How 9/11 changed the NH National Guard

  • Maj Gen David Mikolaities, adjutant general of the New Hampshire National Guard, speaks during the NHNG’s annual awards ceremony Dec. 13, 2018. Tech. Sgt. Aaron Vezeau—Courtesy

  • (From left) Master Sgt. Matthew Collier, Col. Dick Martell and Command Chief Master Sgt. David Eaton sign a charter for the NHANG Enlisted Council on June 7, 2009 at Pease Air National Guard Base in Newington. Courtesy of Staff Sgt. Curtis J. Lenz

  • Major General John Blair stands by a Russian bomber that someone from 260th Air Traffic Control Squadron NHANG painted the tail of at the wreck at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Retired Major General John Blair

Monitor staff
Published: 9/9/2021 6:16:20 PM

Twenty years ago, retired Maj. Gen. John Blair was on a morning conference call with Governor Jeanne Shaheen when the Department of Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray interrupted to tell them that a plane had struck the World Trade Center.

A few days later, Blair, former adjutant general of the New Hampshire National Guard, was high above the still-smoking wreckage in a refueling plane piloted by his son, an Air Force Academy graduate.

“We’re over the city of New York. The towers are still burning,” Blair said. The Air Force fighter jets circling the city skies carried live munitions, not the typical training missiles painted blue. “To see ... live antiaircraft weapons hanging from American jets over the United States was really awakening to me. It was surreal.”

The New Hampshire National Guard sprang into action immediately after the attacks, refueling fighter jets on patrol over New York City and Washington, D.C., securing important locations in the state and providing airport security. But the role of the Guard has also changed more significantly in the two decades since 9/11, as members take on more frequent and longer overseas deployments in active war zones.

“The biggest way the National Guard has changed is we’re no longer a strategic reserve, we’re an operational force,” said Major General David Mikolaities, adjutant general of the New Hampshire National Guard. “We’re getting the funding now, because of the constant global war on terror and near-continuous deployments for the past 20 years, that the active component, you couldn’t do it without the National Guard, both Army and Air.”

The country and the state has come to rely more on the National Guard, which acts as a combat reserve force for the U.S. Army and Air Force.

The dual mission of National Guard members, the majority of whom are students or work full-time in civilian jobs, means that their skills as cooks, musicians and mechanics are put to use both in New Hampshire and overseas. Guard members train on the weekends and are activated when the state or country calls on them to deal with security threats or natural disasters.

“Those same soldiers who are doing a search and rescue in the White Mountain National Forest are deploying every two, two-and-a-half to three years to the Middle East to provide that same kind of support in areas where there’s conflict,” Mikolaities said.

Flying over your owncountry

Retired Colonel Dick Martell was commander of the 157th Air Refueling Wing at Pease Air National Guard Base on 9/11, and now lives in Kensington. As Martell watched footage of the North Tower in flames, the pilot with decades of flying experience remembers thinking that there was no way that a small propellor plane had accidentally hit the tower, as news anchors were speculating.

That Tuesday had begun with a Day of Caring at the hangar, as he sent people off to work on United Way projects like painting or mending a fence at a homeless shelter. Then, he declared the highest readiness level on the base.

“Amazingly, and quite proudly, we didn’t call anybody in but pretty soon folks showed up,” Martell said. By 11:30 p.m. that night, activated members of the New Hampshire National Guard were flying over New York City and Washington, D.C., acting as airborne refueling stations for the fighter jets on patrol in the air space.

Similar to Blair, Martell was on one of those refueling missions a few days later, watching the Towers still smoking down below. He had been a pilot for 20 years, but had never flown like that over his own country.

“It just strikes right at your heart,” he said. “It’s your job to protect it. It puts your heart in your throat.”

Senior Master Sergeant Alan Beaulieu of Manchester also flew in those refueling missions over New York, Washington D.C. and Boston. Participating in those missions, with some shifts between midnight and 4 a.m, helped Beaulieu channel his confusion and anger after the attacks.

“I was in a position where I could do something about this,” he said. “That helped, being able to not just sit on the bench and watch.”

More frequent deployments

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, a New Hampshire National Guard member could have a 20-year career without ever deploying overseas. Today, Guard members who have served that long have had at least one or two deployments, Mikolaities said.

More than 3,300 N.H. Guardsmen have deployed overseas in support of combat and humanitarian missions since 9/11, said Lt. Col. Greg Heilshorn, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire National Guard.

Martell was deployed first to Morón in Spain, where the military sent C17 planes into Kandahar in Afghanistan.

“Before 9/11, I had 285 full-time folks and that number swelled to double that. We became, for the next 20 years, a non-stop deploying unit,” Martell said.

Blair, who had served in Vietnam before joining the National Guard in the 1970s, said the Guard force he oversaw in 2001 has evolved.

“We went from weekend warriors to an operational force that was regularly deployed with the same rotation rate as some active component people,” Blair said. Rotation rate refers to the length of time between deployments, which became shorter following 2001.

Beaulieu, who was deployed to Qatar, said having community and employer support during his deployments was essential.

“It’s important because when you’re deployed overseas, you’re away from your family. If the furnace breaks, who’s going to fix it?” he said. “You’re on the other side of the world. You can’t be worried about home.”

He said he couldn’t go anywhere in uniform without someone buying him a coffee. “The support is a big deal, and it’s appreciated,” he said.

National Guard members who served in the Middle East have closely watched the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer. Some say they are disappointed, if not surprised, to see the Taliban takeover of the country.

“I’m glad we’re out,” Martell said. “It’s sad, what’s going on, but it’s inevitable. Once we left, a country that’s been at war for decades...I wish it turned out better.”

Blair said he is heartbroken and likening the withdrawal to Vietnam, where he served before joining the Guard. “Twenty years was long enough to be there, if they can’t take care of themselves, that’s one thing. But leave honorably,” he said.

“There are so many military principles that I held that I was taught that were violated. You don’t leave tools of war to the enemy. If you can’t take them, you destroy them,” he added. The other key principle is getting civilians out before military personnel.

NH National Guardtoday

In the two decades since 2001, the New Hampshire National Guard has responded to floods, ice storms and other disasters, including sending about 500 Guardsmen down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

More recently, the Guard has spent the last year aiding the state in its response to the coronavirus. At the pandemic’s peak, about 788 soldiers and airmen were activated, performing tasks like contact tracing, vaccinations and helping out at state’s PPE warehouse. Infantrymen trained to dig foxholes tilled vegetable beds at the New Hampshire Food Bank, where the Guard’s cooks made meals for months.

The pandemic has represented the longest activation for the New Hampshire Guard in its history for a domestic event, Heilshorn said.

Demands on the Guard from the state and federal government have grown alongside public awareness of the Guard’s role in defending the country and fighting its wars. “We’re a Swiss utility knife,” Mikolaities said, useful for a variety of challenges.

The modern threats that the New Hampshire National Guard is anticipating in the coming decades include worsening natural disasters, like ice storms and floods, and cyber attacks.

“You don’t want to take anything for granted,” Mikolaites said. “It’s our responsibility to just be prepared.”

Cassidy Jensen bio photo

Cassidy Jensen has been a reporter at the Monitor, covering the city of Concord and criminal justice, since July 2021. Previously, she was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree. Her work has been published in Documented, THE CITY, Washington City Paper and Street Sense Media. When she's not at City Council meetings, you can find her hiking in the White Mountains.

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