For some Nelson County residents, Sept. 11, 2001, solidified their commitment to their careers serving the country.
Wayne Parent, a Roseland resident, was a career Coast Guard officer thinking he would retire and transition to teaching middle school and maybe coaching sports. As Parent said, it was the thing many people in his position did. Instead, he ended up being part of the first group of individuals to form the Department of Homeland Security in response to the 9/11 attacks.
In 2001, Parent was in his 40s and beginning to think about the next chapter of his life. Retiring from a career in the Coast Guard, teaching, coaching and enjoying a relaxing civilian life seemed like the ideal next step.
“But then 9/11 came along and everything changed,” Parent said.
For United States Navy Captain and Judge Advocate General Corps (JAGC) Todd Huntley, a Lovingston resident, he was all set to get out of the Navy in 2001 and transition into a career as a civilian prosecutor. After having been in the Navy for four and a half years, Huntley had officially signed papers declining his career status offer with the Navy.
“I called my boss in Naples, Italy and told him about my decision. His response was ‘I’m sorry to hear that and can we talk more later? Did you hear something about a plane hitting the World Trade Center?’” Huntley said.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States was attacked by the radical Islamic group al-Qaeda. The group coordinated four attacks: two planes crashed into the World Trade Centers in New York; one crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia; passengers on a plane headed for Washington, DC thwarted a fourth attack and ended up crashing into a field in Pennsylvania.
Huntley, stationed in Sicily, Italy at the time, said it was the middle of the afternoon and without TV or radio, he and others didn’t know what was going on at first. They managed to find a TV and turn on the news as the second plane hit the World Trade Center.
“Things got really crazy. They shut down the base. No one knew what was going to happen next or what was going on. I thought ‘Our country has been attacked, we are going to go to war, and so I really can’t get out right now,’” Huntley recalled.
For Huntley, Sept. 11, 2001, meant 18 more years in the military, which he said he doesn’t regret. For the military, it meant more soldiers in the Army, Air Force and Marines fighting in the Middle East, which in turn required more support from all other aspects of the military, like Huntley. Huntley was assigned to work with special operations task forces like the United States Navy Sea, Air, and Land Teams (SEALs) and the United States Special Forces, known as Green Berets.
“I spent seven years of my career assigned as a legal advisor for special operations. In the past, that’s unheard of,” Huntley said.
For military families, Huntley said, it meant being apart for long stretches of time.
“You now have an entire generation of kids that grew up with whichever parent in military gone for most of their life,” Huntley said.
Parent was also abroad when the attacks happened. Parent was on a Coast Guard ship in Central America, working on a domestic mission related to drugs.
“People use the word ‘surreal’ all the time. It was a bit surreal,” Parent said.
All communications to and from Parent’s ship went through the Pentagon and because of that, the systems were down. Parent said nothing like that had ever happened before. When the backup systems came online and they were able to get in touch with those in command back in the states, Parent said he turned the ship north and immediately headed home.
“I had been at Quantico the year before that studying special Islamic terrorist groups. I had studied al-Qaeda and other groups. I wouldn’t say it was instantaneously, but pretty soon after I made the connection,” Parent said.
The terrorist attack killed almost 3,000 people, injured thousands more, and for Parent, marked a transition from a life in the military to being one of the first to work in the new government agency.
“Within a year of the attack, there was a movement to create the Department of Homeland Security,” Parent said.
Parent retired from the Coast Guard officially in 2003 and was already working for the Department of Homeland Security. He stayed with the DHS, as deputy director of operations, until retiring in 2014.
In 2002, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act and in March 2003, the Department of Homeland Security officially opened its doors as an individual stand-alone cabinet-level department in the federal government. DHS opened under the direction of former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge.
“At the standup of the headquarters in January 2003 approximately 25 people were the entire staff for the Secretary, Tom Ridge,” Parent said.
Parent was part of the 22 government agencies that came together such as United States Customs, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (then Immigration and Naturalization Service), Transportation Security Administration, Secret Service, Board Patrol and Coast Guard to form the new group. For Parent, and everyone else involved, it was a challenging transition that had to be done.
“You had to get people together and tell them to move resources from a mission they had done for 200 years to a new mission,” Parent said.
Now, 18 years later, Parent said the new safety measures DHS implemented have made the country safer from foreign terror attacks. Such measures include “see something, say something” ads, the extensive security checks at airports, the alert and report system through the department that goes to the White House, and biometric border security.
“There hasn’t been a 9/11 since. I think that’s proof,” Parent said.
For Parent, it’s important for people to remember that any threat to the United States of America should be taken seriously. Parent said students learning about the attack should know not everyone, foreign and domestic groups and individuals, like America.
“We need to be concerned up to a certain point. We don’t need to overreact, but don’t take them too lightly. 9/11 is a good example,” Parent said. “[al-Qaeda] carried out two specific attacks and said they were going to attack again, but we didn’t take them seriously because they weren’t a big nation state.”
Huntley, like Parent, said if 9/11 hadn’t happened, his entire life would have taken a different path. Now, after seeing how much sacrifice went into defending the country post- 9/11, he is still conflicted about leaving the military. While stationed overseas twice, once in 2006 and once in 2013, he remembers an officer who, at that point, had served 18 tours and was getting ready to serve his 19th.
“I think that’s something most civilians who haven’t served don’t understand — we have soldiers who have spent more than half their lives in Afghanistan or Iraq fighting since 9/11. Think about the sacrifices they and their families have made,” Huntley said. “I feel bad getting out. I feel like I should be doing more. That’s a difficult choice. Looking back who knows what would have been, but I am satisfied with the decision I made.”
Huntley is finally getting ready to retire and said it’s nice to be in a place like Nelson County, where the community is supportive.
“I just think it’s difficult for a lot of military to get reintegrated back into the community. Having a close knit community like Nelson is a great thing,” Huntley said.
Parent is proud of the work he has done both as a Coast Guard officer and with DHS.
“I reflect on the people that were brought together to do that mission,” Parent said. “As time goes on you forget the news headlines and individual chapters, but you remember the people.”
Erin Conway covers Nelson County for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5524.