SHANKSVILLE, Pa./NEW YORK/ARLINGTON, Va — Gen. Hugh Shelton’s memories of Sept. 11, 2001, are vivid and firsthand. Originally from Tarboro, and a graduate of NC State, Shelton was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on that day. He lost friends and colleagues at the Pentagon, but also made history as one of the initial architects of the resulting global war on terror and “Operation Enduring Freedom.”
“It was a horrific day,” said Shelton in an interview on WPTF radio. “I had taken off that day to go to a NATO meeting overseas in Europe. I was about two hours out when I got the call that a civilian plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. That caused the hair on the back of my neck to rise because I knew the weather up and down the coast was great.
“I told the Air Force pilot to turn around and go back and he said, ‘We can’t, the FAA has closed the air space,’ so I said, ‘We will ask forgiveness not permission, turn around.’ So he pulled about a 9-G turn and headed back to the U.S. We flew right over the smoke that was billowing up to 10,000 feet, and you knew the way that Washington, D.C., had closed down — not a thing was moving — that this was something catastrophic.”
Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden planned the attack. He was killed in a U.S. military operation in May 2011.
Slated to retire in October, just weeks after the attacks, Shelton led the initial coordination of the military response against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“We got that underway pretty quickly,” he said. “We planned the attack toward Afghanistan. We had a few distractions from those who thought we ought to attack Iraq in the process, but there was no evidence to indicate that … so we developed our plan to go into Afghanistan, and I was there when we deployed the first troops.”
Military operations were underway quickly, even as the nation was still in shock in 2011. On Tuesday, Americans remembered the day with similar shock and sadness, looking back on 9/11 with somber tributes. President Donald Trump spoke at Shanksville, Pa., remembering the “band of brave patriots” aboard the fourth Sept. 11 flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, praising passengers and crew members who resisted hijackers.
Trump is the first president in seven years to visit the rural field where the fourth airliner of the day crashed after those aboard realized what was happening and several passengers tried to storm the cockpit. The president praised those who “took control of their destiny and changed the course of history.”
“A piece of America’s heart is buried on these grounds, but in its place has grown a new resolve to live our lives with the same grace and courage as the heroes of Flight 93,” Trump said. “This field is now a monument to American defiance. This memorial is now a message to the world: America will never, ever submit to tyranny.”
In New York, seventeen years after losing her husband, Margie Miller came from her suburban home to join thousands of relatives, survivors, rescuers and others on a misty morning at the memorial plaza where the World Trade Center’s twin towers once stood.
“To me, he is here. This is my holy place,” she said before the hours-long reading of the names of her husband, Joel Miller, and the nearly 3,000 others killed when four hijacked commercial planes slammed into the towers, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.
Each of the 40 victims’ names was read aloud, followed by the tolling of bells. Trump was joined in remembrances by his wife, first lady Melania Trump, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and former Gov. Mark Schweiker, who was the state’s lieutenant governor on 9/11.
At the Pentagon, Vice President Mike Pence recalled the heroism of service members and civilians who repeatedly went back into the Pentagon to rescue survivors.
The terrorists “hoped to break our spirit, and they failed,” he said.
The images of 9/11 always include that of a new President George W. Bush standing at Ground Zero in New York, where the towers fell, wielding a bullhorn saying, “I hear you,” to the crowd. “The rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
Later, he would stand before Congress and issuing a challenge to the rest of the world: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
After a meeting with relatives of missing firefighters and police officers, a woman handed then-President Bush her son’s police badge. He promised he would never forget and carried the badge with him for the rest of his presidency.
Today General Shelton runs the Shelton Leadership Center at N.C. State focused on instilling the next general with principal-based leadership skills that prepare them to lead with purpose in an unpredictable world.
“We should never forget that the attack on the on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was the deadliest attack in world history and the most devastating attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor,” said Shelton. “The young people today, those 17 and younger, weren’t even born then. We have to keep this as a part of our history.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.