Duke Field members reflect on response to 9-11
By Ms. Michelle Gigante, 919th Special Operations Wing
/ Published September 11, 2021
DUKE FIELD, Fla. -- Citizen Air Commandos of the 919th Special Operations Wing are trained to be ready and resilient to execute global special operations “Anytime...Anyplace.” The mobilization of Reservists at Duke Field following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on America exemplifies the responsibility 919th SOW members have and why they train to maintain their readiness every day.
For some members of the unit, that training never stopped even after returning to Northwest Florida following the deployment and combat operations in the Middle East more than two decades ago.
“I remember the activation in 2001,” recalled Chief Master Sgt. Keith Poole, 859th Special Operations Squadron superintendent. “ Reservists were calling in, saying they want to be on a crew, they wanted to go. We must have gotten hundreds of phone calls the next day.”
Poole said the response from Reserve members on Sept. 11, 2001 was unlike any previous activations he had experienced.
“There was a sense of urgency felt through the entire Duke Field unit, a much different atmosphere from when Duke Field Reserve members were activated in 1991 for Desert Storm,” said Poole. “Everybody got goosebumps and chills, not out of fear but out of wanting to go."
At the time, Poole was a master sergeant and a loadmaster instructor with the 711th Special Operations Squadron. He was one of the many Reservists assigned to Duke Field as an aircrew member on the MC-130E Combat Talon aircraft.
“We swapped over from gunships to MC-130E Combat Talon 1’s in 1995, so we had flown the Talons for a few years prior to this but had not done a lot with them overseas,” said Poole.
By the end of 2002, 642 members of the 919th SOW had been activated -- approximately half of all those assigned to the Wing. .
Poole’s crew left their families and the comforts of Duke Field in October 2001. They flew a direct, non-stop 17 hour flight and air-refueled all the way to Spain aboard a Combat Talon aircraft. They stayed two days in Spain as they awaited final details concerning their arrival at the deployed location.
“Our first mission was October 19, which was what everybody called, ‘hit-night’,” said Poole. “That was the night the United States went into Afghanistan--militarily-- to pay retribution for what happened.”
The first mission for Poole’s crew was a non-stop, 15 hour flight which was considerably longer than the. standard four hour training mission was . The team air-refueled three or four times for what Poole described as ‘hit teams,’ which enabled their aircraft to refuel helicopters that were going into the compounds conducting combat search and rescue.
“We had pararescue and combat controllers on board and carried d life-rafts and motorcycles in case someone was shot down on land or sea,” said Poole. “Very emotional, we had three or four of our Combat Talons experience enemy fire that night.”
While Poole’s sortie was directed out to deployed locations, back at the home station, Chief Master Sgt. Mark Harrell, 919th Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron superintendent, highlighted how the attacks affected the mission on the homefront.
Harrell remembered that day of Sept. 11, 2001 when his maintenance team had been working on a heavy duty inspection, which entailed taking apart a MC-130E Combat Talon aircraft.
“When the first plane hit the first tower that is when our boss directed the team to stop everything and focus on putting the aircraft back together,” said Harrell. “We had the aircraft ready to fly within the next 24 to 26 hours.”
The efficiency and speed in which Harrell’s team performed was far from the normal inspection time, which Harrell emphasized was usually anywhere from 14 to 30 days.
“It was pretty amazing for a Reserve squadron to switch gears that quickly,” said Poole.
Harrell added camaraderie and teamwork were key elements in the Wing's ability to respond on short notice following a two-year activation in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“I have always been proud of this organization,” said Harrell. “It seems rather surreal now, how quickly we had to act and get ready. It was an unprovoked attack, and we volunteered to serve.”
The willingness of members throughout the Wing to sacrifice and potentially put themselves in harm’s way was a risk worth taking in order to support the military’s response to 9-11.
“The pride and patriotism that welcomed us home was almost overwhelming,” said Poole. “It was amazing to see the mass of people, the American flags, the people hugging you, shaking your hand, thanking you, something I never experienced before.”