‘A loaf of bread, lettuce and a bag of frozen French fries’: RAFM SNCO couple share memories of 9/11

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

Editor’s note: This is the third 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 their military journey.

“The message to every country is that there will be a campaign against terrorist activity, a worldwide campaign, and there is an outpouring of support for such a campaign. Freedom-loving people understand that terrorism knows no borders, that terrorists will strike in order to bring fear, to try to change the behavior of countries that love liberty. And we will not let them do that.”

  -- Former President George W. Bush, Sept. 19, 2001, on the 9/11 terrorist attacks

Senior Master Sgt. Rachel Castrovinci:

“On 9/11, I was in the missile field at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, in the middle of Exercise Global Guardian and working the mid shift,” said Senior Master Sgt. Rachel Castrovinci, 100th Operations Support Squadron senior enlisted leader. “When we went out to the field, we stayed for four days and slept out there, so I was asleep when it happened.”

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.

Senior Master Sgt. Castrovinci, then-Airman Rachel Gill and a security forces response team member, said they were in exercise Threat  Condition Charlie, and she woke to the sound of firefighters banging on her door. 

“They told me that we went into  THREATCON Delta – I thought they meant exercise, but they told me, ‘No – this is real world. A plane just hit the World Trade Center!’” she said. “My first thought was, ‘What a terrible accident,’ but when I turned on the television it was as the second plane hit… as soon as I saw that, the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I realized that it was no accident.”

She explained that in the missile field everything is Protection Level 1 resource, forcing them into a mandatory lockdown. This lockdown meant all non-mission essential people were forced to depart, including contractors working on site.

“We didn’t even have time to tell them what was going on, but just had to say, ‘Get in the car and turn the radio on. ’ They had been busy working and didn’t know what was happening. We ended up being out in the field for longer than four days as a stop movement had been issued and nobody could move anywhere, as they thought we were going to be attacked,” the senior master sergeant recalled. “That’s what the terrorists were going for – the shock factor and they got it with the World Trade Center. I don’t know if we were a secondary or tertiary, but we were told not to move and to watch our six. All night long the night vision and thermal imagers were on, and we weren’t allowed to move until told by headquarters.”

Castrovinci explained that things got so bad that they were being brought rations at first, but then the rations truck was not allowed to come out to provide them food supplies as they weren’t allowed near the Protection Level 1 resources during increase force protection conditions.

“We were down to a loaf of bread, some lettuce and a bag of frozen French fries,” the superintendent laughed. “All the guys that smoked were down to about two cigarettes and everyone was getting kind of punchy because nobody could go anywhere and no one could bring us anything. We were getting kind of sick to our stomachs and the stress was really starting to set in because of being stuck out there and not being able to go anywhere.”

She said the journey back to base was about 90 minutes, but upon arriving they had to then wait four hours to get through the gate. 

“We all had guns, because we were cops securing nuclear missiles,” Senior Master Sgt. Castrovinci remarked, adding that she was carrying a grenade launcher, an M-16 rifle and M-60 machine gun  at the time. “I had all kinds of fire power, and the cops were hesitant – it was a different wing to where we were assigned – to let us through the gate with all of our guns and ammunition. We told them it was the government’s guns and ammo, but there was a lot of confusion as they’d been told nobody could come on with weapons.”

All of security forces  were put on 24-hour back-up force and were on stand-by.

“If you didn’t answer your phone within six rings, you got an Article 15. Even when it was our days off, we had to go in. The night before we left to go to the missile field again would normally have been a training day, but instead, we spent 24 hours in the mobility bay, armed up , on stand-by and ready to respond to any attacks. We all slept on cots with our weapons and equipment, in case we needed to mobilize. We did that until Halloween weekend, when we were finally taken off stand-by.

Chief Master Sgt. Scott Castrovinci

“I was stationed with Rachel and we were both on the same flight at Minot,” said Chief Master Sgt. Scott Castrovinci, who was an airman first class in September 2001, now 100th Security Forces Squadron senior enlisted leader. “At the time, I was working as a vehicle dispatcher in the vehicle control center; in the missile field, everything is hours away so we had a massive vehicle fleet. As a vehicle dispatcher, I got the vehicles prepped and ready to go.”

Chief Castrovinci was also working mid shift at the time and said he was asleep in his apartment off-base when he got a call from his roommate, telling him to get up and turn on the TV as a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

“Like everyone else, I just thought, ‘No, that can’t be right’ but I turned on the TV, sure enough, it had happened. As I was watching, I saw  the second plane then hit the World Trade Center, and thought to myself ‘ that doesn’t happen twice’. That’s when we knew that there was something real going on,” he said. 

He immediately called his supervisor and was told there was a base-wide recall, and he had to get his uniform on and get to base. At the time, there was a six-mile straight road between his apartment and Minot AFB. As everyone had been recalled at the same time, there was a three-mile traffic jam from everyone trying to get on base and through the same gate.

“Because of what was going on it was a full ID card check, vehicle searches and the whole nine yards. It took about two hours just to get on base through the line,” said the chief. “I then reported to my duty section and we started getting all the vehicles prepped and ready, in case we had to send additional teams out into the field. It was kind of surreal as we were in a big vehicle bay and people were just dumping steel plates in the middle of the floor, because at that time we had flack vests. I distinctly remember technical sergeants and master sergeants running around, freaking out because they’d never been in  Threat Condition Delta in a real scenario before. Lots of them were asking, ‘What do we do now?’”

Chief Castrovinci explained all the off-duty flights that weren’t out in the field with now-Senior Master Sgt. Castrovinci, were reporting in to the warehouse and everyone was putting on their vests, getting steel plates and arming up with weapons and ammunition.

“We had literally several hundred Airmen and NCOs ready to go if needed. Once everyone was geared up and the vehicles ready, we then just stood by and waited to see what was going to happen next,” he said. “The real threat was that the terrorists were going to make a statement and try to do something either against the base, as Minot has B-52 Stratofortress aircraft which were nuclear-capable, or in the missile field where there were multiple remote sites.”

“At Minot, everything is geographically separated and because we were dealing with an area so large, we needed the volume of manpower; we just didn’t know which way to send it, so we just had to be on stand-by,” said the 100th SFS  SEL, adding that by about midnight or 1 a.m. on the first night, the squadron started building a rotation of people for the 24-hour back-up flight.”

As Defenders, they had barely any down time or off days from that point on, as they were constantly on stand-by. 

“But none of us cared that we had to work extra hours,” said Senior Master Sgt. Castrovinci. “I remember that once we were through the gate and back on base after we were finally released from the missile field days after 9/11, seeing busloads of Airmen in full body armor. I don’t know where they were going, but everyone was armed, covered in body armor and ready to go somewhere; it was just so strange and surreal, like something out of a movie.”

At the time, Airman Gill had only been in the U.S. Air Force for about 18 months, and Airman 1st Class Castrovinci had been in for about one year.

“Before 9/11, the military was very easy-going,” remarked Chief Castrovinci. “If you had the right sticker on your car then you could just come on in. We didn’t check ID cards, so life for us at that point was really different. After Sept. 11, that all changed. It was just crazy, and we wondered how long it would go on for – turned out, it was forever.”

Senior Master Sgt. Castrovinci said when they both first came into the military there was a “ THREATCON Normal. ”

“After Sept. 11, they got rid of Threat Conditions  levels and went to Force Protection. We’ve never seen ‘Normal’ since,” she said.

In 2001, cell phones were still relatively new, there weren’t a lot of towers and connection was pretty bad.

“When we were on six-ring stand-by to be recalled, we were afraid to leave the house because if we left the house to go to the supermarket, and our cell phones didn’t work if we were recalled, you were on the hook for it,”  exclaimed Chief Castrovinci, adding that once the president decided to go into Afghanistan, there was finally an objective for the military to make firmer plans.  

Then came the lists.

“It was the deployment list,” said Senior Master Sgt. Castrovinci. “The flight chief would call you up and say, ‘You’re on the list.’ When you asked which one, the answer was, ‘We don’t know yet.’ Where am I going? ‘We don’t know yet.’ They put us all on a list and we had to pack our 72-hour bags. We always had it packed anyway, but they inspected them and still told us, ‘We don’t know where you guys are going, but you’re on the list to go.’ I lived like that for the next two months; that was really nerve-wracking as you couldn’t even tell your parents. So I kept it to myself.”

The Castrovincis started dating at the end of October 2001, and soon after that, now-Chief Castrovinci got a six-week deployment to Kuwait in support of Operation Southern Watch. 

“It was a campaign that started after the first Gulf War  in 1991, and the no-fly zone was to make sure Iraq wasn’t violating Kuwait air space,” he said. “It was my first deployment, I was an airman first class and nobody knew where the threat was going to come from. They had us carry around our chemical warfare gear everywhere we went, even just going to the toilet, you had to have a bag full of chemical suits and masks. There were about eight to 12 Army patriot missile batteries, always facing Iraq and pointing a Saddam Hussein. As a young Airman, that made it pretty real.”

Both Chief and Senior Castrovinci talked about the sense of national pride that resonated with most Americans after the initial shock, horror and sadness, as they look back on the events of Sept. 11, especially as troops have now left Afghanistan. 

“That pride, both from military and American citizens, certainly after 9/11, lasted for several years and it was just unbelievable. Flags were all over everyone’s houses and in the streets, people joined the military and there was just a sense of ‘us’ as a nation, regardless of who you were or where you were from. That was a pretty cool experience,” said the Chief.

“As time goes on, and now 20 years later, you just see that dissipate and fizzle and I think the rise of social media and all the flood of information that’s now at your fingertips, it’s not like that anymore and it’s kind of upsetting sometimes,” he remarked. 

But the couple still manage to find a positive from the horror that happened.

“If any light came from the darkness , it’s that they didn’t tear us apart, but instead they pushed us closer together,” said Senior Master Sgt. Castrovinci. “Having gone through that experience as a young Airman, I think it made me a better leader and has definitely encouraged and motivated me to serve my country for as long as possible.”