The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, were just the beginning of America’s longest war.
Nine days after that fateful day, former President George W. Bush vowed to take revenge on “any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism”. On October 7, 2001, “Operation Enduring Freedom” was launched and eventually 40,000 Minnesotans would become volunteers to fight first in Afghanistan and then in 2003 in Iraq.
“You can’t beat the Minnesota soldiers; Eric Kerska of Rochester said, I don’t care what anyone says. He was a member of the Minnesota National Guard’s 1st Brigade Combat Team and was deployed to Iraq twice during “Operation Desert Storm” and in the years following 9/11. “We had the best of the best.”
Their stories will be remembered and their contributions honored as Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the Minnesota terrorist attacks.
Of those who served, 97 would not come home alive.
State response: Secure airports
National Guard Colonel Chad Sackett, 55, of Little Falls, remembers exactly where the day airplanes hit towers in New York City.
“I was on the road between Bemidji and Red Lake Reservation,” he said. “All of a sudden I’m listening to the radio, and it says the first plane hit the tower. I’m like, boy, it must have been fog or something. And then 10 minutes later the second plane collided. Then you knew it was an accident Wasn’t.”
Sackett, specializing in training, was immediately hired to prepare the National Guard troops to serve at the state’s three international airports. It was the forerunner of the Transportation Security Administration.
At the time, however, federal, state, municipal, and airport security agencies were, for the most part, separate entities that were paid from separate pots. Introducing the Guards to MIX meant writing an entirely new protocol for how they should interact with the public, how they would be paid and how the chain of command would work.
“So we are keeping about 130 people in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Duluth and Rochester,” Sackett said. “We were activating them on Monday, and they should have been at the airports armed and trained on Friday morning. They gave us four days to get them.”
The effort was called “Operation Ice Eagle,” the Minnesota branch of the national “Operation Noble Eagle,” which would save America from another 9/11. When they began to board airplanes again, the soldiers were weary and carrying large guns meant to give the Americans a sense of security.
‘We thought it would be a very short war’
National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Patricia Baker of Glenwood tells the Minnesota Military and Veterans Museum about her first impression of Iraq as a helicopter pilot. She was part of the initial offensive after 9/11 as the commander of an aviation regiment.
“At first you’re curious and you’re excited, and you’re waiting to cross the border,” she said. “But then you cross the border and it’s nothing. … Nothing but the Iraqi desert for hundreds of miles. Not a city, nothing. It’s like the moon.”
She was in Iraq during “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in 2003, when the country’s deposed dictator Saddam Hussein was captured. It was “Mission: Accomplished” and he thought that overall, the operation went smoothly and easier than expected.
“We thought it was going to be a very short war. We were wrong,” she said. “The fight came, just not before.”
With Saddam’s departure, competing Iraqi factions filled the void, and fighting intensified.
“We were in battle, and we were conducting risky, 4-morning air strikes, clearing cities and villages, eliminating rebels,” she said. “And it was kinetic. It was the door guns blazing.”
Taliban attack on police Keating
Andrew Bunderman, First Lieutenant of Grand Rapids, was a leader in the now famous Battle of Afghanistan. He was a member of the Army’s Black Knight Troop (3–61 Cavalry, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division). The fight was made into a 2020 film called “The Outpost” starring Orlando Bloom, Scott Eastwood and others.
On 3 October 2009, Bandarman’s detachment, approximately 53 in number, was deployed to Combat Outpost (COP) Keating, a bowl surrounded by mountains in north-east Afghanistan. He was attacked by more than 300 Taliban fighters. By the end of the fighting, 150 Taliban were killed, eight Americans were killed and 27 were wounded.
“The rate of ensuing fire was enormous, both direct and indirect,” he told the museum as part of his “Resolution” documentary on the state’s role in 9/11 and the wars that followed. “We spent the whole day defending, counterattacking, and then defeating the enemy.”
He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his work.
Training Afghans may be ‘disappointing’
Others, such as Ken Kelly, 48, a retired master sergeant in the National Guard, remember people they met along the way. Kelly of Lakeville, Afghanistan in 2011, was located north of the Hindu Kush mountains in Mazar-i-Sharif, one of the cities recaptured by the Taliban during the recent US withdrawal. He was part of the unit that advised Afghan soldiers, a task that was often frustrating.
“Many of these young Afghan soldiers do not know how to read. They don’t know how to write. They are just there for food and shelter and paychecks,” he said. “But there are some who feel that their role is important to protect their country.”
He remembers an Afghan soldier who listened and showed up every day to listen.
“He was always happy to see me,” Kelly said. “He was one of the few people who actually listened … and would play it to his powers.”
But it was her interpreter, Shafiq, with whom she developed a bond.
“Shafiq was always on time. He always said that he was instrumental in helping us. He will go out and do his job very well,” Kelly said. “I made an effort to build relationships with all the interpreters out there and let them know that the work they did was important to us.”
Interpreters risked their lives working with US and allied forces. Many were killed or their families were threatened.
Kelly didn’t want this to happen to Shafiq. He worked to bring him and two other interpreters to America. When Shafiq arrived, Kelly accompanied him to his naturalization ceremony. Shafiq is now married with one child living in California.
to fight more than kill
Kelly’s wish that Americans understood the work done by him and other soldiers during his time in Iraq and Afghanistan had more to it than the violence seen in the evening news.
“We are not there just to kill people; We are there to help them,” he said. “This is to free the country from terror and help them secure their borders.”
Khaled “Philip” Avada, an interpreter in Iraq in the early 2000s, was brought to America by Paul Braun, a soldier in the Minnesota National Guard, with whom he would become friends. Awda became a US citizen and was eventually able to bring her family as well. He is thankful that they did not lag behind.
“We’re lucky because we tasted the bad life and now we’re tasting the great life,” he says in the documentary “Resolute.” “It’s great to wake up in the morning without any fear.”
heartbreak over current events
As American soldiers leave Afghanistan, soldiers look at the cities they had helped liberate by the Taliban and the friends they had met killed. Emotions are running high. Sacket is demanding accountability.
“There are a lot of blame swirling between politicians and senior military officials on the disastrous conclusion of our presence in Afghanistan,” he said. “I expect the US government to investigate how this happened to both account for and prevent future incidents, in a bipartisan manner, if it is still possible.
“What I know is that it is not the fault of the soldiers on the ground who did what they told them, as has happened throughout the history of our country,” he said. “I thank them and their families for bearing the brunt of their service and sacrifice.”
To hear more stories about Minnesota’s connection to 9/11 and the war on terror, watch “Resolute,” a documentary compiled by Randall Dietrich, executive director of the Minnesota Military and Veterans Museum. It will air on KSTP-TV on Friday, September 10 at 7 pm and will be available to watch at the State Capitol during the September 11 anniversary event.