September 11, 2001 was a beautiful sunny day with blue skies. At that time I was employed by the Department of Defense working for AASF#1 (Army Aviation Support Facility #1) in West Trenton performing my duties as a Flight Operations Specialist. My daily job was tracking our helicopters while maintaining flight plans and radio communication. Sometimes that meant going up in a Huey or a Blackhawk so it always had its perks. Though I was DOD I wore my Army uniform every day. Everyone who worked there did. My rank at the time was not so common. I was currently knee deep in Officer Candidate School and held the rank of OC. OC McLelland – I still think it has a weird ring to it.

The facility was buzzing on 9/11/01 because it was going to be a big day. All of the local news agencies were headed to my job to cover my boss, a Lieutenant Colonel (our Facility Commander), as he was set to give a press conference retiring our fleet of AH-1F Cobras. I had the very fun job of keeping track of which news organizations had arrived and waiting for those that hadn’t arrived yet. It wasn’t the most fun job in the world but I, along with the Sergeant I worked with in Flight Ops, tried to make the best of a boring assignment.

The press conference was supposed to take place some time around 9AM. The press showed up pretty early and most of them were there except Action News, which the boss wanted to wait for. I finally got a call that they weren’t coming and told the boss.  Very shortly after that one of our Warrant Officers walked into Flight Ops. He said that an airplane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.  I left the room, booked down the stairs, and ran through our very large hanger to the break room. There was already a big crowd of mechanics, avionics, and crew chiefs gathered around watching the television. We all stood there, bullshitting with each other, our eyes glued to the television. It was only moments later when that second plane shot into the other tower. I believe a collection of “What the fuck!”s were uttered. We were under attack.

I ran right out of the break room and back upstairs where the media was with my boss. I blurted that the other WTC tower was just hit by another airplane and suddenly we were in crisis mode. I don’t even remember the media leaving at this point. The pilots, led by a kickass 1st Lieutenant, gathered together with some crew chiefs, the boss, myself, and the Sergeant I worked with. A plan was quickly hatched. The pilots would put together a flight plan and depart immediately for New York City (which, by aircraft from West Trenton, was only a few minutes away). A bunch of us ran downstairs into the supply room and barged in. We grabbed every Camelbak and canteen we could find and started filling them up with water. Everything was thrown into the Blackhawk and, with the flight plan filed, the 1LT and one of our senior Warrant Officers got into the aircraft and flew away.

I returned to Flight Ops and sat at the radio so I could keep communication with the Blackhawk. A few minutes went by when they radioed back to me. A jet had come up right on their tail. The jet was dispatched from the 177th Fighter Wing in Atlantic City. They were radioing to the helicopter for their squawk code. They didn’t have one. The pilots were calling me on the radio telling me I needed to get on the horn with the 177th. The jet continued to repeat itself until they gave the pilots an ultimatum. Either set the aircraft down and figure their shit out or they were going to get blasted out of the sky. Very wisely the Blackhawk pilots found somewhere to land and immediately set the helicopter down.

Flight Ops was pretty chaotic as the Sergeant and I, the LTC Facility Commander, and anyone else who wanted to know what the fuck was happening were all hanging out in the same room. We got a hold of the 177th but I don’t remember talking to them. On this I’m fuzzy but I believe the LTC got on the phone, explained the situation, and, after it was finally settled, the Blackhawk was back in the air.  The FAA’s Operations Manager grounded all commercial aircraft, followed by not allowing any flights into the United States. But our Blackhawks, along with the fighter jets from the 177th, continued to fly. We were never grounded.

I worked a very long day that day. We started each day pretty early in the morning and I left pretty late that night as the Sergeant volunteered to take the night shift. I was exhausted but I first drove to my local Best Buy. It may seem silly that I was driving there to buy the new Jamiroquai album on a day filled with such horror. But I’m pretty sure that is the reason I did it. There was so much going on that I needed something that could shine through. My favorite singer was that sunshine. I walked into Best Buy and everyone stared at me. People started walking over to me. Quite a number of people. They were saying things like, “Thank you” and “Thank you for your service.” I was still in my BDUs as I wore my uniform to work every day. It really was a day where Americans felt good that they had a military, a fire department, and a police force.

Our Blackhawks were tasked for several weeks in clean up efforts and evidence collection. Whatever was collected was taken from the city to Liberty State Park in Jersey City where a command center had been set up. I’m not sure what was there as my job kept me back on the radio in West Trenton. But those pilots and crew chiefs I worked with day to day saw things that they never wanted to talk about. At least back then.  I don’t blame them. I will always take my hat off to my co-workers for working so hard at a job no one ever would want to do. I’m sure there are countless thousands who also fall into that category.

We went to 12+ hour days after that. Our operation became 24/7. The FBI had joined us and we were working with them shuttling agents back and forth, up to Jersey City or down to Washington D.C. I was also going to night school and tried to make it to classes when I could. Once again I had to show up in fatigues as I was just running to try to get to class after a 12-14 hour day. Then I would go home and try to unpack as my ex and I had just moved into our new house on September 1st.

Just a week later the Anthrax came. It is mostly forgotten today because its scope was much smaller than the huge tragedy. Letters containing anthrax had been sent from my local post office to several newspapers and United States senators. Coming right after 9/11 no one knew if it was another terrorist attack on our country, though it was assumed that it was terrorist related (the FBI ended up believing that the attack was the work of a former government employee who worked in bio defense labs).

I remember the FBI coming into my office and plopping down on the couch with the anthrax safely stored in some sort of cooler, ready to be flown right down to Washington. Everyone was trying to avoid this stuff and here it was right in my office. For weeks I didn’t get mail at home and once we started getting mail it came in clear sealed plastic after being radiated to hell. Once out of the plastic you couldn’t even open up the mail. It was difficult trying to explain to the credit card company that the reason we didn’t get the bill they had sent out was because of the anthrax which, in turn, forced them to radiate my mail, and have the bill show up weeks later, which ultimately couldn’t even be opened. (The local post office? It would remain closed until 2005 when cleanup was finally completed).

I also remember going up to North Jersey and a friend taking me to a great vantage point of Midtown.  There you saw the smoke continue to rise into the air.  The smoke continued to rise week and week, month after month.

It was a day all Americans will never forget. I will always remember how glad everyone was to have a military. To have police to keep us safe. To have people who would risk their lives in a heartbeat to save others. Some of those policemen and firemen never made it home either. My ex brother-in-laws were NYPD and NYFD respectively and I thanked God that they had made it through okay.

We now live in a world of distrust. Of 24 hour news channels spinning their own views on matters. In a world where the police and military are sometimes seen as enemies. I really hate that there has to a massive tragedy to bring us all together as a nation. I hope that on a day like today people can come together and think we aren’t all enemies. No matter your race, creed, or religion – you’re an American.