A Coast Guard rescue team from Sandy Hook, N.J., races to the scene of the World Trade Center terrorist attack. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Tom Sperduto
Over the eleven years since September 11, 2001, our collective memory has changed. We no longer recall that day as it was. For many, the anniversary is now one where we are called to service or to understand others. As Bob Lonsberry pointed out on his radio show this morning, that is not what the anniversary is all about.
On that morning 19 men boarded airplanes intending to commit murder. They, and the men who provided support for them, intended to kill as many Americans as they could. They would commit mass murder in the name of their perverse religion.
Murder. In their world, people who are different, in belief or dress or sex, can be killed with impunity if it is in the name of their perverse religion. Their beliefs allowed them to practice the unholy habits of their enemies, such as alcohol or porn, as long as it was towards their final end, mass murder.
They were not alone then. Tens of millions of people believe exactly as they did, and continue to commit murder in the name of their perverse religion to this day. Men, women and children die every day for the same reasons that those 3,000 did on 9/11. No amount of service or understanding can prevent these killings.
Today, as we remember the murders of September 11, and remember the heroes of that day, let us also recall those responsible. Let us recall the perverse religion that they believed and that lead them to murder. Remember our best today and plan to fight the worst so that, someday, no one need fear murder at the hands of religious savages.
Lt. Col. Alison Thompson stands beside a CH-53E Super Stallion just before a mission in the early morning hours of Sept. 10, 2011. Thompson, the commanding officer of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464, served as a CH-53E pilot with Task Force 58 during the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Now Thompson is back in the region as the first woman to command a Marine squadron in Afghanistan. Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones
It’s Sept. 12, 2001. The wreckage from the attacks the day before still smolders. An aircraft carrier with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit lies off the eastern shore of the United States.
Several CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters with engines running rest on the deck. The flight lead is a young Marine captain, Alison Thompson. Her freckles and biting blue eyes are veiled by her visor and flight helmet.
She wants to take off.
“We had six 53s turning on the line. I kept calling to get clearance,” Thompson said. “The plan was we’d load supplies, embark the MEU, go up to New York City, provide any support they needed with our helicopters and go straight over [to the Middle East] from there. I kept calling for clearance to take off and at that point all aviation was grounded, civilian and military.”
The mission was ultimately called off. According to Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York, thought a visible military presence might instill panic among the people.
The day before, Thompson was at home in Jacksonville, N.C., asleep when the phone rang. It was her dad. She sprinted downstairs and turned on the T.V. just in time to see the second tower get hit.
A few short months later, 9,000 miles away, the 53s are once again on the deck of the ship, turning on the line and Thompson is once again in the pilot’s seat.
This time they’re cleared for take-off. This time they will push into Afghanistan.
The Marines entered Afghanistan, some riding in Thompson’s helicopter. They took Camp Rhino and Kandahar Airfield, then pushed north into the Tora Bora mountains, continuing to seek out the enemy.
Ten years later it’s September 2011 and Alison Thompson is back in Afghanistan. Now she’s a lieutenant colonel at the helm of a new mission – commanding Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464. As the first woman to command a squadron in combat, she leads the only CH-53E squadron in the region.
Thompson’s experiences over the course of her career have prepared her for command. She spent time as a military legislative assistant for former North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, served as an aide for the Deputy Marine Corps Commandant for Aviation and returned to HMH-464 as the operations officer.
But she said her most cherished experiences came in 2001.
“I felt very fortunate to be where I was when I was,” Thompson said. “It was very expeditionary, a lot of tough terrain, a lot of unconventional things we were doing.”
“It was a strange period, kind of eerie. It was exciting too,” said Lt. Col. Pete Gadd, commanding officer of HMH-463, a CH-53D Sea Stallion squadron adjacent to HMH-464 on the Camp Bastion flightline. As a major, Gadd was part of the CH-53E detachment with Thompson in 2001 and accompanied her on many of the missions. “It was the Wild, Wild West back then. We operated out of a lot of mud huts and thatched rooms.”
“She was a great pilot back then, she’s a great pilot now.” said Maj. Dennis W. Sampson.
Sampson, a CH-53D pilot with HMH-463, and the squadron’s operations officer, also participated in the initial invasion, flying some of the first missions in Afghanistan a decade ago.
“We did a lot of raids and take-downs. She was our tactics officer and it was vital for us to be able to follow her lead back then,” Sampson said.
Now Thompson leads several hundred Marines and sailors – pilots, crew chiefs and aircraft maintainers, among others.
“She’s going to do great things in Afghanistan,” Gadd said. “HMH-464 is in great hands.”
“I just want the opportunity to make a difference,” Thompson said, “whether it be tactically or with the individual Marines. From a unit standpoint I take care of them so they’re not fighting internal friction so they can focus on their job.”
Thompson grew up in Michigan, Nebraska and Kansas wanting to be a pilot but never imagining being a Marine. When she attended the Naval Academy women were not allowed to serve in combat in aviation.
“It just so happened that three weeks before I had to service select at the Naval Academy and I had to decide what I was going to do, congress lifted the combat exclusion,” Thompson said.
As one of the first women to pilot a Marine aircraft, and now as the first woman to command a squadron in combat, she said the feeling is the same – don’t mess it up.
“She’s a great leader,” Sampson said. “She’s got great strategic and tactical experience but more importantly, she cares passionately about her Marines and providing support for the Marines on the battlefield.”
Marine veterans Mike Demo, center, and Bill Cortese, right, drove 30 minutes to New York's Ground Zero to celebrate the news that Osama Bin Laden is dead. Two of Cortese's cousins were killed in the Sept. 11, 2011, attack on the World Trade Center. Photo by Sgt. Randall Clinton
A crowd cheers and chants in excitement at the corner of Vesey St. and Liberty St. next to Ground Zero after hearing that Osama Bin Laden is dead. Bin Laden planned the attacks, Sept 11, 2001 and has been hunted by American forces in the years since. He was killed by a raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan near the country's capital. The Freedom Tower, the skyscraper being built where the World Trade Center towers once stood, is now 60 stories tall and was lit up and visible from the street. Eventually the Freedom Tower will be the tallest building in the country. Photo by Sgt. Randall ClintonSmall RSS Icon
In the early morning hours of darkness yesterday, about 35 miles northeast of Islamabad, Pakistan, dozens of U.S. special operations members and CIA agents readied themselves aboard military helicopters for the operation of a lifetime.
U.S. intelligence officers had been gathering evidence since August that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was not in a cave along the U.S.-Pakistan border, as had become lore, but was living comfortably with his family and others in a $1 million compound in Abbottabad, a suburb of the Pakistani capital, Defense Department and CIA officials who spoke on background about the operation at the Pentagon said today.
Intelligence officers spent the next eight months gathering information, which flowed heavily early this year, in part from detained fighters with the Afghanistan insurgency, they said. “The intelligence on the compound was shared with no one outside the U.S. government, and only a small number inside,” an intelligence official said.
President Barack Obama “pushed this to an actionable level,” a senior defense official said, holding numerous meetings with his national security team to consider all possible scenarios.
The special operations team, meanwhile, used its intelligence information to train for the operation, including developing contingency plans for anything they could think of that might not go as planned. With no one other than a small group of U.S. national security officials aware of the operation, officials said, the team was flown in to take bin Laden dead or alive.
Officials would not say how the forces got inside the compound, which has walls that range from 10 to 18 feet high around the perimeter, are topped with barbed wire and cover an acre of land. Once inside the triangular-shaped fortress, the team engaged in a firefight that killed two men who lived there in separate, smaller homes outside the three-story home of bin Laden and his family, officials said. The men are believed to have been brothers; one owned the property and was a courier for bin Laden, deputy national security advisor John O. Brennan said later at a White House briefing.
As expected, officials said, bin Laden resisted capture and was killed in the firefight with U.S. forces on the third floor of the home. Bin Laden’s adult son and a woman believed to be his wife also were killed in the shootout, and two women were wounded, they added.
U.S. forces were in the compound for about 40 minutes and took no casualties, officials said. During that time, they also seized numerous items that are being investigated, they said.
Obama and his national security team anxiously monitored the operation in real time, Brennan said.
“The minutes passed like days,” he said. “The president was very concerned about the security of our personnel. Clearly, it was very tense. A lot of people were holding their breath, and there was a fair degree of silence as we got the updates.” Technical problems with one of the helicopters added to the tension, he said.
After the U.S. team was safely out of the country, officials said, Obama and other members of the national security team began calling government leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan and members of Congress.
“The accomplishment that these very brave personnel from the U.S. government were able to do yesterday is very significant” to the broader effort against terrorism, Brennan said. “This is decapitating the head of the snake. This is something we’ve been after for 15 years. We are going to try to take advantage of this opportunity we have to demonstrate to the Pakistani people and others that al-Qaida is a thing of the past.”
An intelligence official who spoke to Pentagon reporters on background said the operation demonstrated “the tremendous partnership between the CIA and the U.S. military since 9/11.”
As intelligence allowed them to piece together details of the compound and its occupants, he said, it became clear bin Laden “was more or less living in plain sight” while al-Qaida’s lower level operatives “are living in dire conditions.”
“You have to wonder what they think today when they see that their leader was living high on the hog,” he said.
The plan to attack the compound of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was the result of relentless intelligence work and operational professionalism, White House officials, speaking on background, said this morning.
The operation was the culmination of years of careful and highly advanced intelligence work, officials said, as officers from the CIA, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency worked as a team to analyze and pinpoint the Pakistani compound where bin Laden was killed.
Once the intelligence pointed precisely to the compound in Abbottabad –- a town 35 miles north of Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad –- the work on the mission began between the intelligence and military communities.
“In the end, it was the matchless skill and courage of these Americans that secured this triumph for our country and the world,” one official said.
A small team conducted the helicopter raid on the compound. An official called it a complex operation, noting that the compound was a virtual fortress -– built in 2006 with high walls, razor wire and other defense features. Its suburban location and proximity to Islamabad complicated the operation, the official said.
“The men who executed this mission accepted this risk, practiced to minimize those risks, and understood the importance of the target to the national security of the United States,” he said. “This operation was a surgical raid by a small team designed to minimize collateral damage and to pose as little risk as possible to noncombatants on the compound or to Pakistani civilians in the neighborhood.”
U.S. helicopters delivered the team to the compound, and the team was on the ground for less than 40 minutes, an official said. They did not encounter any local authorities. In addition to bin Laden, three adult males were killed in the raid.
“There were several women and children at the compound,” the official said. “One woman was killed when she was used as a shield by a male combatant. Two other women were injured.”
One of the U.S. helicopters was lost at the compound due to mechanical failure. The crew destroyed it on the ground, and the assault force and crew members boarded the remaining aircraft to leave, an official said.
“There’s also no doubt that the death of Osama bin Laden marks the single greatest victory in the U.S.-led campaign to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida,” the official said. “It is a major and essential step in bringing about al-Qaida’s eventual destruction.”
Though the organization’s terrorists still are dangerous and al-Qaida may not fragment immediately, an official said, “the loss of bin Laden puts the group on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.”
The United States did not share any intelligence on the raid with any other country, the official said.
“We believed it was essential to the security of the operation and our personnel,” he said. “In fact, only a very small group of people inside our own government knew of this operation in advance.” Shortly after the raid, he added, U.S. officials contacted senior Pakistani leaders and told them about the raid and its results.
“Since 9/11, the United States has made it clear to Pakistan that we would pursue bin Laden wherever he might be,” the official said. “Pakistan has long understood that we are at war with al-Qaida. The United States had a legal and moral obligation to act on the information it had.”