9/11 Experiences

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Our Stories: JAG Corps Members Recollect Their 9/11 Experiences

This collection is a selection of stories from JAG Corps personnel about their recollections of September 11, 2001.

VIDEO | 01:36 | We Remember


On September 11, 2001, terrorists linked to the Islamic extremist group al Qaeda hijacked four commercial passenger airplanes and attacked the World Trade Center in New York, New York and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia by flying three planes into the buildings. The final plane passengers and crew fought back and it was downed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Almost 3,000 people were killed in the televised attacks. The administration of President George W. Bush responded through declaring a “war on terrorism,” which oversaw the creation of the Department of Homeland Security as well as the invasion of Afghanistan.

Master Sergeant Jose L. “Esco” Escobosa

Master Sergeant Jose Escobosa

Twenty-two years later and everything about that day is still burned into my brain: the smells, the sight of the ash in the sky, even the random guy walking his little dog like it was any other Tuesday.

I was a college freshman only a couple weeks into the first semester. I lived in Brooklyn and my school was in Manhattan, so I would take the train each morning. That morning I fell asleep on the train. When I woke up, I saw that we were stuck at the World Trade Center stop. I fell asleep and woke up again about 15 minutes later still at the same stop. If the conductor shared the reason for the delay, I wouldn’t know because I was sleeping most of the way.

I got to my class late and it seemed like everyone, including the professor was running late. We made it through class without knowing what was going on. When I went to my next class, nobody showed up. I found a common room stacked with people. I stuck my head in and saw the burning towers. I asked someone near me, “What movie is this?” He said, “It’s not a movie, that’s the news!”

I immediately ran into panic mode! My sister was supposed to be at school right across the street from the Towers and my brothers were in school somewhere in the city also! Since I was a new freshman, I didn’t know the city that well, but I was determined to try and find them. I couldn’t get my cell to work because lines were down (this was in the early day of cell phones folks!). The pay phones only worked sometimes, and they all had long lines of people trying to get calls out to family.

I walked in circles around the city but couldn’t get further south than Penn Station. I could smell everything and saw ash falling from the sky even though it was Midtown Manhattan, and the Trade Center was much further south. I had no water and walked what felt like at least two hours before I found my brothers near where I thought their school was. By the grace of God, my sister overslept that day and didn’t go to class!

The trains were shut down so my brothers and I started walking towards the bridges from Midtown, figuring we would have to walk across and find our way home. At some point, someone shouted that the trains were working, so we ran down and stuck ourselves in the first train that came. Saying we were like sardines in a can is an understatement! I still have trouble getting in areas with so many people (especially elevators) because of that ride. We made it to Brooklyn and my dad picked us up and brought us home.

I watched the news that evening as they gave a detailed timeline of events and that’s when it hit me! My train was stuck at that station under the Towers when the first plane hit. Had the conductor not left the station when he/she did, I could have been stuck under there when everything started to come down!

Twenty-two years later and everything about that day is still burned into my brain: the smells, the sight of the ash in the sky, even the random guy walking his little dog like it was any other Tuesday. I thank God for all those that sacrificed their lives and pray for the families of those that never made it out!


About the Author

Master Sergeant Jose L. “Esco” Escobosa, USAF

(A.A.S., Community College of the Air Force, Maxwell Air Force Base Gunter Annex, Alabama; B.A., John Jay College for Criminal Justice, New York, New York) serves as the Law Office Superintendent, 60th Air Mobility Wing, Travis Air Force Base, California.
Captain Ahmed M. Mohamed

Captain Ahmed Mohamed

I look back on how my six-year-old brain comprehended what was going on. I didn’t understand that the storm clouds were actually smoke.

I’ve always associated thunder with sirens. I think it’s one of those things that you grow up with and when you hang out with your friends over a few drinks, you debate whether that’s normal or if you realize it’s just you. For me, I always thought that maybe the thunder (and usually lightning) struck a tree down and set it on fire. Hence, sirens of a firetruck come to save the day.

I went to elementary school in Jersey City, right across the Hudson River from New York City. I was never star struck by New York. To me, it was always just there, in the backdrop of my childhood. I was used to the skyline and the bustling sounds that echoed for miles. I didn’t grow up around rolling mountains or thick forest, I had the concrete jungle … with enough trees to have my brain associate sirens with them being struck by lightning.

Capt Mohamed at age 6, school photo

When I was six years old in my first-grade classroom, I heard the most bizarre thud in the sky followed by a storm of sirens. It was the loudest sound of thunder I’ve ever heard and justified the sirens that followed. “Must have been a big tree.” I remember the clouds got dark and completely pushed the sun out of the sky. Then another big thud and even more sirens. “Two trees?!” And there wasn’t even any rain, just one big dark blanket covering the sky. Kids were leaving school and I was moved to another classroom, forbidden from watching TV. I thought it had to be the craziest thunderstorm ever if school was closing early.

Over the next few days, I noticed that less and less kids were coming to school. In a moment of youthful ignorance, I thought “Why do they get to stay home while I’m stuck in school?” Not only that, I wasn’t able to play soccer with my uncle because he had meetings after work and more of my family became “unavailable.”

I look back on how my six-year-old brain comprehended what was going on. I didn’t understand that the storm clouds were actually smoke. That the sirens were four miles away. That the second round of thunder was the second tower going down. That the kids not coming to school were dealing with parents that were never coming home. That my uncle was in a meeting because they were pulling in Muslim⁠-⁠Americans for questioning. That those trees were the two biggest in the concrete jungle. I didn’t comprehend it then, but over time it became the single scariest moment of my life. By virtue of my name, I was looked at differently. People would stare at my mother’s scarf, call me and my family terrorists, get randomly checked at the airport, and denied access to certain restaurants. The feeling of being looked at differently never seemed to go away, but nor has the imagery and sound of the biggest thunderstorm I’ve ever heard.

9/11 changed my life because it taught me to refuse being looked down on because of my name. If you didn’t like me, it wasn’t going to be because of my Egyptian blood and Middle-Eastern culture. You had to come up with something else because I refuse to let the people that attacked my backyard be the reason why. I am proud to represent my heritage through my service each day.


About the Author

Captain Ahmed M. Mohamed, USAF

(B.A., The Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania; J.D., Elon University School of Law, Greensboro, North Carolina) is a Victims’ Counsel, Victims’ Counsel Division, Military Justice and Discipline Directorate, Vandenberg Space Force Base, California.
Lieutenant Colonel Timothy W. Murphy, USAF (Ret.)

Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Murphy, USAF (Ret.)

It is difficult to convey the overwhelming sense of unity, patriotism and purpose that manifested itself in so many ways in the days, weeks, months, and early years of the Global War on Terror.

On 11 September 2001, I was the Deputy Chief of the Appellate Defense Division, which at that time was at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. That morning I was visiting with another attorney when someone said that an airplane had hit one of the Twin Towers in New York. My boss, Colonel Beverly Knott, had a television in her office, so a number of us gathered to watch the coverage. My immediate thought was of an incident that my father had told me about when he saw the aftermath of a plane that had flown into the Empire State Building in 1945.

Shortly after we gathered into Colonel Knott’s office, the second plane hit the second Tower. I think that we all immediately understood that this was a moment which changed our world and that some of us would be involved in what we believed would be a military response. After a period of time, the coverage shifted to a reporter from the Pentagon. He stated that he had just felt the building shake. I looked out Colonel Knott’s window (her and my office windows looked out over a parking lot toward the Potomac) and I saw smoke starting to rise from the direction of the Pentagon. I was stunned.

We received an order that placed all personnel in lockdown until further notice. We watched in horror as helicopters filmed people stranded on the Towers—some of whom jumped to their deaths. These images remain with me—as does the feeling of dismay upon seeing the Towers collapse.

VIDEO | 02:17 | As It Happened - The 9/11 Pentagon Attack

Periodically I would look over at the Pentagon and the smoke and watch a helicopter bridge that began bringing certain personnel over to Bolling from that location. At some point early that afternoon my wife called me from the school where she was a teacher and I spoke to her and our two sons who were both in grade school. That was the point where I started to get emotional.

We were released around 1500. I commuted from Delaware daily (my previous assignment was at Dover Air Force Base) and I anticipated increased traffic—however, much to my surprise, there was almost no traffic. That evening my family and I attended Mass at our parish church in Dover.


It is difficult to convey the overwhelming sense of unity, patriotism and purpose that manifested itself in so many ways in the days, weeks, months, and early years of the Global War on Terror. It is important to remember that the 2000 Presidential election had been historically divisive. Congress was almost equally divided between the two parties. In short order, politics and those type of divisions seemed to vanish. Driving home to Delaware every day from Bolling (and later the Pentagon) I would see the American flag at overpasses. When I was transferred to the Pentagon in early 2002, strangers would approach me in the Washington D.C. subway on my way to work to thank me. Although my personal contribution to the war effort seemed minimal, I accepted their thanks on behalf of those who were by that time fighting in Afghanistan and later, Iraq.

The greatest privilege of my professional life was serving with 9 AF/USCENTAF (now 9 AF/AFCENT) at the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC). For many of us who served during that timeframe, there was never any doubt about the justice of the cause, the dangers posed by our enemy, and our ability—with the persistent unity, patriotism and purpose of the American people—to defeat the threat of terrorism. There was also never any doubt that the war would be long—generational—similar to the Cold War. Both of my sons are now Air Force officers, and one served in the CAOC at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar—a reminder of that reality.


About the Author

Lieutenant Colonel Timothy W. Murphy, USAF (Ret.)

(B.A., Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; M.A., Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; J.D., Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; LL.M., Liberty University, Lynchburg, Virginia) serves as an Attorney-Advisor, Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, 20th Fighter Wing, Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina.
Colonel Christopher D. May, USAF (Ret.)

Colonel Christopher May, USAF (Ret.)

We were riding along when Armed Forces Network (AFN) Radio broke the news that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. I was stunned and thought it was a horrible accident. The lieutenant who was driving said, “That sounds like a terrorist attack.”

I'd like to share my memories as a judge advocate who was deployed on 9/11.

For the longest time CENTCOM operated Operation NORTHERN WATCH and Operation SOUTHERN WATCH policing the skies over Iraq. In those days, JAG deployments were a very tidy 90 days and there were only a handful of them. The deployment assignment process in 2001 was nothing compared to the machine that would be required fill billets in the decades to come. My Staff Judge Advocate (SJA) at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, Colonel Dan Rogers, USAF (Ret.), received a call and was asked if he had anyone he wanted to nominate. When I was selected, I was genuinely the envy of my peers because there was a feeling that this was a “once in a career” opportunity.

From June to September 2001, I was assigned as the Deputy Staff Judge Advocate (DSJA) at the 363d Air Expeditionary Wing, Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB), Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The three-person office included a lieutenant colonel SJA, now⁠-⁠Colonel Mary Harney, USAF (Ret.), a technical sergeant Law Office Manager, now⁠-⁠Master Sergeant Bobbie Dixon, USAF (Ret.), and a captain DSJA—me. I replaced now⁠-⁠Colonel Mark Hoover, currently the Director, Legal Information Services (AF/JAS). Mark and I had spoken extensively prior to my arrival and the experience was just what he had promised. It was terrific. We lived in hard facilities, I had a private room, there were ample morale, welfare, and recreation opportunities, the food was good, and the work was interesting. The living conditions were infinitely better than those described by the DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM veterans.

On September 11th my deployment was winding down. It was the afternoon, and I was riding in a car back from “Ops Town” to the Coalition Complex where we lived. I was getting ready to turn in my linens and move from my room to the transitional barracks. My replacement, now⁠-⁠Colonel Christine Piper, Air Combat Command SJA, was getting ready to depart from Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. I needed to clear out of her room. We were riding along when Armed Forces Network (AFN) Radio broke the news that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. I was stunned and thought it was a horrible accident. The lieutenant who was driving said, “That sounds like a terrorist attack.”

By the time we went through security and made it to our building, there was a flurry of activity. The second plane had hit, all the news networks were covering it, and we had orders to shelter in place. There was a genuine concern that PSAB could be a target. Nothing ever happened, and everyone watched the reports with the rest of the world.

VIDEO | 04:22 | 9/11 "Never Forget" (2021 Video)

Eventually our commander, General Mike Hostage, USAF (Ret.), made a statement that was broadcast to the entire complex. The only part I recall was a very grim reminder to remain vigilant. Then, Christine's SJA contacted me. She had departed Tinker and was stranded in St. Louis, Missouri. All air traffic was cancelled, and she rented a car and returned to Oklahoma. I received word to sit tight—I didn't know when I was going home.

It turned out I was only delayed by a couple of weeks. I remember when Christine arrived, and I was not able to give her the same glowing reports that Mark had given to me.

I enjoy telling that story, but I always say there is nothing heroic about it. If the terrorists had picked a different day Mark or Christine might be telling it. But no matter where you were, the events of 9/11 shaped the rest of my career and the careers of everyone with whom I served. I deployed two more times, each lasting six months—one of them to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Deploying several times was common for most of my peers, a change from the beginning of my career. Further, as a wing staff judge advocate interviewing law students, I was required to speak with them about the realities and likelihood of deploying. Wing deputies were deployed at such a seemingly high rate that there was a running joke that DSJA really meant “deployed staff judge advocate.” On any given day the phone could ring notifying you of an upcoming deployment—no longer a novelty but a reality of Air Force service. The events of that day shaped the next decades of our operations and the lives of service members.


About the Author

Colonel Christopher D. May, USAF (Ret.)

(B.A., Baylor University, Waco, Texas; B.A., University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, Arkansas; J.D., University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, Arkansas; M.P.A., University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma; LL.M., The George Washington University School of Law, Washington, D.C.) is the Senior Supervising Attorney, Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, 72d Air Base Wing, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma.
Colonel Christine C. Piper

Colonel Christine Piper

We sat on the taxiway for a very long time. I began to notice a very large number of planes were also sitting on the taxiway, much more than I would have expected.

On 9/11, I was an active duty captain serving at Tinker. I was scheduled to deploy to Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB), Saudi Arabia, on that day. I took a taxi to the Oklahoma City (OKC) Airport in a driving rainstorm at 5:00 am on that day. I remember thinking, as I sat in the taxi, “Well, this day is probably going to suck.” Of course, I was just thinking of the long flights ahead—to Baltimore and then to catch a rotator to PSAB.

As scheduled, my flight from OKC landed in St. Louis, Missouri. However, we sat on the taxiway for a very long time. I began to notice a very large number of planes were also sitting on the taxiway, much more than I would have expected. Eventually the pilot came on the speaker and said there had been a hijacking, and all flights were grounded. Those of us on the plane who had phones called loved ones, just to say we'd be late. I remember calling my then-boyfriend on my flip phone. We sat for another thirty minutes or so, when the pilot announced a plane had hit a tower in the World Trade Center. We all sat there stunned. We realized we would not be leaving St. Louis for quite a while. I remember one passenger turning and offering his fellow passengers peanut M&Ms.

Once we were able to deplane at the gate, I was able to see TV screens showing the damage to the tower. Neither tower had fallen yet. I immediately went to the USO. There were a handful of uniformed people there, mostly junior enlisted and noncommissioned officers. I remember a group of young Marines in uniform, standing together. We all just stared at the large screen ahead of us, as the second plane hit, and, eventually, the towers fell. I remember there being a growing sense in the room that this was a deliberate attack, and somehow the young Marines and others in the room would be involved in whatever happened next.


I met another JAG, a reservist, who was also deploying to the Middle East (unfortunately, I forgot her name). We agreed we would go to Scott Air Force Base, as it was the closest Air Force base and we agreed we probably should check in and figure out what to do next. We both realized we wouldn't be traveling further that day. We used the light rail to get to base, and went immediately to the legal office. We sat in the courtroom with the JAGs and paralegals assigned to the wing legal office there, and I remember feeling relieved to be among our own. I remember the staff judge advocate (SJA), after he welcomed us as part of the team, standing up in front of the group and outlining the role he believed JAGs and paralegals would have in the coming days and months. He believed, correctly, that JAGs and paralegals would be needed to create wills and powers of attorney for those called on to deploy, to assist with mobility lines, and to otherwise support whatever the Air Force and DoD mission became in the coming weeks and months. I recall being so impressed that he was able to focus on the future role of JAGs and paralegals in the chaos of that morning, and to motivate us as a team to meet whatever the need would be.

The reservist and I stayed at the home of then⁠-⁠Captain Linell Letendre and her husband for the next few days. (She is now Brigadier General Letendre, the Dean of Faculty at the United States Air Force Academy.) They were so welcoming and gracious to us, and again, this left a clear impression on me about being part of a larger JAG Corps team. Eventually the reservist and I were able to rent a car and drive back to Oklahoma City. I would deploy to PSAB two weeks later.

At the time, I had been thinking about leaving the Air Force. As I commissioned in 1997, 2001 was the end of my initial four⁠-⁠year commitment. My experience at Scott, between the SJA who welcomed us and was able to foresee and articulate the role of JAGs and paralegals going forward, and the gracious hospitality of the Letendres, changed how I felt about being a part of the JAG Corps. I felt that I was part of a cohesive team, and that my service had a larger meaning.

Nineteen years later to the day I sat alone in the courtroom at Scott. I was serving my Annual Tour as the senior individual mobilization augmentee (IMA) to the 18 AF SJA. (I'm confident the receptionist at the wing legal office thought it was odd that I asked to sit alone in their empty courtroom.) I tried to sit roughly where I sat on 11 September 2001, in the second row. I reflected on that day, how it changed my view about being a part of the JAG Corps, and what it has meant to be a JAG since then. My experience with the Scott wing legal office on that day truly changed how I felt about being a JAG and a part of the JAG Corps team. It very much contributed to my decision to continue serving.


About the Author

Colonel Christine C. Piper, USAF

(B.A., The University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado; J.D., The University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado; LL.M., The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.) is the Individual Mobilization Augmentee to the Director, Civil Law and Litigation Directorate, Office of The Judge Advocate General, Washington D.C.
Edited by: Major Allison K.W. Johnson (Editor-in-Chief), Major Brittany T. Byrd, Major Victoria H. Clarke, and Major Andrew H. Woodbury
Layout by: Thomasa Huffstutler