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United We Stand
by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Taylor White
September , 2021

A total of 2,997 individuals were lost on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

Twenty years ago, the day started off as any other. In New York City, the sky was blue and cloudless, the temperature in the mid-sixties and the city bustling with its normal morning commute. Ferries, taxis, subways and air traffic were flowing with the Big Apple’s usual murmurs. What happened next, will live on in U.S. history forever.

The day soon turned to tragedy as the Nation watched horrified while 19 militant Al Qaeda terrorists unleashed hell by high-jacking commercial aircraft and crashing them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

For Jon Huggins, 1st Reconnaissance Squadron (RS) instructor pilot and former United Airlines pilot, the attack occurred while he was airborne. “When we landed in Chicago it was eerie, nothing was moving and that never happens there,” Huggins said. “We parked away from the terminal with all of our passengers, I turned up the radio and we listened to the second World Trade Center tower come down. The passengers were stunned.”

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jon Huggins, 1st Reconnaissance Squadron U-2 flight instructor pilot, steps out of a U-2 after a solo flight on July 31, 2020 at Beale Air Force Base, California. Huggins last flew a U-2 solo over five and a half years ago. He originally retired from the Air Force in 2000, but returned to active duty in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Luis A. Ruiz-Vazquez)
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jon Huggins, 1st Reconnaissance Squadron U-2 flight instructor pilot, steps out of a U-2 after a solo flight on July 31, 2020 at Beale Air Force Base, California. Huggins last flew a U-2 solo over five and a half years ago. He originally retired from the Air Force in 2000, but returned to active duty in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Luis A. Ruiz-Vazquez)

Mr. Huggins returned to active duty with the support of his family after the attack. “I had separated in 2000 and was already thinking of getting back in,” said Huggins. “At first, my wife wasn’t really onboard, but when I arrived home after that Chicago flight, she agreed to it.”

He wasn’t the only pilot who felt a clear call to continue their service.

“I was three days from separation,” said Cory Bartholomew, 1st RS instructor pilot. “I came into the squadron and tore up my separation paperwork. I knew we were going to war and I couldn’t imagine just watching on TV while my friends were putting their lives on the line.”

With the U-2 Dragon Lady being a reconnaissance aircraft, the mission prior to 9/11 had been relatively predictable. Pilots were training and traveling at a regular pace and there was no overwhelming sense of urgency to a specific mission.

That all began to change.

“After the attack, there was a marked ramping up of new pilot production in the training squadron and an entirely new sense of urgency in the operations squadron,” Bartholomew remembers. “Our mentality shifted so much that pilots spontaneously stopped wearing scarves with our uniforms, as if to say, ‘we don’t have time for frivolous accessories’.”

With this generation of pilots’ rapid no-nonsense adaptation to their newfound mission set, they quickly amended to the newer set of expectations needed for troops on the ground. From accepting re-routes mid-flight and coordinating with multiple airborne and ground based entities, the U-2 community was quickly brought into the fold during the war on terror.

“Thanks to more modern engines and new equipment, flights became both longer and busier,” Bartholomew said. “With the desire to have greater intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance coverage for the troops on the ground, we flew a lot more missions.”

Bartholomew went on to point out that this uptick in time spent airborne resulted in an increase to pilot injuries, such as decompression sickness; a condition which causes nitrogen bubbles to form within the body. This can result in nausea, numbness and in extreme cases, loss of consciousness.

The declaration of the end to the War in Afghanistan on 30 August, 2021, marks a lifetime of service from our Nation. Babies born in 2001 grew into troops who deployed in efforts to eliminate terrorism in a tumultuous corner of the world. Some of those men and women lost their lives, and some made it home to continue fighting what many veterans know personally as the, “war at home”.

“I am proud to have spent most of my adult life serving my country,” Bartholomew said. “However, the 23 years I spent flying missions over the middle east and the thousands of lives spent, including friends of mine, hasn’t resulted in a more stable region. In some ways, it seems like we lost ground.”

This sentiment resonates with many who put their lives on the line over the last two decades. It’s crucial we remember our active duty and veteran’s service and sacrifice during our Nation’s longest war. This includes the generations of families who are devoted to protecting America’s safety, her ideals, and those protected by her foundations.

Despite the horrors of that Tuesday, we still stand tall. Our Statue of Liberty and her reminder of who we are as a country resonates within us all. She declares proudly at the gates of the city which felt the attacks within its bones, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We see those values playing out today in the efforts to save Afghan friends and partners being brought to the United States for refuge.

United we stand, despite the fall.

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