The Pearl Harbor of Our Generation
University of North Dakota
“I knew right away what it was.”
Allan Nelson, Air Force Colonel (Ret) and UND alumnus, said this sitting in his Fort Collins, CO, home as he thought about the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
His career in the Air Force spanned 30 years and he had seen everything from Vietnam to the falling of the Berlin Wall, to the war in Kosovo in the late 1990s. Having specialized in planning and intelligence, Nelson understood what he was witnessing in Washington, D.C., that beautiful fall day, maybe better than most. Still, this husband and father, originally from rural Minnesota, was forever changed by this significant moment in United States history.
Nelson had changed his mind about his plans for that day. Instead of going into the office – the west side of the Pentagon – he was headed to Bolling Air Force Base to sign paperwork. Paperwork for his retirement scheduled for September 13 that year.
He was originally set for a walk through of the retirement ceremony, but he opted to get the paperwork out of the way.
“If I had been on the walk through, I would have been right where the building was hit,” he said. The walk through was in an area on the second floor to the left of his office. To the left of where he had gone to work, every day, for the past five years.
Knowing communication lines would likely be down, he quickly called his wife at home and then his son in Colorado to let them know he was ok but no one would be able to reach him for some time. It was all very fast, very chaotic and life-changing.
Nelson compares that day to being, “the Pearl Harbor of our generation. No other thing had such a physical and emotional impact on me.”
When everything was able to be assessed, it was overwhelming to see. “There was a lot of water and smoke damage. The building was smoldering for about two weeks,” he said. Amazingly, though, Nelson noted it could have been much worse. “The spot [where the Pentagon was hit] had just been redone so everything was a lot stronger. There were not as many people there either because not everyone had moved back in. If the terrorists had known that, they would have hit any other part of the building.”
Still, the damage created was shocking.
“I lost two neighbors, a colleague and an Air Force friend of 20 years,” Nelson said.
Access was the biggest change at the Pentagon, according to Nelson. He said, “It almost became a fortress.” For security, things like bus routes and the subway were moved farther from the building. And, no longer was showing a Military ID sufficient for admittance. “After 30 years of working in the Air Force, I could no longer get in. My family was escorted by armed security with machine guns to my retirement.
"It was a total collapse of freedom. No one was given an exemption,” he said.
Before the attacks on 9/11, the Air Force was trying to restructure toward asymmetric warfare. Nelson, himself, worked on leading the restructuring of intelligence in the Air Force. The Navy and Army moved as well to adapt to post-Cold War intelligence issues. “My reaction to things was that we responded well. But, it wasn’t until after 9/11 that we realized the threat.”
The continual adjustment has since allowed our Armed Forces to jump out in front of threats. “For me,” Nelson said, “it has brought some closure. Since 9/11, we’ve disrupted and dismantled a lot of terrorist networks. Al Qaeda is a more fragmented organization. Over the next four to five years there is the potential to see a decline in terror. There are more opportunities for settlements now.”
Over and above the advance in military efforts, Nelson noted, “Americans have their eyes open now.”
Progress moves us forward
When it comes to the wars that have risen since 2001, Nelson sees it this way: “When you talk about a winnable war, you have to define ‘what is winning?’ Look at Iran with nuclear weapons. You don’t say that’s winnable. You say it’s resolvable.”
Reflecting on Iraq and Afghanistan, he continued, “The U.S. is making progress. I wouldn’t say winning but we’re making progress. So, we may come to a point where issuing a settlement is an option. An issue with that is do the American people have enough patience to get to that point.”
A Decade of Perspective
Ten years and countless reports or investigations later, there is so much more we know about that day. And still, so much we do not.
Nelson says that the enormity of what happened and all the details of the day didn’t sink in right way.
“Fleeting memories come through now and again, almost like remembering a bad car accident,” he said. “Six to eight months after, I was at a restaurant talking to a first responder who broke down and started crying. So, it’s not only about those who were there when it happened, but it’s the response teams, too. The body’s ability to ‘fight or flight’ locks different emotions in the moment, but afterward those emotions wear you out.”
Two weeks after the attack, Allan Nelson finally had his retirement ceremony. He spent a total of 30 years in the Air Force, and his final position was in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness as Chief of Global Military Requirements. The Stephen, MN, native, who majored in accounting at UND, never even imagined he’d spend a full career in the Air Force. A career that stationed him in Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Colorado, two stops at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and across 60 countries. He served under seven U.S. presidents.
Nelson and his wife, Mary, have four grown children and now enjoy their view of the mountains in Fort Collins, CO.
Hvidsten, Amanda, "The Pearl Harbor of Our Generation" (2011). UND News Archive. 193.