On this 12th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001


I remember 9/11.

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Photo illustration courtesy of PEO Soldier.

It was Tuesday morning. I was in Montana, stationed with the 341st Space Wing at Malmstrom AFB. We were in the second day of a wing-wide exercise.

At 6 o’clock that morning, I came into the battle staff to start my 12-hour shift as public affairs representative to the commander. It was going to be a day filled with various exercise scenarios and long periods of tedium.

Not much was going on after the change-over briefing. Everyone was waiting for the scenarios to begin.

Shortly after 8:45 someone from the adjoining support battle staff came in and told us to turn on the news. A plane had just struck the World Trade Center. The battle staff director did.

We saw coverage of the clear blue New York City sky. We also saw its iconic skyline marred by smoke billowing from one of the towers.

We all sat stunned and in disbelief.

I thought how could anyone not see such a large building on such a beautiful day.

People began calling their offices and families to tell them what was unfolding.

The live coverage kept unfolding before us. The assumption was this was some type of accident. Shortly after 9 a.m., I noticed the second plane slide into the screen. It came from right to left and was momentarily hidden by the towers. Nobody else seemed to see it, certainly not the broadcasters.

The second fireball erupted at 9:03 from the second tower.

This was no accident, I thought.

Everyone in the battle staff now knew America was being attacked.

And it didn’t end. Approximately 30 minutes later, another plane struck the Pentagon.

What was going on?

A lieutenant colonel sitting in front of me knew I had an upcoming assignment to the Pentagon. He turned to me and said rhetorically, “Do you still want to go to the Pentagon?”

Then the news reported a plane crashing in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Again, what was going on?

The base went into lockdown. No one came on, no one left. Everyone began refocusing their work to support whatever the future had in store for us.

The rest of my day consisted of preparing my commander for media interviews. Eventually, he turned that responsibility over to me. Requirements of the job and from higher headquarters demanded his time.

It was a busy day of answering media queries and conducting on-camera interviews.

After almost 16 hours, I finally came home. There was a voicemail on my answering machine.

“I know you’re probably at work…,” the voice of my mother came through the phone. She was crying. No mother wants her son in a war.

I will always remember 9/11.

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British band performs in Pentagon courtyard


It’s not every day one can hear bagpipes. Sure, you can hear them at a Highland games or Scottish/Irish festival. Some people loathe bagpipes. Not me, I love listening to them; must be my Scottish ancestry. Sept. 25 was a special day for me.

The 1st Battalion Scots Guard Pipes and Drums Band from the British Army came to090925-F-5009P-008 the Pentagon at lunchtime to perform a concert to celebrate the close relationship between both nations’ armed forces.

The unit’s performance is “an expression of admiration and appreciation of our alliance,” said British Army Lt. Col. William Swinton, a liaison officer in Strategic Plans and Policy Office of the Joint Staff.

“We came to (the District of Columbia) for a specific reason,” Colonel Swinton said, “to demonstrate the admiration the British military has for the U.S. military.”

Wow, the band did not disappoint. It had eight pipers, seven drummers and four sword dancers. Each song brought rousing applause from folks who had been eating their lunch in the courtyard or lured outside by the pipes and drums.

Their uniforms, precision and musicianship were amazing. It reminded me of the time I saw the Royal Marines and Black Watch in Chicago during their Bicentennial tour of America in 1976. One thought came to my mind. Their 20-minute performance was almost over and they still hadn’t played the traditional bagpipe anthem “Scotland the Brave.” Next to “Amazing Grace” (which they didn’t play), “Scotland the Brave” is my favorite bagpipe tune. Would they play it? Surely, they would. No sooner had I thought that when the drummers rolled and the pipers began playing that awe-inspiring song. The band next rolled into “God Bless America,” to demonstrate the camaraderie between the United States and United Kingdom. Perfect.

The unit is the oldest infantry battalion in the British Army, Colonel Swinton said. Each member is a soldier and not a permanent musician. They return Sept. 28 to their base at Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire, England, to begin training for a 2010 deployment to Afghanistan. “These are front-line soldiers who will be fighting with U.S. Marines in Helmand (Province),” Colonel Swinton said.

Interviewing some band members afterwards was a bit difficult. I could blame it on the loud ambient noise in the courtyard café. But, in truth, my problem was with my inability to understand their Scottish accents. I especially had a hard time catching the spelling of the pipe major’s name. I eventually gave up and turned my notepad to him. He wrote out Brian Heriot. I was able to understand him when he talked about their month-long tour.

“The American crowd seems to love the bagpipes,” Sergeant Heriot said. “Everyone seems to have a Scottish ancestor.”

Thank you, 1st Battalion soldiers, for the show. Truly appreciated it. Stay safe while in Afghanistan.

Master Sgt. Stan Parker took some excellent shots of the performance. (British band performs in Pentagon courtyard). There is also a YouTube video of “Scotland the Brave” and “God Bless America” of their performance. (video here)

What does war sound like?


What does war sound like?

I don’t know. I do know what my experience of briefly coming under fire sounds like…

Like a metal filing cabinet falling on a concrete floor.

Earlier this year I deployed for six months to southern Iraq. I felt fortunate I was going to a base where news of combat or violence was less than in other areas.

Five days after arriving, it was Inauguration Day in the United States – the only day where this Pentagon Airman was glad he wasn’t in the Washington area. I didn’t have to deal with the folks coming to the nation’s capital to watch history unfold. I was content watching it on Armed Forces Network on the little television in my office.

On the television was the newly sworn-in Vice President Joseph Biden shaking hands with Associate Justice John Paul Stevens. As if on cue with the handshake…

BOOM!

A sound filled the building that resembled a metal filing cabinet falling on a concrete floor. A quietness lasted for several long seconds.

People stuck their heads out of their offices and asked each other what that was. A cry of “get down!” filled the building. Airmen hit the deck. After the required time, they donned protective gear and started doing their post-attack duties.

We learned enemy fire did strike about a half-mile away on the surrounding Army compound. Fortunately, the attack did not hurt anyone or damage anything.

I know my experiences don’t even come close to comparing what Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines in contact with the enemy experience daily. During the Air & Space Conference and Technology Symposium, Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz highlighted the heroism of two explosive ordnance disposal Airmen facing danger every day: Senior Airman Danny Williams and Tech. Sgt. (ret.) Matthew Slaydon. (CSAF addresses AFA convention). The Air Force’s “Portraits in Courage” series honors the extraordinary actions of Airmen who have faced and heard war.

This is my experience, though. Thought I’d share it.

It’s 9/11


It’s the eighth anniversary of 9/11. I’m in the Pentagon. Worried? No. Saddened by this anniversary? Yes.

It’s hard to believe eight years have gone by. People always remember where they were and what they were doing when historic events happen. My parents’ generation remembers clearly where they were when they heard of President Kennedy’s assassination. For me, it’s 9/11. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news.

I was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. The base was in the midst of an exercise. I had the day shift for public affairs in the battle staff. The morning was quiet. People were getting up to speed, waiting for the scenarios to begin. CNN was playing on the big television screen with news of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s assassination in Afghanistan. No one was paying attention.

A breaking news alert came on stating a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. I figured it was a small plane. When CNN showed live coverage of the smoke pouring out of a tower, I noticed how blue and clear the sky was. Thought to myself how could the pilot not see the building in front of him?

While watching the coverage, I noticed a small dark object come from the right of the screen. It moved rapidly towards the World Trade Center. Shortly afterwards, a fireball erupted from the tower. The second plane struck.

“This is no accident,” I said to the folks sitting next to me. Right in front of my eyes I was witnessing the worst terrorist attack on the United States. I went to my office and e-mailed some friends to say the World Trade Center had been struck by two aircraft. We needed to pray.

Returning to the battle staff, everyone was now riveted by the horrific events unfolding before us. When news came of the Pentagon being struck, we started thinking what’s next? I was two months away from taking a new assignment at the Pentagon to work on the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Public Affairs Office. A lieutenant colonel sitting in front of me – and who knew of my assignment – turned around and asked, “So, do you still want to go to the Pentagon?”

We were stunned when we saw a tower implode. The second tower imploded later. It was too hard to believe. What was happening?

The rest of the day was hectic. Media were calling the office. They wanted to know what the base’s response to the crisis was. I worked until late that night conducting interviews with Great Falls media. This was the first time I’d ever done on-camera interviews. Even a Canadian television outlet came down for a comment.

Two months later. I arrived in Washington and went to the Pentagon. The damaged section had been removed. The ugly gash looked like a cake with a piece cut out. People were coming to the Pentagon to pay their respects, many leaving flowers.

Eight years later, the damage to the Pentagon has been fixed. The memories remain.

Twenty years for Russ


 The Beatles have a very familiar song which starts out, “It was 20 years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play.” Well, Sergeant Pepper didn’t teach me how to play but three military training instructors welcomed me to Lackland Air Force Base in the early morning hours.

Today marks my 20th anniversary in the Air Force. Wow, 20 years. It doesn’t seem like it could be possible. Back in August 1989, this day seemed so far away. Twenty years later, the time has flown.

My flight was the first one to wear the battle dress uniform. There were many Airmen who wore the fatigues. Those who wore them told me they were comfortable. Now, BDUs are gone…replaced by Airman Battle Uniform.

Early in my career, Airmen eagerly sought field training opportunities because it gave them a chance to do their job in a war-time setting. Now, the Air Force is expeditionary. Airmen are deploying frequently to war zones. Some are doing their jobs, and others are serving in Joint Expeditionary Taskings. They are bravely doing a war-time role outside of their normal careers.

The Air Force has been good to me, though the past five years have been rough. Spending a year in Korea, six months in Afghanistan and six months in Iraq—and let’s not forget require professional military education and training—I’ve been gone almost as much as I’ve been home.  While it’s been hard for me, it’s been even harder for my wife Lisa.

The Air Force has given me a chance to see the world. I’ve lived in England, South Korea, Honduras, Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve also visited Scotland, France, Germany and Kyrgyzstan. I’ve had the honor of working in the Pentagon, first in the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Public Affairs Office and now in Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs.

Most importantly, the Air Force indirectly set the conditions up—assignments and friends—for me to find the love of my life…my wonderful wife Lisa.  It’s almost been six-and-a-half years since we were married. Through that time, she’s bravely dealt with me being away. If there’s been any personal good in my absences due to unaccompanied assignments and deployments, it’s reminded us how much we love each other.

Thank you, Air Force, for 20 years.