From mortgage broker to military: 100th ARW historian tells how 9/11 steered him back to Army

  • Published
  • By Karen Abeyasekere
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of three articles remembering 9/11, where RAF Mildenhall members share their personal experience of what happened that fateful day, and how it affected both their lives and military journey.

“The attacks of September 11 were intended to break our spirit. Instead, we have emerged stronger and more unified. We feel renewed devotion to the principles of political, economic and religious freedom, the rule of law and respect for human life. We are more determined than ever to live our lives in freedom.”

   -- Rudy Giuliani, then-Mayor of New York, on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks

“It was time of mass confusion, but for me it was a time of clarity,” said Rob Paley, 100th Air Refueling Wing historian, as he recalled hearing about and watching events unfold Sept. 11, 2001. “I was going through a bad patch in my life career-wise, and after seeing the second plane crash into the tower, I knew instantly what I had to do.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, when terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners. Two of the planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, a third plane hit the Pentagon and the fourth crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Some Airmen in today’s Air Force weren’t even born at the time. Others were already serving their country while many joined the military because of that day. The world suddenly and horrifically changed Sept. 11, 2001, igniting the Global War on Terrorism.

“I was at home in Groveport, Ohio, getting ready to go to work in the financial services industry as a mortgage broker,” said Paley. “I was just starting my day, putting my suit on and between the first and second aircraft striking the towers, my then-wife called and told me to turn on the TV. She was actually flying that day, from Columbus, Ohio, to a meeting in Chicago, and she’d just landed at Detroit airport where all the televisions were airing the first aircraft strike. So there was a crowd of people around the TVs and everybody was very interested in what was happening. She told me to turn on the TV and take a look.”

Paley described how he immediately asked himself how in the world any aircraft could not have seen the World Trade Center.

“I was thinking back historically, when a B-25 Mitchell bomber accidentally crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945, so it wasn’t the first time an aircraft had crashed into a skyscraper -- but of course this was different. At first, I thought it was a small aircraft – maybe a private plane – that had somehow crashed, but when I turned on the TV and saw the gaping hole with all the smoke pouring out of it, I realized it couldn’t have been. At this point I was still getting ready for work, pushing my tie up when the second plane hit. But as soon as it hit, I symbolically pulled my tie down and was no longer preparing to go to work. My (now ex) wife asked me, ‘What does this mean?’ and I replied, ‘It means we’re at war.’”

Paley said he told her not to get on the next plane to Chicago, but added that she was very strong-willed and had replied that she wasn’t letting terrorists stop her getting on a plane to attend her meeting. She was determined to get on the flight, but by the time she was about to catch her connecting flight, all flights had been cancelled.

“At that point I took off my tie, sat on the bed and watched events unfold. It was then I knew I was getting back in the military.”

Paley was previously in the U.S. Army and trained at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, from 1985 to 1989. He chose to attend West Point with the specific goal of giving his father-- a 100% disabled Vietnam veteran -- his first salute, which despite some tough times along the way, he achieved.

“That time it was for my father – this time (after 9/11) it was for me,” he said.

As the former soldier continued to watch the events of that day unfold, the Pentagon got hit.

“Prior to 9/11, I’d already started the process of trying to get into the Ohio National Guard because I missed serving in uniform, but there were a lot of delays and technical issues that were preventing me recommissioning as an officer,” he recalled. “The next day I called the National Guard and told them that if they couldn’t find my commissioning paperwork, I would come back in as enlisted. But they finally gave me good news and said that all I needed was a physical. So all the talk of war, or potential war, to come, literally made it so that all the paperwork and administrative processes that were preventing me from getting back in were instantly eliminated.”

In order to gain federal recognition as an officer again, Paley had to be interviewed by a panel of four officers and the date was scheduled for Dec. 27, 2001. Because of the holidays, he was called and asked if he would reschedule in January.

“I said no! I wanted to stick to the agreed date in December because I didn’t want to risk the laws and regulations changing within that time-frame. The panel weren’t too happy about it, especially as it could have been the last Christmas they had with their families for a long time, and I sensed that. However, after the interview concluded, they allowed me to recommission.

“It wasn’t until they asked me to recite the Oath of Allegiance and I got choked up, that they realized how much it meant to me and their demeanor changed entirely. They told me ‘thank you for joining back up’.”

From starting West Point to finishing his active duty service in the Army, Paley served nine years  in the military with an eight-year break between then and Sept. 11. After recommissioning in 2001 with the Ohio Army National Guard as a first lieutenant, he retired from the military in March 2019, after 20 years of active federal service.

During his time with the Army National Guard, he deployed to Afghanistan in January 2009 with a joint U.S./Hungarian Operational Mentor and Liaison Team. Their mission was to train an Afghan infantry battalion in combat operations.

“I was the executive officer and supply officer for that mission. It was there that I served with what I consider the bravest men I’ve ever known in my life -- every single member of my team served with great honor,” remarked Paley.  

“As horrible as 9/11 was, it gave me my career back,” he said. “I was proud to have served during a time of war with so many amazing Soldiers and Airmen.”