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Reflections on Sept. 11 
By Retired Col. Thomas Duffy, Colorado Army National Guard 

On Sept. 11, 2011, Lt. Col. Thomas Duffy was the battalion commander for the 1st Battalion, 157th Field Artillery, based in Longmont, Colo., and worked for the Colorado Army National Guard full time as a member of G-3 Strategic Plans. He was at National Guard Bureau conducting G3-related business. He retired from the COARNG in August 2009.

Now a Training Manager for defense contractor L-3 MPRI, Duffy works in the Training Support Division, Joint Center of Excellence, Joint IED Defeat Organization, at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif. He’s completed two tours in Afghanistan as a Soldier and a contractor, and will likely go back again in 2012.

***

I would say that the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, started out, pretty much, like any other day. I arrived in Washington the day before at Dulles Airport on a Colorado National Guard airplane with other Guardsmen to conduct National Guard business. We had an early breakfast and an early start at the National Guard Bureau. I recall it was a cool, crisp morning. There was certainly a taste of fall in the air with mostly clear, blue skies. All that changed shortly after arriving at NGB that morning.

While visiting one of the offices at NGB, a person in another office, who had a television on, said that some plane had just crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center (the time was roughly 8:50 a.m.). At that time, it seemed like a very unusual and unfortunate accident. It seemed the initial report was that it was a smaller airplane, and in my mind I had a vision of an amateur pilot somehow accidentally flying a plane into the tower. There were images of a hole in the tower and smoke spewing out … and I remember thinking to myself that it would be very difficult to fight a fire there and evacuate all those people above the point of impact. I had no inkling of what was about to unfold.

Shortly afterward, live footage captured a second airplane, clearly a commercial jetliner, crashing into the South Tower of the WTC (now a little after 9 a.m.). I then knew that these crashes were no accident. My next thought was, “Gee, isn’t it odd that terrorists are attacking New York City and not the nation’s capital?”

Now folks at NGB were getting antsy and wondering what the heck was going on. My hunch was confirmed seemingly moments later as a report came in of a plane crashing into the Pentagon. Things now got a bit blurry. I remember we were all evacuated from the NGB building and the talk was of other planes inbound with unknown targets. I met up with some of my co-travelers and we devised a plan.

In the meantime, we could hear sirens wailing and could see emergency vehicles rushing around. I thought I heard explosions but to this day I don’t know what those were. Some folks were saying that it was a coordinated attack and there were other attacks around the Washington area. We got in a rental van and attempted to drive back to our hotel, which was just across the interstate from the Pentagon. Suffice it to say that there was no way of getting there with the total gridlock as emergency workers closed routes to facilitate movement of their response vehicles. Instead of making our way back to the hotel, we spent several hours working our way away from Washington. We ended up in some small Virginian town but I don’t remember the name. We parked in a church parking lot and sat for hours wondering what the heck was going on. There wasn’t much information on the radio really and our cell phones were completely useless with all phone service being jammed.

At some point later on that day, the traffic seemed to die down some and we slowly made our way back to the hotel. As I recall, Brig. Gen. Crowder called us all together in the lobby of the hotel that evening and took a head count. It seemed everyone was accounted for at that time.

We weren’t sure what was next because all air traffic was shut down and there would be no official business going on at NGB the next day, so the General invited us up to his room on one of the upper floors of the hotel after dinner. I remember standing and talking with others while drinking a beer and looking out the hotel window at the emergency response at the Pentagon.

It seems we were all in a trance. In the darkness of the night, it was surreal to watch the Pentagon burn with flashing emergency lights, people scrambling around and lots of smoke. I will never forget that image. Sometime that night I was able to get a call through to my then-frantic wife to tell her I was fine.

Since I grew up on the Coast of Connecticut, I didn’t originally intend to travel back with the group to Colorado. I had purchased a train ticket and planned on taking a train through New York to Connecticut to visit my parents for the weekend. By the next morning I knew that this was unlikely as New York and New Jersey had seemingly closed all the tunnels and bridges in and out of the City. There was no way my train would make it to New England, nor would I make it through with a rental car, so I decided it would be best to head back to Colorado.

I have a vague recollection of travelling to and being at Dulles Airport the next day wondering if we would actually be able to fly to Colorado. We were told military aircraft were authorized to fly while commercial and private aircraft were forbidden. We did get airborne and flew to an airbase in Illinois to refuel. I remember our pilots talking to us about how empty the skies were and how military fighters would visit periodically to check us out. Although it was a longer flight back with the stop, we made it back safely and uneventfully. I’m pretty sure the only reason we got to fly is because we had a general on board and I remember thinking how lucky we were to have one on our flight so we could get home. The alternative was several days stuck in D.C.

Since I was commanding the 1st Battalion, 157th Field Artillery, soon after arriving back in Colorado both me and Lt. Col. Mark Brackney (commander of the 2/157th FA Battalion) were directed to mobilize our battalions so we could conduct security missions at all of Colorado’s major airports. We both spent several days rallying our battalions and working with our staffs to develop a plan to do, essentially, what the Transportation Security Administration is doing now.

To say the least, it was an atypical mission for two field artillery battalions and I recall me and the staff spending a lot of time talking about rules of engagement and logistics. I was uncomfortable putting my men in an airport with loaded M-16s, but we did it and it went off without a hitch. It turns out my battalion essentially had the airports at or north of I-70, so we ended up posting many Soldiers at Denver International Airport. This was a major manpower challenge as we worked shift work there and at several other airports such as Eagle County and Steamboat Springs (Hayden) for months. My guys did a fantastic job with a very difficult airport mission, exceeding all of my expectations … but that is another story altogether.

A note here: I remember driving through my town in Colorado one weekend morning in 2001 or 2002 and seeing local volunteer firefighters along the roadside taking up a collection in fire boots to help the families of the many, many firefighters and police who died at the WTC on 9/11. We stopped and made our donation. I had settled the matter somewhat in my mind at that point, but it all came crashing back to me that morning after putting my donation in the boot as I thought about the horror of that day and the terrible and senseless loss of life. It was pretty emotional for me.

Since the Army was accepting 15-year retirements, I had given very serious thought to finishing my command, retiring early from the Army and going off to be a teacher in the 2001-02 timeframe. I was already working on my teaching certificate at Metropolitan State College and it seemed like a done deal. But events on 9/11 steeled my conviction about service to our nation and the Army.

By 2003, the Colorado National Guard had already sent a battalion of Special Forces Soldiers and myriad other Soldiers and Airmen to Operation Enduring Freedom and I wanted my turn in the fight. I definitely got it.

I volunteered to join the 45th Infantry Brigade (Oklahoma National Guard) as an augmentee for its rotation to Afghanistan in the late summer-fall of 2003 as part of Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix. We mobilized out of Fort Carson and I led a team of embedded trainers to Camp Blackhorse in Eastern Kabul Province, Afghanistan, where we spent the next 10 months training the fledgling Afghan National Army.

After my tour in Afghanistan, I returned to Colorado and was asked to stand up and command the Mobilization Element, COARNG at the newly-established U.S. Northern Command. I worked there for three years on the homeland defense, homeland security mission and assisted in the response to Hurricane Katrina. I was promoted to colonel during this time frame. After my tour at USNORTHCOM, I was selected to command the 169th Fires Brigade, during which time I helped coordinate the mobilization of the 2/157th FA Battalion to Iraq.

I retired from the COARNG in August 2009 and three days later I was on my way to Afghanistan for a second tour. I remember feeling that I had left unfinished business there in 2004 and wanted to go back and do more. This time I went as a civilian contractor and project manager where it was my job to help the Afghan National Army’s Training Command plan and design a combat arms school for infantry, armor and artillery southeast of Kandahar. This was a difficult task as we worked with a NATO headquarters to reach consensus on all the details of the school from the ground up. The school was projected to be built in a heavily-mined area and the ground was contested by the Taliban and local villagers.

I spent a year in Afghanistan and transferred to the Joint Military Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany in September 2010. There I helped train U.S. and NATO units preparing for rotations into Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. I then transferred briefly to a position at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., developing Full-Spectrum Operations Combined Arms Training Strategies, before taking my current position as a training manager for the Training Support Division, Joint Center of Excellence, Joint IED Defeat Organization at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif. JIEDDO’s mission is to, “Lead DOD actions to rapidly provide counter IED capabilities in support of combatant commanders and to enable the defeat of the IED as a weapon of strategic influence.”

Suffice it to say, we at JIEDDO/JCOE are very focused on finding ways of defeating IEDs and minimizing casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan and other troubled spots around the world through relevant, timely training and the development of IED defeat technology. It’s a challenging and important mission, and I can’t think of a better way for me to contribute to our military’s effort now that I’m no longer in uniform. The idea that my work may, in some way, help save lives is powerful and motivating to me.

Ironically, I’m still dealing with matters in Afghanistan and will likely travel back there again in 2012. My life has been tied to Afghanistan since that fateful morning in September 2001 and I’m not sure when that tie will be broken.

Return to 9/11 in their own words

9/11/2011