By Senior Airman Shelby Thurman, Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command
/ Published September 10, 2021
Smoke and flames come from the Twin Towers Sept. 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center, New York City, New York. This photo was captured with a disposable camera purchased specifically to capture events as they unfolded in front of Col. Ephod Shang, vice commander of the 367th Recruiting Group and deputy director at the AFRC Headquarters for Recruiting on Robins AFB, Georgia, when he was a newly minted captain at the time. (Courtesy photo by Col. Ephod Shang)
(U.S. Air Force Graphic by Ivan Rivera)
As the ‘Forever War’ comes to a close, the Air Force Reserve Command and its service members take time to reflect. It’s especially important this year, the 20th anniversary of the reason America entered the longest war in its history to date. The terrorist attacks that occurred at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the morning of September 11, 2001, changed American forever.
The first Air Force Reservist to heroically sacrifice his life due to the attacks was, Maj. Leroy Homer, Jr. He will forever be known as the first officer of United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville. Besides being the co-pilot that day, he was also an Academy Liaison officer with the Air Force Academy and the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps. His actions, combined with the actions of the other passengers and crew members, saved an untold number of lives when they decided to fight back against the hijackers on the flight.
Another Reservist who stepped up to save others was then-Tech. Sgt. Tyree Bacon. When he and his coworkers witnessed the first attack from where they worked inside the New York State Supreme Courthouse in lower Manhattan they immediately commandeered a state jury bus to help those at the attack site. The second tower was struck by the time they arrived at what is now Ground Zero.
Upon exiting the bus, they noted the streets were like a nightmare; but this was no dream.
They tried to find an emergency medical station to start assisting victims. They soon discovered that one had not been established yet. So, they took it upon themselves to make one from the first aid kid from the bus. Bacon, using his experience as an Air Force Reservist firefighter with the 506th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, based in Kirkuk, Iraq, Bacon and his coworkers assisted in the evacuation process alongside first responders who had raced to the scene.
While a lot of people chose to stay and help, a majority of individuals ran away from the initial attack. One of those who ran was the public bus driver that was taking then-newly minted Capt. Ephod Shang to his civilian job as a youth pastor. After he and the other commuters were screamed at to disembark the public bus, the driver zoomed away back to the other side of town.
Shang said that his training kicked in the moment he saw the smoke and debris from the first tower. He ran inside a nearby convenience store to buy a disposable camera and sprinted towards the chaos. He attributes this specific purchase to his training as an intelligence officer with the 514th Air Mobility Wing, New Jersey.
“I immediately started photographing things in case there was a request from law enforcement,” said now Col. Ephod Shang, the vice commander of the 367th Recruiting Group and deputy director at the AFRC Headquarters for Recruiting at Robbins AFB, Georgia. “I still have those photos to this day.”
He was within two blocks of the smoking first tower when he found two members of his church. He led them and other strangers to safety, periodically hiding behind various structures and inside different buildings. Both towers fell while they were trying to escape the danger zone.
Shang’s actions that morning resulted in those members of his church and many other strangers being able to walk away with their lives. Additionally, his actions preserved the stress and intensity of the moment through photography.
“From providing leadership, to understanding threats, to looking for safe havens, to addressing injuries and helping others get outside the danger zone; I will always be grateful for the training I received through my affiliation with the Air Force Reserve,” said Shang. “This motivated me to continue to serve and I’m grateful to still be in uniform to this very day.”
(Col. Ephod Shang’s full story can be read in its entirety here)
In response to the attacks, AFRC immediately set to work. Within the first 45 days, more than 11,000 Reservists were recalled to active duty. Two B-52 bombers, their crews and support personnel from the 917th Wing, Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, were deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).
From 2001 to the end of 2004, AFRC crews flew a total 102,589 hours in support of OEF.
In 2018, the 434th Air Refueling Wing’s 49th Aerial Port Flight, Grissom ARB, Indiana, deployed to support operations in Afghanistan. They moved a record-setting 55,728 personnel and 8.45 million pounds of cargo.
By the end of 2019:
• More than 37,700 sorties were flown.
• More than 168,000 passengers were transported to safety.
• Aircrews flew more than 226,000 hours.
• More than 151 million pounds of cargo were transported.
The 20-year long war in Afghanistan ended on August 30, with the Airmen of AFRC participating in the largest non-combatant evacuation operation in U.S. military history for Operation Allies Refuge.
The joint task force humanitarian operation was created to safely evacuate Americans and allies resulting in more than 120,000 evacuees being safely transported out of Afghanistan.
Today, this day is now known as “Patriot Day,” or “Nine-Eleven Day.” It is now recognized by U.S. Law as a National Day of Service and Remembrance and has been observed every year since 2001. Each year, flags are flown at half-staff and Americans congregate to observe moments of silence at the times of each attack from that morning, starting at 8:46 a.m. (EST).
There are many ways that individuals honor the 2,977 victims, but some of the most common are by participating in volunteer projects, 5K runs, and memorial stair climbs. For the memorial stair climbs, individuals or teams perform a cumulative climb of 110 flights of stairs. This is equivalent to the 22 times firefighters went up and down inside the Twin Towers. Many firefighters participate in full gear to commemorate the physical weight of what their brothers and sisters went through that day.
“We remember and honor the thousands of American men and women who gave their lives on 9/11,” said Lt. Gen. Richard W. Scobee, AFRC commander and chief of the Air Force Reserve. “To those serving today, we thank you and your families. We are honored and proud to be a part of your team in the never-ending defense of our guiding ideals of freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Our nation will never forget the sacrifices of those who dedicated themselves to protecting the innocent and seeking justice for those who dared to harm them.