Colonel Cherrey: A commander's perspective

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Michael Washburn
  • 355th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
(Editor's note: This year will mark the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. These acts brought America to a screeching halt; nothing else that day seemed to matter. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives on that Tuesday morning, and the destiny of a generation changed forever. For those individuals serving in the military, their stories paint a picture that shaped today's Air Force.)

"A number of people in the office heard something about a plane crash at the Twin Towers," said Col. John A. Cherrey, 355th Fighter Wing commander. "We were all watching the news when the second tower was hit. As this was happening, we were also talking to people in the Pentagon because some of our offices were still there. My boss was actually on the phone with someone from the Pentagon talking about the attack on the towers when the Pentagon was hit. They told us that something was going on, all the alarms were going off and they had to evacuate the building."

"I first joined the Air Force in 1984 when I signed up for the reserve officers training corps program at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey," Colonel Cherrey said. "I'm originally from Dumont, New Jersey and I'm the first in my family to join the military."

After many assignments to various locations, Colonel Cherrey was stationed at the Pentagon.

"I got to the Pentagon in early June of 2001," Colonel Cherrey said. "I showed up at my assignment shortly before September 11. The office was moved out of the Pentagon before the attack happened because our particular section of the building was being renovated."

The new location for Colonel Cherrey's office was in Roseland, N.J. He and his co-workers were in the office when they heard the news of the planes hitting the World Trade Center. When the second plane hit the towers, Colonel Cherrey was in disbelief at what had happened.

"I had actually worked in the Twin Towers at one point when I was in college," Colonel Cherrey said. "I know how busy that location can get. I know how many people work there and it was gut-wrenching to know that somebody had done that."

By noon that day, everyone in his office was dismissed, most of the phones were tied up, people were exiting the town and the roads were packed with cars. Colonel Cherrey recalls being able to see flames and smoke still pouring out from the Pentagon. Despite wanting to help, Colonel Cherrey knew they would only get in the way and he and his co-workers would have additional duties to perform in the coming days.

"We all knew that we would be called in the next morning to start working on the crisis action team, which was one of the additional duties of our office," Colonel Cherrey said. "We all knew we would have a role to play in a few hours. All of us have been around events like this enough to know that we weren't going to be able to help from where we were. The Pentagon would be quickly quarantined off and there were plenty of people who were in the Pentagon itself who could be more productive than us. There was a feeling of helplessness as we sat there and watched on TV and tried to figure out what was going on."

Being such a decorated pilot, it was difficult for Colonel Cherrey to be in a position where he could not help.

"There was a lot of me that wanted to join the fight," Colonel Cherrey said. "I was realistic enough to know I had been out of the cockpit for a while, it would take too long to qualify and I had a role to play at the Pentagon."

Experiencing the attacks on the World Trade Centers and the subsequent anniversaries of 9/11 has cemented Colonel Cherrey's reasoning behind the United States' military operations.

"It has given me a sense of purpose too when I've gone to Afghanistan," Colonel Cherrey said. "I know why we're there. I've worked at both the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and there's no doubt in my mind as to why we're overseas."

Because the events of Sept. 11 happened 10 years ago and young Airmen enter the Air Force every day, the significance of the attacks may be lost to the younger generation. From his own experience, Colonel Cherrey finds the exact opposite to be true.

"What amazes me about the young Airmen of today is that they understand why we're doing the things we are," Colonel Cherrey said. "I've never met someone deployed that says 'I don't know why we're here.' We may question at times the procedures or Airmen may debate tactics or strategies, but people understand the core reason to why we're there. They understand 9/11 and they understand that we can't leave the job undone."