Guardsmen Protecting Skies Over NYC Reflect on 9/11 Memories

By Shannon Collins

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

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

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. 

Air National Guard Airman 1st Class Anita Hernandez keeps an eye on the skies from her computer at the Eastern Air Defense Sector in upstate New York. EADS photo

“I wasn’t able to grasp the severity of it until that afternoon,” she continued, “when my parents sat my brother and me down to explain it — and, even then, I don’t think I fully grasped what was happening.” Hernandez is now a battle management operator and tracking technician.

Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Brett Kilborne was 12 years old and in seventh grade science glass. His teacher kept the TVs off and gave the class a brief description of what had happened. He said the students couldn’t comprehend the event’s magnitude, 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.

Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Brett Kilborne works at the Eastern Air Defense Sector in upstate New York. EADS photo

“I was constantly jumping from job to job, trying to find something that made me feel a sense of fulfillment,” she 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.”

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 forces members and federal employees work 24 hours 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

Army soldiers render honors as firefighters and rescue workers unfurl a huge U.S. flag over the side of the Pentagon as rescue and recovery efforts continued following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Pendergrass

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 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.”

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.”

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