Editor's note: First of story series.
By Army Sgt. Darron Salzer
National Guard Bureau
ARLINGTON, Va. (9/9/11) - Where were you that day?
This question has become synonymous with the attacks of 9/11, and as the 10-year anniversary approaches, those who remember will reflect back upon that day, vividly remembering a day the world changed.
Last month, Pentagon survivors and Guard members who responded to the events that day recalled the attacks and aftermath.
"I was an airline pilot at the time, working full-time and I was doing the Guard part-time," said Air Force Lt. Col. Rolando Aguilar, Fairchild RC-26 Metroliner program manager for the 147th Reconnaissance Wing.
"On Sept. 11, I was working a 72-hour alert shift and [eventually] as one of the first responders as a fighter escort pilot for Air Force One, escorting the president as he took off from Florida and landed in Louisiana, making it to Offutt Air Force Base and from there back to D.C.
"I was one of the first two on scene, escorting President Bush and ensuring his safety. My role ended in [Louisiana] because as he and the other F-16 were refueling, I was in the air providing them cover and then my unit launched another two F-16s as I was getting low on fuel, so as they approached Air Force One was taking off again."
Aguilar said that at the time he had begun his alert shift, he did not know what was going on as the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked.
"When you're on the alert shift, you have to stay at the facility," he said. "You eat there, you sleep there and you can't leave because you have to be able to go up into the air at a moment's notice."
Just coming back from an airline trip, Aguilar said he was expecting the alert shift to be as uneventful as it usually is and looking forward to getting some rest, but a knock on his door changed all of that.
"On the morning of 9/11 – after the attacks – the crew chiefs knocked on my door as said 'Hey, you need to get up and check this out.' and I told them I'd be there in a little while as I rolled back to sleep," he said. "The next thing I know, I hear the alert horn."
Aguilar said after he scrambled to the plane and as he remained there for 90 minutes in "battle-station mode" to await further instructions, he started to be informed about what was happening by the crew chiefs over the radio and his wife.
"They told me there were hijackings and planes were crashing into the World Trade Center, and that's when I realized what was going on," he said.
"At first I wasn't sure about what exactly was going on, so there was a lot of uncertainty, and then we got the order to launch and right before we did, the wing commander told me that we were going to intercept a former member of the unit.
"I didn't know what he was talking about, but after we took off and I see this 747 in front of us with Air Force One markings, I realized he was referring to President Bush, who was a Texas Guardsman with the 147th Reconnaissance Wing back in the '60s."
Aguilar said he felt an overwhelming sense of just how much of a big deal the whole situation was as he and the other fighter pilot escorted Air Force One – the first time it had ever happened.
"At that point I just tried to think about what the logical threats were and what I needed to do in order to do my job properly," he said. "While he is airborne … he's the safest he can be and the only thing that could be a possible threat would be another fighter due to the speeds and altitude that the 747 flies."
Though he only served as an escort for Air Force One from Florida to Louisiana, Aguilar said he is humbled and proud of the fact that he was able to do what he was needed to do almost 10 years ago.
"I am proud of the task that I was entrusted to do," Aguilar said. "Not too many people can say they've escorted Air Force One or flown next to them with live missiles and a hot gun, so I am humbled by that awesome responsibility given to me.
"That day made me more vigilant, and it's something that's really changed the world and changed the military. It let people know that you're not really completely safe anywhere."
Aguilar said the attacks on Sept. 11 and the response by the National Guard really showed that the Guard is a viable force.
"The Army Guard especially made a lot of sacrifices," he said. "We're cheaper and have got a lot more experience, and we're a capable force and it just shows what a valuable and what a great resource we are."
As the 10-year anniversary approaches, Aguilar said he feels reflective and finds it hard to imagine that 10 years have gone by and that the world has changed so much since then.
"I'm reflective on all the sacrifices my brethren in uniform have taken, and it may sound corny, but hopefully we can bring world peace or stability one day."
A new father answers an uncertain challenge
As his first-born daughter was turning two weeks old on the morning of Sept. 11, Army 1st Sgt. Robert Moxley, 200th Military Police Company first sergeant, was preparing to answer the calls to report to his unit's armory in Maryland.
"On Sept. 11, the members of our unit started receiving calls that we all needed to report in to the unit," Moxley said. "By that time we had all already seen the reports on television and were aware of what was going on.
"That night, we started combat loading our vehicles and assigning gear to everyone in preparation for reporting to the Pentagon the next day."
Moxley said as his unit sat there at the armory you could feel the anxiety in the air, as the Soldiers were unable to sleep and ready to go.
"Everyone was on pins-and-needles," he said. "We really didn't know what we were coming in to. It was just mind-boggling what had happened."
When they pulled up to the Pentagon the next day, "everyone knew what they had to do then.
"After arriving at the Pentagon, we began setting up as interior and exterior security, working with the Pentagon Police Department. We were set up through the hallways where the crash site was and outside of the crash site and were there to make sure no one came in or tried to retrieve anything from the area."
Moxley said not even 20 minutes after getting settled in, a group of people ran through the halls exclaiming that a second plane was coming in, "which turned out to be a FEMA helicopter, but everyone evacuated the building anyway.
"It was just a slow-motion herd of people trying to run down the hallway and wanting to know how to get out. We'd been there 20-minutes and we didn't know.
"After that, we came back in and got settled back into our positions.
"When we first got here, the building was still on fire and firefighters were working as hard as they could to put those fires out. The building was full of heavy smoke that choked you, and in some of positions we had to rotate people out because of the smoke.
"You could see the devastation. Some of our positions were where the building had ended and the crash site began, so you could see where the fireball had just melted glass and wires – just everything was gone."
Everyone was on edge, said Moxley, as he described the feelings of those around him who were part of what happened at the Pentagon and the response.
"We didn't know what was going to come next," he said. "Was this a precursor? Was this a first attack? Was there more to come? We really didn't know how big this was – I mean, they had hit the towers in New York and had punched into the command and control for the military services.
"It was a pretty good black eye. It wasn't a proud day or a happy day, but the Soldiers there did what they were supposed to do."
Moxley said he is proud of what the Guard did that day and every day since the attacks of Sept. 11.
"It's changed the whole face of how we operate," he said. "Everything is ever-changing, counter-terrorism is a huge field now, and we're a lot more proactive. We are more ready to [deploy] at a moment's notice than we were before.
"The Guard is more dress-right-dress with the active duty and when we go somewhere we can step right in and back-fill them with a lot more respect than before."
For the 10-year anniversary, Moxley said he and another Soldier are planning a reunion at the Pentagon for the Soldiers from his unit and sister units who were a part of the Pentagon response.
"It's a milestone," he said. "Ten years ago, who knew?"
Ready to answer the call
As he and his coworkers were watching the second plane hit the Twin Towers, Army Master Sgt. Aarion Franklin, an intelligence sergeant with the 115th Military Police Battalion, said a friend of his working inside the Pentagon had sent a text message telling him that the Pentagon had been hit as well.
"I was working at [Baltimore-Washington International Airport]," Franklin said, "and we were getting information through the flight [operations] that things were kind of going on, so we all gathered into a small conference room.
"I kind of figured that the unit was going to get called up, and they released all of us from work early.
"By the time I got home, the unit had already been called up so I went in and they handed out all of our gear and then we just sat and waited. In the middle of the night, we got word that we'd be coming over to the Pentagon that morning."
Franklin said the scene at his unit was intense as Soldiers sat there, anxiously waiting for what was to happen next. "Once they had their gear, there was this impatience of wanting to help already – to do something already.
"Some of the guys were worried about friends they knew who worked in the Pentagon too."
As his unit drove towards the Pentagon the next day, Franklin said the scene that lay before them as they approached was overwhelming as he and his unit fully grasped what was in front of them.
"Coming down the highway, you could see a lot of smoke," he said, "but when we came around to the side of the building where the plane had hit you could see the damage and that the building was partially collapsed.
"We had no idea it was still going to be that bad.
"There were hundreds, probably thousands of first responders all over the place, and to see that kind of chaos was overwhelming."
He said his unit immediately set to work after arriving on the scene and most of the Soldiers, including himself, struggled to absorb and deal with what had just happened.
Since responding to the calls for assistance after the attacks of 9/11, Franklin said creating closer friendships with his fellow Soldiers and being more aware of personal preparedness are what he has taken away from that day nearly 10 years ago.
"I try to always be ready," he said. "The Guard has become the same way, and since then, we've shown that we are a reliable force – and as a part-time force, that's not an easy task, but we've been able to do it."
Franklin said his plans for 9/11 this year are to attend the reunion at the Pentagon.
"It'll be a good chance to see everybody again and remember the good times we had, and the sad moments that we shared too," he said.