Area veterans' perspectives on 9/11

By William K. Alcorn

Sept. 11, 2001.

Ten years later, the terrorist attacks on the United States that killed more than 2,800 unsuspecting people, nearly all civilians, remain indelibly etched upon the minds of area military personnel.

They remember where they were and what they were doing.

They watched in disbelief and horror as commercial jets hijacked by terrorists flew into New York City’s World Trade Center twin towers and the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. Passengers in a fourth plane headed for the White House or U.S. Capitol attempted to overcome the terrorists who had hijacked it, and it crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa.

Then came jaw-clenching anger followed by a resolve to get the people responsible for the attacks and not let them be repeated.

Like in the aftermath of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, some quickly enlisted or re-enlisted in the military determined to defend their country and their families.

The surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, killed 2,402 men and wounded 1,282.

Several area veterans and reserves talked about Sept. 11, 2001, and how it affected them and how they reacted.

Air Force Reserve Capt. Russ Whitlock, 910th Airlift Wing Maintenance Group executive officer.

Age: 40.

Hometown: Newbury, Ohio

Civilian occupation: Air reserve technician.

Military: Air Force active duty, 1991-1995, as an F-15 avionics specialist; 910th Air Lift Wing, Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Oct. 11, 2001, to present. He was a C-130 avionics specialist until commissioned in February 2005 as an aircraft maintenance officer. In April 2009, he was promoted to the full-time position as Maintenance Group executive officer.

When it happened: Whitlock was on his way to work as a self-employed audio/video contractor when he turned on his car radio just after the first plane struck the World Trade Center. He arrived at work in time to watch the towers fall live on television.

He said his first reaction was disbelief. By the time he saw the towers fall, he was angry, and within a few days he felt guilty for leaving the military and wanted to do his part to bring justice to the attackers.

What he did: “I left active duty six and a half years prior to that day, and I wondered where I would be had I stayed in. My civilian career seemed pretty meaningless at that moment. Within the next few days, I felt guilty for not serving. The anger swelled.

“I was healthy, relatively young, and my family would now be living in a world at war. I could not sit idly by. I had to get back in. On Oct. 11, one month after the attacks, I raised my right hand and re-entered the Air Force as a reservist at the 910th Airlift Wing.”

Ten years later/can it happen again: “I feel that justice is being served. It is a much longer and more-complex solution than what I think many Americans realized back then, but I feel we as a nation are determined to see this conflict through on all levels with the vision that someday, the world may be rid of those who would seek to deny freedom to others.

“We are, for the most part, better prepared for the next attack as long as we remain vigilant here at home. I believe another attack is inevitable. But, we don’t have to live in fear. We just need to stay alert and stay together in this fight.”

Karen Brandt

Age: 54.

Residence: Mineral Ridge.

Civilian occupation: Veterans benefits counselor with the Mahoning County Veterans Service Commission.

Military: Retired in 2004 after 29 years with the 910th Airlift Wing, Squadron 773, where she was a full-time air-reserve technician who trained air-crew members in survival techniques if they crashed. She served in the Persian Gulf from December 1989 to June 1990 and was activated during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2003 and 2004.

When it happened: Brandt was at work at the 910th when 9/11 attacks happened.

“We had it on the news, and then we had a briefing and were waiting to be activated. I thought, here we go again ... we’re going to war again. The attacks put everybody in ready-status mode. We were ready.

“I was shocked that the terrorists went as far as they did — how dare they attack our country.”

What she did: “There was no disbelief ... just thought about what’s next ... just mentally prepare because you’ve gone to war before and you know what you need to do.

You push past the anger and you are ready to do what is needed to defend your country and protect our rights and your family. When you have a family, you are looking to make a better future for them.”

Ten years later/can it happen again: “Every year when the anniversary rolls around, it’s an automatic response to be on alert. It was a victory for them, but to me it’s their loss because we were put on alert that something like this could happen. We are armed and ready.”

Susan Skrzynski

Age: 49.

Residence: Boardman.

Civilian occupation: Veterans benefits counselor with the Mahoning County Veterans Service Commission.

Military: Army active duty from 1982 to 2007 including a tour in Iraq from December 2003 to March 2005.

When it happened: “I was at my duty station as operations sergeant for Co. C, 2167th Engineering Battalion at the Ravenna Arsenal when I saw it on television. I thought the first plane might be accidental; but when the second plane hit, I knew it wasn’t an accident. I was shocked and in disbelief that we could be attacked in that way.”

What she did: “Anger set in when second plane hit because we knew then it was intentional. At the time, I lived and breathed the military. I thought, when am I going to be leaving? How can I ever be happy in my life when I see the faces of people who lost family members in the attacks?”

Ten years later/can it happen again: “I think we’re doing what we can do to the best of our ability, but we can never let our guard down whether it’s in the train stations, airports, anything with big commercial and where there are large amounts of people.

“I think a lot of people woke up after 9/11. You just don’t know. Did we ever think the twin towers would be attacked? No. It doesn’t matter how strong you are, it could happened anytime anywhere.”

Leo Kruise

Age: 89

Residence: Youngstown.

Military: Marine Air Corps, Squadrons 443 and 423, from August 1942 to December 1945 during World War II. He was a tail gunner/crew chief and flew 102 missions and was decorated numerous times including with the Distinguished Flying Cross twice and four Bronze Stars. He was discharged as a sergeant.

Civilian occupation: Tool and die maker for Youngstown Sheet & Tube and later LTV.

When it happened: “I was right at home watching on TV. I was shocked, I never thought the towers would come down when I first saw it. Then when they tried to get the White House, those terrorists had us going for a while.”

Ten years later/can it happen again: “I think we are as well prepared as we can be considering all the fanatics out there, but sure I think it could happen again. They are doing a lot more than we know about. We got bin Laden, but they still have the people under him.

Comparison between Pearl Harbor and 9/11: “I don’t think they were the same. With Pearl Harbor, it was the nation of Japan that attacked us. With 9/11, it was terrorists.”

Paul Sovik

Age: 91.

Residence: Youngstown.

Civilian occupation: Westinghouse Electric in Sharon, Pa.

Military: Sovik enlisted in the Marine Corps on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and was discharged as a platoon sergeant on Jan. 5, 1946. He fought in battles at Guadalcanal, New Guinea, New Britain Island, and Peleliu in the Pacific Theatre as a member of the 1st Marine Division, K Co., 3rd Battalion, and was a drill instructor at Parris Island in 1945.

When it happened: “I was at home. I couldn’t believe it. At first I thought it was a movie. But they kept repeating and repeating. It took time to sink in that with all our sophisticated equipment a strange plane could get to and attack New York?”

Ten years later/can it happen again: “Oh yeah, this could happen to us again. There are so many people in the world who hate us, we have to be on our guard all the time. They blame the United States for everything. I don’t think it will be as large as the trade center. But I think there will be more. I tell you what scares me — the crowds we have at football and baseball games.”

Comparison between Pearl Harbor and 9/11: “They are both the same. They were sneak attacks. I hate that. The Japanese had an ambassador in Washington, D.C., talking peace when the attacks happened. Our personnel at Pearl Harbor had no idea they would be attacked like they were. I was hot. When I came home from work and told my mother I was going to war, she cried like a baby.”

Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. Bob Barko Jr.

Age: 42

Hometown: Youngstown

Civilian occupation: Air reserve technician.

Military: Superintendent of public affairs, 910th Airlift Wing, Youngstown Air Reserve Station.

When it happened: Barko was working at his Steeltown Studios business on Phelps Street when the first 9/11 attack occurred.

“My sister called and said, ‘Are you watching television?’ She said a plane hit the World Trade Center. No sooner had I turned the TV on and the second plane hit the tower. I told her this is no accident. Something is going on, and later the Pentagon was hit. Later, when all aircraft was grounded, I remember looking up and seeing no planes in the sky and thinking, ‘Wow, this is strange.’”

What he did: “I was one who joined right after 911. The attacks kind of solidified a decision I had been kicking around since 2000. I said if I don’t do it now, I never will. So on Oct. 22, 2001, I signed up with the Ohio Army National Guard after being out [of active service] for nine years.”

He enlisted in the Air Force Reserve and came to the 910th in October 2006.

Ten years later/can it happen again: “There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that we don’t hear about — where plots are foiled — a lot of people work hard that we don’t know about.”

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