Witness to history | VailDaily.com

Witness to history

David O. Williams

For Lt. Col. Joel Best of Eagle, who was in Arlington, Va., on Sept. 11. 2001, for an Army National Guard meeting, 9/11 was like having a front-row seat for Peal Harbor with one big exception. He couldn’t fight back.The most devastating foreign attack on American soil seized the nation’s capital with a sense of impending doom, Best says, paralyzing the city’s infrastructure and leaving it vulnerable to an even more horrific assault. From a hotel overlooking the Pentagon, Best and his fellow Colorado guardsmen, whose services weren’t needed in the wake of the attack even to donate blood could only watch as history unfolded.”We had time to sit and watch the Pentagon burning and emergency lights were flashing all night, and we sat there and we were completely helpless to do anything,” Best says. “We couldn’t go find the enemy and slap the bully in the face.”That would come in the following year, as Best’s Colorado National Guard High Altitude Army Aviation Training Site (HATS) assumed a lead role in the war on terrorism.”In a way this training site is enacting a certain degree of vengeance by making sure that the soldiers that we are sending into harm’s way are fully trained ,” Best says.HATS, an obscure, high-security facility at the Eagle County Regional Airport, has trained more than 2,200 pilots over the past 15 years in the nuances and extreme challenges of flying military helicopters at high altitude over mountainous terrain.Since 9/11, “people who have trained here have gone into combat there,” Best says, referring to ongoing war against the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban in Afghanistan. “We knew we’d be dealing with a mountainous enemy so the mission here obviously got a lot move relevancy and attention.”‘You couldn’t take it all in’Best, 41, commander of the HATS unit, was in Arlington for an aviation safety meeting at the Army National Guard Readiness Center on George Mason Drive about two miles from the Pentagon that fateful morning.The first sign that something was wrong came when someone poked their head into the office to say that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center in New York City.Thinking it was probably just a small Cessna, the men in the meeting all made their way to a television set just in time to see a second commercial airliner slam into the south tower of trade center.”We walked back to the cubicle because we were already thinking terrorism, and at the same time we heard a plane come over the building really low, but we didn’t think it was that unusual because we were so close to Reagan National (Airport) ,” Best says. “In the back of our minds, though, we were thinking, ‘That’s kind of weird.’ Then someone said ‘there’s smoke at the Pentagon,’ and at that time we began to evacuate the building.”From the time the first hijacked plane hit the north tower of the trade center at 8:45 a.m., EST, just less than an hour elapsed before American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:43 a.m., killing 125 people in the building and 64 on the plane.Suddenly, the horror that Washingtonians had been watching on TV for the past hour had come crashing down on them, and Best says the ensuing gridlock was monumental. On- and off-ramps and major bridges into the city were shut down, and people were abandoning their vehicles and trying to make their way into the city on foot.Best’s first thoughts were of his family in Eagle, his wife and two boys, but repeated attempts to get through to them were thwarted by jammed phone lines and cellular service.”The horrific loss of life was almost unfathomable,” Best says of that day. “You couldn’t take it all in. I was really driven to get home to my family, but it was difficult to get hold of anyone because all lines of communication were overwhelmed.”And while the evacuations and swirling rumors contributed to an overall sense of unease, he said the city didn’t completely unravel.”There was still a sense of impending doom, that there was more to follow, that this was just the start of more sporadic attacks,” Best says of the immediate aftermath. “But people were pretty calm. I think the civilians found a lot of solace in having so many military people nearby.”Most troubling to Best that day, and clearly a motivating factor in performing his critical training duties here in Colorado, was the possibility that things could have been so much worse.”If al-Qaeda and the Taliban had access and partnership with (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein and were able to touch off a tactical suitcase nuclear device when everyone was exposed in Washington, D.C., we would have had a catastrophic failure of the military system and we would have been completely reactive as a nation,” Best says.Attack on Iraq?Best points to how vulnerable America was prior to 9/11 and the dangers that remain if the nation falls back to a defensive posture and lets its guard down. We must take the fight to the enemy, he says, and always remain alert.”People need to understand that we’re trying to be proactive as a nation to make sure that weapons of mass destruction aren’t used against us ,” he says of the ongoing debate over whether to attack Iraq.He also feels the campaign against al-Qaeda since 9/11 has been right on the money. “We didn’t just lob a couple of cruise missiles. It was a deliberate and engaging plan that brought the entire nation and world together,” he says.And he adds that, after first thinking and worrying about his family, his next thoughts that day were of military response. “Everybody was pretty indignant that somebody could do this to us; we were all ready to put on our warrior face and react in an appropriate manner. No soldier every wants to go to war; they do it when they’re asked. That’s the difference between soldiers and citizens.”But Best agrees that life has changed dramatically even for the average U.S. citizen in the last year.”I personally believe we’ll never ever regain the freedom of access to a lot of niceties such as just walking onto plane with your carry-on luggage,” Best says. “Americans realized just how vulnerable we really are.”And with that realization comes and added degree of security, Best says, but when asked if that means we’re safer today than we were a year ago, Best says we can never be 100-percent secure.”I think that we are definitely more aware, and awareness brings capability. Are we completely impenetrable? Clearly not. We have a lot of work to be done,” Best says. “Thankfully, there a lot of God-fearing American people out there who know what has to be done and can put up with the crap and are willing to do it to make sure that we’ll remain the preeminent nation in the world.”‘Very happy we live in Eagle’In the hours after the Pentagon attack, Best and his fellow Colorado guardsman, mostly from the Front Range, accounted for three missing members of their contingent, one of whom was in the Pentagon when the plane hit but was uninjured, then made a plan to get out of the city the next day.After a restless night in their hotel rooms with views of the burning headquarters of American military might, they made their way to Dulles International Airport the next morning and boarded the military plane they had flow out on from the Buckley Air National Guard base east of Denver.”I think we were the only airplane to leave Dulles that day,” Best says of the lockdown on civilian air traffic on Sept. 12. All of the intricate flight planning and communication that normally occurs between the plane and the control tower was replaced by simple cell phone calls to Norad in Colorado Springs, and there were no other communications until the plane touched down for refueling at a base in Illinois. The men were accompanied by an armed escort to a nearby Burger King for lunch, then they continued on to Buckley, where Best says the F-16s were already “locked and loaded” and taking part in combat air patrols. Despite the heightened security, Best says he was glad he wasn’t on a commercial flight that day.”I was also very happy that we lived in Eagle, Colo., and not a major metropolitan area.”

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