For the U.S. military, Sept. 11, 2001, began at DEFCON 5 — defense readiness condition five, the lowest. Just a normal, easygoing day, perfect for military training.
But before the day was over, they’d be at DEFCON 4 — one step before war readiness.
Major Tom Kroh, a C-130 pilot, was teaching a class of aircrew members in combat operations at the Advanced Airlift Tactics Training Center at Rosecrans Air National Guard Base, outside St. Joseph, Mo.
“We were on a break when someone said, ‘Hey, turn on the TV. Someone flew into the twin towers,’” said Kroh, a member of St. Agnes Parish in Roeland Park.
Initially, they thought it was an accident. After all, a B-25 Mitchell bomber lost in the fog crashed into the north side of the Empire State Building in 1945.
Class resumed, but soon after someone came in and told them a second plane had crashed into a second building.
Obviously, this was no accident. Members of the class — aircrew members from across the nation — began calling their commanders. The center shut down operations.
“We sent every aircrew home to be in crew rest, ready to fly, and put some crews on two-hour alerts for anything that would have to be moved,” said Kroh.
“For most of us, the initial reaction was frustration,” said Kroh. “We didn’t know what happened. We didn’t know who did it. We couldn’t strike back. We couldn’t have stopped it to begin with, and we knew nothing.”
It was hurry up and wait — for information, for orders, for action. Later at home that night, the phone rang. Kroh, who also flies as part of the 139th Airlift Wing, got his orders.
The next morning, Sept. 12, Kroh flew a civilian rescue team comprised of 20 people and four dogs from Whiteman Air Force Base, near Warrensburg, Mo., to McGuire Air Force Base in central New Jersey. The civilians were headed to the World Trade Center.
And the flight was like nothing he’d ever seen before.
“The sky was pretty much empty,” said Kroh. “There were some military control aircraft, but that was it. We basically flew on a war footing with defensive systems and military identification on, similar to flying combat.”
They flew over one of the busiest airports in the nation, O’Hare International in Chicago, and there was no one on the radio except them and the air traffic controller. It was eerie.
“Usually the crew jokes around, but this time everyone was dead silent for three-and-a-half hours there and back,” said Kroh.
“I remember the dogs well,” he continued. “Due to where they were going, we let the dogs walk around. Usually we cage them up.”
New York City was too far away to see the smoke, but he didn’t have to see it to know what was waiting for the civilians and the dogs.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 changed Kroh’s life. He would be deployed twice to war zones — once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.
Many of the missions he flew during deployments were to transport injured Iraqis and Afghans, humanitarian acts that he hopes will serve as a witness to the United States’ humanitarian intent.
The first anniversary of 9/11 was very raw, but, in more recent years. Kroh says he has faced that time with prayer and introspection.
“I really don’t do anything special [for the anniversary], but I take the time to pray and reflect,” he said. “I look to God and my faith to guide me through and to give me solace: ‘God, help me to do my best, and thy will be done.’”