Not 'A Photon Of Light' Between Us: Guard Member Remembers Togetherness In 9/11 Aftermath
My name is Brigadier General Steve Lambrecht. I'm the Chief of Staff and Air Component Commander for the Vermont Air National Guard.
This story is part of VPR’s 9/11 remembrance project, featuring the voices of Vermonters reflecting on how their lives were changed by 9/11. To find the full project, go to www.vpr.org/911.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was sitting reserve for United Airlines. That means you're on call; you have to be ready for takeoff within four hours of getting a call.
I had actually been at United Airlines for about a year and four months. However, four of those months I had spent going through F-16 transition training. I was new to the Vermont National Guard as well; I had come from the Marine Corps, where I flew F-18s, and then had to be trained in the F-16 with the Vermont Guard.
So, actually, on Sept. 11, 2001, it was my 365th day of working for United Airlines. I was staying in a hotel on Long Island, turned on the TV to watch the news, and saw that one of the towers was on fire. Commentators were talking about how an airplane had crashed into that tower, and immediately my thoughts were [that] it was probably a sightseeing tour or some kind of a mechanical problem with an aircraft, or some such thing.
"I wasn't sure what was going to happen in the hours that followed. But I did know that as a member of the Vermont Air National Guard, I needed to get back to Vermont."
While I was watching TV, I saw the second aircraft impact the tower. I was watching it live. And I knew immediately that was a wide-body civilian airline aircraft. And so I knew that it had to have been intentional. I wasn't sure what was going to happen in the hours that followed. But I did know that as a member of the Vermont Air National Guard, I needed to get back to Vermont.
I was able to finally get through to the crew desk at United, and they immediately said, "You're released. Go do what you need to do."
At that point, it became a struggle to figure out how I was going to get back. I called all the rental car companies, everyone was sold out. I called a Greyhound bus and also same situation: they had no seats available.
The following morning, on Sept. 12, I remembered that Amtrak train that came to Essex Junction, so I grabbed all my belongings and threw them into my suitcase, zipped it up and took off running down the street to the nearest subway station.
Popped up in Manhattan Island, and what I saw at Grand Central was a line out the train station and a block down the street. I walked past the line and went up to the ticket counter, and pulled my military ID out and started to explain that I needed to get back to Vermont.
About halfway through the sentence, the lady came out from behind the counter and said, “Come with me.” And she escorted me down to the platform, put me on the train, no ticket, and sent me on my way.
I wish I could find her again today and tell her thank you. Just the immediate act of kindness and understanding the sense of urgency, without question. We all knew we were in it together. That's a very rare thing, I think.
"We all knew we were in it together. That's a very rare thing, I think."
We in Vermont immediately started sitting Homeland Defense alert 24 hours, seven days a week, and held that posture here in Burlington for, I believe it was something like eight months that followed. We would also fly what are called combat air patrols. So we would just be up in the air, being prepared for and training for any eventuality that could happen, should there be another follow-on attack of any kind.
After that, those eight months, we continued with that mission, the Vermont National Guard did, in various locations around the country for many years that followed.
Subsequent to 9/11, United Airlines went bankrupt, as did, I believe, all the major airlines in the country. And I was furloughed, meaning laid off from United, actually twice in the 17 years that followed.
During those 17 years, I was serving here in the Vermont Air National Guard full-time, in various capacities.
And what followed in the two decades up 'til now, as everyone knows, is war, and plenty of it. I got deployed twice to Iraq and flew a total of 100 combat missions between my previous experience in the Marine Corps and my time in Iraq.
A friend of mine characterized the decade that followed 9/11 as the "lost decade", where everything changed.
"A friend of mine characterized the decade that followed 9/11 as the 'lost decade', where everything changed."
I mean, air travel, people's jobs, guardsmen's lives. I mean, we really transitioned from being what would normally be considered a homeland defense arm of the armed forces to more of an operational arm of the armed forces. And that came with a lot of deployments and a lot of separation from families.
And, of course, we've lost 14 members of the Vermont Army National Guard. And that's an enduring struggle and challenge.
Everything about the airline has changed, in all those years I was gone. So it was … it was a bit strange going back, frankly. In 2018, I went back. I'm now flying as a first officer in a 767, which is the airplane that I witnessed flying into the second tower. And I think about that.
The way the country pulled together after 9/11, the entire country was draped in red, white and blue. You couldn't squeeze a photon of light between any two American citizens. It was something to behold. And it would be nice if we could get back to a piece of that again, somehow, someway without the traumatic event requiring it.