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Johnson: 'I walked up into that big aircraft and I looked and there were eight flag-draped caskets. I'll never forget it the rest of my life'

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The 9/11 attacks stunned America, and the country has not been the same since then, says a local pastor who worked with families of military members.

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"I've said many times the terrorists accomplished exactly what they wanted to do. They upset the economy, this country, the world,'' said Dean Johnson of Willmar, a Lutheran pastor and retired brigadier general in the chaplaincy program of the Army National Guard.

The United States responded by launching the War on Terror. Security measures were increased at home and armed forces were sent into Iraq and Afghanistan. Families lost loved ones, both from the attacks and later as a result of overseas combat.

The Tuesday morning attacks 10 years ago affected everyone.

Johnson, who was active in the Guard at the time, learned about the attacks after leaving the former Town Talk Café in downtown Willmar. Johnson went to his office at Calvary Lutheran Church and called his boss at the Pentagon to ask what he should do.

Johnson said his boss told him -- don't do anything, just wait. Shortly thereafter, one of the four hijacked jets struck the Pentagon where the chaplain's office is located. A contemporary who had attended War College in Pennsylvania with Johnson was killed at his desk.

"I never occupied an office in the chaplain's section,'' Johnson said. "I was always over in the National Guard section, but I had been there many times. I knew exactly where the plane had hit.''

About six weeks later, Johnson joined other chaplains at a center across the street from the site of the Twin Towers where family members were arriving to find loved ones. Johnson remembers being with a man who was looking down from the upper story window at the rubble below.

"I asked if he lost someone and he said, 'My son, my son, my son. We just celebrated my birthday.' All he could say was 'my son, my son.'''

Minnesota National Guard members were among the armed forces that were called up as a response to the anti-terrorism effort. Minnesota soldiers are trained well, disciplined well and the Department of Defense likes Minnesota military personnel, Johnson said.

Part of Johnson's job was to supervise chaplains across the country, but his duties became more directed as war casualties returned.

The first stop is Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the remains are prepared for burial and sent home.

Regulations required a general officer and a chaplain to sign the manifest, and Johnson was able to fulfill both duties.

"I remember vividly the first aircraft came at 10 o'clock at night,'' Johnson said.

Volunteers, veterans and their families served pizza and hamburgers in a big hangar. Johnson said there were eight casualties onboard. Their ages were 19, 20, 21 and 22.

The dignity and respect granted to a fallen soldier by the United States of America is second to none, the highest level of respect and honor that can be accorded, Johnson said. Family members had been barred from observing the proceedings until the Obama administration changed the policy, and more families are choosing to come to Dover, observe the proceedings and escort their loved one home.

But families that have lost a loved one in war, whether it's World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, are never the same.

"The world changes forever,'' Johnson said. "You see it on Veterans Day. You see it on Memorial Day. Go to the cemeteries and they're there and they are forever changed.''

Service members are also affected.

"At least a third of the soldiers are forever changed and will need some follow-up mental health work, (experience) chemical dependency, things of that nature.''

And the public's attitude toward the armed forces is more appreciative, thanks to 9/11.

"There is probably no higher respected vocation than that of being a soldier or airman,'' he said.

We haven't fully recovered economically, politically and militarily from 9/11, Johnson said.

"The begging question is -- will it happen again and to what extent. We don't know. We've taken precautions but the world is a pretty dangerous place and the American people expect political and military leaders to be forever watchful and plan for the worst,'' he said.

"And is our security system appropriate for the world today? It's not over and it won't be over.

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David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150
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