In the Wake of Terror

JROTC teacher describes military experience during Sept. 11

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In the Wake of Terror

Alexis Perno, Business Manager

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The day was normal at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. Cargo shipments came in and out, and daily operations proceeded as usual. There was no indication of what was to come on Sept. 11, 2001. 

Master Sergeant Conteh, who is a JROTC teacher, was stationed at the air force base in Wrightstown, NJ when the attacks happened.  Only an hour away from Ground Zero, Conteh watched the Twin Towers crumble in disbelief.  

“[It was] surreal,” Conteh said. “You would think that this was something out of a sci-fi movie, that it couldn’t be happening here. Nothing had happened like that before. In ’93, a car drove to the base of one of the Twin Towers and blew up, but that was a car and it wasn’t that deadly.”  

Conteh originally found out about the terror attack from a co-worker, and it took him completely by surprise.  

“We saw it in the break room,” Conteh said. “Somebody came in and said that a crop-duster had hit the Trade Center; we came to find out that it was an actual aircraft, a larger aircraft. My thoughts were that we were about to go to war.”  

Soon McGuire Air Force Base became a busy hub for first responders and other military personnel. 

“We went from a nine to five job to a 24-hour operation in which we had to basically sleep there,” Conteh said. “We could go home and shower and then come back and just work. Our job being cargo we were able to take care of the first responders.” 

Despite the close proximity to New York, the base was not expected to handle a crisis of this magnitude alone- staff came from all over to provide support. 

In a snap, people bonded together”

— Master Sargeant Conteh

“The FEMA agents came in from California… because they deal with downed buildings in California so they were the subject matter experts,” Conteh said. “We were able to put them on buses along with the search and rescue dogs and the firefighters and send them to Ground Zero.” 

The terror attack on the World Trade Center also had a lasting impact on the military’s day to day operations as the threat level across the country rose. 

“You used to be able to go through the [base] gates just by looking,” Conteh said. “Somebody could see you and recognize you and wave you through the gate. But now they had to do a thorough ID check and they had to do a thorough vehicle check because of the threat. We didn’t know who was coming through the gate, what was coming through the gate; we didn’t know what was next due to all those attacks.”  

Conteh also described the personal changes his base experienced in the aftermath. 

“The hours we worked were a lot longer,” Conteh said. “It was 24 hours but could go 48 hours or 72 hours depending on what needed to be done. There was no time, again like I said, to plan on what was next; it was go home, shower, come back and work.” 

Although Conteh joined the military in 1994 with the desire to get out of New York and see the world, his mindset changed after the Sept. 11 attacks. 

“It changed my viewpoint on being in the military,” Conteh said. “A lot of people wanted to do things to help those that were in New York… as in join the military; I was already a part of that. So, in order to take the fight to whomever… and go do what we had to do, we were able to do it because we were in the military. I have a lot of sense of pride of being an American-pride of country, pride of duty- so [this] amplified that.” 

Despite these heartbreaking attacks, people from all over the nation came together, overcoming adversity.  

“In a snap, people bonded together,” Conteh said. “People looked out for each other. People tried to help people that were in need, such as the guys leaving New York, people who had lost loved ones; they were all helping the fire and rescue and the police department… to find and help save those who could be saved.” 

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