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We Were the Only Planes in the Sky

By Samuel C. Mahaney, Contributing Opinion Writer
Samuel C. Mahaney is a retired USAF Major General and former Harvard National Security Fellow (’08). He is currently Historian for the Harvard Veterans Alumni Organization.

Twenty years ago, on September 11, 2001, I walked into my office as the operations officer of a medical airlift squadron at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. A few seconds after I arrived, my secretary screamed out. She stood frozen, looking at the TV in horror, the blood draining from her face.

“A plane just flew into one of the World Trade Center towers.”

We speculated on what might cause such an accident. Then a second plane hit the towers.

By 3:30 a.m. the next morning, I was airborne, piloting one of six C-9A aeromedical evacuation aircraft (flying hospitals) from Scott Air Force Base to Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. The Pentagon was burning, and the towers had collapsed. Our mission was simple — get the survivors to lifesaving treatment at specialty medical centers throughout the nation.

We sped toward the scene of the attacks as fast as our planes would allow on the darkest morning I have ever known. Our pilots, flight mechanics, and medical crews resolved to overcome whatever we faced and save lives.

The sun rose in front of us, but the darkness of knowing thousands of Americans had died senselessly just hours before sat heavy on our hearts. Even in the morning sun, the crew had little to say. We each knew the world would never be the same. Each contemplated the new reality in our own way.

Our air traffic control radios deepened the gloom. Normally full of constant chatter, ATC had nothing to say. Any other day, they would have changed our heading and altitude assignments many times to avoid other aircraft. But in the morning hours of Sept. 12, there were no other airplanes to avoid; the entire civilian fleet and most military aircraft had been grounded. Where thousands of airplanes would normally be in the air, we traveled alone.

There are but a handful of aviators who can say they were in the air on that silent morning. It was as if God had ordered the world to come to a halt. As we neared the nation’s capital, an F-15 came alongside to confirm our identity. There was no mistaking the giant red cross emblazoned on our tails. Descending toward Andrews, I looked out the left window of the flight deck to see a huge portion of the Pentagon crumbled and smoldering.

I worried the new day might have terrible things in store. I thought of my wife. She had called after the second airplane hit the towers. “What’s going on?” she asked through tears. “Are we safe? Is anyone safe?” Her words reflected how we all felt. Would the terrorists attack our subway, a jammed freeway, a sporting event, or a school full of children? We felt so vulnerable.

Years later, the crash site at the Pentagon is a beautiful park. I’ve gone there many times and thought about those who died on 9/11. I’ve thought of the men and women who returned to the Pentagon the morning of Sept. 12 to show our enemies they could not dampen our resolve or damage our democracy. I’ve thought of how we drove the Taliban from power and established democracy in Afghanistan.

Tomorrow, I will consider how our democracy survived the 9/11 assault by radical terrorists, just like it survived assaults from Nazi fascism, Soviet communism, and even the sectionalism and racism of our own civil war. It survived because we nurtured it, refined it, and made it better with each generation.

After 9/11, we rallied around our democracy, but now a corrosive drift toward polarized politics has emerged. We must learn from 9/11 as we consider the fragility of our future. Previous generations have survived assaults on U.S. democracy because a government of the people supported it, strong institutions sustained it, and a powerful military protected it. But U.S. democracy isn’t immune. As we have seen, without a rock-solid foundation, democracy fails quickly.

If history is any indicator (and it is), our next threat is just around the corner. Will it be from China, Russia, North Korea, or Iran? Or will it be internal, rising from political ideologies that are moving dangerously toward irreparable division? We must strive to repair those divisions. They erode support, sustainment, and the ability to protect our democracy. They make us more susceptible to external threats. So, rather than divide the nation, let’s repair it.

There are plenty of examples. Let’s follow the lead of Lyndon B. Johnson, who stood up for civil rights; of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s non-partisan investment in national infrastructure; of Theodore Roosevelt’s stand against monopolies and for the environment; and of John F. Kennedy’s focus on civic responsibility and his words “… ask what you can do for your country.” As we face tragedy, divisions, and catastrophe, will we rally? It’s no exaggeration to say that our democracy depends on it.

Samuel C. Mahaney is a retired USAF Major General and former Harvard National Security Fellow (’08). He is currently Historian for the Harvard Veterans Alumni Organization.

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