Feature   Observances

Guardsmen Who Protect NYC Skies Reflect on 9/11

Sept. 12, 2019 | BY Shannon Collins

On Sept. 11, 2001, Americans watched in shock, sadness and fear as terrorists flew two commercial jets into New York City's World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The attacks reinforced a sense of purpose for many military service members; gave many more a reason to enlist and, for two children, left such an impression that they joined the military years later.

Smoke rises from the World Trade Center. The New York City skyline is also visible in the background. A large ship and some smaller boats are seen in the foreground.
World Trade Center
Smoke rises from the site of the World Trade Center Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.
Photo By: Paul Morse, courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library
VIRIN: 010911-D-ZZ999-0911C

18 Years Ago

"I was 10 years old, in my sixth grade classroom, and I remember it like it was yesterday," said Air National Guard Airman 1st Class Anita Hernandez. "I remember feeling so much confusion and thinking, 'What the heck is the World Trade Center? Why would a plane run into a building? Why is this so important?' As soon as we saw the coverage on all of the news stations, I knew it was a big deal."

Hernandez said she wasn’t able to grasp the severity of it until that afternoon, when her parents sat her and  her brother down to explain it.

"And, even then, I don’t think I fully grasped what was happening," she said.

A smiling female airman sits at a desk with four computer monitors. Two of the monitors display maps.
Anita Hernandez
Air National Guard Airman 1st Class Anita Hernandez, a battlefield management operator and tracking technician with the 224th Air Defense Group, keeps an eye on the skies from her computer at the Eastern Air Defense Sector in upstate New York.
Photo By: Timothy Jones, DOD
VIRIN: 190909-F-VR983-004C

Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Brett Kilborne was 12 years old and in seventh grade science class. His teachers kept the TVs off and gave the classes brief descriptions of what happened. He said the students couldn't comprehend the magnitude of what had happened, but that changed when he got home.

"We went to my grandparents' house, and I actually got to see the tragedy on TV and what was going on," the 30-year old security forces airman said. "My grandmother was sitting in front of the television with tears running down her face. My confusion turned to understanding as I saw a person falling from one of the towers. It was repeat coverage mixed in with live updates. I kept telling myself, 'This isn't a movie. This is all real life.' I couldn't believe what I was watching. The feeling stays with me now — sitting with my grandparents in their living room, seeing that person falling on television, telling myself, 'This is real life.'"

Joining the Military

Both Air National Guardsmen said they joined the military to find purpose. Hernandez said she wanted to be a part of something bigger than herself so she joined in April 2017.

"I was constantly jumping from job to job, trying to find something that made me feel a sense of fulfillment," the battle management operator and tracking technician said. "I was searching for a purpose. I don't have any family in the military, but I thought this could be exactly what I'd been looking for. It's an amazing honor and huge sense of fulfillment. I wish I had known more about the military earlier in life so I could've joined sooner."

A smiling security forces airman dressed in fatigues points his weapon toward the ground as he stands in front of glass doors etched with the Air Defense Sector insignia.
Staff Sgt. Brett Kilborne
Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Brett Kilborne, security forces, 224th Air Defense Group, stands guard at the Eastern Air Defense Sector in upstate New York.
Photo By: Timothy Jones, DOD
VIRIN: 190909-F-VR983-001C

Kilborne said he wasn't sure what he wanted to do after he graduated from high school so he followed his family's tradition. His grandfathers served in the Navy in Vietnam, and his father served in the Marine Corps in the Gulf War.

"The military allowed me the support and sense of belonging I needed to figure my life out," he said. "Almost 11 years later, I'm still a part of it."

Both airmen serve in the New York Air National Guard's 224th Air Defense Group, which falls within the Eastern Air Defense Sector under North American Aerospace Defense Command. 

On Sept. 11, 2001, the EADS predecessor organization, the Northeast Air Defense Sector, searched for the missing planes and scrambled fighter jets in response to the attacks. Nowadays, at the restructured EADS, New York Air National Guardsmen, Army and Navy liaison officers, Canadian military members and federal employees work 24 hours a day to serve as the first line of defense against future attacks, provide persistent early warning for the national capital region and provide air defense for everything east of the Mississippi River.

Honoring 9/11

Kilborne and Hernandez said they are proud of their country for continuously honoring 9/11.

"Honoring 9/11 shows that we can still unite as a country and that we haven't forgotten. I'm proud to serve my country. I come from a family that's done their part in the past, and I'm proud to do my part," Kilborne said. "Even though time moves on and people's lives take over, we still remember. Never forget the ones who lost their lives and the loved ones that day."

"We serve in the military to protect our country and prevent something like 9/11 from happening again," Hernandez said. "It still affects so many people to this day. We should never forget all of the lives lost that day, and all of the people who put their lives on the line."

Military members, firefighters and rescue workers unfurl a huge American flag over part of the Pentagon, covering windows on two floors.
Pentagon Flag
Fire and rescue workers unfurl a large American flag over the side of the Pentagon during rescue and recovery efforts following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. The attack came at approximately 9:40 a.m. when a hijacked commercial airliner, which originated from Washington D.C.'s Dulles airport, was flown into the south side of the building that faces Route 27.
Photo By: Michael W. Pendergrass, Navy
VIRIN: 010912-N-3235P-003C

She said the events that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, changed the United States forever.

"It was something nobody was ready for, with a much bigger impact on us than anyone could have expected, especially a little 10-year old sitting in her sixth grade classroom," she said. "If an innocent child who knew nothing about hatred, terrorism, or even the military, can grow up to become part of the fight against it, anyone can."