Nearly 10 years ago the very fabric of the red, white and blue was tested by the sounds of 767 jets crashing and two monumental buildings falling to the ground. Soon after the dust settled from the downing of the second tower, with the headlines still buzzing over causalities from the horrific events, every American and U.S. service member life was changed forever.
Until this point most American's had only seen visions of terrorism in foreign lands like Europe. Many U.S. service members entered a military life that was somewhat stable.
"9/11 was America's darkest day. It was the worst tragedy America had experienced to date. It shocked America and the world, and it was like every American had lost a friend or family member that day," said Capt. Timothy Slater, 455th Expeditionary Security Forces Bravo Sector officer in charge. "It is important to never forget the tragedy, both in seeking justice and in remembering the heroic resolve displayed by the emergency responders who perished saving lives."
Within days intelligence agencies like the CIA had the evidence needed to send the Department of Defense into a new era of military service. Each member of the Air Force who had served the country since the early 90's were about to see a distinct change in their beloved service as it now engaged a new target, terrorism.
"To me it was an awakening of sorts, for the first time in my life Americans felt vulnerable. Not from the everyday worries but from something outside our control. I think in many ways it was the loss of an innocence that will take years to recover from," explained Master Sgt. Sean O’Neill, 774th Expeditionary Aircraft Squadron first sergeant. "Hopefully my children will never have to experience what we did on that terrible day in September."
Terrorism brought many changes to the service including regular deployments to distant lands including Afghanistan, a considerable shift for the majority of airmen. September 11, 2001 spawned a new generation of Americans who would find themselves motivated by the senses of that day to join.
"I remember that day was pretty normal, the TV in the room was on and our teacher told us it was happening. Everything just stopped," said Senior Airman Douglas Stracher, 455th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron, Aerospace Ground Equipment mechanic.
Stracher, a 7th grader during 2001, is an example of a new kind of airman who would enlist after September 11th knowing that they would deploy to vast lands for months at a time.
"I remember the first tower burning and watching the second plane hit the other tower and eventually watching both towers collapse," explained the dual military spouse. "I remember my classmates didn't really seem to get it; perhaps we were too young at the time and didn't really grasp what was happening. Within a few days America changed and flags were flying everywhere," said the Point Beach, Fla., native.
"I was in Prospect Heights High School and the news mentioned it, but no one believed it. 9/11 was like an unbelievable story, that something that big would or could be hit and you're like whatever until I went home and saw it for myself and I was like I don't believe this," explained Brooklyn, N.Y. native and 455th EMXS Armament Shop supervisor, Staff Sgt. Kevin Edwards.
"My dad is a paramedic who backfilled the 9/11 first-responder's clinics. He had coworkers who were really affected," he said. "They went back and forth to New York for business, but I was too young and naïve to understand the lasting effects."
Although it would be three years until Osama bin Laden would personally claim responsibility for the attacks, in the coming days after Sept. 11, 2001 it became clear that the 6-foot, 4-inch Saudi would become the symbol of terrorism around the world.
May 1, nearly ten years after that horrific day, as American's gathered around the White House fence, service members gathered around small televisions at bases like Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, to see the face of Sept. 11th's terror had been killed.
Reports claim after a 40-minute gunfight, the al-Qaida leader was killed by a small military team in Pakistan, but as the voices of those surrounding the White House filled the air singing The Star Spangled Banner, not much changed for those serving their deployments.
"I called my mother right when I found out. I told her he was dead but it was 11:30 p.m. on the East Coast so she was half-awake. I felt it was important for her to know. I hope it makes her relax a little about my safety," said Stracher.
The news of the terrorism figurehead's, demise served as a milestone for American citizens and service members alike. Service members like those deployed to Afghanistan who lost eight fellow uniformed personnel in Kabul just days earlier after being shot by a local contractor.
"I walked in from driving on the flightline and my supervisor had the TV on watching the news and in big bold letters it said 'bin Laden is dead'. We didn't say much to each other but we were thrilled because we were chasing that guy for 10 years, he is responsible for the deaths of more than 3,000 innocent people, and we finally got him," explained Stracher. "I think of it in both ways; on one hand they just lost their leader. There is no sense of organization and there are bound to be some who leave al-Qaida because their figurehead is gone. Then, there is also going to be someone ready to step in and try to fill the gap."
For Bagram airmen, the next day began another twelve-hour-shift, another day of passing hours marked by three squares at the dining facility.
For some, this day marks a monumental event in the history books that provides a much needed spark for their troops.
"I've already noticed a huge boost in morale and a patriotic shot in the arm for Americans overseas, both civilians and service members. I think it brings a sense of closure; the idea that bin Laden was still alive was eating away at everyone's soul every time they thought of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. Now there is a sense of peace,accomplishment, pride, and resolution," said Slater. "Especially following the constant stream of bad news relating to tornados, gas prices, and the economy, this brilliant display of American resolve reignites the American spirit that all things are possible and no obstacle is too great to overcome."
For others it is deployed life as usual, which means concentrating on the mission at hand, protecting the Afghan people until they can protect themselves.
"Whether I think it is a step forward or back, I will keep to myself," said Edwards. "But it is a step. There may be others who step up and try to take his place. Honestly, it has been a long time coming. I am glad it made some people back home to feel safer or more secure. I just don't want it to be a false sense of security, like it is all over here now. It is more like we put a bandage over a scratch that has already healed but has not finished scaring."
Whether Bin Laden's demise marks real progress in the Afghanistan conflict has yet to be determined, especially with the news of a possible new al-Qaida leader being named, but for most airmen deployed here it hasn't changed the way they handle their day-to-day business.
"For service members, I think it is a step in winning the war on terrorism but it is only one step. We have been here for a long time and probably will be here for even longer," O'Neill said. "This is one battle in a war with many fronts, both here and abroad. I think that Americans here and at home and throughout the world should rejoice while remaining vigilant in all of our endeavors."
Article by Master Sgt. Michael Voss, 455th Air Expeditionary Wing