BURLINGTON, Vt. – In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, pilots with the Vermont Air National Guard were among the first to arrive over Manhattan to protect America and ensure first responders’ safety.
For those soliders, it was a day that began like any other. Colonel Dan Finnegan, 158th Maintenance Group Commander, was in the mission planning room getting ready for a training flight later that afternoon. As he and other soliders watched the attacks unfold on television, they quickly sprang to action.
“I remember that feeling of ‘we have to do something,” Finnegan said. “We started to bring out weapons that weren’t going to be loaded on to the aircraft yet, but we had a feeling that request may come down.”
Meanwhile, Brigadier General Henry Harder began his day over 2,000 miles away from Vermont. He was at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada for a planning conference.
“When we woke up that day, Nellis Air Force Base went on a wartime footing,” Harder said. “We went to the building where we conducting the conference and, like the rest of America, watched on T.V. the horrific events of September 11.”
By the next morning, Harder and two other soldiers were driving a rental car across the country to get back to Vermont, knowing they’d be needed for the response effort.
“One of the most impactful memories for me was driving across the heartland of America heading back to Vermont and really seeing the nation come together,” Harder said. “We were on the interstate in the middle of Nebraska and you had heavy equipment operators who had raised all of their cranes to the maximum level, they all had American flags hanging down. You had this deep feeling of sadness, but also a feeling that America was pulling together in a time of national crisis.”
Both Finnegan and Harder recalled with sharp detail the emotions they were feeling as their F-16 fighter jets approached Manhattan.
“I remember looking down and seeing the devastation that was happening on the ground,” Finnegan said. “I remember kind of a helpless feeling, which is a little bit weird, because when you’re flying around in a loaded F-16, you like to think that you have some ability to affect things… . I was able to see all the responding firefighters and police responding to the incident on the ground. It was very quiet in an area normally filled with radio traffic and air chatter, it was eerily quiet. I remember the feeling you want to do more, but you can’t.”
Harder arrived several days after the attacks for his first mission over Manhattan.
“I grew up about 30 miles outside New York City, and that day, it was clear blue sky just like it was on September 11,” Harder said. “I could see smoke rising outside Manhattan from about 60 miles away, and you don’t lose that imprint in your mind. You feel like your backyard has been attacked. I felt a deep sense of both sadness, but also pride that the Vermont Air National Guard was answering the call to be there and to help protect the citizens of both New York and the whole country.”
Senior Master Sergeant Chad Crowningshield was planning to move to California around the time of the attacks, but halted those plans to focus on the mission at hand. 20 years later, he’s still serving full time with the Vermont Air National Guard.
He said one of his most impactful memories came years after the attack while on a trip to New York City. He and other soldiers were at an event that featured speakers who were first responders.
One of them, a former NYPD detective, talked about the impact those F-16s circling the sky had on first responders.
“He, along with many others, heard the jets up in the sky,” Crowningshield said. “Being able to look up and know those F-16s were covering them and we had their back, it allowed them to re-center, refocus and get back to their search and rescue. Being able to meet individuals like that from that and that day with that story resonates.”
20 years later, the impact of September 11 is still felt deeply by those who responded and those who remember the grief, fear, uncertainty and unity that blossomed from tragedy. Harder said nowadays, it’s important to pass down the commitment to keep America safe and pride in serving that was shown that day.
“It’s kind of amazing that our new enlistees, the brave men and women who choose to become part of the Vermont Air National Guard and the Vermont Army National Guard, some of them weren’t even born on 9/11,” Harder said. “A date that’s so imprinted on us that are a little bit older, they weren’t around for that. Their parents obviously were, but as they wear this uniform and get inducted into the Air National Guard, they learn the lessons that we learned on 9/11 and we’re just immensely proud to be there to serve and know that we’re there to answer the call if that call comes.”