BALTIMORE – Sept. 11, 2001, was a day without comparison for most Americans, and the Maryland National Guard was one of the first responders in the days the followed to provide support to a nation in crisis. For both U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Joe Llewellyn and U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Aarion Franklin, it was a life-changing experience as they activated on that fateful day and have continued to serve Maryland and their nation for two decades.
What started as a normal day in September changed the world when a commercial airplane crashed into the World Trade Center North Tower.
"We had a flight for that day and we had our aircraft picked out," said Llewellyn, who was a C-130 pilot with the 135th Airlift Squadron, Maryland Air National Guard. "I was in the crew chief's room when we found out that the first aircraft had hit the World Trade Center."
At first, Llewellyn had little reason to be concerned. The reports he received did not convey any malicious intent. Without knowing the scale of the damage, Llewellyn and his fellow Airmen at the 175th Wing were not too alarmed. But that all changed when the second plane hit the WTC South Tower.
"The whole feeling in the flight room changed from, 'Hey, this is another day,' to 'Let's get ready to go to work,'" said Llewellyn. "At the time, there were only two [aircraft] that were flight-ready, and in about three hours [...] there were eight aircraft ready to go to war."
As Llewellyn began preparing for his mission instructions, Franklin was preparing for his mission.
Franklin became aware of the attacks while working as a civilian transportation planner with the Maryland Aviation Administration at Baltimore Washington International Airport. Initially, Franklin and his coworkers thought the first plane was an accident. However, while in a conference room in the airport, they watched a second plane crash. Moments later, Franklin received a phone call from the 290th Military Police Company alerting him to pick up equipment and report to the armory.
Before Franklin arrived at his unit, two more planes had crashed, one into the Pentagon and Flight 93 into a field in Pennsylvania.
"We all went to the Pentagon within a few hours [of the attack]," said Franklin, who was recently activated to support the MDARNG and state of Maryland distributing the COVID-19 vaccine. "I vividly remember a section of the building was on fire. I didn't think it would still be on fire when we got [t]here.'"
Franklin's mood quickly shifted from quiet shock to action. His mission was to secure the building with other first responders. For Franklin and many other members of the 115th Military Police Battalion, 9/11 did not end that day.
"Three days afterwards, there was a general who came up to me, and he just kind of wept for a few moments," said Franklin about serving at the Pentagon. "He pointed out his office and said, 'You know, that's where I would have been if I wasn't in a meeting.' He talked about losing his staff and he just kind of stood there quietly by himself. And then he walked away. And, you know, moments like that really resonate."
As Franklin was just beginning his mission at the headquarters of the Department of Defense, Llewellyn and his unit prepared to transport medical personnel from Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia to New York.
"What was surreal about it is, I [served] in Desert Storm. I've done a lot prior to this point, but some of my crew had not," said Llewellyn, who is now the director of staff for the MDANG. "We were loading up, putting our M9s on and stepping out in our home base. Very surreal."
After landing in Virginia, due to the complexity of the effort, Llewellyn and his flight crew were grounded for five days awaiting orders. Once a mission was assigned, they transported a rescue team from Virginia to New York.
"Nobody was talking. It was very sad, somber," said Llewellyn as they flew by New York City. "It really hit home; the world's gonna change. I don't know what our future is going to be [or] where we're going to be in the next couple of months."
Looking back 20 years later, Llewellyn and Franklin said they have found peace with the traumatic events of that day.
"Since 9/11, I have definitely committed myself to live every day to its fullest," said Franklin, who continued his education and now has his doctoral degree. "I'm in a much different place than I was on the 10th of September 2001; I thought of things differently than I do now. I've learned to celebrate life's events differently, you know, things that weren't as important, 'Oh, it's just a birthday, and I'm gonna miss that.' That's, that's a major day. And who knows if we'll be here for the next one."
Franklin's reflections of that day are echoed by Llewellyn. He is grateful for his country and the opportunity to wear the uniform.
"I think we take life for granted a lot. We take the United States of America for granted, the freedoms that we have here that other countries don't have," Llewellyn said. "I've traveled the world. And I can't say that there's another place greater than where I live right now. I don't really think I take the world or our country for granted, but I may have at that point. And I recognize the satisfaction and the rewarding feeling of serving."