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A look back on 9/11

One local Guardsman’s service on that day

Retired Washington Air National Guard Colonel Robert Ezelle was the director of operations of the Western Air Defense Sector on 9/11. Photo credit: Courtesy photo

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As Robert Ezelle prepared to go home after the horrendous events of 9/11, he took a last look out over the operations floor in the Western Air Defense Sector (WADS) building at McChord Field.

"We had those old green radar screens, and those scopes were never blank," he recalled.

"But on that night, there was not a single blip. It was surreal, and that feeling continued as I drove home. I knew that what we had experienced had changed us profoundly."

Normalcy for him began as the son of a foreign service officer who served both in Hong Kong and Europe. Returning to the United States at age 17, he enrolled at Occidental College. He graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1977.

After a couple of years of work, he decided to join the Air Force. He earned his commission in 1980.

"Growing up I had read everything I could on military history and aviation," he continued, "and after I was commissioned, I began my career as a pilot."

Ezelle went on to say that by nature he is calm, deliberative, analytical and driven to accomplish what he sets out to do.

While on active duty, he flew F-4s, F-15s and F-16s. In 1993 he joined the Washington Air National Guard where he flew Vipers. Serving until 2010, he retired as a colonel.

Currently, Ezelle serves as the director of the Emergency Management Division of the Washington Military Department.

"A lot of people invested in me, from my wife, to my parents, to my instructor pilots, to Maj. Gen. Daugherty," he said.

Daugherty is The Adjutant General of the State of Washington. 

Everything from his deliberative nature to the lessons Ezelle had learned from the important people in his life was put to the test on the morning of 9/11.

"I was driving to work, and I was listening to the radio when I heard the announcer begin to talk about the World Trade Center (WTC) as a target," began the former Guardsman who at the time was director of operations.

"I began to wonder why the WTC was important to terrorists, and then I began to think that something must have happened."

As he drove down Bridgeport Ave. in Lakewood, on his way to McChord Field, Ezelle then heard that another airliner had struck the WTC.

"My pager went off, and it was clear to me what was happening," he continued.

Running into the building and up to his office, Ezelle told his flight scheduler to contact every fighter base up and down the west coast.

"I told her to call them all; to generate jets with whatever ordnance they could and get them ready to launch."

In setting up the air defense posture, Ezelle's scheduler at that moment knew nothing about the attack.

"The confusion of the events had to be sorted through," he explained. "We were clearly under attack; we knew that airliners were weapons; we had to establish situational awareness."

And that was a problem.

"Our radar looked out for incoming aircraft. We had no picture on the inside, we could not identify airliners operating in our air space," he explained.

"We worked with the FAA (Federal Aviation Agency) in order to bring airliners in as we initiated combat air patrols."

As Ezelle and his staff continued to labor, they wondered what else was out there. As the morning wore on, they learned that four planes had been involved in the attack.

At some point, First Air Force called and told Ezelle that he was to be the commander in charge of ensuring that Air Force One with President George W. Bush on board return safely to Washington D.C.

When the attack on the WTC occurred, the President had been reading to a group of 2nd graders at an elementary school in Sarasota, Florida. Soon after, a third plane struck the Pentagon, and a fourth plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field.

"We managed the chaos; we worked very well as a team; we got President Bush back to Washington safely," concluded Ezelle.

But the world - and America - has changed as the threats introduced that day have evolved.

"But I do have a heartfelt ‘thank you' to each and every one of you today who keep us safe."

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