Remembering 9/11 through the eyes of a Picayune veteran

Published 7:00 am Saturday, September 9, 2017

The attacks on September 11, 2001 shattered the world’s perception of America as being an impenetrable force. The U.S. was flooded with emotions; everyone old enough to witness the images of intentional destruction had a visceral reaction that was followed by 16 years of ongoing war.
The effects of that day reached every corner of the country, extending a feeling of pain that remains to this day.
When Picayune native Brad Whitfield entered the U.S. Air Force in February of 1985, he never anticipated he would be evacuating the Pentagon as a result of a plane crash 15 years later.
Shortly before the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center, Whitfield said the day was normal.
“When the second plane hit—the military is no different than the civilian sector—everyone went silent, everyone knew it wasn’t an accident at that point,” he said.
Whitfield signed up to join the Air Force shortly before his graduation from Picayune Memorial High School in 1984.
“Thirty years ago it was a different world, with the Cold War and the Soviets, that was the enemy,” he said.
As an 18-year-old, Whitfield said he and many young Americans join the armed forces thinking they knew everything, quickly realizing they didn’t know much at all.
“I remember I said I had to go deliver something, near the center ring when the plane hit the (Pentagon),” he said, which occurred shortly after the second plane hit the Twin Towers.
Whitfield said he was standing by a door that led outside to a park at the center of the Pentagon, two wings from where the plane crashed.
“Growing up in the early 80s, graduating in 1984 out of Picayune Memorial, it was different back then from what people see today,” he said.
Whitfield said there was a solid mentality that America was special and full of strong tight-knit communities just after the Ronald Reagan era.
“The one thing that struck me about that day was the emotion, the range of emotion,” he said. “Some people were calm, some were upset already. People had people by the arm making them move because they were so emotional. You get outside and there are thousands of people out there; you’re safe now.”
Whitfield said emergency drills were conducted the week before, and for some, that training started kicking in; get out, move out, do their job.
But before long, that emotion turned to anger, he said, and it was emotion that inspired many Americans to fight back.
“Everybody felt a little bit more ‘let’s put our flag out’ because it happened here, it wasn’t like they picked a military target, they picked civilians, that angered America,” Whitfield said.
That day, he said, America decided somebody had to pay for the attacks.
“The younger generation since 9/11 have really been the heroes of this because they knew what they were getting into,” he said.
With 16 years of war ongoing, those who joined the armed forces after 9/11 knew they would be deployed, time and time again.
Now retired from military life, Whitfield works for the Defense Security Service as a civilian.
“It’s changed, it changed the world; it changed how we function,” he said about 9-11.
The increased security and deployments have taken a toll on America, and while the country has adapted, it still takes its toll, he said.
Even amongst all of this change, Whitfield said he never thought twice about leaving his job with the government.
“I ended up staying 20 years in the military. I love the Air Force, and I love what it did for me, the military is like my family,” he said.
But wherever he goes in the world, when someone asks where he’s from, he mentions where he was born and raised.
“I still call Picayune home,” Whitfield said.

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About Julia Arenstam

Staff Writer

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