A morning 22 years ago

by Wesley Harris

On September 11, 2001, I was an assistant police chief of a small Texas city police department. I had gone to the station two years earlier to sign up as a volunteer. While I worked training officers in police academies across the country, I missed actual police work and wished to stay involved somewhere. Instead of signing up as a volunteer, I ended up on the payroll before I walked out the chief’s office.

On the morning of September 11, I was putting on my uniform carefully in a ritual I had been following for 25 years when my wife called me into the den where she was watching the news. We stood there, dumbfounded to see one of the World Trade Center towers on fire. A few minutes later, a jet struck the second tower, confirming this was terrorism, not some freak aviation accident.

I didn’t know what to say and neither did she. I finished putting on my uniform shirt and my duty belt. Even though I was 2,000 miles away, I was anxious to get to work but unsure what I’d when I got there. I felt a rise of emotion—shock, helplessness, anger. A determination to do something.

Everyone was in shock at the station. I’m sure other officers were like me, trying to decide that we should do, what could we do. Would there be attacks all over the country? It was hard to imagine our little city police department as a target, but could we be mobilized to go to some other city to fight back?

Over a couple of days, the chief and I realized we were woefully unprepared for terrorism, much like most law enforcement agencies. We needed training, procedures, equipment. Trainers and administrators like me all over the country spent considerable time over the next several years gearing up to handle various critical incidents in addition to the routine drunks, drug dealers, and burglars.

I felt a burning urge to do more, to do something with a wider impact outside our small city. I had never been in the military, not even the National Guard since I joined law enforcement just after my 19th birthday. I did a little research and learned the Texas State Guard was an all-volunteer organization reporting to the governor similar to the National Guard but only for service within Texas. Should the National Guard be federalized, the State Guard would take over duties within Texas normally handled by the National Guard. The last time that had happened was World War II.

The next Saturday, I reported to the 19th Military Police Regiment of the State Guard along with scores of other men and women from age 18 up into their 50s. Since it was a volunteer organization of Texas state government, a role existed for everyone so age was not a limiting factor. We were all there for one purpose to find some way we could defend our country. All of us were either too old for the regular military, or already had full-time public safety jobs or otherwise unable to join the armed forces.

The regiment was no longer very active as older members had dropped out. Because of the phenomenal desire to serve, dozens were signing up. The increased members meant we needed leaders, and some of us became instant sergeants and corporals. Even though it was a large unit, we only had one officer, a captain. While we could be made corporals and sergeants as emergency promotions, officers were required to have several years in the state guard.

Within a couple of months, the one company had grown to three companies, and I was designated first sergeant of one of the companies, and a former captain in the state guard was brought back to command that unit. When no more attacks occurred in America after those initial plane hijackings, it became clear our mission with the state guard would likely be to take over national guard duties if that force was sent overseas. Meanwhile, we engaged in all types of training to prepare for that day.

When I was not working at the police department, I was preparing lessons to teach to our troops. most who had no law enforcement experience, had never worn a gun, made an arrest, or even dealt with an emergency.

The 1996 Summer Olympics in Georgia gave me considerable experience in planning for emergencies. Preceding that event attended by millions, we learned about chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. We studied crowd control, how to deal with suspicious packages, recognize suspicious activity. We planned for the security of the many dignitaries who visited our city. All that training and experience was valuable in doing my small part in preparing my police officers and my guardsmen for the unpredictable future.

Our MP regiment was called on to help local police departments and sheriff’s offices with security at special events, searches for lost hikers, and other emergencies. Fortunately, we never faced a terroristic incident as most of the war against those who wanted to destroy us occurred overseas.

The tragic moments of September 11, 2001, drew us together for a common purpose. To defend our country, protect our freedoms, fight the evil forces of the world. I am thankful I was able to serve both as a law enforcement officer and as a guardsman in the years after that barbarous attack on our country.