks following the September 11th attacks, it was only the serious, angry sounds of fighters, F-16s from Buckley Air Force Base, screaming straight west over our house, flying CAP – Combat Air Patrols; practicing to attack something with a vengeance; they would quickly reign death on anything that would even think about making a malevolent move on Denver.

colorado front range

Ironically, and in a twist that would churn up yet another sad day in our memories, as my wife and I would look west from that window to view the empty sky, so strange, devoid of any airplanes, we were forced to look toward and beyond Columbine High School to take in our view of the mountains. Another place where “it” was no accident.

– – –

We had gone to the school three days after the murderous rampage there in April of 1999.

I think we felt as so many did, compelled in some way to be close to the now sacred site, close to the kids and teacher who were gone now, and to be part of the support for their families and friends left. We walked in the snow up a trail and across the school grounds to see Rachel Scott’s car, a small maroon import, covered with flowers and notes and snow, this place now full of people congregating mostly in stunned silence, and sadness. It was as if it were now frozen in time and place – and it literally was.

Rachel Scott’s car

– – –

Now in the last weeks of September and first week of October 2001 that familiar stillness enveloped everything again. It was only those planes – the fighters – in our skies in the weeks after; a strange yet comforting phenomenon, every other kind of flying being grounded. We were reassured to see them, or at least to hear them.

Many of those F-16 pilots were friends of mine. I had worked at the 120th Fighter Squadron in the first couple years I was in Denver. I had also traveled to Alaska with them and briefed them daily after the shoot-down of Capt Scott O’Grady in Bosnia.

The Serbs had used the Soviet-built SA-6 in an unconventional way, and the result was devastating. Outside the strict bounds of Soviet-era Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) employment doctrine, one system was connected via fiber optic cable to a second SA-6; one operating only as the Shooter, the other providing the Radar for search and track, target acquisition, and fire control. The effect was that the F-16s only “saw” the SA-6 Radar, and did not know of the Shooter several miles away. It nearly proved fatal.

It seemed to be the human drama of O’Grady’s shoot-down – his Falcon was hit just behind the cockpit at the rear of the canopy, and fortunately, as the fuselage disintegrated into two large pieces the cockpit fell away fully intact – that played out so well on television and grabbed everyone. It was this and his subsequent evasion of the hostile forces in the Bosnian forest that were preeminent with the news media and drama-seeking general public.

(Fortunately for O’Grady the ACES-II ejection system worked as advertised. Even from what little remained of his F-16, it fired and he got out.)

But it was the technical and tactical aspects of how the SA-6s were employed that concerned the Redeyes of the 120th, not the human drama. Except that there was a brief flurry accusing O’Grady of ineptitude – one of the pilots had gone to flight school with him and derisively claimed, “The guy didn’t know what he was doing anyway.” As is oft times the case, fighter pilots are ready with jokes and quips to cover and deal with the terrifying underlying truth that they could never escape: “It could have been me.” These kept their interest in my daily Technical Intelligence Briefings and situation updates.

aab

They were not the only ones I had a close connection with. The Racers of the 113th Fighter Squadron in Terre Haute were my home unit, where I first joined.

I retained a keen impression from childhood of the thrill and power of fighter jets when I had gone to air shows with my father in the late 1960s and early ’70s. They were flying F-84s then and later F-100s. I was small when I knew I wanted to be part of it, and as with several of my close friends, joined the Indiana Air National Guard soon after college. And it was with them that I shared my first encounter with the dark, painful side of that life.

AGB and MEC, Mather AFB, CA, 1987

I had gone to flight school – SUNT, or “Sun T” – Specialized Undergraduate Navigator Training – at Mather AFB in California with my close friend, Andy Baer and it was just five years later that he and another squadron mate and friend Ralph Miller were killed in the crash of their F-4E in the Nevada desert while flying intercepts on September 19th, 1990, training for a war in Iraq we were all sure was coming.

– – –

Next week: Part III – Friends

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