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Tom E. Gunn’s 9/11 Story

Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images
Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images

Sixteen years ago, the world changed. Everyone of a certain age has a story about what they were doing on that horrific Tuesday. My story starts at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, Louisiana where I was stationed. Barksdale is one of two B-52 Stratofortress bases in the world, as well as a storage for..let’s just say…very big bombs.

(Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
(Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

I was, at the time, an active duty air traffic controller in the United States Air Force.

The base was performing a Nuclear Readiness Exercise that week (those big bombs). I had to leave work and change my uniform because of the exercise. I was on my way back to the base a little after 9:00 AM and noticed the comedy morning show that I normally listened to was being very serious. That’s when I heard the news that two planes had hit the world trade centers. I get back on base and up to the tower where all of the controllers were huddled around a small TV in the tower watching the news.

Keep in mind, during all of this chaos, we were still in the middle of a military training exercise. After a while, the messages were starting to get confusing, so the exercise was cancelled in order for us to focus on what was happening. And what was happening seems like a blur now.

In the next four hours, two more hijacked aircraft crash into the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania, the FAA grounds every flight in the nation for the first time in history, and we get a call on the radio:

“Tower, this is **** (Our operations group commander)”
“****, this is tower, go ahead.”
“Tower, we need to go secure.”
“Sir, unable. We do not have a secure frequency in the tower.”
“Roger that, well…get ready for Air Force One.”

After what seems like a decade of stunned silence, the controller keyed the mic, “Confirm you said Air Force ONE?”

All we got back was one word. “Affirmative.”

I got to watch Air Force One land on my runway, in the middle of 25 fully fueled, fully loaded (with live nukes) B-52’s poised to kick ass anywhere in the world. It was, without a doubt the first time I have ever felt actual fear, because on this day, it was REAL. War was in my backyard.

George W. Bush addressed the nation for the first time on 9/11 three hundred yards from where I was standing.

I could go on for pages about that day, and this is a very abridged version of the story. Every moment is etched indelibly into my memory, but I’ll leave this here for now.

I wish continued peaceful rest to all of those who lost their lives on this day sixteen years ago. I, for one, will never forget.

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