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9/11 Remembered: Disaster redefined as moment of triumph

An MH-53, Air Force Special Operations helicpoter from Hurlburt Field, Fla., enroute to New York City from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., on Sept. 13, 2001. The aircraft are being used for relief operations to lower Manhattan, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. (U.S. Air Force photo by Gary Ell) (Released)

An MH-53, Air Force Special Operations helicpoter from Hurlburt Field, Fla., enroute to New York City from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., on Sept. 13, 2001. The aircraft are being used for relief operations to lower Manhattan, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. (U.S. Air Force photo by Gary Ell) (Released)

An MH-53, Air Force Special Operations helicpoter from Hurlburt Field, Fla., lands on the USS Intrepid Sea and Air Space Museum in Manahattan from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., Sept. 13, 2001. The aircraft are being used for relief operations to lower Manhattan, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. (U.S. Air Force photo by Gary Ell) (Released

An MH-53, Air Force Special Operations helicpoter from Hurlburt Field, Fla., lands on the USS Intrepid Sea and Air Space Museum in Manahattan from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., Sept. 13, 2001. The aircraft are being used for relief operations to lower Manhattan, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. (U.S. Air Force photo by Gary Ell) (Released

An MH-53, Air Force Special Operations helicpoter from Hurlburt Field, Fla., enroute to New York City from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., on Sept. 13, 2001. The aircraft are being used for relief operations to lower Manhattan, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. (U.S. Air Force photo by Gary Ell) (Released)

An MH-53, Air Force Special Operations helicpoter from Hurlburt Field, Fla., enroute to New York City from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., on Sept. 13, 2001. The aircraft were used for relief operations to lower Manhattan, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. (U.S. Air Force photo by Gary Ell) (Released)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- A decade after terrorist attacks left an indelible mark on the United States of America, one Airman's reflections show how 9/11 shaped his life and career.

The events of 9/11 continue to echo among the living. For Brig. Gen. Brad Webb, the anniversary stirs memories of the moment when a tranquil America morphed into one of crisis, salvation and resilience. Serving as a MH-53 Pave Low pilot, then-Lt. Col. Webb witnessed first-hand the events that shaped the country into its present state.

When 9/11 occurred, crews from the 20th Special Operations Squadron were on a temporary duty assignment to Fort Bragg, N.C., for a bilateral training mission with Army Special Forces.

"We had just completed the night cycle when I heard about the first plane hitting the (World Trade Center)," Webb said. "I had just woken up and turned on CNN and was watching the news when the second plane hit. I think everyone realized then it was not a mistake."

"I immediately got on a secure line ... and was told to get the entire detachment together and get back on base immediately," he said. Webb and his men were being housed off base during the TDY. "We barely beat (Fort) Bragg shutting down. It was an open base back then and when everything happened, the base was locked down."

The detachment of Airmen rallied and prepared to respond immediately to the crisis. With air space shut down all over the country, the crews were on standby.

"At the time, we thought the mission would primarily be recovery of the people who were injured or affected by the 9/11 attacks," Webb said. "We had no idea how devastating the attacks were."

Just before midnight, the aircrews and their five helicopters arrived at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., and prepared for the next day's uncertainty.

"Our instructions were very clear and direct: Go help Americans," Webb said. "And that's what we were focused on."

As the morning of Sept. 12 dawned, the Airmen kicked into full-speed as the frenzy to provide aid ramped up.

"We jumped in and helped where we could," Webb said. "Our first mission was to respond to the Pentagon. We helped the urban search and rescue task force conduct operations. After that, we shifted to help out with New York, specifically ground zero."

The aircrew refocused their efforts and arrived in New York City on Sept. 13. In a dramatic twist of events, the helicopters landed on the USS Intrepid docked in the harbor. Webb contacted the Intrepid's curator prior to arriving and formulated a plan to move the static displays to one side of flight deck so the MH-53s could land.

Once on the ground, Webb met with the different agencies on the ground already onsite and providing aid. The wreckage was so expansive response crews were having a difficult time reaching those in need.

"It was a chaotic environment," the general said. "It was a free-for-all so we linked up with Federal Emergency Management Agency and let them know we were available to help out in any way possible."

Due to the limitations of civilian helicopters, there wasn't information on the actual locations affected in ground zero. Throughout discussions, Webb helped develop a plan to provide aerial perspective to the disaster site - the first pictures of the area since the devastation occurred.

"The perspective we were able to give the agencies on the ground helped provide them aerial situational awareness," the general said.

With the increased capabilities of military helicopters, Webb's detachment was able to get airborne and see through the haze.

"There was so much dust and debris and it made it difficult for civilian helicopters to fly," the general said. "Military (helicopters) are designed to mitigate the risks of these conditions."

Tapping into their ingenuity, the Airmen acquired an infrared camera to document the wreckage.

"We mounted an infrared camera in the cargo hook hole in the helo's cabin floor that we borrowed from the security forces at McGuire (AFB)," Webb said. "With the infrared, we were able to see open pockets that were on the ground. This was a valuable resource because we were able to map ground zero areas to find sources of fires and potential locations for survivors. We took the imagery to the command center to strategize the rescue efforts."

Resourcefulness is a key characteristic of special operation forces, the general said.
"Being able to think outside the box is demonstrative of the special ops mindset," he said. "These traits are common to SOF, but indicative of how air commandos approach any situation."

The detachment assisted rescue and recovery efforts at ground zero for seven days. At the end of the week, the crew was on their way back home with the satisfaction that they were able to help out when so many were powerless.

"The thing I remember most is that everyone felt absolute frustration that this happened and so few could do anything to help out," Webb said. "But, my little band of deployed folks could contribute to helping out with the recovery. We were able to become immersed in the initial response and contribute directly to that effort."

As the aircrew made their way home, they now shifted their attention.

"When we left (ground zero), the 1st Special Operations Wing was ramping up to go to Afghanistan and we had the peace of mind that we did what we could for the people there," the general said. "But, by the time we left on Sept. 18, we needed to prepare ourselves for the tough days ahead as we took the fight to the terrorists."

At the time of the attacks, the fear of the unknown and the accompanying panic and chaos could have spelled disaster for the nation. Instead, the disaster served as a testament to the character of Americans and proved that in the gravest of circumstances, people will pull together and focus on helping those in need.

"Our focus was to just concentrate on the task at hand and not look too far down the road in this disaster situation," Webb said. "That was for the other agencies on the ground to hammer out. For us, our main mission was to go in and get the people there the help they needed."

For Webb, the catastrophic events now known as 9/11 not only transformed a nation, but also reshaped his career.

"The focus for the rest of my career from that point on has been war and how to disrupt and eliminate the terrorist threat," the general said. "That defined my career."

When Webb and his detachment landed on the USS Intrepid 10 years ago, it was the first and last time he had set foot in New York City. It was also the first in a chain of events that spanned nearly a decade before its resolution could be attained.

"In many ways, the events of May 1st have brought Americans full circle from the tragedy of (9/11)," Webb said. (On this date in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, was killed by U.S. forces.)

The events of 9/11 continue to reverberate. The true measure of the American spirit was on full display as people from all walks of life dedicated themselves to responding and rebuilding. It also served to remind service members staying vigilant is always critical, the general said.

"It was a chaotic environment," Webb said. "But through it all, there was this overwhelming feeling that people were happy (the military) was there and that they themselves were going to do whatever it took to recover from this attack. A decade later, I think we have proven that."