OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Twenty years ago this week, a visit by President George W. Bush reminded the world – and people who live in the Omaha area – how important Offutt Air Force Base is to American national security.
Bush came to U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the nation’s nuclear forces, hours after terrorists attacked New York and Washington with passenger jets and crashed another in a Pennsylvania field.
3 News Now Investigators spoke with three people stationed at STRATCOM on Sept. 11, 2001. To them and others who served, Air Force One landing at Offutt showed the weight of that awful day.
Mark Kyriss was an Army officer serving as a special assistant to the STRATCOM commander. He didn’t know Bush was coming until he saw something odd: fighter jets landing at Offutt.
“All the aircraft, civil aviation had been shut down, it was quite a shock,” Kyriss said. “Saw the first two. Saw the second two. And it was only just a few seconds later that Air Force One came in.”
Many at STRATCOM, including then-Air Force Staff Sgt. Michael Suglia, were pulled off a major annual exercise for nuclear forces after the attack. Suglia crafted some of the scenarios STRATCOM practiced.
His boss assigned him the unusual task of calling around to the nation’s other war-fighting commands and “ask their status,” basically to make sure each of the military commands was available.
“What I didn’t realize at that point but probably later was that was most likely building the briefing for President Bush,” Suglia said.
Bush had been reading to students in a Florida classroom when a second plane hit the Twin Towers in New York and most of the country realized that this was no accident.
His team took him first to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. But he couldn’t communicate there with everyone he needed at the same time, so they took him to Offutt, where he could.
“With the Pentagon being kind of out of commission temporarily and the president in such an uncertain circumstance, the thought was we have to get the president somewhere safe and somewhere he can communicate,” Kyriss said. “And so the recommendation was to bring him here.”
Because STRATCOM has to be able to communicate securely with people worldwide in a moment’s notice as part of its nuclear mission, it has among the best communications systems in the world.
“In a lot of ways, it probably was about the best place he could come,” Kyriss said.
Kyriss had been escorting a retired general and group that came to evaluate STRATCOM’s performance during the exercise. He was on the tarmac, about to see the general off, when Bush arrived.
They hustled back to the secure underground levels of STRATCOM’s now-former building, which has since been replaced by a new $1.3 billion building nearby. He made it just in time.
Kyriss remembers, but would not share, what Bush said to break the ice with the assembled room full of military leaders. He said it made them laugh and called it a key example of leadership under duress.
“That’s like something out of a movie,” he said. “To be there and have actually been about 40 feet away from the president when that was going on, I will always remember that day.”
After the briefing, the president was led to another underground room at STRATCOM, where the military had secure technology in 2001 for him to video chat with his national security team.
Michael Wrobel worked in computer support for STRATCOM at the time.
“One of my good friends had explained to me some of the equipment we had put in the building, it gave the president the need to come to this building so that he could communicate as necessary,” he said.
President Bush stayed only about 90 minutes at STRATCOM before heading back to Washington. But his visit made an impression on those who still work there today.
“It made things real,” Wrobel said. “We spend a lot of time in exercises. I’ve been here 30 years. The building does a very good job at making those exercises as realistic as possible ... but that made it real.
Said Suglia: “I think it highlighted to us the importance of the mission we conduct here at United States Strategic Command daily. I think it showed the importance of the mission here.”