CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait – New York Army National Guard (NYARNG) Soldiers of the 3-142nd Assault Helicopter Battalion (AHB), 42nd Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB), attached to Task Force Mustang (36th CAB) in the Middle East, shared their memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on their hometown of New York City within a week of this year’s remembrance.
Many of the aviation battalion’s senior leaders and junior enlisted Soldiers previously served in other capacities when Al Qaeda terrorists shook ground zero, flying commercial planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center on that harrowing morning. These Guardsmen held careers in law enforcement, first responder units, medical services, and community leadership at the time. Several, who were in their youth on that day, found serving in the military as their way of giving back to the 9/11 recovery efforts.
Sgt. Stephanie A. Gomez, a non-commissioned officer in current operations for the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3-142 AHB, recounted how witnessing the fallen towers affected her since the day she turned age 12.
“Sept. 11 is actually my birthday. I was in school and was arguing with my mom that morning about not wanting to go, but she sent me anyway,” said Gomez. “I was using the school restroom as my excuse to get away from my first class of the day, and when I went to the open staircase to meet with a friend, that’s when we initially saw the smoke [rising from the first, northern tower].”
Gomez recollected how she thought nothing of the smoke until she walked back into the classroom, experiencing the fear alongside her classmates as they watched televised coverage of the southern tower getting hit by the second hijacked airliner.
“It was chaos. The entire mood of the school changed immediately,” said Gomez. “Teachers were crying; students were getting picked up early by parents; and I remembered saying to myself that I needed to get back to my family, yet not knowing where my grandmother, siblings, and mother were at the time. With the Metropolitan
Transit Authority shut down, we didn’t know when or if we would ever see our parents again. All we could do was just wait and watch the news coverage for those next 10 hours, freaking out over where everyone was.”
After reuniting with her mother at the end of that long Tuesday, Gomez didn’t care about her birthday –only thoughts on how she could make a difference for her community ensued. “That day forward, I just wanted to figure out ways to help. I wanted to be a New York City cop, a Marine, or a Soldier. For the rest of my childhood, I ended up volunteering in blood drives, food drives, clothing donations, and youth programs provided by the New York City Police,” she added. “When joining law enforcement just didn’t work for me, I knew I could still serve my city and country in a duty uniform. So, when I turned 19, that’s when I chose to enlist in the Army National Guard because I knew I would also be closer to home. From then on, my career just reflected on everything that happened on that day.”
As a result of her volunteering in numerous recovery efforts since 9/11, Gomez has accomplished serving as a federal technician in signal communications for emergency operations centers, to include serving over 13 years in the NYARNG. Her first big mission was being a part of the active duty response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, followed by participating in numerous disaster response exercises over those years.
Spc. Arthur R. Allen, a UH-60 crew chief, 15T, for Bravo Company, 3-124 AHB, also shared what his family went through in New York City, 9/11.
“I will always remember that day as I’m sure most of us will. On that day, I was obviously much younger. I was in grade school when my teacher had the classroom television on the local news covering the attacks,” said Allen. “My school raced to send all of us back home because no one knew what the outcome was going to be when both twin towers got hit. It was a very scary time for any child—you didn’t know if your parents were going to make it home that day.”
Allen’s mother, Michelle, worked in a downtown office just across the street from the World Trade Center. While attending to her office that morning, she heard the explosion of the first tower being hit. Fortunately, she had enough time to evacuate her office, saving herself from being crushed by the massive falling of both towers.
“She saw her office getting hit by the falling towers. She was so close enough, she had to take her heels off in order to run away from the collapse,” said Allen. “But to no avail, the ash rolled down the office’s street, block by block, overtaking her and everything in its way. We are so blessed that she survived and made it home. I will never forget my first sight of her covered in ash, as if she were a ghostly figure just trying to wash off those events from that day.”
Allen recalled being filled with sadness, rage, and relief, all at the same time. He reflected how well his mother handled the situation on that day, giving him life-long guidance.
“My mother, being the kind, strong hearted woman she is, sat me down and encouraged me to continue with school. She told me to get out into the real world, go meet and know people. She told me being a good person will only get me further in life than anything else,” he added. “After that, I had a strong urge to join the military. With my natural given talents being mechanically inclined, the Army offered me a ton of opportunities to use that. Now, I am grateful to be here flying with my fellow service members who also provide a big family environment. We look after each other the same way my mother looked after me, and that helps make the days go by.”
Allen concluded with a message to all Americans back home who lost loved ones from the tragedy.
“For everyone that had to go through that day or were affected conversely, my heart goes out to you,” Allen remarked. “Much like you, we all had to go through trials and tribulations since that day. My best advice would be; if you haven’t talked about it or figured out a way to keep going, just talk to somebody. Sit down and have the conversation. Let someone know what you went through because they may get you somewhere better than where you are in the present.”
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert J. Hansen, a standardization and instructor pilot for the 3-124 AHB, looked back on what that day was like among the first responders.
“I was a full time Air Force fire fighter assigned to the 105th Air Wing [New York Air National Guard] out of Newburgh, New York,” said Hansen. “I was on shift during the morning of 9/11. We watched the planes hit the tower from our ready room, and immediately knew we’d get the call to go down there and aid the search and rescue. Three days later we moved to ground zero where I spent a month conducting recovery operations on the pile.”
Hansen could never forget the challenges while working on site and the comradery that emerged among all first responders throughout the recovery.
“As a National Guardsmen, especially in a fire department, the majority of fire fighters we supported were New York City firefighters. There was a lot of confusion and chaos—a lot of missing people—along with not knowing if your friends were casualties. So, in that first week, it was a fog of not knowing if your friends were still with you, and then running into those guys down there. It was a big emotional event for everyone we recovered with a lot of hugging, and being glad to see they were still alive. It can be very hard to explain what you felt in your heart after 9/11. But knowing the strength of America, and seeing America coming together on the following day was an unforgettable experience.”
Now serving nearly 25 years in the military, Hansen shared how he ended up joining the Army because of 9/11.
“About a month after we came off the recovery efforts, we were backing the port authority fire departments that covered JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark. We were back-filling their crash houses so that their fire fighters could attend funerals for those first responders that were lost on 9/11, and I met an OH-58 flight crew that came from Pennsylvania. I was thinking about pursuing flight school with the Air Force, but I didn’t have my college degree finished. So, I was talking to one of their warrant officers and he told me ‘Hey, you don’t need a college degree to fly in the Army!’ So, I looked into that, and that’s how I became an Army aviator.”
Hansen concluded with his thoughts on the remembrance for all Americans back home.
“I would like for people to remember not just how devastating 9/11 was for us, but how America came together and the patriotism we saw,” he added. “Things are pretty divisive right now back in our country, but back then, we were one—we were united. And, it’s always helpful to think about our Soldiers and fellow service members. I mean, here I am 20 years later, back in the Middle East because of 9/11. So, we ask you to remember those deployed.”
Task Force Mustang is an aviation task force led by the 36th CAB of the 36th Infantry Division, Texas Army National Guard, comprising of Soldiers and aviators from Texas, New York, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Wyoming, and Louisiana, currently providing aviation operations to Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, and adjacent mission support to Task Force Spartan of Operation Spartan Shield in the Middle East.