How the 9/11 Attacks Changed U.S. Central Command

U.S. Central Command's older headquarters building at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, FL. Photo courtesy of U.S. military website.

This Friday, U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa will hold a small 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony. U.S. Marine Corps General James Mattis, Commander U.S. Central Command, will give brief remarks to honor those lost on that day, first responders, emergency workers and service members who have served since 9-11 and continue to fight in the war against terrorism.

Recently, I talked with a member of CENTCOM about the changes he’s seen since the terrorism attacks 10 years ago.

The day of the Sept. 11 attacks,  Army Col. Jack Dees was with a small CENTCOM delegation in Cairo.

Dees is now a civilian and Deputy Chief with the Security Cooperation Division at CENTCOM. He talked with me about the big changes he’s witnessed at the joint command which is responsible for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He starts with what the headquarters in Tampa was like when he got back from Egypt a few days after the attacks.

JACK DEES: Chaos, it was just chaos. I mean (when) I’d left it was the quietest place on the planet. Getting through the gate was a nightmare. It was just a real mess and people were working 24 hours shifts and everybody was trying to scramble to figure out what was going to happen because nobody really knew where this was going, how it was going to unfold. We just knew we were at war. (It was) a scene of enormous energy, but a nervous anticipation about what was going to happen over the next few months.

BOB: Describe what the essence was like when you see your country under attack and you’re a half-a-world away.

JD: I can distinctly remember from that drive from Dover – I kept thinking: Is America changed? I was really nervous to see what people were going to be like. I kind of had the view that people might be hunkered down and everybody be so afraid. But, I got back and I was – in a way I was kind of grateful to see – you know I mean – life had gone on. I mean things were changed but people were still doing what they normally did.

I have to tell you a funny story. The sergeant who was driving with us, she got pulled over outside Fayetteville, NC for doing like 86 in a 70 mile-an-hour zone. A North Carolina state trooper he came up to us and said, “License and registration.” And I leaned over and I said, “Look officer, I’m military, a colonel in the Army, you’ve got a commander in the Navy,  and an NCO. We’re all trying to get back to base, MacDill Air Force Base. I apologize, I won’t let this happen again. I take responsibility.” He said a few words and he said, “Okay, we’ll let this go. Just do me one favor, go kick some butt.” It isn’t exactly the words he used, and ah he said “just go kick some butt for me.” I guess he’d just gotten out of the 82nd Airborne Division.

BOB: What about CENTCOM itself? When did the realization hit that CENTCOM is going to change and never be the same that this is going to end up at your doorstep?

JD: That was clear the next day, I wasn’t here, when people spent three hours getting through the gate. I mean there was – as I understood it – people came into work at 7 and got on the base about 10 o’clock because of increased security. Immediately that was recognizable. And within just a handful of days, all sorts of people started showing up here to help us out because it was obvious that Afghanistan being the center of what was happening – Afghanistan being part of the CENTCOM area of responsibility – it was obvious that we were going to be the central part of all of this.

And of course the headquarters was manned for peacetime, really. We had a small military effort ongoing – you recall the “no fly zone” in Iraq. But, we weren’t on a wartime footing at all. Within about a week, people started flowing in here from everywhere Department of Defense planners, logisticians, intell analysts, as we began to plan for what would be the first bombs dropped in Afghanistan Oct. 7th.

BOB: You remember that day?

JD: I do remember that day. I was here. We watched it on TV.

BOB: Did you feel like that’s when you all started to “kick butt?”

JD: The first bomb didn’t drop without a lot of work that went on before that. And my friends who were doing the planning business were working 20 hours a day and they did that for months on end until probably January or February, March of 2002.

BOB: How has CENTCOM changed?

JD: CENTCOM is nothing like it was before. There’s no comparison today to what it was in those days. The headquarters is huge, much, much, much bigger than it was before. Getting in the gate – you know we just drove through the gate in those days you just had a pass on your car and they waved you through. Today, it’s ID checks and the security is significantly more so.

There’s a lot more civilians at the headquarters. The headquarters those days were largely military. There was probably 20-30 civilians is all that worked in the headquarters and today it’s a much bigger headquarters in that way largely because of continuity, for continuity’s sake and ensuring people kind of understood what happened before. Our facilities have improved. You see we’ve got the new buildings up there. We had to – to accommodate the increased personnel.

An important point to make, most people that are here have been in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most people have done their combat tours over there and then a lot of us have lost friends or know someone who has been lost in combat operations. You know and that always weighs on the back of everybody’s mind. I didn’t know anybody personally, but I’ve had three close friends who have lost sons in Iraq and another real close friend of mine whose son was badly injured in Afghanistan, a couple of people I knew that were badly wounded in Iraq. It’s something always in the back of our minds.

BOB: That obviously changes people. You see your friends change. How have you changed from 9/11?

JD: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I hadn’t even thought about that. I don’t think I’ve changed. The nation has changed, obviously, mostly for good. We’ll never be the same and neither will the military. That’s another piece of this too, the military has changed so much. The Army I grew up in was really a peacetime Army. We had our combat operations, the first war in Iraq, Grenada, but we’ve been at war – the military’s been at war – 10 years now.

And, you don’t run into a soldier who hasn’t been in a combat zone. You don’t run into anybody who hasn’t been under fire. These young guys that I see today, these majors that work for me out there today, a whole different breed of people than it was than we had in the Army when I was a major – a completely different world, a completely different military.

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