An Air Force Officer's Baptism of Fire in the Wake of 9/11
Around the State
A few weeks into the fall semester of my senior year at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I began Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001, like virtually any other school day.
With less than nine months left until graduation and a subsequent commission as a U.S. Air Force officer, I was excited to be finally finishing my college experience and beginning my career in the active-duty military.
While surviving the arduous four years at the Academy was an accomplishment in and of itself, for myself and my roughly 950 classmates, it was simply a stepping stone to bigger and better things … as one of our former commandants, now-retired General Stephen Lorenz said, “the Academy was Chapter 1 of the rest of our lives.”
Prior to the events that unfolded that morning, our nation had enjoyed relative peace ever since the initial Gulf War. Certainly, the military played a role in operations in Kosovo, Somalia, and elsewhere but, as a whole, we were not involved in any major-scale global conflict. I had no reason to believe my career as an Air Force officer and pilot would be any different.
Granted, my classmates and I had already committed to protect our nation from “all enemies foreign and domestic,” so we had never dismissed the inherent risks associated with our future role in the military. We accepted the fact that if called upon we would willingly sacrifice our lives (as several of my classmates have since done) to preserve our freedom and the American way of life. At the time, however, we had no definitive enemies.
The morning of Sept. 11, I distinctly recall my roommate, Mark Cramer, and I waking up, preparing our uniforms and finishing some last-minute homework prior to class. Mark, as he glanced online at the day’s current events, indicated an aircraft had struck one of the Twin Towers. Immediately assuming aircraft malfunction or pilot error, we flipped on the television to see if we could discover more.
If time could actually ever actually stand still, it was at that moment. Watching in sheer and utter disbelief, we both witnessed on live television the second aircraft crashing into the other tower. While we had no way of predicting the full ramifications of those events, in a way we both knew instantly that the lives of not only the cadets but the entire military would be forever altered by those cowardly attacks.
Thereafter, things would never be the same. Understandably, people everywhere saw increased security measures. Our country, as well as the global community, also became more heightened to the ever-present threat of terrorism. Besides all the obvious though, my fellow classmates and I knew that we would be in the thick of this conflict.
We would be the next generation of officers who would be directly involved in our military’s actions overseas. During this time, my career plans never wavered. I still planned on going to pilot training with the intent to earn my wings. However, I realized that a combat deployment was no longer a possibility; it was an eventuality.
After earning my wings in 2004, I went on to fly the KC-135 Stratotanker at MacDill AFB in Tampa and later McConnell AFB in Wichita, Kan. The primary role of this particular aircraft is aerial refueling. The KC-135, simply put, brings fuel to the fight.
Throughout multiple deployments overseas, my crew and I provided support for a variety of U.S. and coalition aircraft over the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan. Refueling fighters on patrol overhead of ground troops or cargo aircraft delivering humanitarian supplies, no matter the mission, we never forgot the reason we were there.
Sept. 11, 2001, had thrust the U.S. military and other coalition forces into a hostile, often unforgiving situation. Thousands of brave men and women have since sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of a safer world, a world free from tyranny and extremism. However, their sacrifices have not been in vain, and as each year ensues our progress in the region is becoming more and more evident.
Currently, I am deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan, for a year, serving as a C-27 instructor pilot and adviser to the Afghan air force as part of NATO’s Air Training Command. Every day, my squadron advises and instructs Afghan pilots and loadmasters in the operation of tactical airlift. Our mission as advisers is to enable the Afghan air force to one day function independently and self-sufficiently.
Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that a mere 10 years after 9/11 would I be on the ground in Afghanistan making history, helping to build their air force. Are there growing pains throughout this process? Absolutely. But the United States, along with our coalition partners, is making headway. The Afghan military realizes the significant challenges that lie ahead, and many -- especially the younger generation of officers -- are stepping up and embracing these challenges.
Our collective work here will not be accomplished overnight, but our efforts today will pay dividends in the future as they contribute to a safer, more stable world in this post-9/11 era.
As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, let us never forget the tragic and terrible loss of innocent lives as well as the subsequent sacrifices of our American service men and women. We have persevered and will continue to persevere. We will never cower in the face of terrorism or surrender to fear. The characteristic determination and strength of America’s citizens will continue to unite the world as we advance freedom across the globe.
Let us never forget that day. Let our resolve never fail.
Opinion column: U.S. Air Force Capt. H. Grey Shelfer serves as an Afghan air force safety adviser at Kabul International Airport, Afghanistan.