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Supporting the frontline, Airmen souls: 9/11’s influence 20 years later

Photo of an Airman

Master Sgt. Aleric Hebert, 341st Missile Wing religious affairs superintendent, served as an avionics maintainer during the unfolding events of 9/11, which inspired him to transition from fighting on the frontlines to supporting the Airmen who also fought, are still fighting, or recovering from war. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Tristan Truesdell)

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- As a brand-new Airman in the military, I was stationed at Misawa Air Base, Japan when the World Trade Center was attacked 20 years ago.

At that time, I was an avionics maintainer for the F-16s of the 35th Fighter Wing.

Other maintenance Airmen and I were in the day room of our dorm, a common area, cooking dinner.

Then, we saw a plane crashing into one of the towers on the news.

I was in disbelief; it didn’t seem real at first. I thought it didn’t seem real until we changed the channel and it was on every single station.

As the reality of the situation became clear, our home was under attack, we watched another plane crash into the other tower.

The towers fell as we watched the news, our dinner burning in the oven behind us. My whole life changed as the base commander walked in.

He looked us right in the eyes and said, “Gentlemen, you’re about to go do what you’ve been trained to do. In 72 hours, you’ll be dropping bombs.”

We had 72 hours to prepare for war, not a routine deployment, not an exercise, war.

The base went in to threat condition DELTA, known as force protection condition, now. There were armored vehicles and weapons everywhere you looked. Everyone was armed and ready.

It seemed like another exercise, but it wasn’t. My entire squadron packed up and left for the combat theater.

We dropped the first loads of bombs during the kick-off of Operation Enduring Freedom to allow our Marine service members to invade.

I didn’t join the military to see the world or to get an education, those simply weren’t my reasons for joining.

I joined to fight for my country and to fight for the service members standing behind and beside me: my friends and wingmen – my first real family.

I was very proud, albeit initially scared, to get the chance to do so.

I deployed several more times in support of the war on terror as an avionics maintainer. Later, I switched career fields and deployed in support of my new job: a religious affairs specialist.

I transitioned from working on aircraft to providing support for the Airmen’s souls. From being on the flight line to being on the frontline and then to taking care of those who were in the fight and those who came back from it.

As I look back now, I realize we have been at war for my entire career. I still carry the arming pin from the first bomb we dropped at the beginning of the war. It serves as a reminder of why we serve.

For whatever reason you joined, I ask that you reflect on it, hold on to it and continue to move forward.

Keep fighting the good fight.
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