Wichita Last Sept. 11, the shockwaves from events at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in a field in rural Pennsylvania washed across the nation and changed everything they touched.
At McConnell Air Force Base, what began as a pleasant, upbeat autumn day took a hard turn into the reality of home-front terrorism. Things at McConnell began to change instantly.
All nonessential personnel were hustled off the base. Security forces wearing flak jackets and carrying M-16s appeared, along with bomb-sniffing dogs. Concrete barricades were hoisted into position, and long lines of cars, with grim-faced service personnel at the wheels, backed up along Rock Road, waiting to be searched.
Outwardly, activity at the base has shifted back to pre-Sept. 11 status. But McConnell remains a major jumping-off point for those waging Operation Enduring Freedom, the war against terrorism, and Operation Noble Eagle, the mission to achieve homeland security.
And for many of those stationed at McConnell, their outlook on military service has changed dramatically.
"Life has changed for everyone since Sept. 11, 2001, and the military is no exception," said Col. Michelle Johnson, base commander and head of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell.
'A great honor'
More than 1,700 of the base's approximately 2,600 personnel already have been deployed many more than once and the base is gearing up for its regularly scheduled surge of deployments under the Air Force's Air Expeditionary Force program. Currently, 512 McConnell airmen and 162 planes are deployed.
"It is important to stress that the war on terror has involved not just fliers and security forces but virtually every Air Force specialty on base from civil engineers to communications specialists, maintainers, services personnel, chaplains, supply personnel and finance troops," Johnson said.
That includes Capt. Robert Gomez, a maintenance supervisor. He was on the flight line at McConnell when he heard the news of the attacks.
"Somebody came running up and said that Washington, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center had been attacked," said Gomez, 30, of El Paso, Tex. "When key targets like that are hit, I thought we had probably entered the last and final great war of man's history."
Gomez and 140 maintainers were soon on their way overseas to build what the Air Force calls the "air bridge" to the front.
"We're the gas stations in the air," he said, describing the mission to fuel bombers, fighters and even other tankers en route to Afghanistan.
He said he was especially proud of his young crew members who put their training to work on the front lines.
"They do it because they care. They do it because they're patriots. They do it because they want to serve," Gomez said. "It's a great honor to serve."
Staff Sgt. Leonida Dotson, 30, and her husband, Hamp Dotson, 36, are personnel specialists in the refueling wing. He deployed last week. She expects to be deployed sometime next spring or summer hopefully after he returns to McConnell. Most deployments are for 90 days, but there are no guarantees.
The Dotsons have a 2-year-old son, Brendon, who is just beginning to understand that something has changed.
"Sunday, when we were going to the store, he asked, 'Where Daddy go?'" Leonida Dotson said.
Rachel Edkin, a 20-year-old airman first class from Raytown, Mo., assigned as a command post controller, remembers the awful television images of last September.
"Right when I saw the news, I knew I was going somewhere," she said. Within three weeks, she was right.
She could not reveal where in southwest Asia she was stationed, but she lived in a tent in the desert for five months and worked 12-hour shifts, inputting data on ongoing air missions and keeping track of where her unit's personnel were at all times.
"They call us the 'hub' or the nerve center," said Airman 1st Class Brian Miller, 20, of Aiken, S.C., another command post controller with the refueling wing. He also spent long hours in front of a computer screen in a security post.
Sense of pride
Both he and Edkin said they joined the Air Force to get away from home and to get an education. Following their deployments, they see things differently.
"I would do it again, and I would have a better attitude and be more positive," Edkin said.
"You have pride in yourself, but (now) other people look at you with a sense of respect," Miller said. "When you leave, they look at you like a kid, but when you come back, they look at you like you're grown."
Staff Sgt. Adam Swift, 22, a chaplain's assistant from Norfolk, Va., is about to leave on his first deployment to southwest Asia. He will carry a sidearm as a bodyguard for a chaplain. But, he said, "the biggest part of my job is to make sure people are OK while they're deployed, that their spirituality is intact. You can find more comfort in a tent that's God's house."
Swift, too, signed up for an education and to get away from home. But he has now experienced the sense of pride and purpose, and of belonging to an extended family that comes with military service.
"I put on a uniform to protect my family, so it doesn't come back on our own soil," he said.