Get Task & Purpose in your inbox
What 9/11 Looked Like To The Only American Service Member Not On Earth
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in 2017 and is being republished for the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
The question of “where were you on Sept. 11?,” the traditional addendum to the distinctly post-9/11 rallying cry of “never forget,” means something different to the service members and veterans who saw combat in the Global War on Terror than it does for the average civilians. Thousands of military personnel sprang into action on that Tuesday, from racing toward the World Trade Center and Pentagon alongside first responders to securing U.S. air sovereignty from the cockpit of an F-15. In the decade that followed, more than 3 million Americans joined the armed forces. The attacks were an unmistakable call of duty, one that Americans are still answering 16 years later.
But there was one U.S. service member who felt helpless in the face of the century’s most heinous terrorist attack. He was Navy aviator Capt. Frank Lee Culbertson, and on 9/11, he was stranded in outer space.
The moment that al Qaeda hijackers flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center’s North Tower, Culbertson was 220 miles above the Earth’s surface aboard the International Space Station, one month into his stay as commander of the Expedition 3 mission there. A former F-4 Phantom pilot with the USS Midway in the 1970s, F-4 program manager, and veteran of three spaceflights after joining NASA in 1984, Culbertson’s seen some shit from his high-tech nest screaming across the sky. But in a letter reflecting on the events of Sept. 11 just days after the attacks, Culbertson described the surreal scene unfolding on the island of Manhattan below:
I had just finished a number of tasks this morning, the most time-consuming being the physical exams of all crew members. In a private conversation following that, the flight surgeon told me they were having a very bad day on the ground. I had no idea...
He described the situation to me as best he knew it at ~0900 CDT. I was flabbergasted, then horrified. My first thought was that this wasn't a real conversation, that I was still listening to one of my Tom Clancy tapes. It just didn't seem possible on this scale in our country. I couldn't even imagine the particulars, even before the news of further destruction began coming in.
Astronaut Frank L. Culbertson, Jr. (center), Expedition Three mission commander, flanked by cosmonauts Mikhail Tyurin and Vladimir N. Dezhurov, both flight engineers, assemble for a group photo in the Zvezda Service Module on the International Space Station (ISS)Photo via NASA
The other members of Expedition 3, Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin, were “clearly sympathetic” when Culbertson relayed the flight surgeon’s assessment of the news on the ground. But the true scope of the attack didn’t sink in until the ISS passed over New England just minutes later:
It's horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point. The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on the earth and watching life being destroyed by such willful, terrible acts is jolting to the psyche, no matter who you are. And the knowledge that everything will be different than when we launched by the time we land is a little disconcerting.
Photo via Landsat 7/NASA Goddard Office of Public Affairs
Despite having a front-row seat to the horror unfolding miles below, Culbertson expressed his faith that even if he couldn’t answer the call of duty at that moment, his fellow service members absolutely would.
“I have confidence in our country and in our leadership that we will do everything possible to better defend her and our families, and to bring justice for what has been done,” Culbertson concluded. “I have confidence that the good people at NASA will do everything necessary to continue our mission safely and return us safely at the right time. And I miss all of you very much.”
My brother earned the Medal of Honor for saving countless lives — but only after he was left for dead
"As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night."
Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.
Air Force Master Sgt. John "Chappy" Chapman is my brother. As one of an elite group, Air Force Combat Control — the deadliest and most badass band of brothers to walk a battlefield — John gave his life on March 4, 2002 for brothers he never knew.
They were the brave men who comprised a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) that had been called in to rescue the SEAL Team 6 team (Mako-30) with whom he had been embedded, which left him behind on Takur Ghar, a desolate mountain in Afghanistan that topped out at over 10,000 feet.
As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night. After many delays, the mission should and could have been pushed one day, but Szymanski ordered the team to proceed as planned, and Britt "Slab" Slabinski, John's team leader, fell into step after another SEAL team refused the mission.
But the "plan" went even more south when they made the rookie move to insert directly atop the mountain — right into the hands of the bad guys they knew were there.
She's photographed every major war of the last 20 years. Marine Corps boot camp was something else entirely
Conflict photographer Lynsey Addario's seen a hell of a lot of combat over the past twenty years. She patrolled Afghanistan's Helmand Province with the Marines, accompanied the Army on night raids in Baghdad, took artillery fire with rebel fighters in Libya and has taken photos in countless other wars and humanitarian disasters around the world.
Along the way, Addario captured images of plenty of women serving with pride in uniform, not only in the U.S. armed forces, but also on the battlefields of Syria, Colombia, South Sudan and Israel. Her photographs are the subject of a new article in the November 2019 special issue of National Geographic, "Women: A Century of Change," the magazine's first-ever edition written and photographed exclusively by women.
The photos showcase the wide range of goals and ideals for which these women took up arms. Addario's work includes captivating vignettes of a seasoned guerrilla fighter in the jungles of Colombia; a team of Israeli military police patrolling the streets of Jerusalem; and a unit of Kurdish women guarding ISIS refugees in Syria. Some fight to prove themselves, others seek to ignite social change in their home country, and others do it to liberate other women from the grip of ISIS.
Addario visited several active war zones for the piece, but she found herself shaken by something much closer to home: the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina.
Addario discussed her visit to boot camp and her other travels in an interview with Task & Purpose, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
An Army staff sergeant who "represents the very best of the 101st Airborne Division" has finally received a Silver Star for his heroic actions during the Battle of the Bulge after a 75-year delay.
On Sunday, Staff Sgt. Edmund "Eddie" Sternot was posthumously awarded with a Silver Star for his heroics while leading a machine gun team in the Ardennes Forest. The award, along with Sternot's Bronze Star and Purple Heart, was presented to his only living relative, Sternot's first cousin, 80-year-old Delores Sternot.
U.S. special operations forces are currently field testing a lightweight combat armor designed to cover more of an operator's body than previous protective gear, an official told Task & Purpose.
The armor, called the Lightweight Polyethylene (PE) Armor for Extremity Protection, is one of a handful of subsystems to come out of U.S. Special Operations Command's Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) effort that media outlets dubbed the "Iron Man suit," Navy Lieutenant Cmdr. Tim Hawkins, a SOCOM spokesman, told Task & Purpose on Wednesday.