21st anniversary of 9/11: Team Mildenhall officer shares memories of Sept. 11

  • Published
  • By Karen Abeyasekere

This is the third of our 9/11 features and Maj. Mark Watson, USAFE-UK, shares his memories of that tragic day.

“I was just starting my sophomore year at Rockwall High School, Texas, and on Sept. 11, 2001, I went into my art class with a friend of mine. They had the TV on in the classroom and were watching live news coverage on that Tuesday morning.

I hadn’t known anything about it until I got to school and saw it on the TV. The first airplane had just struck the first tower, and we started watching from that moment. It was a clear, beautiful blue-sky kind-of-a-day in Rockwall, and everyone in class was glued to watching the news. Folks in art classes generally tend to focus on their art to escape the other subjects, and express themselves through their art. They are a really wonderful, unique type of people, but that day we were all unified in our attention as they were trying to understand what it was that struck the tower.

There were lots of reports as to what it might have been, and everyone was trying to figure out what had happened. We were watching when the second plane then struck the south tower, the same time as millions of others were watching, both in the US and abroad.

I felt shocked watching that live; I felt a sense of anger that anyone would have it in their minds to do something so terrible to other humans; it was just unbelievable what people will do to each other. On that morning, of course, we didn’t know anything about who was behind it or why they would do that, but we would find that out later that day and the days to follow. But it certainly seemed like an attack. The first one seemed like an accident – maybe an aircraft had accidentally flown into one of the towers, with it being so high and New York City being full of airports. But after the second one, that’s when the shock really set it. It seemed like America was under attack.

It wasn’t just the Twin Towers; they hit the Pentagon, and the plane that went down in Pennsylvania – such a coordinated attack was so surprising and disappointing, in the following days it made you think that how such a coordinated attack on such a large scale, on such a large number of buildings, and all three commercial airliners, occur under our government’s watch.

Then you start going through the stages of grief, and anger follows shortly after that. I, along with a lot of Americans, wanted to right that wrong, to find those responsible and bring them to justice. But I was still in high school and didn’t have any sort of inkling of how to do something like that. I was certainly proud of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, who stood alongside Bush to say it was not just the buildings that were attacked, it was what America stands for – it was our democracy, our liberty, equality, and regard for freedom that they were attacking. The terrorists wanted us out of the Middle East; they did not like that we were in their back yard and wanted us out. They saw that was one of the only ways to do it.

But the emotions of the day were driven by the horror of the events, from those who were jumping out of the buildings, to the first responders who were killed or injured, to the moms and dads who would never get to return home. Shocking…

It was also the first time that I watched the U.S. military respond to a threat, and it wasn’t long before the US and Polish bombs were being dropped to go after Al-Qaeda, to make it where the Taliban were no longer able house and support Al-Qaeda. It was swift and gratifying that our military would be able to have that global reach and ability for global strike. I was quite impressed at what we could do at short notice to respond to such a threat.

My decision to join the military was a calling on my life from God, and I feel like he opened the door to be able to join the Air Force through a series of events that were unlikely for a country boy from Paris, Texas, to be able to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy. The academy was the only school I applied to – I was putting all my eggs in one basket. To get into it you have to get an appointment from a senator, congressman or the president, so the next summer I decided to apply to be a page for my congressman, Ralph Hall, to work in the U.S. House of Representatives, I knew if I was to get into the Air Force Academy I would need an appointment, and that was the most within-reach I could think of, that I would be able to get an appointment from.

I was accepted to become a page and see my congressman. Some very selective process happened; as I was praying about it, the doors just kept opening. I received the appointment, which was unlikely, and I received acceptance to the academy, which was also unlikely. I was then able to attend and so I feel like it was a calling.

While you’re at the academy you have to compete for pilot slots – it’s the premiere institution for aspiring pilots, and I really wanted to become an Air Force pilot.

I was joining when the country had begun Operation Enduring Freedom, and I knew that was going to be that I would likely be a part of. In 2004 I graduated high school and went to the Air Force Academy. Four years later I graduated there, and OEF was still going on. Throughout a lot of my pilot career, and after making instructor, I was teaching other pilots to continue fighting in Operation.

Enduring Freedom. I flew both in that and Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was something I knew I was getting myself into, but I was happy to do it. I have a similar desire most Americans do, for justice and was happy to be part of the team that would serve justice to those families of Sept. 11.

My wife did go to New York City, into Manhattan, to help serve during the clean-up of the aftermath of Sept. 11, months after it happened. She went as part of a discipleship training school, through ‘Youth With a Mission,’ sent there to help first responders who were sorting through the rubble and cleaning up. Her group was serving the firefighters and police out of tents, giving them food, drink, and any support they could offer, to allow the first responders to work around-the-clock.

We can never forget the injustices that were done to innocent people on that day. We believe that people ought to live free lives, feel safe and secure in America, and that Americans and others ought to feel safe and secure around the world. It’s through strength that such peace can occur. It’s America’s defenders that provide that strength to America and it’s our policemen, our first responders, Transportation Security Administration, intelligence community, guardsmen, reservists and really the whole of our national defense infrastructure that puts their lives on their lives on the line, that makes up America’s strength.

Without that strength, we’re not able to defend our people at home or abroad. America had not been attacked in such a devastating manner like that since Pearl Harbor, and so we have to remember 9/11 to remember that we have to remain vigilant, just like Pearl Harbor taught us to remain vigilant. There are international actors that wish America’s demise, and are happy to send a message to affect America’s demise, and we are our people’s hope for peace and hope for defense.

Firstly, we need to remember that we represent the first line of defense that secures America through strength. Secondly, we need to remember what America is capable of achieving to secure justice for our citizens. So many innocent people that day were killed and that is such a heart-wrenching injustice that we have to be able to right.  

It’s through our core competencies of global mobility, global reach and global strike that we maintain the ability to reach out and punish those who are responsible, and bring them to justice.

  • Maj. Mark Watson                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          U.S. Air Forces in Europe-UK chief of plans, programs and international agreements