Never forget! Holm Center commander reflects on living through 9/11 Pentagon attack

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  • By Brig. Gen. Houston Cantwell, commander, Jeanne M. Holm Center for Officer Accessions and Citizen Development
  • Jeanne M. Holm Center for Officer Accessions and Citizen Development

Huddled around the television, we all watched events unfold in New York City. After the second plane impacted, someone threw out the idea that the Pentagon would have made a good target. Not minutes later, the Pentagon, a seven-story building housing roughly 25,000 people, shook below our feet. I peered out the window from our top-floor office and watched a large orange fireball rise from across the building. Billowing black smoke rose with the flames.

I quickly grabbed my bag and remember standing in the middle of the office. I was a young Air Force captain working for two colonels, neither of whom was exhibiting much sense of urgency—one was finishing up a phone call and the other was composing an email. To me, however, even in the absence of alarms or evacuation orders, it seemed appropriate to get out. The building was under direct terrorist attack! With so many trying to simultaneously depart the building, long lines ensued. I remember standing in the stairwell dimly lit by emergency lighting. I needed to descend five stories, and it was gridlock due to the volume of people trying to exit. So many emotions filled my head: uncertainty, fear, anger. Given that there were two aircraft involved in the New York attack, I wondered, was a second airplane about to crash through the Pentagon walls?

Once outside the building, I will never forget the unmistakable smell of jet fuel. The exit from which I had emerged was directly downwind from the point of impact. I remember running into an exasperated friend exclaiming, “Houston, you will not believe what I just saw! An airliner flew directly into the side of the building!”  Large crowds milled around the parking lots. Rumors spread. “There’s another airplane inbound headed to the capitol!”  Others claimed the White House was next.  Within minutes, F-16s from the District of Columbia Air National Guard flew a couple of low passes. In the absence of smartphones, the flow of information ceased while away from television or radio. Even cell phones were useless given the overwhelming demand. Any chance of communication would require a landline, so I drove home.

After several attempts, my phone call to my then-girlfriend (now my beautiful wife) Lisa finally went through. She was relieved to learn of my safety having closely followed the day’s events. Of note, my sweet mother would subsequently often remind me of my decision to call my girlfriend before her, as she was also keenly concerned for my safety—fair critique. Three days later, Lisa would provide a perspective I would never forget on the importance of airpower.

After coming home from dinner, I walked her up to her apartment door. In the distance we heard the dull roar of the F-16 fighter aircraft flying their combat air patrol over the D.C. skies. With all other aircraft still grounded, their sound was most distinctive. Having spent hundreds of hours flying the F-16, I opined what must have been going through the minds of those pilots. How bored they must be, being the only aircraft airborne over the U.S.! I thought they needed to be practicing complex tactics and weapons employment. Frankly, these laborious flights were going to reduce our national security, not increase it. Then I asked Lisa her opinion, and in her own honest and vulnerable way, she turned to me and said, “Hearing those aircraft makes me sleep better at night.” I thought to myself, “Seriously!?” In this case, airpower was truly providing a blanket of security that reached the hearts of millions—a lesson I will never forget. The nation faced so much uncertainty during that time, reminders of our credible military force brought some form of relief.

Subsequent assignments would bring me to the frontlines of the Global War on Terror. In 2011, I would lead very talented Airmen at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and ensure effective airfield operations at the region’s key operations and logistics hub. During my 100 combat missions flying the F-16, I would directly support the brave coalition men and women on the ground tasked with ensuring regional stability and advising of the Afghan military. A year later, I would lead a cutting-edge flying unit near Las Vegas, Nevada, tasked with operating the Air Force’s newest unmanned aircraft, the Predator, Reaper, and RQ-170 Sentinel. Those aircraft took off and landed from airfields across Afghanistan and other Middle East countries but were then “handed-off” to aircrew back in the United States for missions often exceeding 18 hours in duration. These “drones” collected intelligence essential to understanding the overseas terrorist networks and when necessary, provided an airborne platform to launch precise kinetic strikes against these same terrorists.

Twenty years after being at the literal ground zero of what precipitated the Global War on Terror, I’m proud to have served as an Airman on this joint warfighting team. But I’m also reminded of the motto adopted immediately following the 9/11 attack: “Never Forget!” I will never forget the loss of 184 Americans at the Pentagon, or the surprise or the fact that we must always prepare for an unpredictable adversary. Our Airmen provide a persistent blanket of national security. When required, we respond with unmatched speed, precision, and global reach.

As the newly appointed commander of both the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps and the Officer Training School, we prepare and inspire leaders of character with a warrior ethos. I look forward to sharing my combat experiences with our energetic young cadets for they must shoulder the burden of national security in the next chapter. As the commander responsible for 80% of the Air Force’s officer training, I remain hopeful for our future, given the tremendously talented young cadets within our ranks. For no matter what challenges face this nation, Airmen will rise to the occasion and play a vital role in our defense. Having served at all three Air Force accessions sources, I can affirm our next generation of Air Force leaders remain morally grounded and prepared to fight and win our nation’s future wars.