Twenty years after the attacks that took place on September 11, distinguished members of civilian and military communities met at Peterson Space Force Base Saturday morning to commemorate the lives of "ordinary citizens who responded with extraordinary heroism," Chaplain Jamie Braswell said during the event's invocation.
A crowd of around 300 met in front of the Eberhart-Findley building, headquarters of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (Northcom) for the 20th anniversary commemoration of Sept. 11. The building is so named in honor of retired Gen. Ralph E. "Ed" Eberhart of the Air Force and retired Lt. Gen. Eric A. Findley of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The former, who was NORAD commander during the Sept. 11 attacks, delivered the keynote speech Saturday.
"Where were you when the world stopped spinning," Eberhart said invoking country singer Alan Jackson. "Where were you on that September morning? I think we all ask ourselves that, and it's not hard for us to remember. It's our day to live in infamy."
The ceremony is held annually, rotating among Peterson, the Air Force Academy, Fort Carson and Schriever Space Force Base, said 1st Lt. Sable Brown of the Air Force.
On Saturday, members of military and civilian communities placed wreaths in front of a memorial, honoring the 2,977 people who lost their lives Sept. 11 and those in uniform who died fighting the war on terror. "Amazing Grace" was played on the bagpipes as the wreaths were placed, followed by a 21-gun salute, a rendition of the somber bugle call taps and a flyover.
Eberhart and Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of Northcom and NORAD, placed the first wreath on behalf of the U.S. military. The second wreath was placed on behalf on the Canadian armed forces. The third, was placed by Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers on behalf of civil servants. The fourth and final wreath was presented on behalf of community first responders by Colorado Springs police chief Vince Niski and Colorado Springs fire chief Randy Royal.
On Sept. 11, 343 firefighters and paramedics died alongside 71 law enforcement officers and 55 military personnel, according to VanHerck. Eberhart said he learned to truly appreciate first responders on that day.
"I grew up with respect for the first responders," Eberhart said. "On 9/11 that respect became admiration, and there was no doubt in my mind that they were brothers and sisters in arms helping protect this great nation."
The memorial features a twisted, metal beam from the rubble of one of the two towers that were felled in 2001. The beam points northeast toward New York and is housed in a pentagonal planter, representing the attack on the Pentagon. Finally, the soil in the planter comes from Pennsylvania where United Airlines Flight 93 was forced down by passengers who successfully thwarted hijackers attempts to crash the plane elsewhere. All 40 passengers died as a result.
"In many ways what the men and women of United Airlines Flight 93 did reflects the mission that we have here today at NORAD and United States Northern Command," VanHerck said at the ceremony.
"We stand ready. We have the watch each and every day to defeat any and every threat to our homeland. Whether that be a terrorist aircraft, a state actor with a cruise missile or ballistic missile or a pandemic or a natural disaster."
VanHerck, who was stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri during the attack, said one of his initial thoughts after hearing the news was to take his daughter home from school. He said he remembered, that wasn't his duty and wasn't why he raised his right hand in taking an oath to defend his country.
Eberhart said he initially wasn't concerned when he learned that the FAA requested NORAD launch fighter planes in response to a hijacking on Sept. 11. He thought the FAA was mistaken.
"The impossible happened that day," he said.
He recalled 77 minutes of chaos and confusion between when he saw the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. EST and when the final plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed in Somerset County in Pennsylvania.
Eberhart said one of the questions he asked himself daily after the attack was, "Why haven't we been attacked again?" He believes that it's because the U.S. took the fight to the enemy and didn't provide them sanctuary. It's one area he differs from President Biden's administration regarding the decision to leave Afghanistan two decades later.
"I am concerned about not having troops in Afghanistan," he said. "I'm always concerned if I think that terrorists have sanctuary. Again, that's not criticism of the administration that's just my gut feeling ... The war on terror should be an away game, you should take the fight to the enemy."
Regardless, the work continues for Northcom. VanHerck said northern command has been assisting Afghan evacuees on bases throughout the United States resettle. VanHerck said that the Northcom team has been instrumental in helping to resettle more than 50,000 Afghan personnel who aided the United States, its allies and partners.
"They have stood with us through crisis times," VanHerck said of the evacuees. "They have put their own lives and their families' lives in jeopardy."