Story by Maj. Jamie Delk
COLUMBIA, S.C. – Sept. 11, 2001, militants tied to al-Qaeda hijacked four airplanes and carried out attacks against the United States. Two planes targeted the towers of the World Trade Center, one hit the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
Fifteen years after 9/11, it’s important to remember that day, along with the more than 3,000 people that were killed, as well as those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice while serving their country since then.
From working at the Pentagon when the planes crashed, to being compelled to join the military because of the events that took place that day, or even joining nearly 15 years after the attacks, the South Carolina National Guard holds a piece of history.
“At the moment of attack I was in my office,” said U.S Army Col. (Ret.) Edwin Morehead, South Carolina National Guard Construction and Facilities Management Office strategic planner. “My office was on the third floor of the Pentagon.”
Morehead explained that after hearing a very loud thud and a muffled sound, some tiles fell from the office ceiling. Upon entering the corridor, smoke rose to Morehead’s waist immediately. Gathering his bearings, he was able to help people escape the destruction.
“As soon as I exited my office, I saw people rushing out,” Morehead recalled. “In all these offices, stuff was collapsing, falling on the ground.”
Battling flames, smoke, the uncertainty of the situation at hand, Morehead refused to leave others behind. He went back into the Pentagon numerous times to assist people trying to escape.
His bravery didn’t stop even after he finally exited the building. He continued to assist the injured personnel in the triage station outside the Pentagon, even going as far as to escort a van, which was doubling as an ambulance, by foot through the crowded roadways.
“It was bumper-to-bumper traffic in both directions,” recalled Morehead. “I got out of the van and beat on the cars, getting people to move out of the way so we could get the patient to the hospital.”
The events of this day drove Morehead to continue serving his country.
“If the Army wouldn’t send me to the fight, I was going to do what I could from where I was to support the troops deployed,” he added. “It wasn’t much later that my own son was deployed to Iraq…I hated being retired when he was deployed again to Afghanistan.”
“While the deaths at the Pentagon and Flight 93 were devastating in themselves, it was the brutal attack on the World Trade Center that hit me hardest,” said U.S Army Maj. Thomas McDermott, South Carolina National Guard judge advocate. “I was born in New York City and grew up on Long Island. As a child, I had been up in the World Trade Center several times. Although I left New York after I finished high school, I still have a lot of family and friends that live and work in Manhattan.”
Understanding that the world had changed forever, McDermott wanted to be part of the group ready to defend against these new threats.
“I was heart-broken and extremely angry,” added McDermott. “Someone had not only attacked my country, but, in my mind, they had specifically targeted my home and family members. For me, I took it very personal.”
To combat these threats, McDermott enlisted into the South Carolina Army National Guard in 2003. Promptly after completing basic training, Officer Candidate School and his Officer Basic Course, he deployed to Iraq for a year in 2006 with the South Carolina National Guard’s 151st Field Artillery Unit. He would go on later to serve in Afghanistan, 2009-2010, and then again in Iraq, 2011-2012.
“After 9/11, I was not going to wait and watch for the next disaster to hit,” said McDermott. “I would be part of the trained relief effort or defense response.”
“I remember, I was working for a truck company and heard what was happening on the radio,” said U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Donald Bethea, South Carolina National Guard 1053rd Transportation Company. “When the second plane hit the towers, I knew something was terribly wrong and America was under attack. I knew we would be called to deploy.”
After serving 37 years in the South Carolina Army National Guard with three deployments, including Desert Storm and Iraq, Bethea says the National Guard has been good to him.
“I come from a military family and we believe in helping others,” said Bethea. “If I had a chance to deploy again, I would go…When I welcome new Soldiers to the unit, I remind them to stay in shape and stay strong. Be prepared, because you can be called at any time.”
“On September 11th, 2001, I was working at the Pentagon,” said U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Tracey Blakeney, South Carolina National Guard Information System staff non-commissioned officer.
After feeling the initial shake of the building, Blakeney knew something was off. “My non-commissioned officer in charge and I opened the door and we saw a bellow of smoke coming around the corner,” she recalled.
The next thing she knew, the Chief of Staff came through yelling at everyone to get out, pointing them in the right direction.
“After hitting the safe zone, all I could think about was my son,” said Blakeney. “All I wanted to know was that he was OK. Phone lines were down; cell phones weren’t working. All I could do was panic because I couldn’t get to him.”
At the time, Blakeney’s son was one year old.
“The best three-minute conversation I ever had was when I heard that my son was okay,” said Blakeney.
With more than 20 years of service, Blakeney is still proud to be a U.S. Soldier and wear the uniform.
“Those attacks fueled me to my core,” she said. “Soldiers need to know attacks can happen anywhere. Know your surroundings, be on alert no matter the situation.”
As one of newest Soldiers in the South Carolina Army National Guard, Spc. Allen Wigfall received his unit patch and official welcome Aug. 20, 2016.
“On 9/11, I was in 8th grade at Cross Hill High School,” said Wigfall. “I heard about the attacks while at school from teachers. I had a cousin who was serving in the military at that time and I immediately thought of him and worried because I knew our county was under attack.”
That same cousin deployed to Afghanistan and was a huge influence in Wigfall’s life and a main reason he wanted to join the military.
“Even today watching the footage of the attacks on 9/11 still hits home,” said Wigfall. “This one event changed our nation. I wanted to join the South Carolina Army National Guard because I want to be a Soldier for my state. I love South Carolina. I plan on living here forever.”
Wigfall said if he is called to deploy, he is ready to support his country.
“Today’s service members need to know what the fight is really about…and to know how far this enemy is willing to go to destroy our country and way of life,” said Morehead.
Since that infamous day, nearly 18,000 South Carolina National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have deployed in support of the Global War on Terrorism. There are currently about 700 South Carolina National Guard service members deployed throughout the world with nearly 10,000 South Carolina National Guard Soldiers and Airmen ready and trained to confront anything that threatens the state or country. The South Carolina National Guard has lost 16 heroes who have paid the ultimate price while deployed in support of combat operations since 9/11: Pvt. Algernon Adams, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Patrick Leach, Staff Sgt. Jerome Lemon, 1st Lt. Andrew Shields, Master Sgt. Thomas Thigpen, Sr., Sgt. Stephen High, Spc. Chrystal Stout, Staff Sgt. James Bullard, Sgt. Edward Philpot, Sgt. Shawn Hill, Sgt. David Leimbach, Staff Sgt. Willie Harley, Jr., Sgt. Luther Rabon, Jr., Sgt. John David Meador II, 1st Lt. Ryan Rawl, and Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Thomas.
“Before 9/11, my future was to be a civilian criminal prosecutor living in Myrtle Beach,” said McDermott. “Then, due to the actions of a small group of people in some distant land, my whole life, and the lives of millions of other people, was radically changed forever.”