OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- Almost every American remembers where they were and what they were doing on 9-11.
For a few Airmen at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., who were present that day, the sight of Air Force One landing here, sending Offutt into the history annals as a footnote on this day, is something they'll never forget.
As the events of 9-11 were first unfolding, President George W. Bush was on a trip in Florida to highlight a few of his educational initiatives.
After being informed of the terrorist attacks taking place in New York City and at the Pentagon, he boarded Air Force One for a return trip to Washington D.C. However, shortly after taking off the president's security team was informed about the possibility of further terrorist attacks at the nation's capital and of a direct threat to his aircraft.
With that in mind, the decision was quickly made to change the aircraft's destination to Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
From this base in northwest Louisiana, the president was able to address the nation and to reassure the globe that justice would be served to those responsible for the horrific attacks on the United States.
"Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward," President Bush told the world, "and freedom will be defended."
After boarding Air Force One once again, the president's leadership team decided to make one more stop before heading back to the White House. This time it would be to Offutt, home of U.S. Strategic Command and the 55th Wing.
USSTRATCOM's communication abilities, location and overall security made it a very desirable location for the president.
"Offutt has a well-deserved reputation for being able to get the job done," said John McQueney, 55th Wing historian. "The president had a number of options for where he could go and he chose to come here because it was understood that Offutt could do what the president needed done."
The notification of the president's pending arrival to base was quite sudden and an unexpected surprise to some.
"I was sitting at my desk in the command post when the initial notification came in that the president was coming," said Jeff Noe, a systems analyst with the 55th WG, who was the superintendent of the command post on 9-11. "It took me a little by surprise, but we initiated notifications to the wing commander and all applicable units immediately."
Seeing Air Force One in person can be quite impressive. But seeing it on approach on a day where the Federal Aviation Administration had shut down all air traffic over the United States must have been both extraordinary and surreal.
"When we heard the president was in route, we walked out the front door and watched his arrival from the top of the hill," said Lt. Col. Kevin Williams, 55th Operations Support Squadron commander, who was with the 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron at the time and temporarily housed in the current 338th Combat Training Squadron building.
"It was an impressive sight and the perfect view," Williams added.
"I watched Air Force One land at Offutt on TV and through my window (in the dorms) at the same time," said Dylan Graves, an avionics mechanic with the 55th Maintenance Squadron, who was an airman 1st class at Offutt on 9-11. "It was just happenstance really. I turned to CNN and they were reporting that he was on his way to Offutt ... and to actually see it was insane."
While some personnel had received word that the president was on his way, others had not.
"We were trying to get from our squadron down to the operational squadron and we found ourselves trapped in between the initial security forces sweep and the presidential security," said Thomas Lewis, a contractor with the 97th Intelligence Squadron, who was an instructor with the 338th CTS on 9-11. "We were told to pull over and sit, so we saw the president and all of the support folks drive past from Air Force One to STRATCOM."
"I had no idea the president was coming until I saw him exiting Air Force One on the flightline," said Kevin Church, a security specialist with USSTRATCOM, who was a member of the National Airborne Operations Center on the E-4B that day.
"After we arrived back at Offutt on the E-4 I ran into the NAOC facility to retrieve a timeline of the events so far," Church said. "It wasn't until I stepped back out of the facility and saw the president exiting Air Force One did I know that he was coming. It really caught me off-guard."
While at Offutt, President Bush went to USSTRATCOM's global operations center where he received more details on the attacks and spoke with his national security advisors.
"In large part, the president came to Offutt precisely because of the characteristics that supported the deterrence-oriented headquarters of (Strategic Air Command) and STRATCOM," said Jerry Martin, USSTRATCOM historian.
"The president was able to get updates on the situation and hold secure video-teleconferences with his key advisors back in Washington," he continued. "Using the available communications links, the president could have remained longer in Nebraska and retained an effective engagement with government offices in Washington, but based on his teleconferences, he developed a clear view of the situation and decided that he would return to the capital and exercise his leadership responsibilities there."
Even though the president was only on the installation for about 90 minutes, it forever placed Offutt into any 9-11 timeline recounting the events of the day.
"Offutt will forever be intimately connected with the events of 9-11," McQueney said. "Historians will not be able to offer a complete analysis of that day's events without including the role the base played. This has not changed and the people of Offutt continue to serve the nation one decade later."
The president's visit also solidified Offutt's standing as one of the most important and strategically-located military installations in the nation.
"The events of 9-11 refocused attention on STRATCOM and the role played by Offutt in supporting our national security policy," Martin said. "Although popular interest and attention may have diminished after the SAC years, the important supporting infrastructure provided by Offutt and the personnel of the wing continued on, and these valuable capabilities were highlighted in the activities on 9-11."
Even now, 10 years later, President Bush's visit here on 9-11 is still remembered vividly and for those who saw it first-hand it will remain in their memories along with the other events of that tragic day.