SHERIDAN — Americans from coast to coast experienced a culture shift following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Those serving in the military before and after the attacks witnessed the drastic difference among fellow service members and the nation from the front lines.
Chris Dempsey and Kristina Miller both served in the military before, during and after 9/11. The shift from viewing the military as a steady form of income to a means of helping people and fighting a known enemy resonates with both.
“At first it was excitement; your adrenaline is going and you’re just excited,” Dempsey said. “The more we heard, the more that turned to pure anger. We wanted to retaliate.”
Dempsey and Miller served equal time before and after 9/11; Dempsey had served around 10 years and Miller served six years. On the morning of 9/11, Dempsey was abruptly awakened while elk hunting by his hunting buddy and fellow Air Force airman squealing back into camp. Instead of excitement about bagging an elk, he was yelling at Dempsey to come listen to Dan Rather repeatedly relaying everything he knew about the terrorist attacks.
Dempsey, who processed deployment paperwork, figured he would be needed immediately on the base. The two headed off the mountain and immediately contacted the chain of command to see what needed to be done. The higher ranks said the Malmstrom Air Force Base was on lock down and in complete chaos and suggested the two finish their hunting trip.
“At that point, a terrorist attack is not imminent, it has happened,” Dempsey said. “Every military installation in the whole country just went on immediate lock down, so we couldn’t even get on the base for two days.”
Dempsey and his friend stayed two more days on the mountain before heading back down.
“When we got back to the base from elk camp, we were standing in a literal line of people asking to deploy,” Dempsey said. “We wanted to go.”
Back on the the base, they were met with six months of 16- to 18-hour workdays, deploying members of their team. Then, it was Dempsey’s turn to combine with other military branches on teams headed to the Middle East. Dempsey had been deployed before, but this time in Afghanistan, it felt different.
“Before you’d get a deployment and it was more of a vacation,” Dempsey said. “But after that, there was a purpose; there was a swelling sense of pride and that purpose was there.”
The sense of pride swelled throughout the country, and Miller saw firsthand the immediate response to the attacks in addition to the nationwide sense of patriotism and support for service members.
Miller worked across the river from the Pentagon and also experienced a lock down situation after the plane crashed into the massive building. As a media manager, Miller had a crew filming interviews for Navy sailors. When her team members, who were spared because they were working outside of the building, reported back, the immediate response by service members and civilians alike still brings Miller to tears.
“(You see) all these people that were running away from the Pentagon, and then you see this shift in a humongous majority of them, even though they’re scared too, turn around and try to go help,” Miller said. “It was very powerful to me to…hear that first-hand experience.”
Six days after the attacks, Miller was scheduled to transfer to her next duty station in San Diego, and she had chosen to make it a cross-country road trip. On that road trip, she saw state after state lined with American flags flying and could not manage to find a location with an American flag left for her to purchase.
“Unfortunately events like this with all the horrible things that come out of it, the amazing emotion and pride in who we are as Americans just surfaces, comes bubbling up to the top,” Miller said.
Before the attacks, Miller and Dempsey served in the military to maintain secure occupations and raise families. Following the attacks, service serving took on new meaning as they lost friends and watched deployments skyrocket as the years passed. One thing lasts 17 years later — serving in the military will never be the same as it was before 9/11, Miller and Dempsey said.