9/11 responders speak with Academy cadets, staff at Falcon Heritage Forum

David Russell III speaks with cadets and faculty members at the Air Force Academy's Falcon Heritage Forum Sept. 7, 2011. Russell, a fourth-generation firefighter, retired from the Fire Department of New York in November 2008 and retired from the New York Air National Guard as a technical sergeant in November 2005. He spent four straight days at ground zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and continued working at the site until March 30, 2002. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

David Russell III speaks with cadets and faculty members at the Air Force Academy's Falcon Heritage Forum Sept. 7, 2011. Russell, a fourth-generation firefighter, retired from the Fire Department of New York in November 2008 and retired from the New York Air National Guard as a technical sergeant in November 2005. He spent four straight days at ground zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and continued working at the site until March 30, 2002. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

New York Port Authority Police Sgt. John Gorman speaks to cadets and staff members at the Air Force Academy during a Falcon Heritage Forum panel Sept. 7, 2011. Gorman, a retired Air National Guard master sergeant, responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, assisting search-and-recovery efforts at the councourse level and subway entrances at the Port Authority Trans-Hudson station and the debris field created from the collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

New York Port Authority Police Sgt. John Gorman speaks to cadets and staff members at the Air Force Academy during a Falcon Heritage Forum panel Sept. 7, 2011. Gorman, a retired Air National Guard master sergeant, responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, assisting search-and-recovery efforts at the councourse level and subway entrances at the Port Authority Trans-Hudson station and the debris field created from the collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Four individuals involved in the nation's response to the stunning terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, spoke to cadets and staff members here during a Falcon Heritage Forum panel Sept. 7.

On the panel were Master Sgt. Brian Boisvert, Lt. Col. Timothy Conklin, retired Lt. Col. Francis Doiron and native New Yorker Charlie Kerrigan.

Though a 50-minute time constraint prevented full elaboration, the assembled speakers captured why and how that day changed everything for the foreseeable future, if not forever.

Their answers alternated between humor, reflection, analysis and opinion. The variety, which included some saucy language, showed that there are, perhaps, some wounds that time cannot heal.

"I have a lot of friends who don't have fathers or mothers as a result of 9/11," Kerrigan, a longtime volunteer firefighter, told the audience. "I don't like that some of our liberties have been taken away because of what terrorists did. I see political correctness taking the place of common sense."

All four panelists described their actions on Sept. 11, 2001: where they were, what they were doing, how they found out -- the questions that are all but expected on such a topic.
Doiron, currently an operations program analyst for the Space-Based Infrared System at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., said that during his youth his mother frequently shared the minutest details of Dec. 7, 1941, with him to the point that he got tired of hearing them. In the days since the terrorist attacks on the East Coast, he has come to understand why she did that.

He and the other panelists were doing essentially the same thing Sept. 7 at the Academy with a group of people who were in elementary or middle school then.

Conklin, now commander of the Colorado Air National Guard's 120th Fighter Squadron, picked up on the theme in his remarks. He noted that less than 1 percent of the U.S. population has a record of military service and added that the percentage has never been lower.

"This country has a history of having a very short memory," he said. "This nation's going to forget, and it's up to us as members of the military to make sure that this nation doesn't forget."

In reflecting on what has changed since the attacks, the panelists listed several things, including the public's greater recognition of the military and willingness to express gratitude to service members.

The hassles of contemporary air travel were subject to the panel's lampooning. His super-short military-style haircut visible to everyone, Boisvert, the superintendent of public affairs for the 97th Air Mobility Wing at Altus AFB, Okla., deadpanned that because of the restrictions on liquids and gels, he "can no longer get conditioned hair on an airplane."

But the photographer of 18 years turned serious when he addressed a subject in which his listeners could surely relate to.

"(Operations security) is more critical now because of 9/11 than it ever was, and then you throw in social media," he said, singling out "little things like geotagging on Facebook." The famous World War II admonition that loose lips sink ships may seem quaint nowadays, but it's more relevant than ever precisely because social media magnifies both the potential and the consequences of information falling into the wrong hands.

Conklin, a 1988 Academy graduate, also tailored a significant portion of his message to the capacity crowd seated in front of the panel. He said that the leadership skills they learn at the Academy will be applicable to any chaotic situation they might face as officers.

"What I want to express to you guys is that there is no better place on the planet to be from," he said.