I was attending a course for Department of Defense senior general and flag officers from all the uniformed services at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. This was a two-week course to help prepare these generals and admirals to possibly be “combatant commanders” some day. It was Tuesday morning, the second day of the course. On the first break CNN was projected on the large display screen in the classroom. The first airliner had just hit the first tower of the World Trade Center. We then saw the live coverage of the second aircraft hitting the second tower. Within an hour our course was cancelled and we were told to go back to our assigned bases however we could.
Interestingly, the last class Monday afternoon was a two-hour presentation by the recently retired Commander of U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Marine Corps General Charles E. Wilhelm. The last thing he told us that Monday afternoon, September 10, 2001, was, “I believe that within five years we will have a major terrorist attack inside the U.S.”
As you might imagine, that made quite an impression on me.
I rented an automobile and drove home from Montgomery to Fort Worth, Texas — 680 miles, as I remember.
I was the commander of 10th Air Force based at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth, Texas. I commanded all of the Air Force Reserve fighter aircraft wings in the U.S. We placed aircraft on alert immediately and started flying combat air patrols at many places around the country, along with Air National Guard and active duty U.S. Air Force fighter units. They could be launched and employed at the direction of General Ralph E. (Ed) Eberhart, U.S. Air Force, the Commander of U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. General Eberhart was a longtime close friend.
Our F-16 fighter wings had been scheduled for over a year to deploy to the Middle East for several months of combat operations over southern Iraq, in Operation Southern Watch. This was an ongoing operation since the first Gulf War in 1991. Its purpose was to prevent the military forces of Iraq from attacking its population in southern Iraq. Our first two squadrons deployed as planned on September 15 to a base in Kuwait. Again, this deployment had nothing to do with the attacks of September 11. But, once in theater, that could and did change.
In mid-October, President George W. Bush made the decision to go to war in Afghanistan because of the Sept. 11 attacks. Because the Air Force Reserve F-16s were in-theater, they were sent on the first fighter combat missions of Operation Enduring Freedom. These were arguably some of the most difficult to fly fighter combat missions in history.
Why is that? I’ll tell you.
Flying from the base in Kuwait around the southern edge of Iran and then on to Afghanistan is a long haul. It requires mid-air refueling several times. When they arrived in Afghanistan, the F-16s had to orbit for hours prior to being cleared to hit their targets with their weapons loads. This requires several additional refuelings. Then there is the flight home — several hours and additional refuelings.
And, by the way, these are single seat fighter cockpits. That means the pilots are strapped into a cramped ejection seat, which allows little movement. No meals, no bathroom, nothing. And, did I mention this was all at night? So, these pilots are flying 10 to 12-hour combat missions and delivering ordnance. These are the longest fighter aircraft combat missions in aviation history.
I was very proud of my Air Force Reserve F-16 pilots when they returned home. They had done a great job. On their watch, they helped defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban was no longer governing Afghanistan. Over the last 12 years, these fighter squadrons have deployed for combat six times. They are scheduled again this fall.
As we all know, our military has been at war for 12 years now — the longest period of combat in our nation’s history.
Being a senior officer in the U.S. Air Force, I visited my Airmen in Iraq and Afghanistan five times. On my trip to Afghanistan in December 2007, I took 40,000 pounds of humanitarian aid that my wife Jan had collected and boxed on my aircraft.
I was handing out blankets in a rural village and met a 9-year-old little girl named Lamia. She was very poor and her family had nothing. She had never been to school. Meeting her gave Jan and me the idea to start a non-profit foundation to help people in Afghanistan when I retired from the Air Force.
Jan and I established The Lamia Afghan Foundation in October 2008. We have travelled there seven times together. We have moved over 2 million pounds of humanitarian aid for rural villagers and those living in refugee camps. We are presently building our sixth school. We are trying to provide educational opportunities for girls. We believe that education is the key to the future in Afghanistan. And, educating girls is very important for change. We believe when you educate a boy, you educate a boy. When you educate a girl, you educate a family. She will grow up to be a wife and mother. She will teach her sons how to treat girls and women with dignity and respect. She will teach her daughters the importance of education and getting skills to be independent. Maybe after two generations, there will be positive cultural change in Afghanistan.
In our travels, we find the Afghan people to be proud and hardworking. They are hospitable and generous with their guests. We have been received with much gratitude. Afghanistan is a fascinating country.
Return to Laura’s 9/11 Veteran’s page.