Volunteer Airmen: 9/11 and the Modern War era

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Teri Eicher
  • 134th Air Refueling Wing
In 2001 Americans were listening to Lifehouse, Alicia Keys, and Shaggy. Popular TV shows were CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Charmed, and Dawson’s Creek. The biggest movies to see in the theater were, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “The Fellowship of the Ring,” and “Shrek.” The website Wikipedia was launched, and Apple released their first iPod. The average income was $42,350.00, an average new car cost $25,850 and a postage stamp was 34 cents.

Through the summer of 2001, the biggest news stories were Anthrax attacks via mail, the death of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, and a series of shark attack fatalities. At 8:46 A.M. EST on September 11, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. In the following 17 minutes, news outlets worldwide began broadcasting live video of the smoking tower under the assumption that the crash was an accident. At 9:03 A.M. EST, the world watched as the South Tower was hit by United Airlines Flight 175. Soon news came in about two other planes, Flight 77 that had crashed into the Pentagon and Flight 93 that crashed in a field on its way to the White House, and thousands more people lost their lives when the towers collapsed. Millions of Americans watched and wondered what they could do to help.

In East Tennessee, the 134th Volunteers didn’t wait to be called in to help. Wing members began pouring onto the base, some even abandoning their cars outside the gates to run in on foot. Colonel Jason Brock, Maintenance Group Commander, said it was his generation’s Pearl Harbor.

“We immediately armed everyone,” Brock said. “We had defensive fighting positions around the base, with round-the-clock coverage. We didn’t know if we were going to war right then. It was such an unprecedented attack by unprecedented means we didn’t know what to expect. People didn’t leave. We locked down, armed up and stayed.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded all civilian flights and military aircraft launched to defend the skies. The 134th Air Refueling Wing launched KC-135 tankers to provide refueling for Combat Air Patrols and would continue that mission for several years. Americans rallied behind their president who promised to take the war back to where it came from. Despite the challenges of waging a war on a non-state actor, the world supported President George W. Bush when he declared the War on Terror.

134th Security Forces were the first Volunteers to be called to war in October 2001, and they shipped out to support Operation Enduring Freedom. The first aircraft and aircrew deployed to Incirlik AB, Turkey, in 2002 to support Enduring Freedom and Operation Northern Watch. Brock commented that they had no shortage of volunteers for these missions.

“It was the gut feeling of getting payback,” Brock said. “We were mad. We were minding our own business and got attacked by terrorists. We felt like we were contributing to our country’s response.”

The 134th ARW first deployed to Mildenhall AB, England, in 2003 to support the strike sorties for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Since that time the Volunteers have settled into the “new normal”. Regular deployments to locations around the world including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Guam are just part of how the 134th ARW does business. Brock explained how this era of ongoing war has created a shift in the expectations of new recruits.

“After Desert Storm we collectively, as a National Guard, transitioned from a ‘Strategic Reserve’ to an ‘Operational Force’, and even more so since 9/11,” Brock said. “With the new normal, when someone enlists they expect to deploy. Previous generations were always aware that deployment was a possibility, but not a probability. The younger generation may be different than past generations, but they are very patriotic, and they understand why they’re here.”

Even though we’re no longer focusing the fight on the Taliban, America continues to wage the War on Terror. In the past 16 years we have fought a succession of terrorist groups across a number of countries, and the 134th Volunteers have been there continually to support the mission.

“Names and faces of the bad guys change,” Brock explained, “Locations change, but we’ve basically been doing the same thing since 9/11.”

Through 60 years of service the 134th aircraft have changed, Airmen have started and finished their careers, and McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base has seen plenty of changes. However, the Volunteer Spirit continues to shine through. As one leader put it, “Volunteers leave things a little better than they found them, work a little harder than they have to, and stay a little longer to get the job done." The 134th Fighter Interceptor Group built that reputation in 1957 and the 134th Air Refueling Wing proudly continues the tradition today.