As part of a North Carolina State Archives initiative to obtain oral histories of veterans I volunteered to be interviewed for the North Carolina Veterans Oral History Collection. I was interviewed by Matthew Peek, Military Collection Archivist for the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (later referred to as MP).
The interview was well worth the time it took to coordinate and conduct it. I would encourage all North Carolina veterans to contact Matthew and provide their unique story for preservation.
Also available as an MP3 download
MP: We’ll get started. Hello. Today is May 21st, 2016. My name is Matthew Peek, I’m the Military Collection Archivist at the State Archives in North Carolina, and we’re here at the State Archives in downtown Raleigh to interview Chris Short a US Air Force Veteran. Thank you for doing this.
CS: Thank you.
MP: Okay. So, let’s get started. Where were you born? Where are you from?
CS: Western North Carolina. Spent a lot of time in the State of North Carolina growing up, Asheville, Hendersonville, Charlotte, Mount Airy, Winston-Salem. Most recently, the Raleigh/Wake Forest area.
MP: Okay. What did your parents do?
CS: My dad, he was a recruiter for McDevitt & Street Co., a big construction company, and my mother was a teacher.
MP: Okay. So, did you work any construction?
CS: I spent a lot of time helping dad with carpentry projects for neighbors and stuff on the weekends and everything, but I didn’t actually do any construction. By the time I was of working age, I worked in some warehouses, some textile mills and stuff. Furniture industry. Yeah.
MP: Typical Western North Carolina.
CS: Right. Yeah, it’s kind of funny how that worked out. But later in the high school years I got into IT. It was just happenstance – “Oh, you’re young, you know how to use computers, we need some help with this inventory control system that’s using barcodes.” and stuff, and…I dived into IT at that point.
MP: That was really early.
CS: Yeah, like mid-nineties. It was pretty awesome.
MP: So where did you go to high school?
CS: I actually went to three high schools. I went to a high school in Ocala, Florida, for my freshman year, and I came back to North Carolina to Hendersonville High School, and then I finished at Hickory High School.
MP: Wow. A lot of moving.
CS: Yeah, it’s kind of a…What I tell my wife is by the time I was done with high school, I was done with school. So that’s…
MP: So you knew you weren’t going to go into college.
CS: Yeah, by the end of my junior year I just knew, like…I need to just be for a little bit, right? And wherever that may be, whether it was Hickory, or whether it was someplace else, it was fine. I just wanted to do something different with life.
MP: How did you get into military service?
CS: So, it was the late nineties, graduated high school in 1999, and I was working for a small dial-up internet service provider. So, you know, the whirring, beeping modem thing, that was me. You were calling one of my places. And it was based out of Hickory, small company, but the dot-com bubble started, and we slowly started losing more and more customers. And then broadband high-speed internet was coming into the home. So I graduated high school and I was like, yeah, I can keep doing this job, right? They’re like, yeah, for minimum wage. And I was like, ooh, that’s probably not going to be a good long-term strategy. So, at that point. I decided to join the Air Force.
MP: Okay. Where did you go, and when did you sign up?
CS: So I signed up…It was a delayed enlistment, so I did all my stuff in September, ‘99, but I didn’t actually go to basic training till late November. So like the week before Thanksgiving, 1999. Yeah.
CS: So, yeah, that was pretty crazy. So you show up, it’s basic training, it’s middle of the night, you get off the airplane, you’re in San Antonio, Texas.
MP: Is that where you went for the basic? Okay.
CS: Yeah, so all the – I mean, the Air Force – since the beginning of the Air Force, all basic training has been at Lackland Air Force Base. So you get off the airplane, and you’re just walking down – you know, this is like literally a bunch of kids just walking down the hallway, you know, fresh out of high school. And you turn this corner, and there’s like 150 kids just sitting there like Indian style on the floor, real serious looking. You’re like, “Oh, so it begins.” In the airport. Awesome. So you get there, and it’s hot, it’s muggy, it’s San Antonio, Texas, right? Just what you would think. There was a week of that, and then it was the coldest San Antonio winter in like history. It was ridiculous.
MP: Picked a great time to enlist.
CS: Yeah, and it was nuts. We had snow at one point.
CS: We were outside doing PT in the snow in San Antonio, Texas. It was nuts. I mean, just…The experience of basic training, like I never want to go there again, but it was really, really enlightening as to what the human body can take.
MP: Yeah. As you said, when you get off the plane, what were you thinking?
CS: Like, this is it…You have made a choice, and you’re stuck in it now. Here we go. You know, like there was no doubt in my mind that if I didn’t want to be here I could leave. But at that point, you’re kind of like… you’re burning a bridge. So you’re constantly, “Just get me to the next meal.” “Get me to the next time I can go to sleep.” Like that becomes your mindset.
MP: One step at a time.
CS: - slowly but surely, right. So the idea of getting up, cleaning up everything, folding everything a certain way, running, eating, learning, running, eating, learning; this perpetual cycle, that was okay with me. Getting screamed at and having these weird incidents happen at basic training – like our first day there, a dude slipped and fell in the shower, dislocated his shoulder completely.
CS: Came completely out of the socket. Picking him up – you know, it was just a bunch of wet, naked men picking up this hurt guy and carrying him out. It’s like, what’s going on here?!?
MP: Okay. Interesting. So, how long did your basic last?
CS: It was six weeks. I actually ended up staying there a little bit longer because right at the end of ‘99 there was this weird flu outbreak. No-one could figure out what was going on. We got a series of shots, and they’re like, hopefully this’ll help. So guys would – they’d wake up in the middle of the night; night terrors, sweat, cold, and we had no idea what was going on. We threw them in an ambulance and off they went, and they’d show up a week later. And eventually it hit me, so I remember waking up in the hospital New Year’s Eve, 1999.
MP: You’re having a great time with holidays.
CS: Yeah, so… So I’m in the hospital, I’m in this room… I remember nothing from like I went to bed, to – it’s dark out, so I have no idea what time it was, so when they tell me, “Hey, you basically just lost a day from just delirious, high fever stuff,” and you’re in a wing of the hospital at Lackland Air Force Base that had been cordoned off just for this outbreak or whatever.
CS: Weird. They never told – never figured out what it was. But it was the end of my time there, so the day that I got sick I missed my opportunity to get orders, so I had to stay there another week to go through the cycle of issuing orders, sending you to places, transportation, that kind of thing. So there was a week of like, yes, you’re done with basic training, but you’re still hanging around. It’s kind of funny. And then my parents, they were coming down for my graduation, New Year’s Eve, 1999, when the Y2K bug was going to hit – no-one knew what was really going to happen.
MP: Yeah, everybody thought the computers – but you [weren’t going to fail] but you were out.
CS: Right, right.
CS: I was good, you know?
MP: Even if it had gone down, you wouldn’t.
CS: Yeah, so… Yeah, it was funny, because they… They described to me, as they show up, there’s this visitor center, it’s this massive building, chairs, everybody, and each flight of Airmen come in and they meet their parents, and like, hey, this is what we did, and dah, dah, dah. And eventually, they got to the point where it’s like there’s no more new people showing up. My parents were kind of looking around, like what’s going on. Because they didn’t know who I was with, my basic training instructor, nothing. Right?
MP: And the Air Force didn’t notify them.
CS: The Air Force – I mean, it all happened so quickly, they were in the air when I was coming to, basically. So I tried to call them, obviously, but they were gone.
MP: And this was before the time of cellphones.
CS: Before the time of cellphones. I had a pager in junior high school, and that was like a big deal for work stuff. So you couldn’t just reach out and email somebody, or send a text message. So, yeah, they show up at my hospital room, and they’re like, you know, hairnets, mask, goggles on, because they didn’t know what was going on. I was just like I have no idea what happened, I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know when I’ll get out of here.
MP: It’s an interesting basic training experience.
CS: Yeah, it was really, really weird. But then you spend the next week doing these odd jobs around base, and one of them was helping with the next week’s graduation. I was coordinating a flyover, and it was like, wait, I’m brand new to the Air Force, and I’m coordinating with a pilot to fly over the graduation at Lackland Air Force Base. It’s like, okay, this is how they treat airplanes, anybody can handle this stuff, off you go.
MP: Were they just trying to find a job for you to keep you busy?
CS: Yeah, it was just literally keeping me busy for a week, right? So, not necessarily cleaning up around the squadron or whatever. Because you were given some respect at that point. Because you had gone through everything, it sucked that you got this illness or whatever, and you had to stick around another week. So, yeah, the Military Training Instructors that we were with, they were very chill. They did not care what we were doing at all as far as like is your stuff cleaned up. Just don’t get in the way, basically.
MP: After you got better, since you missed your orders, did you think about how missing those might have affected where you’d be stationed next?
CS: So, I mean, I knew I was going to Keesler Air Force Base for training, it was just which class I would start with. So there’s a window of time where you’d just be waiting, a class would start. So basically what that meant was my window of time, because it was the end of the year and everything, my window of time, instead of waiting for a week at Keesler I waited for a week at Lackland. Which was kind of nice, I mean, because you’d rather be the senior person in a basic training unit and not the brand new person at a military tech school unit where you’re like, you know – people did what they called weeds and seeds, where they’re weeding rock beds and stuff and everything else. I never had to do that, because I was at Lackland doing all this silly busy work kind of thing, so…Yeah, I mean, there was some impact there. I met people that I was going to this class with before I got there, so I already had some friends made before I even arrived.
MP: That must’ve made it a little easier.
CS: It was. And there was actually a buddy of mine, we nicknamed him Peaches because he was from Georgia, and we’re still friends to this day.
CS: Yeah, and I met him because I was bunking with him and he and I went to Keesler together.
MP: The random fate of the military.
CS: Right, it’s totally random that this happened, and he stayed in a room right down the hall from me.
MP: So, you were sent on to your next location. What were you assigned to do?
CS: So, at the time it was called communications computer systems controller.
CS: Yeah and they shortened that to just tech control. Thankfully.
MP: Well, I mean, early days of computers really.
CS: I mean, this is.
MP: - on a daily basis being used by the military, so long names.
CS: I mean, we’re talking like…They had me studying some archaic stuff, like analogue stuff that the FAA hasn’t used in decades, so… All the way up to the most modern digital equipment they had, router, stiches, Cisco gear, that kind of thing.
MP: MS DOS and…
CS: MS DOS was huge. I exposed a vulnerability in the schoolhouse one day with a Windows program – I forget what it was called, it was like…Not Netcast, but it was some program where if you set it up incorrectly you could broadcast to every computer on the network. Basically I was broadcasting messages to every computer in the schoolhouse, like, “Hey, how’s it going?” An instructor would be teaching slides on a whiteboard and all of a sudden my message will pop up. And it would just be totally random things, like we started pulling quotes down from people’s memory and just typing them in and sending them off. That was pretty funny. That’s when they realized that, “Yeah, he’s going to figure out some stuff one day.”
MP: And for those who are listening, there was no such thing as computer or internet security, really, at that time.
CS: Right, yeah, like Google didn’t exist, search engines were – well, I guess Google did exist, but it wasn’t…
MP: Dogpile was the big search engine.
CS: Yeah, like Alta Vista, Yahoo! was still a big search giant back then.
MP: So it was easy to do these types of things with computers.
CS: Yeah, whole networks. I mean, you think about… in this building we’re in right now there’s probably at least five or six different networks and back in those days one network covered an entire campus. So if you sent a message out to all computers you literally hit every computer in a building or an entire section of Keesler Air Force Base. So, yeah, actually it was funny because they finally started going door to door figuring out where was a few people sitting around a computer, and the youngest instructor finally found out it was me, and he figured out how I did it, and I was like, all you have to do is change this, but you need to do that everywhere.
MP: So did that help you with.
CS: So he really didn’t like me because it was his job to secure the network. Because at that point there wasn’t a network security person that sat down the hall, it was somebody’s “additional duty”, so your job was to maintain patches, and software upgrades, and help people out, like, oh, yeah, how do I do this thing in PowerPoint, kind of thing. So, it was his job to make sure things like that didn’t happen, so he was really, really perturbed with me. But, whatever, you know, he allowed it to happen.
MP: What was your daily job entailed? What did it entail?
CS: The coolest thing about tech control was that it was never the same thing every day. And I was very fortunate to get sent to Langley Air Force Base, and I was put in a very specialized unit – at the time it was called Reachback. And what we did was all these Guard units or small military detachments that are active duty, they would need to get communication services like phone, internet, secure internet, secure phone, all the other kind of networks that the military operates. They’d have to ‘reach back’ some place in the States.
We were one of those stations, and we were very unique in the sense that we used the exact same equipment they used, so we had basically this small warehouse where it was just full of all this tactical equipment, and mobile satellite vans, and mobile phone switches, and everything. And it was the only place in the Department of Defense that had its own area code. They have the Defense Switch Network, where it’s like a phone system for just the Department of Defense, we had…
MP: Yeah, it relays back and forth to the [unit].
CS: Yeah, you pick up a phone on the Air Force base, you can…Europe was this area code, the US was this area code, or Asia was this area code, and we had our own area code. Because we could hand out all those phone numbers to different units if we needed to.
MP: So if there was a special operation they’d tell you what equipment they had and you could get it set up.
CS: Right, like we would try to use exactly what they had at any given moment. So we knew if this unit was going out, they would send out a callout to us and they would say this is what we’re taking with us, and we’re like, “All right, we can get you up on similar equipment or the exact same equipment.” That way we knew if there was any issues we could – or if they had any issues we could walk them through it; we were the experts. And if they were put on training missions it was extremely helpful for them to come back to us. So… It was very, very unique, so we got the new cutting edge stuff, along with all the old stuff, so I got to do a lot of different things at my first job. Working on phone switches was something that most tech controllers didn’t do, working on satellite vans was something that no tech controller really did, unless you were there.
MP: Because earlier in the seventies and eighties you had to have specialized training to work on satellite vans or mobile communication systems, as they called them.
CS: Right, yeah. All this stuff was unique and hardened, and designed to be dropped in the middle of nowhere, hooked up to a generator and start working. When I say hardened I mean could take a nuclear blast, if set up correctly, right, and cryptographic generation devices and all these things. I mean you had entire walls of some of these small – I mean basically like a shed you would buy at Home Depot sized thing. And you would look at it and you’d be like, wow, the entire nation’s secrets are on your shoulders, because they can all get processed right here if they need to be.
CS: It’s pretty intense. But then you also have like inside you have the newest, hottest Cisco router, or Cisco switch, and Voice Over IP was just taking off and we were one of the first buildings in the Air Force to set up our own Voice Over IP network. Because some Cisco guy left some equipment there, and he was like, “Eh, tinker with it, see what you can do.”
MP: Which was scary, because there was no security to it.
CS: No, there wasn’t really, but we were in charge of our own security. It was interesting how that logically worked out, because at Langley Air Force Base you had the First Fighter Wing, which, you know, the first fighter wing is the Air Force’s fighter wing, they’re going to get – they got the F-22s first. They got the F-15s first. They had hundreds of F-15s, it seemed like. But then you also had Air Combat [Command], which is the combatant war fighting command that sends out the fighters and bombers to war. That was headquarters there as well. So you had a base commander, but then you also had a combatant commander as a four star general sitting there, and the base commander was an F-15 pilot or an F-22 pilot. And then you had the 83rd Communications Squadron, which was an Air Combat Command central communications unit, so like the Network Operations and Security Center for Air Combat Command, which covered the globe, was right across the parking lot from us.
So things like, what was it, the [Code Red worm], or something like that, those were huge deals, and we were on the frontlines trying to figure out how do we defend ourselves against this. And all these internet viruses that came out in the early 2000s, every single time the response was, we’ll just shut everything off and wait till it goes away. It’s like, wait a minute, we can’t really do that, right? We still have to maintain operations. And I brought that up with one of our stand up meetings. I was like, “Aren’t we letting ‘the enemy’ win if we just close our doors and walk away from the Internet?”
MP: And also, if you do that, then by the time you turn them back on, they’ll be so out of date, they’ll be vulnerable to [whatever, yeah].
CS: Potentially, yeah, then you’re just setting yourself up for the next vulnerability, right?
MP: And for those, again, who are listening, who are much younger than us, between 2000 and about 2006 there were at least four viruses that come out every year that would wipe out every system. I had my laptop hit twice on a network, but there was no idea how to stop them, originally.
CS: Like the military – and the one thing that shocked me the most – because I was working at an MS service provider I used a lot of Windows stuff, but I had also learned Linux while I was there. And the thing that shocked me the absolute most was that the Department of Defense just bought into Microsoft. And Microsoft, at the time, had no security. Like you installed Windows 98 and the next hour and a half to two hours was like all you did was install patches and turn off stuff; because you didn’t want this worm, you didn’t want this infection, you didn’t want this virus to come in, and just lay waste to everything you had just done. That was the modus operandi, which was just as much features open as possible, make it as easy for people to use, but also made it easy for other people to use.
MP: And Linux was much safer, but it was a little more…
CS: It was much, you know, unknown. Nobody – the open source software community was being shunned actively by Microsoft, and… No one in the Department of Defense had the time to sit down and really read through all the code to figure out, “Oh, yeah! This is really safe and good to use.”
MP: I guess, too, there was the – if it’s open source and there’s nobody to be held accountable for it.
CS: That too was part of it.
MP: - stuff can be added to it because it’s open source, so we can’t – yeah.
CS: I mean, there is an audit trail, obviously, but you can’t really sit there and say, “Oh! Well, you did this, we can sue you for it.” The liability of an open source operating system is hard. But I had a lot of experience with this, so one of the things, one of the opportunities I had in my first year at Langley was to participate in, it was called, the Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment, JEFX 2000. They were doing some really innovative things, trying to defeat the Air Force’s red teams, and what they would do… Each function within the Air Force had a ‘red team’. Like if you were a cop on base there was a red team that was going to try and penetrate your defenses, or sneak on base and surprise you somehow. Same thing with the networks and computers. We had red teams that would go in and try and figure out how to get on your network, how to do something, and then just, “Surprise!” You know, now we’re going to display this message across every computer on your base somehow, or something like that.
So, our job – I was this low man on the totem pole, but they were like, “Hey you can really help us out with some of this stuff because it’s all newer, and you have some experience with it.” I was like, “Great!” But it was all Windows, and I was like… “You, know, the network tools that are available on Windows aren’t great for defending against this stuff. They’re just not designed for it.” And they said, “Well, what do you think we should do?” And I said, “Well, you know, there’s Linux, we could always install Linux on a computer randomly somewhere, and just see what it can do for us.” Well, this is the place to do it. Let’s go. Why not? And all these crusty network guys sitting there are like, oh, we don’t trust this, we don’t think it’s a good idea, so they isolated me in my own little network. And I said, well, these are the things that I need to connect to, to just monitor things, at the very least. So they gave me that access.
They were doing a really innovative attempt to prevent the red team from hacking in through the Internet. So, you have the Internet, which is open, public, then you have a secure Internet that’s supposed to be isolated from the regular Internet, and no-one can really get to it unless you have encryption keys and all this other really boring stuff. Security clearance and all that stuff. So what they did was, instead of going the traditional route and say let’s send this encrypted thing over the Internet, they said let’s put the Internet over the encrypted thing, the encrypted thing being that secure Internet pipe. That way, you had to be on that secure Internet, which was isolated to buildings and special cryptographic access was needed, versus trying to find some way from the regular Internet to get to some resource that could then be taken down to affect all other operations.
So, we were doing that, and then they were like, okay, they’re attacking our regular Internet access, and we had set up this Linux server to just monitor network traffic across the board. No Windows system could do that at the time and this was all free. And it was just mind blowing to people. They were like, “Wow! You can actually see that like in real time, and it’s drawing a graph and everything?!?” And they were just like, “Wow! This is great!” Yeah, I mean, this is what it’s for. It’s designed off Unix, Unix is kind of designed off of working with the network to get resources in computers. Where Windows is designed for working with like Office, you know, so…
It was really an innovative place to be in the early 2000s, because you had all the old school stuff with the analogue, like phone switch patch cables that you see in the old World War II movies and videos and stuff, and then you have full-on digital Cisco networking.
MP: Satellite phones.
CS: Sat phones were… huge. I remember this one unit, they got this – it was called an Inmarsat, and basically it’s like – it looks like a big dinner plate that you unfold, and now it’s this antenna and you just kind of point it to the right direction, and boom, you get an Internet connection. It’s like, you know, not fast, but it’s Internet in the middle of nowhere.
MP: Survivable communications, yeah.
CS: Right, right, so you could get data, and you could send data, pack it all up and move on to someplace else. It was really awesome. But they took it out of the box and they’re like, “We don’t know what to do with this. We have no idea.” And the manual literally was like this brochure, like, you know, a folded up piece of 8 1⁄2 by 11 paper. Like here’s the manual, make it work. Okay, awesome. Not only make it work, but get it to work in the base’s network and make it so where we can just turn it off… Save everything, turn it off, and then turn it back on in some foreign country and it’ll work, and it’ll be on Langley’s network.
MP: And the speed of communication developments during this time, I mean, by 2007 you got Twitter, Facebook, so you’re being able to send messages over your phone.
CS: Right, like I remember…
MP: From nothing.
CS: Yeah. In tech school I remember getting a prepaid phone, and it was a huge deal to have a cellphone in 2000⁄2001. Huge deal to have a cellphone, and in tech school they would do these random inspections on the weekends. It would just literally be all these phones, like the old Nokia brick phones just lighting up with their green and black screens. Hey, he’s in this room, hey, he’s in this corridor, hey, he’s in this corridor. So you knew to be in your room at the right time. But it was all like, hey, let’s pay $15 a month so we can figure out where the instructors are during inspections. Like that was the whole purpose and you had it in your pocket and it was great. But then you went from that all the way up to like… Here’s Facebook, here’s Myspace, here’s Google, and Google Earth, and Google News, and Google Maps, and all these other things.
MP: And the technical challenges that came along with that for you guys.
CS: Oh, yeah, large distributed systems became the norm.
At this point, there was a break in the interview due to a dead battery.
MP: Yeah. Okay, we’ll get started. Okay, I had to change the batteries there so we’re back. Okay, so early 2000s, you’re at Langley.
MP: September 11th, 2001. Where were you?
CS: So… Let me back it up a week.
CS: A week before 9⁄11, we had… I was still at the Reachback at Langley, had a series of exercises coming through. We were having all kinds of problems with cryptography, and timing, and just all these weird issues. And I was spending several long days at work trying to work through these issues, and you’d work through one, and then another one would pop up, and you work through another and another one would pop up. It was like this never-ending cycle. So I basically worked myself sick, right. Like all of a sudden there’s one day, my ex-wife – she was also in the military, she was stationed there across base. And she calls the office, and she’s like. “Hey, are you coming home at your normal time or are you going to be late again?” I was like, “You know, I don’t know, I don’t feel that great, I think I might go to the doc and get checked out.” And she’s like, “Oh, okay.”
I hang up the phone, and I’m working on something, and my boss comes around and he’s like, “Hey, you don’t look that good. You look kind of pale.” Oh, okay, fine, I’ll go to the ER real quick. So my ex-wife meets me there, I walk in, I had a fever of like 100, you know, low grade fever, not a big deal. Someone has a heart attack on base, they bring him in, they’re like, hey, we’re going to take your temperature again because you’re still looking pretty bad. It goes to 103 in a matter of an hour, so they sent me downtown. So I had some flu thing going on, and they’re like, okay, here, you need some fluids, we’re going to give you an IV, send you on your way. The next day, my phone rings, and this is like the Thursday before 9⁄11, I think. 9⁄11 was on a Tuesday, right? It was on Tuesday?
MP: Yeah, it was on a Tuesday, yeah.
CS: Tuesday morning, yeah. My phone rings, I’m sitting in bed, and I’m like deathly ill, I don’t answer it. My ex-wife comes home, she’s like, “Hey, how are you feeling?” I’m like, I made it onto the couch, you know, that’s kind of progress at that point. I pick up the phone, it’s a voicemail. One of my best friends had died, that I went to high school with. Very sad. He died, 20 years old. It was really rough. So, all right, fine, get over this sickness, you got to haul butt back to Western North Carolina, go to the funeral. My parents were still in Hickory. So… He was buried on Sunday. So we stayed – we hung around with the family a little bit on Sunday, came back to my parents’ house on Monday, stayed there and said, okay, we’ll drive back Tuesday. And the week before I got sick, my grandmother had died, I was sick, and then my best friend died, and it was just like, whoa, you know .
MP: All this stuff.
CS: This is like a lot of life right now, you know? For a 21-year-old guy.
MP: And was this thing tied to your previous illness in basic training?
CS: No, I don’t think so. I mean, maybe. Who knows? It’s just like… I guess when I get hit with a sickness I get hit really hard. So… I don’t think it was tied together at all, in any way, shape or form. I think I was just literally working myself to death. It was just my body’s way of saying, hey, take a break. So, all this stuff is going on, and my boss is like, hey, don’t worry about the leave paperwork, take as much time as you need. Just go. This is back in the early 2000s, and this guy was old school, which was awesome. So he was just like, take what you need, let me know where you are, if you’re not in North Carolina, you know, just let me know. It’s like, cool, fine, and…
So, I’m an early riser; military guy. I get up Tuesday morning, 9⁄11, at my parents’ house, it’s like, ah, go in the other room, watch the news. Ex-wife’s asleep, kid’s asleep, parents are out for work already. And turn on the news, and it’s… World Trade Center. Smoke coming out of it. Hmm. This is weird. What’s going on here? And this was after the Cole bombings the previous year, Khobar Towers a few years before that. The first thing that came to my mind is like, well, I know that planes go flying up and down the Hudson all the time, but the World Trade Center is a little bit inland from that.
MP: And it’s a little too tall to miss.
CS: Yeah, you see it coming before you see New York. So… Yeah, it’s like – and at the time all the newscasters were saying, hey, it’s… They think a plane lost track. Totally clear day. It’s like how did a plane lose track. That was the most suspicious thing ever. It’s like a crystal blue sky in New York City at the time.
MP: They were trying not to assume too much.
CS: Right, they were really trying not to draw fear into people. And, I was just like, whoa, this is not good. That’s like 100 stories in the air. There’s no fire ladder that’s going to ever reach that high. Those firemen are going to have to hump it up hundreds of flights of stairs to get up there to get the fire put out. Like that’s going to take a long, long time. And then, boom, second plane hits the towers. I was like, oh god, this is coordinated. This is an attack.
I go and I wake up my ex-wife, I’m like, “Hey two planes just hit the World Trade Center. If they hit the Pentagon, we’re leaving. I’m going to go hop in a shower.” So I go get in the shower, and literally 15 minutes later, like I’m combing my hair, brushing my teeth, she knocks on the door, and she’s like, “Hey, the Pentagon just got hit.” It’s like, whoa, what the heck? So, hop into the car I call my boss, I’m like, we’re on our way back right now. My ex-wife calls her boss, we’re on our way back.
MP: And your role, your job is going to be vital.
CS: Right, like there’s people going out the door right now that are going to need communications, and I’m one of those guys that’s going to help them.
MP: You mentioned the Pentagon – was it really… You realized it could be bad.
CS: I knew it was a terrorist attack. The second I saw the second plane enter the frame, I knew it was a terrorist attack. Like before – like that brief split-second that you saw it before it got hit – because all you saw on TV was just the two towers standing there, and then this small plume of smoke coming out of one side of it, and it was the opposite side of where the plane had hit it. And then you saw the second plane come into frame and just blast the side of the building. You saw it hit one side of the building, you saw stuff spew out the other side. And the second I saw the second plane I was like, this is an attack.
MP: But I’m interested in the fact that you thought of the Pentagon instantly. Was it just because of your training, or what was it that…
CS: Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, he had specifically said we’re targeting American military. Before the Cole attack he said that. Everybody in the military knew that. If you were paying – unless you were asleep at the wheel, you know that if you were out somewhere, the military was a target. Now… he also had a penchant for the World Trade Center, because in ‘96, the World Trade Center bombing there, he tried to take it down with a truck full of explosives but that didn’t work. So I was, you know… The ‘96 bombing, I was 16 years old, I was very aware of what was going on then, so I was like, yeah, this is probably Bin Laden. Everybody was probably like…
MP: So the idea of the Pentagon.
CS: The idea of the Pentagon getting hit.
MP: - it just stuck.
CS: - it was just like, you know, if they’re using planes on a Tuesday morning in the US, there’s hundreds and thousands of planes taking off and landing all up and down the East and West Coast. So if they’re using planes, the idea to me was they could have 17, 20 of these things. You know, because all it took was like four guys to take over a plane. You get 100 guys in a room you could easily have all these flying missiles full of fuel. So, early morning East Coast, I knew those planes were probably heading towards the West Coast or something, they were full of fuel based on the impact of the explosion. It was just like, yeah, they’re going to – they’re hitting, they’re coming for us.
MP: And the Pentagon’s in the flight path.
CS: The Pentagon is – you know, you got Reagan right there, you got Dulles right around the corner. So, you know, and I’m just like, well, I bet Langley’s going nuts right now trying to get aircraft in the air. Because, I mean, it was 2001. Bush had just came into office. The Cold War was over, you know. Iraq we were doing Operation Northern and Southern Watch, for the UN.
MP: No-fly zones.
CS: Yeah, there were no-fly zones in Northern and Southern Iraq, and that was the only big deal going on. You had some small skirmishes here and there, kind of thing, but, I mean… Al-Qaeda was it. That was the only target that was on us at the time. So we were worried about that. The Chinese… The Chinese economy was coming online, we weren’t too concerned about a military threat from them. Russia was always a continual, you know…
MP: North Korea is always threatening.
CS: Yeah, but it wasn’t like, you know, hey, there’s a hotspot, we’re going to go to it, right? Like… 9⁄11 just completely changed the game. Just in ways that you would never, ever think possible. We didn’t have budgets after 9⁄11. What do you need? Here you go. If you wanted it, you had four of them. It was crazy. It was just nuts. People were just like, just fix it. Whatever you have to do, get it up and running, get it fixed, let’s make sure this never happens again. So… You know, so it’s the craziest thing in the world. You have these Force Protection Conditions on military bases, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta. Alpha being, you know, kind of like normalish, Delta being like, holy crap, we just got attacked, and we’re in defensive mode. Boom, immediately – the second the Pentagon got hit, everything went Delta. The entire Department of Defense said we are completely under attack. And here I am, in a Toyota RAV4, driving down the I-40, and I’m like, you have got to be kidding me. I don’t even have leave paperwork put in right now. I am – like if they…
MP: How are you going to get back on base?
CS: Yeah, it’s like how am I going to get to work, my uniforms are at home, I am not ready for this at all.
MP: Was your house on base?
CS: No, my house was… It was an apartment in Yorktown. So I was good there. Like I could get home. So, we get into Virginia and we started getting into the Hampton Roads area, and I call my boss. At this point it was like a six-hour drive, but we were booking it. I was like, if a cop stops us, no. Give us an escort.
MP: Cops weren’t stopping many people that day.
CS: No. Not at all. We were hauling it. I mean, we were going up, we were going down the I-64 into the Hampton area, and it was just – I easily had the speedometer pegged all the way to the end. Yeah… We were moving. So I get on the phone with my boss, and he was like, “Hey, I know you want to come in. I know you want to do something. But I can’t get anybody in right now.”
CS: You have to be on a list, the list has to be approved by the base commander, and it’s going to take you an hour to get on base. So, hold tight, stay close to your phone so you can answer questions if any come up, and we’ll get you in as soon as we can. It’s like, okay, cool. So we get home, and we lived on the third floor of an apartment building and it faced – I forget which direction it faced - but from the apartment building you could see the return flight path into Langley. And we get home, we unpack the car, everything’s settled, and I just go out on the balcony and I just sit for a little bit, and an American flag is waving, and I see sixteen F-15s just flying overhead, you know, combat loads. They haven’t dropped any ordinance, but the first time I’d ever seen an F-15 with combat loads, in the States… Ever. I mean, it happened at air shows as a kid – never saw anything more than a fuel tank, right? I mean, these guys had…
MP: Or fake bombs for show, yeah, yeah.
CS: Yeah, you know, I mean, there was full combat load on these F-15s. And there was not just one of them, not two of them, sixteen of them. Just flying right over, you know, a few thousand feet, coming in to land. And at the time, Langley had a small hangar off of the side of the highway and it housed a couple of F-16s; that was for like missile defense, and the idea was that this guy in the F-16 was just sitting there, and could be up in the air ready to fight something in five minutes. And they had a faster response time for time of war, and they had elevated it at that point and deployed it. The second we had that… like windows breaking on base because guys get off the flight deck so fast and hard. They’re like all – you know, when an F-15 flies over the coast, they are over US soil. They are not pushing the limits of their aircraft. They have to be in certain airspaces for that. And the reason is because complaints for noise, potential damage…
MP: If the plane fails it could – yeah.
CS: Yeah, if there’s any kind of failure in the aircraft the plane’s going to crash in a populated area. Not good. All those restrictions were completely lifted that day. So like you would see – like when I eventually did get back on base, which is kind of an odd story, you would see planes taking off just full thrust. Burning rubber of the runway from the planes that had just landed as these guys were taking off. I mean, it was crazy to see. It was like the “Back to the Future” car taking off, almost, but it was an F-15, which normally would just be like, [skipping down the sidewalk noise], they’d use all 10,000 feet of the runway. No, these guys were up in the air in like a couple of thousand feet; flying off. So, yeah, it was a very, very… Very scary, kind of, you know, “What happens next?” kind of time. Because, I mean, it was – man, you were there. It was chaos. You didn’t know one day to the next what was going on.
MP: And you had entered in peace time.
CS: Yeah, completely entered – you know, I came in under Clinton.
MP: How long had you initially enlisted for.
CS: So initially I enlisted for six years and the reasoning was for my career field, if you committed to six years, you got this nice little signing bonus. And I was like, cool, peace time, six years, doing a job that I kind of want to do, that’s going to help me in my IT career long term. It’s a good idea. And I get a little extra money in my pocket at the beginning? Perfect. You know, 19-year-old kid, six years is nothing. So, yeah, 2001 I was entering my second year at that point, and at that point it was like, ooh, boy, next four years are going to be interesting.
MP: Before we move on, I’m interested in – looking back, do you think you would’ve signed up for fewer years if you had known what would - ?
CS: No, I would’ve – it would’ve been the exact same thing. Because it was all – I mean, it was a financial decision. It was not like a business decision.
MP: Okay. But, anyway, so you’re back. How did you end up actually getting back on base?
CS: So, you had to go through this whole approval process and search process and everything, like every day I would call… This went on for like a day and a half. And finally, I called at two in the afternoon, and my boss said, “I was just about to call you. Your name’s on the list. Go.” And I remember showing up, and the guard was like, hmm, you know, it was this guy who had full battle rattle, M-16, M-9 strapped to his chest, you know, bulletproof vest, got a canine unit right there searching your car. Guys with mirrors going all around it. He’s like Short, Short, Short – because everything was sorted – the list was sorted by rank, and then by name. So I was an E-3 with an S last name, so it was like the last page. He was like, “You are literally the lowest ranking person I’ve seen on this list.” I’ll take that as a compliment.
MP: But, quite frankly, you had one of the more important jobs.
CS: I was…You know, I knew I was good at my job. I’m not going to say I was the best at my job, but I was very good at what I was doing.
MP: Let’s say it this way. Your role was significant for what was needed at that time.
CS: Yeah, I mean, given my rank, they… People needed experts to solve problems quickly. I’m not going to say I was an expert at the time, but I could solve problems quickly. So…
Check back next week for North Carolina Veterans Oral History Part 2 where we talk about post-9⁄11 and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Check back next week for North Carolina Veterans Oral History Part 3 where we discuss coming home, my long thoracic nerve injury, transitioning out of the military, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.