SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. - VTANG F-16’s thundered into the skies, commanding a hush over the airmen of the 158th Fighter Wing who mustered around the half-staff American flag that gently stirred in the crisp morning air. Visiting Macedonian soldiers also attended the solemn ceremony that hallmarked the 10th anniversary one of the most grievous blows the U.S. has ever received.
Adjutant Gen. Dubie and retired Brig. Gen. Greg Fick were guest speakers who, along with Commander Col. Doug Fick, addressed the wing.
Dubie reflected on the response of the 158th Fighter Wing on 9/11 and the 122 following days where VTANG pilots and plane maintainers guarded the New York skies against further attacks. It was a highlight of the VTANG to be the first F-16s over the smoking wreckage of the World Trade Center.
The adjutant general tied the quick response of the 158th Wing then to their quick response of aid in the last two weeks after Tropical Storm Irene flooded Vermonters.
Commander Doug Fick was brief, but poignant. His introduction drove home the reason for the ceremony: “Exactly at this moment, ten years today, our country came under attack.”
He talked about Bin Laden and said while the man behind the 9/11 attacks may be dead, the hatred he stirred was left behind to fester. It may be 10 years later, he said, but we cannot let our guard down as a nation from people who hated the military, our families, and our way of life.
“You are the shield,” Fick echoed the Airman’s Creed. “Be vigilant, be ready. You are the sword. Be strong, be sharp.”
He paused and then emphasized, “Never forget.”
Retired Brig. Gen. Greg Fick spoke from the heart, discussing in finer details the day of the attack, when he was the commander of the VTANG. As he related his experience, his voice was laced with a tremor.
In the hours of confusion following the attack, he said, senior leadership were most concerned with making sure no further commercial airlines could be used as a flying bomb on the citizens and buildings of the United States. Here, wing-level leadership knew it was its duty to get jets, pilots and support staff ready to respond as “war time”.
“As Green Mountain Boys drove through the gate, not knowing when they would be able to go home again,” he said, “I knew they were rallying around our nation in a time of great need.”
Within a few days the VTANG had transformed from citizen soldiers to active-duty airmen, with around 600 people on Title 10 running operations day and night to provide 24-hour coverage for New York. VTANG airmen were faced with the dreaded reality that they had lost friends, fellow colleagues.
The retired commander’s voice dropped low when he talked about one of the hardest moments of his life. As he flew in a flight simulator with a scenario of intercepting a hijacked commercial airliner, he was ordered to shoot it down. With his finger hovering over the button and feeling sick, Fick paused. In that moment, he knew that VTANG pilots may be put in an unfathomable situation. “It became clear that our pilots may be asked to take lives in order to save lives,” he said.
VTANG pilots bore that heavy responsibility for 122 consecutive days, slowly shifting the share of the burden with other units until they were only flying 12 hours a day, he said. “We were on the tip of the spear doing the most important work imaginable – protecting our homeland.”
Following the speeches there was a moment of silence. After, the national anthem filled the air as through the two F-16’s which had took flight in the beginning now arced overhead, and around the base before disappearing into the blue.
Airmen’s heavy hearts focused on the flag, our nation’s pain, and heroes they’ve known who has passed on in the line of duty. Here in Vermont the Army National Guard lost 14 soldiers in operations in the aftershock of 9/11. Friends. Brothers. Fathers. Vermonters. Americans. Our people.